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Posts Tagged ‘asceticism’

Books: Theology on the Menu

October 1st, 2010 No comments

I’m reading Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat and Christian Diet.  I’ve just gotten through the first section on early Christian asceticism and so far it looks pretty good.

This is my first experience with e-book format (Kindle for Mac) and one of the things I notice is that I don’t have page numbers to give with the quotes below.  Odd.  Apologies for that.

In situating early monastic asceticism and the associated hagiography the authors make these positive points in particular:

1)  They compare the difference between the Christian and Greek ascetics by how each type of specialized community related to the population at large and by the nature of their asceticism.  They characterize the Christian ascetics as remaining engaged with the greater community and having stricter dietary regimes.

The authors conclude that “the ultimate hope of the hagiographers  was that the desert would spread into the city as fascinated readers themselves voluntarily adopted these practices.” (Given what the modern reader can see in some of these texts about the differential presentations of gender and ideals of what we would call “physical health,” I’d have to raise an eyebrow at the notion of “fascinated readers voluntarily adopting these practices.” Then again, some contemporary representations of the idealized female body can be shocking on the same terms … emaciated, prized for an explicit lack of femininity.)

2) They rightly point out the extent to which “modern accounts of early Christian asceticism frequently fail to acknowledge its origins in political theology and biblical theology” and place undue focus on the sexual aspects of their practices.  This results in an understanding of those practices that view dietary abstinence as “little more than pathological denial of desires that are fundamental to human flourishing.”  The anchorites did connect food with lust, and this wasn’t unique to them, but then that in turn was connected with the larger conception of how the individual relates to the community.  Lust “implicates the individual in social networks of consumption that would impede spiritual contemplation … [by way of] the social ties it would be likely to bring.”

Further, they note that rather than interpreting monastic life through the modern lens of sexuality, the “prominence and quantity of detail about the paucity of foods eaten suggests, instead, that the bodily temptation uppermost in the minds of many desert fathers was not lust but gluttony.”   By the very nature of the anchoritic communities, these concerns are rooted firmly in larger social and economic contexts.

Finally, from the conclusion of chapter 1,

In accounts of early monastic practices, meat abstinence transforms the whole natural order, reconfiguring the relationships existing between humans and animals, and among animals themselves.  Nonetheless, in seeking to understand the importance of this tradition for theological reflection on food, excessive focus on the status of animals detracts from more significant issues.  These include the ancient tradition of Christian reflection on the meanings of food, in which biological and social considerations are interrelated and both are understood theologically.  The physical body of the ascetic and the social body of the monastery become sites of blessing for a wider community.  Food practices, especially abstention from meat, both enact and convey this shared blessing.

Commended, Commanded, and Condemned

September 7th, 2009 No comments

Meat Abstinence in the Early Church

Knowing your history is important.   Fitting that history into a larger story is even more important.  Our brains are set up to do this sort of mental work – pattern recognition, narrative bias, gestalt, etc.  Part of the cognitive framing work of Christianity is to get you to recognize you have a story and to learn to think in terms of how that fits into the larger Christian metanarrative; it’s about cognitively placing yourself into that particular story, allowing yourself, your story, to be consumed by the larger narrative.  The big story eats the little story.  The little story is then said to be “in” the big story … while at the same time the individual little stories must be continually fed portions of the big story.  Christianity is replete with consumption, narrative, and food metaphors.  All the while Christians identify themselves as people who don’t think about literal food, because of course, that’s what the Jews did.

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Creatures, flesh, and my faith

August 4th, 2009 No comments

As someone who holds a position underneath the radar of most conservative Christian thought, I find myself often struggling with the seeming futility of the things I care about.  Why would I hope for a time when we will gaze out into the world and see animals as fellow creatures of God when we can barely look at other people and see fellow children of God.  More days than not I wish I could just forget about what I know, what I’ve seen, what I continue to see about what we are in relation to the creatures at our mercy.  If it were possible to say this literally I’d say that it literally makes my soul throw up.

One of this week’s readings in a little book called “A Guide to Prayer for All God’s People” is from a book called Living Simply, and it’s about how living differently in relation to the world around us can be properly meaningful.  People ask me why I don’t eat meat and there are so many reasons that sometimes it’s hard to give the short quippy sound-bite answer most people are looking for.  I’d like to use the points from this week’s devotional to break it down.  I get the feeling that most people think I’m constantly struggling to fight back my meat cravings, that I’m involved in some sort of ascetic battle against my own mind and body.  That’s just so not true.  I saw the truth, it didn’t line up with my values, I changed my behavior.  Period.  In other words, I’ve reoriented … Read more…