Posts Tagged ‘church history’

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.

Challenging the Inevitability

May 20th, 2010 No comments

h/t Experimental Theology for the link to the interview of Stanley Hauerwas by the Center for Public Christianity.

… the Church is always going to challenge those political entities that seem to make war inevitable

— there seems to be a glitch with the embed code … if this doesn’t load, you can watch it here.

Religion and Violence from CPX on Vimeo.

Hauerwas on Creation:  The Chief End of All Flesh.

Lent, Sacrifice, and the Fathers

February 21st, 2010 No comments

Eschatological abstinence is an element of a broader perspective on the Christian life, a perspective that envisions a world that existed prior to the Fall and a world that will be restored at the end of the age (eschaton, literally,“last thing”).

For Church Fathers such as Chrysostom, Jerome, and Cassian, one’s diet is particularly relevant to the goal of embodying the Edenic state,because they consider the original sin of Adam and Eve to be gluttony.26 Thus,dietary renunciation is seen to be a means of redressing this situation and returning to an Edenic state.Furthermore,Basil of Caesarea and Jerome note that fasting from flesh foods is an image of life as it was in the Garden of Eden because in paradise there was no sacrifice of animals or eating of animal flesh.27 While neither rules out all consumption of animal flesh as inherently and necessarily sinful, Jerome notes that the allowance of flesh eating occurs only after the flood and is a concession to “the hardness of human hearts.”28


For many of the patristic authors,a recreation of the Edenic state involves not only abstaining from eating animals,but also,as Basil notes,abstaining from sacrificing animals.37 This brings us to the other important eating practice in Christianity.The Eucharist is the remembrance of the sacrificial death of Jesus, a remembrance of thanksgiving in which believers share in Christ’s body (I Cor.11). Through this practice, Christians are incorporated into Christ’s body (Christ’s body being understood both individually and corporately). In light of this,it is not surprising that some opponents accused the early Christians of cannibalism.  Although there was significant diversity of food elements in early Christian eucharists and/or agape meals,or both,there is no evidence that animal flesh was ever a part of these celebrations of thanksgiving.What significance,if any,should be made of this?

In his extensive study of all the food elements that appear in early Christian ritual meals, Andrew McGowan notes that while bread and wine seem to have been the dominant elements from the beginning,the occasional choice of other elements is not insignificant. The appearance of oils,vegetables,and salt seem to be a means of emphasizing the rejection of meat and its association with bloody sacrifice. Similarly,the appearance of milk (and sometimes cheese, or both),honey,and olives in some celebrations can be seen as celebratory elements of a restored paradise-like state,also distinguished from a society built on bloodshed.38

J Berkman, “The Consumption of Animals and the Catholic Tradition,” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 7 (2004): 174-190.

Belly and Body, pt. 4

February 20th, 2010 No comments

We’re looking at the work of Karl Sandnes in Belly and Body in the Pauline Epistles.

6 – 8. After looking at the belly theme in Graeco-Roman conceptual field, Sandnes turns our attention to the analogous material in the OT and other Jewish sources.  The linguistic field of the belly and mastery of the passions remains in view as he begins to map the Pauline material.

Read more…

Belly and Body, pt. 3

February 7th, 2010 No comments

We’re looking at the work of Karl Sandnes in Belly and Body in the Pauline Epistles.

4-5 Epicureanism, Banquets, and their Ancient Critique

Epicureanism was a major school of ancient moral philosophy.  As with many things, the actual teaching of the school could be seen to differ from what the masses had in their heads about it.  So too can the actual teaching differ from the ways in which its opponents tend to characterize it.  Understanding the arguments around Epicureanism as ancient moral philosophy is made more complicated by the way the word Epicurean is used today as is highlighted here:

In modern popular usage, an epicure is a connoisseur of the arts of life and the refinements of sensual pleasures; epicureanism implies a love or knowledgeable enjoyment especially of good food and drink—see the definition of gourmet at Wiktionary.

This can be attributed to a misunderstanding of the Epicurean doctrine, as promulgated by Christian polemicists. Because Epicureanism posits that pleasure is the ultimate good (telos), it is commonly misunderstood as a doctrine that advocates the partaking in fleeting pleasures such as constant partying, sexual excess and decadent food. This is not the case. Epicurus regarded ataraxia (tranquility, freedom from fear) and aponia (absence of pain) as the height of happiness. He also considered prudence an important virtue and perceived excess and overindulgence to be contrary to the attainment of ataraxia and aponia.

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Belly and Body, pt. 2

February 5th, 2010 No comments

We’re looking at the work of Karl Sandnes in Belly and Body in the Pauline Epistles.  Let’s remember the language of Paul’s that we’re looking at.

  • Primarily:
    • Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. (Phil 3:19 NRSV)
    • For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded.(Rom 16:18 NRSV)
    • “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (1 Cor 6:13 NRSV)  where the quote is a Corinthian slogan that Paul is responding to
    • Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” (1 Cor 10:7 NRSV) Paul’s borrowing this quote from Exodus 32:6


    • It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said, “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.” (Titus 1:12 NRSV) where the quote serves as reference to the larger available stereotypes in Greece at the time
    • If with merely human hopes I fought with wild animals at Ephesus, what would I have gained by it? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor 15:32 NRSV) where the quote is a Corinthian slogan that Paul is responding to

So what exactly was the Graeco-Roman body/belly background into which Paul was speaking?

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Belly and Body in the Pauline Epistles, pt.1

February 3rd, 2010 No comments

So before I get into this let me make one thing clear.  None of the particular discussion that follows is directly about the moral status of animals.  It’s about one aspect of the concept of food in antiquity generally and early Christianity particularly and most specifically in Paul’s letters.   You could get from here to current moral debates about animals a few different ways but that’s absolutely not what the context of this is.   That said.  Let’s take a look at something you probably don’t hear much about on Sunday.

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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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On Not Blaming or Claiming Darwin

May 5th, 2008 No comments

I’d like to point to a couple of resources for unpacking the problem of the relationship between Christianity and Darwin vis-a-vie how the human-animal relationship and animals as such are viewed.  I hope to come back and do a little summary of the first one in a few weeks when I have more time for those of you who don’t have access to academic journal subscriptions.

Of course if you’re interested in reading any of these articles that I talk about or link to all you have to do is contact a university library (in your state or not) and ask about getting a library card.  It’s probably free or at least very cheap and will give you access to academic journals online.

Darwin, Christianity, and the Great Vivisection Debate. Rod Preece

The reputation of the Christian tradition has fared poorly in the literature on the history of attitudes to nonhuman animals. This is more a consequence of secularist prejudice than objective scholarship. The idea of “dominion” and the understanding of animal souls are almost universally misrepresented. There has been no firmer conclusion than that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had a profoundly beneficial impact on the recognition of our similarities to, kinship with, and consequent moral obligations to, other species. In reality, Darwinism had no such effect. That there was an essential kinship with, and homologies between, humans and other species had been attested to for centuries. In the first major ethical issue that arose after the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man — legislation to restrict vivisection — Darwin and Huxley stood on the side of more or less unrestricted vivisection while many major explicitly Christian voices — from Cardinal Manning to Lord Chief Justice Coleridge to the Earl of Shaftesbury — demanded the most severe restrictions, in many cases abolition. The customary tale of how Christianity hindered the development of sensibilities to animals and how Darwinism occasioned a revolution in animal ethics needs to be rethought and retold.

Thoughts out of Season on the History of Animal Ethics.  Rod Preece  (online)

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the earlier Western tradition did not customarily deny souls per se to nonhuman animals; when it denied immortal souls to animals, it sometimes deemed that denial a reason for giving greater consideration to animals in their earthly existence. Nor has the Western tradition uniformly deemed animals intended for human use. Further, there was considerable opposition to the Cartesian view of animals as insentient machines, and—even among those who were convinced—it was not unknown for them to deem it inappropriate to rely on that conviction in the treatment of animals. Moreover, Darwin’s (1874) theory of evolution had neither a novel nor a positive impact on the way in which animals were to be regarded and treated. The study of the history of animal ethics needs to be rethought in a far more nuanced manner.