Undoubtedly there is a relationship between religion and eating. The most familiar aspect of this relationship is the rules that many religions have surrounding what the faithful should eat. The line of questioning then turns to why certain foods are taboo. For example why do Muslims and Jewish people abstain from pork, or Hindus abstain from beef. And what about Christians’ fish Fridays? (If you are interested in rules on food provided by various religions, Marvin Harris has an interesting take on the subject). But rather than focus on the spiritual and practical reasons for such rules, I want to focus on the act of eating as a spiritual act. This includes ritual eating and supposedly mundane, everyday eating. Religion provides information on how we fit into the world and instruction as to how we should behave in the world. Eating helps facilitate our relationship with the world. “Eating defines a primal relationship between self and world, the receiving of sustenance and nurture” (Eisenstein, 124-125). It is no wonder eating and religion often go hand in hand when their functions align so closely.
Society categorizes our actions to the extreme. Secularization would have us assume eating has no spiritual value outside of a religious context. But if we agree, “… life in the world is a sacred journey… [then] matters of the flesh are potential vehicles for spiritual transformation (Eisenstein, 117). Secularization reinforces that the earthly and divine are two very different things. But if our primary means of connecting with the divine is through its creation, the earth, then taking in and absorbing the sustenance of the earth can be a spiritual act. “… the primal reconnecting with the One comes from the experience of feeding” (Eisenstein, 143-144). Eating provides a connection with the divine and bridges the physical-spiritual gap that secularism has created.
In the religious realm we see this concept put into effect through ritual. For Christians, Eucharist allows the faithful to remember and reenact the Last Supper invoking God’s presence in worship and in their personal, spiritual lives. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave the bread and wine new meaning as his body and blood, “… the bread and cup of the fellowship meal were henceforward to be the pledges of his real personal presence” (Cranfield, 256). Prior to the Last Supper, Jesus elaborates on how this act will bring one closer to the divine and how this physical act of eating could be part of a rich spiritual life. Here is an example from the Gospel of John, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me” (John 59:56-57, New Standard Version). For Christians the Eucharistic tradition from Jesus becomes a connection to God.
But Eisenstein takes a much broader approach in that the earth, as divine creation, is the means for such a connection. This gives all food the potential to bring one closer to God and be spiritually transformative. There are factors that affect this however, including mindset, the context of the meal and what you eat. The what factor involves a hefty moral debate. An adequate discussion on this topic deserves an article to itself. But it seems a little mindfulness as opposed to extensive ritual, may be all that is necessary to reconnect with the divine through eating.
Cranfield, C.E.B. “Thank,” in A Theological Word Book of the Bible, edited by A. Richardson. London, UK: SCM Press Ltd. 1957, pp. 254-257.
Eisenstien, Charles. The Yoga of Eating: Transcending diets and dogma to nourish the natural self. Washington, DC: New Trends Publishing Inc. 2003.