Theologian: Food ‘God’s love made delicious’

| October 9, 2018 | 0 Comments

Norman Wirzba, A professor of theology, ecology and agrarian studies at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, and author of “Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating” spoke at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Oct. 4. Courtesy Duke Divinity School

“What is food?”

Norman Wirzba put that question to his audience at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Oct. 4. Most Americans today would say food is a commodity, or that food is fuel, he said, and people generally want food to be tasty, copious and cheap.

In contrast, Wirzba presented his own definition: “Food is God’s love made delicious.”

A professor of theology, ecology and agrarian studies at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, Wirzba spoke on “The Spirituality of Eating: Joining Food, Faith and the Life of the World” Oct. 4. In a 40-minute lecture, he shared a vision of creation — including food — that expresses God’s love and shows humankind how to love as God loves.

Consider a piece of apple pie, Wirzba said — the apples, the tree, the soil. Then wheat for flour and cows for the butter.

“What had to happen for there to be such a thing called apple pie?” he asked. “Pie is not just a thing on your plate. Pie is a reality that takes you deep into the soil where you encounter billions and billions of microorganisms that are in relationship with each other to absorb the death above ground, to work with plants to bring the energy of the sun into the ground to make apples. And then, when put together with a pie crust … there is the creativity of a baker. All of this is joined together so that you can have a piece of apple pie.”

God could have made a world with no taste, or no food, he said. Instead, he made a world full of tastes and textures. He did that out of love, said Wirzba, author of “Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating” and “Living the Sabbath.”

“And so any of the food that we’re privileged to eat, the only way to make sense of it is to say that it’s God’s love made delicious,” he said. “This is how we need to be thinking about the world. It’s not just stuff, not just commodities. Everything is a gift. It’s a gift that’s communicating some of the goodness of things to be, the loveliness of things to be. And if we can’t learn to delight in the goodness, the loveliness of the world God makes, we won’t understand it properly.”

The Hebrew people understood God not as a warrior god who creates by violence, like the gods of their Mesopotamian contemporaries, but as the primordial gardener, with “a love that is constantly attentive, vigilant, protecting, nurturing, weeding.”

In order to live in the fullness of creation, humans need to participate in God’s gardening ways with the world, which is why the Book of Genesis recounts that Adam was asked to “till and keep the garden,” Wirzba said. That command occurred before the fall, and it was not an assignment to drudgery or a punishment, he said, “because it’s through gardening that we understand the world.”

Because of this relationship, how the food people eat is grown and prepared matters, Wirzba said. “It’s through gardening that we understand that every living thing needs our nurture, attention, respect. And it’s through gardening that we eat in a way that isn’t naive. … Human beings need to learn the love of gardening, so they can learn to love like God loves.”

The lecture was sponsored by the Terrence J. Murphy Institute at St. Thomas. Wirzba was introduced by Christopher Thompson, professor of moral theology and director of the Institute for Theological Research at the St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul. Following Wirzba’s remarks, panelists working in sustainability and food production shared their insights. They included James Ennis, director of St. Paul-based Catholic Rural Life; John Mesko, executive director for Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service; and Elise Amel, professor of psychology and director of sustainability initiatives at St. Thomas.

Wirzba will be speaking at “Com-panions: Do This in Remembrance of Me,” a retreat on food and faith Oct. 19-21 at the Benedictine Center in St. Paul. For more information, visit benedictinecenter.org.

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