I prattle on a lot about eating as a spiritual act, and I believe it. But to say it’s a spiritual act does not claim eating as eternally positive. Halos and cornflakes don’t always go together.
To claim eating as spiritual is to affirm it as an act of meaning. As the oft-quoted culinary philosophy goes, we are what we eat: that is, what, where, how and with whom we eat speaks volumes about our most primary values. Those values may be life- and community-affirming, or not. But they are values all the same. Such is our spirituality—the most daily expression of what we truly believe, both positively and negatively.
The contemporary proliferation of eating disorders is a tragic illustration of the point. An eating disorder is eating gone wrong, evidence of deeper values and beliefs that are themselves disordered. How such disordering happens or where it originates is complex. Regardless, disorders like these point to a disordered spirituality, but a spirituality no less.
Theologian L. Shannon Jung wrote the book Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating out of his own struggle with an eating disorder and his consequent battle with obesity. Though he doesn’t dwell on his own story, his willingness to name it adds immeasurable worth to his writing.
In Part 1, Jung affirms eating as a profoundly joyful act, one through which we delight in God’s goodness in the most tangible way. But that joy is diminished, he argues, when the act of eating is a disconnected one: disconnected from its source, the Giver of life and sustenance; and disconnected from relationship with our fellow human beings and the earth itself.
For Jung, food is gift: first it’s the gift of delight: a daily and routine reminder of the providence of God. Second, it’s the gift of sharing: the commitment to hospitality, mission and justice that flows naturally from genuine delight. According to Jung, disordered eating is eating disconnected from one or both of these gifts.
In Part 2, Jung very helpfully places personal eating disorders in the broader context of communal or societal disorders. He lists four categories of disorder, each violating eating as gift.
1. Systemic / Global Disorders: According to data from the World Health Organization, at least 1.1 billion people worldwide get too few calories to ward off hunger, while another 1.1 billion take in too many. Referring to the world supermarket of food distribution, Jung writes: ‘The values that dominate … are designed to promote a level of consumption and greed that will produce the greatest amount of profit and market share. Rather than design a system that will provide food for everyone (which is manifestly possible) and will delight all, the system is designed to produce food that is upscale, convenient, processed, and cheap for the consumers who can afford it.’
2. Lifestyle Disorders: We live and eat in a context in which consumption rather than relationship is now the key to participation and validation: ‘The food industry spends billions of dollars each year on advertising and promotion to create an environment that constantly pressures us to consume.’
3. Interpersonal Disorders: For some, the long-term deprivation of interpersonal relationships results in a fear of relating to others or the complete loss of the skills to do so. Food becomes an activity of solitude. ‘Often it is easier to eat alone that face the threat of relating.’ More fundamentally, ‘we have abrogated responsibility for each other and, at the most tangible level, responsibility of caring for each other physically and materially.’
4. Personal Disorders: Jung describes the ‘popular salvation myth’ that encourages us to fixate on our bodies and, in some cases, engage in disordered eating patterns as a result: ‘Eating disorders are the result of distorted desires for wholeness and salvation that cannot be fulfilled short of God’s grace. … They are hungry ghosts who can never be filled, but whose craving and grasping and self-conscious emptiness violate our happiness and put us on the treadmill of concupiscence.’
In all of this, Jung says, we are caught … caught in our complicity with unjust global food systems, and in our perversity, loving those very things that are not good for us. What’s more, we are driven by an underlying cultural belief in scarcity, ‘thus we think we have to grab the goodies before they are gone.’ Addressing this complicity and perversity in the kitchen is both a personal and communal challenge.
In the final Part 3 of the book, Jung addresses this challenge for both individual people of faith and for the church. His perspective is an important one, sensitively and accessibly written for a wide audience. It’s a good place to begin in the exploration of eating and faith.