by Theodore Plantinga
Most of us visit the doctor every other year or so for a general physical checkup. We don't look forward to it, for we know we will be subjected to a good deal of poking and prodding; perhaps we will be asked some questions that makes us feel uneasy. When I undergo the ritual, I am sometimes reminded of the many occasions in my life when I was subjected to what Dutch Reformed Christians call "home visitation." The general understanding in Dutch Reformed churches is that home visitation will be conducted in every home on the membership rolls of the local congregation once per year. The visit is normally made by two elders, or of late by one elder on his own. In years past, the pastor played quite a role in the work of home visitation; in some churches he was even expected to be present for every such occasion, although always accompanied by an elder. [NOTE 1]
The elders and pastors who are called upon to do the work of home visiting may make discreet inquiries into church attendance on the part of the members of the family circle assembled in the living room. In the days when the churches took an official position against attending the movies and dancing and so forth, inquiries about such subjects might be made as well. In more recent years, there is less effort to try to control the lives of congregation members in these respects. And so the idea has become to make the visit more "spiritual" in emphasis. One of the standard questions has become whether the person being visited is "growing" spiritually. I have been asked this question many times.
Because the question often leaves me feeling uncomfortable, I have been inclined to interpret it in literal fashion, wondering whether one can simply grow and grow and grow in spiritual respects. Of course I am aware that one cannot just grow and grow and grow in physical respects. To do so would not only involve becoming larger and larger but becoming fat. To be fat is a bad thing -- something to be avoided. And so, when I hear talk of "spiritual growth," I am inclined to ask the elders whether they wish to encourage spiritual obesity.
It has also occurred to me that the emphasis might better be placed on the very opposite of growth. Could it be that we should instead promote the idea of becoming lean and slim and fit? There is indeed a verse in Scripture that points in that direction: "... let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us ...." [Hebrews 12:1] This verse seems to discourage spare tires!
If we associate spirituality with the domain of feelings and emotions -- and there is surely such a connection to be made -- there is something to be said for trimming down in these respects. Some psychologists suggest that many of us carry around a great deal of excess emotional baggage -- veritable spare tires. Perhaps the idea of progress in the Christian life should be understood in terms of simplifying and trimming down and getting rid of stuff we don't need. But if we went in such a direction, there would also be a ridiculous extreme on the horizon, namely, becoming so thin that we disappeared altogether!
Perhaps a reader or two has become impatient by this point and has concluded that I'm just out to have some fun with metaphors. Of course there is no denying that metaphors and analogies are at play here; still, it is worth noting that since eating is such a basic part of life, it is plausible to look to this domain as a source of ideas that we can use to explain and explore spiritual life.
Furthermore, if eating is so basic to life, there should be a Christian -- and perhaps specifically Calvinistic -- view of it. In the circles in which I move, it is common to assert that we have a Reformed world-and-life view or a comprehensive worldview on the basis of which all aspects of our Christian life can be brought into subjection to Christ, for there is not a square inch (as Kuyper proclaimed) that he does not claim as his own. Therefore eating is no more neutral than thinking. In theory I agree, but not much seems to come of it. In our world there is considerable philosophical discussion about the do's and don'ts of eating, but Christians play little role in it. On this matter, see an earlier Myodicy essay entitled "The Scoffer and the Believer: Toward a Christian Philosophy of Food Selection" (Myodicy, Issue 5, September 1997).
It sounds impressive to claim that all our decisions are made on the basis of our Christian convictions, but in practice not much comes of it. Among Christians of the Calvinistic persuasion I have encountered a tremendous range of opinions when it comes to what we should eat and how much we should eat and so forth. Now, there are indeed some religious or philosophical communities that have developed significant ethical emphases -- not all of them in harmony with one another -- about eating and nourishment. Yet no consensus about these matters seems to have emerged in the Calvinist camp. But we do have the familiar analogies and metaphors stemming from eating which we use to shed light not just on spiritual life in general but also on what happens in church (we go there to be "fed"). Could we not somehow organize and systematize those metaphors?
The metaphors in question have made their way into our hymns. A stirring spiritual memory of mine goes back to my teenage years, when I was growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The young people's societies of the local Christian Reformed churches had contact with similar societies sponsored by churches in neighboring communities. And since there were not many Christian Reformed churches in that part of Canada, our "neighbors" included communities as far away as Thunder Bay, Ontario, some 700 kilometers (435 miles) to the east. I remember that in those days I attended a young people's rally in Thunder Bay at which there was some spirited singing during a session held in First Christian Reformed Church of what was then called Fort William (it had not yet merged with Port Arthur to become Thunder Bay). One hymn in particular stuck with me, partly because it was already one of my favorites. When we sang it during that rally, it made an indelible impression upon me: indeed, it still rings in my ears. The hymn is called "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" (number 407 in the 1957 edition of the Psalter Hymnal). Its first stanza left us intoning: "Feed me till I want no more." (A Welsh male choir is needed to do justice to this hymn.) As we sang, we proclaimed that we were "pilgrims" in a "barren land," and we cried out to the divine as "Bread of heaven." But for me, that memorable day, my spiritual yearnings were best expressed in the line: "Feed me till I want no more."
Over the years I've had plenty of opportunity to reflect on just what that would mean -- being fed until you are full, so full that you "want no more." Most people would take it to mean eating well to the point of feeling satiated, an experience that would be followed in due course by another cycle of becoming hungry and eating well. But I am inclined to put a question mark behind what seems the natural way to interpret these lines, for I sense permanence in this stirring hymn. Indeed, the hymn almost seems to point to a state in which we transcend eating so completely that we never again have an appetite. Are such sentiments grounded in Scripture?
If we switch the analogy from eating food to drinking water, the answer could well be yes. I'm thinking of the episode where the Lord Jesus encounters the woman of Samaria and promises her "living water" which is of such a nature that whoever who drinks it never thirsts again (see John 4). Now, water is a necessity of life, and drinking water and other fluids is among the pleasures of life. Are we then to think that this basic pleasure is destined to be transcended by the believer? Will the day come when we take a last sip, never to thirst again?
Eating is probably an even greater pleasure for most people than drinking is. I fast from time to time, but I do allow myself fluids during a fast. I enjoy the fluids I consume, but I greatly miss the solid foods. Of course one could not discontinue taking fluids for any period of time. Thirst is harder to transcend than hunger.
Yet, despite the fact that fasting is a theme in the Bible (Jesus fasted), my theology and Christian commitment does not exactly encourage a life of fasting in which we stay away from solid foods. Just as the hymn had us appealing to the "Bread of heaven," we speak of the "bread of life," which we regard as a constant necessity. And the "bread of life" is made available for us at the communion table. In the church in which I now worship (affiliated with the Anglican Church of Canada), we celebrate communion every Sunday morning, and also at services during the week. And so it has been my custom for some time to take communion at least once per week. What has this practice -- which was also favored by John Calvin -- to do with the sentiments that arise within us when we sing "Feed me till I want no more"?
Because I am a vegetarian, I take the connection between food choices and Christian commitment more seriously than most other Christians do. I am often asked whether I ground my food choices in the Bible. Since I teach undergraduate students and need to provoke them to think (some students are inclined to suppose they are in a Christian college simply to copy down the right answers to life's questions and memorize them, but they are wrong about that), I don't generally offer a straightforward answer to this question. Instead I try to get them to consider the question for themselves. On the one hand, I maintain that what the Bible says about eating meat as opposed to eating plant material should be taken into account, and I point out that the food specified for our use in the first chapter of the Bible is not meat (see Genesis 1:30). The permission to eat meat comes later in Scripture (see Genesis 9:2-3). For more detail on these matters, see my essay "In the Beginning It Was Not So" (Myodicy, Issue 18, May 2003). While I do not argue that a Christian is compelled on Biblical grounds to abstain from eating meat, I do like to point out to students that bread -- and not meat -- is used as a symbol in Scripture and our tradition for food in general. Yet in a Presbyterian prayer book I once came upon a section with the heading "Grace Before Meat," [NOTE 2] and I have sometimes told students, in jest, that the "Grace Before Meat" heading is the reason I am not a Presbyterian. In that prayer book, of course, meat is assigned the broader significance we usually associate with bread -- it stands for food in general.
Using words taught us by the Lord Jesus, we pray: "Give us this day our daily bread." When we take this prayer on our lips, we are looking to God to sustain us in the way of food and drink in general. But we are also mindful that "bread" offers us more than mere physical sustenance. I believe it is quite significant that when we come to the Lord's table, we are offered bread.
Now, when it comes to the Lord's table, there are some doctrinal divergences within the Christian camp that are worth examining. Well do I recall that when I received catechism instruction as a teenager, the Roman Catholic position on communion -- and it was emphasized that we disagree with the Roman Catholics on this score -- was carefully explained. We were told that when the Roman Catholics celebrate communion, they use bread, just as we do, but they believe that it somehow -- miraculously -- turns into the actual body or flesh of Jesus Christ. This transformation seems to be accomplished just when the tinkling of the bell is heard during the mass. Of course we Protestants did not go along with such foolishness, which was officially known as the doctrine of "transubstantiation." The Lutherans, to their shame, stayed fairly close to the Roman Catholic doctrine with their notion of "consubstantiation," which we teenagers found hard to separate from the Catholic view. And so we grew into mature Calvinists who are well aware that we are encountering a metaphor when the minister holds the bread aloft and says: "This is my body." We know full well that when we take the bread into our mouths during the celebration of communion, it is bread we are eating, and not human flesh.
In those days I was not a vegetarian, but when I chose the righteous veggie path many years later, I thought back to the various explanations of "This is my body" and was thankful that I did not have to believe that the bread in my mouth is literally the body and flesh of our Lord. Since then I have taken communion on occasion in Roman Catholic settings, but the fact that I cling to my Protestant belief presumably shields me from violating my vegetarian principles when I approach the Lord's table.
The fact that my own tradition -- and some others as well -- encourages us to celebrate communion so often does not leave much room for me to believe that "Feed me till I want no more" can be interpreted on a once-for-all basis. It would make more sense to say that when we are fed at the Lord's table, we are completely satisfied, but that in due course we come to hunger for him again, just as the wonderful dinner we eat today does not cancel out tomorrow's appetite.
This comfortable interpretation leaves us in tune with contemporary North American society, which seems to be turning increasingly materialistic. Just recently I came upon an echo of the "Feed me till I want no more" sentiment in an stirring book by Linda McQuaig with a wonderful title: All You Can Eat: Greed, Lust and the New Capitalism. [NOTE 3] As far as I can discern, McQuaig has no interest in communion or in Christian thought in general; what she wishes to do in her book is take issue with the motif of greed in the political and economic thinking of many leaders and opinion-formers in our society.
The book is a well-written and stinging indictment of the ideas that she sees underlying many of the changes in our society in the last quarter century or so. As I read it, I sympathized with its line of argument, but in my mind I was drawn back to the ideas about food and growth discussed in the early part of this essay. If, indeed, we could be fed in such a way that we would never hunger again, we would probably make better citizens of this country and our world, and we would be less inclined to become part of the network of oppression that leaves so many people on our planet living in poverty and destitution. Linda McQuaig would then be pleased.
She tells us that her book is about the emptiness that ultimately results from the "all you can eat" mentality. She writes: "This book is about greed -- not about how bad it is or how guilty we should feel about giving into it or indulging ourselves. Rather, this book is about the curious way our society has made greed and material acquisitiveness its central organizing principles." [NOTE 4]
In parts of the book she sounds like a Christian moralist, especially when she tells us that material possessions are not the key to happiness. She observes:
The question we were trying to explore was whether we are happier or more satisfied now that we are able to accumulate more baubles and gadgets than was ever previously thought possible. Fortunately, there's quite an extensive academic literature, based on surveys conducted in a number of countries over the past half century, examining the link between happiness -- or one's subjective sense of well-being -- and material gain. One of the findings of this literature is that very low income is directly linked to unhappiness. It doesn't seem surprising to learn that people who lack adequate food and shelter are overall less happy than those who have these things. It follows, then, that as the incomes of poor people rise, they generally become happier.
But -- and this is the interesting part -- once a certain threshold of basic material well-being has been reached, there ceases to be much correlation between income levels and happiness. So improvement in a poor country's standard of living can do a great deal to increase the sense of happiness of its citizens. But once a fairly basic level is attained, further material improvements do not necessarily bring more happiness. ... [In] low-income countries, a 10 per cent increase in income levels makes a noticeable difference in reported levels of happiness. But a 10 per cent rise in incomes in a country with higher income levels will have less impact on happiness, and the same percentage rise in incomes in a very rich country will have no discernible effect. ... This is certainly a provocative finding that seems highly relevant to North America, where we long ago achieved a basic level of material well-being and now engage in an orgy of material consumption. [NOTE 5]
Readers who are familiar with some of McQuaig's other hard-hitting books on economic matters may find her almost too gentle in stating her basic thesis: "... the feast of material consumption going on in North America today, the endless all-you-can-eat buffet at which we're gorging ourselves, may not actually be delivering us to the state of nirvana we expected." [NOTE 6] So what is it that produces contentment or serenity? She recognizes that the poor may not have such an easy time transcending envy:
To be poor in North America today is to be painfully aware of the feast going on all around you, a feast to which you have not been invited. It is to have your face constantly pressed up against the glass, watching a magnificent party going on inside. Indeed, in a society obsessively focused on material accumulation, it is pretty easy to feel inadequate if you lack the means to buy what other people consider normal. Of course, some people shun material accumulation out of a commitment to anti-materialism, and they can appear to be principled or eccentric, rather than deficient. But most people living in humble material circumstances are doing so not because they reject the concept of consumption, but because they lack the money to buy the things they want. And this lack of money not only leaves them without material possessions, but also makes them feel left out, not really part of the broader community. So while going without possessions may not be a big deal in some societies, in our highly materialistic society, it is to feel ashamed and disliked and unmistakably branded as a loser. [NOTE 7]
Criticizing the model of man presupposed in the dominant economic theories of our day, McQuaig offers an alternative. She maintains that central to human life is not the drive for material acquisitions but the desire to engage in meaningful work:
For many people, work is closely tied up with their deepest sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, and is therefore a positive thing in itself, not merely a means to a larger gas barbecue. Even those who derive little satisfaction from their jobs and work strictly to earn money might well respond very differently if they were given an opportunity to do work they liked, were in control of and found meaningful. Indeed, to return to our subject of happiness, it is interesting to note that there is evidence of a very strong correlation between happiness and challenging, self-directed, satisfying work. Far from the economist's conception that work is nothing more than a means to the end of material accumulation, work turns out to be, for many people, central to their fulfillment and happiness.
Thus once again, the supposedly reality-based concept of Homo Economicus -- the central assumption in mainstream economics -- turns out to be a distortion. Homo Economicus is driven by the desire to accumulate materially, and work is for him simply a means to this material accumulation. But as Robert E. Lane has shown, this presents things almost exactly backwards. It seems that material accumulation, beyond a certain level, is not the key to happiness -- and work is. This is certainly a provocative finding, given that our modern capitalist system assumes that we are all, deep down, Homo Economicus. [NOTE 8]
Many theorists of religion claim that central to the religious quest is the desire to achieve serenity, security, peace. Part of what is meant by such serenity is the absence of anxiety. But anxiety is used as a form of discipline in the capitalist economic system under which we live today. "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," says our Lord (Matthew 11:28). A wonderful promise, but many Christians have not found that rest in the churches where the Lord is presumably to be found. What they ran into instead was anxiety.
As I read McQuaig and thought over some Christian issues in the light of her arguments, the figure of Max Weber kept coming to mind. In his much-discussed book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber make some important points about connections between the capitalist ethos, on the one hand, and a certain set of concerns and practices within Protestantism, on the other. For him Protestantism is essentially Calvinism.
Just what he did -- and did not -- mean to assert has been disputed by scholars. Jürgen Moltmann offers an interesting interpretation of Weber's basic claim:
Weber thought he had detected the connection between religion and the accumulation of capital in the Calvinistic doctrine of unmerited election. It isolates man from society, deprives him of all sacramental and churchly mediations between himself and God, and makes him entirely dependent upon himself. How shall he become certain of his election? Since, according to the New Testament, only the good tree brings forth good fruit, the isolated soul must make itself certain of its election by constantly producing new good works. Good works are no longer a means to purchase one's salvation. Rather they are the means of ridding oneself of anxiety about one's salvation. Because one must constantly be able to see one's good works, the results of one's work may not be consumed, but must be capitalized. Weber calls this religious life-style, which he believed he had discovered in the Puritans of the seventeenth century, "inner worldly asceticism." In it Weber thought he recognized that spirit which has formed modern capitalism: the accumulation of capital through ascetic economizing. At the "cradle of the modern businessman" stood the Puritan anxiously tending to his own election. [NOTE 9]
Saving is not as popular as it once was. Today the businessman who is afflicted by anxiety about his own salvation will surely want to engage in the conspicuous consumption that would suggest to others that he has met with favor in the eyes of the God of capitalism, even if Linda McQuaig is disturbed by his behavior. And when that businessman sees his own success mirrored in the eyes of his neighbors, he can perhaps find some assurance deep in his own soul. Surely such a man will want to heed the call reflected in McQuaig's telling title: "All You Can Eat." And so, in the Weber analysis, we have another indication that metaphors about spiritual growth are problematic.
Are we then to reject Weber and Calvinism altogether and seek salvation in a gospel of poverty? There are Christian theology professors in our time who encourage us not to feel guilty about material wealth (John Schneider of Calvin College comes to mind), [NOTE 10] but there are probably more who follow Ron Sider and would have us feel guilty about what we have managed to accumulate in the way of possessions and savings for our retirement. Should we then reject "Feed me till I want no more" and all such talk as a set of metaphors that no longer works for us?
If this essay has not yet shed a lot of light on the issue, it is partly because I believe a broader community of thinkers needs to help sort out the set of questions I am posing. To make matters a bit more difficult still, I must throw in a few comments about environmental concerns. I teach a course in environmental philosophy, and in that course I do not rest content with demonstrating the relevance of philosophical distinctions to the ethical issues we face when deal with the environment; I also style myself an advocate of stern measures to protect the environment. While I have no startlingly original ideas to offer the students, I do stand behind many of the fine ideas already in circulation, for example, that we should not leave such a large footprint upon the earth. We should try to pass our time here in such a way as to leave the earth in good shape -- indeed, if possible, in better shape than it was before we came on the scene. Many self-styled realists would regard such hopes as foolish. Still clinging to Adam Smith, they would insist that if we follow our economic self-interest, which is roughly to accept that we are "Homo Economicus," whether we like it or not, things will work out in the end.
I'm not at all convinced. And so I feel the impulse to preach -- even to scold. But if I am to take others to task, I must not exempt my own lifestyle and pattern of consumption from critical scrutiny. Hence I use the course to try to make people feel guilty without letting myself off the hook. Like Amos in the Old Testament pointing to the various nations around Israel ("For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four ...), I eventually point the finger at myself. Being a vegetarian does not absolve me from blame. I, too, consume much more than my fair share of the world's resources. I cannot deny that "all you can eat" has a certain appeal for me.
Christian environmentalists chide us for consuming an increasingly large proportion of the world's organic resources to sustain our existence. Perhaps we need to stop singing "Feed me till I want no more." Could it be that we need new hymns with such themes as "Cut back my appetite so that I do not eat so much"?
The problem does not only pertain to how much we eat; it also has an energy dimension. Especially when we get older, we need a considerable slice of our society's overall resources in order to make our existence comfortable, especially if we develop certain medical conditions that require that we be sustained by extraordinary means. Hard-headed doctors and medical economists are already telling us that we cannot afford to continue on the path we are now following; that is to say, we need to "ration" medical care. The push to "privatize" medical care cannot be understood apart from this imperative.
In many primitive societies, people were comfortable with the notion of older people deciding for themselves that at some point they were more of a burden to society than a help. They knew it was time to depart. In such societies death was more of an act than it is for us. You knew that your time was nigh, and so you took solemn leave of your descendants (see, for example, Genesis 48-50). Death was not simply something that comes over you despite your best efforts to hold it at bay.
As long as we cling to a materialistic way of thinking and to the greedy mentality condemned by McQuaig, it will be hard for us to admit that there can come a point on this earth when we need to express a willingness to step aside and make room for new and fresh growth, so to speak. (Of course this comment is also intended to apply to retirement practices.) However, if we open ourselves to forms of spirituality that encourage trimming down -- both physically and emotionally -- it will be easier to understand that we must resist the North American impulse to enter the portals of the "all you can eat" empire denounced by McQuaig.
How we wind up thinking about these matters in the future and what we ultimately do will depend in part on how we conceive of the life to come. In a time of material prosperity fueled by so-called neo-conservative thinking and the "Homo Economicus" model attacked by McQuaig, it will seem natural to conceive of the life to come as largely a continuation of the material comforts and preoccupations of the current life. Perhaps "all you can eat" will be our theme.
What about sex, another so-called "material" preoccupation? Many Christians believe that in the life to come there will be nothing in the way of sexual experience. They base their thinking largely on their reading of Luke 20:34-5: "The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage." I'm not convinced that the widespread understanding of this text is correct, for the text speaks specifically of marriage and not of sexuality as such.
Perhaps Christians who do not expect sexuality to be a component of human nature in the life to come would also wish to maintain that eating will be transcended and left behind. It could be that a much more ethereal existence awaits us -- an existence in which we neither "grow" spiritually nor find the need to trim down, as though we were Buddhists-in-training.
So what does our conviction regarding the life to come tell us about what we should be doing in this life? This is a difficult question, for which we need an answer. But whatever answer we offer, it is bound to be considered speculative. I don't know where to go with this question myself, even though I have been thinking about it since I was a teenager, stirred by such wonderful hymns as "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah." Perhaps I am too fond of eating to pray "Feed me till I want no more." END
My thinking about these matters has recently been stimulated by the entertaining account of home visitation provided by Douwe van Dijk (1887-1985), a Reformed minister in the Netherlands, in his autobiography entitled My Path to Liberation (Neerlandia, Alberta: Inheritance Publications, 2004). For the material on home visitation, see Chapters 5 and 6.
The Book of Common Worship (approved by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and published in 1946 by its Board of Education), see p. 373-374.
Published by Penguin Viking of Toronto in 2001.
All You Can Eat, pp. 6-7.
All You Can Eat, pp. 100-101.
All You Can Eat, p. 103.
All You Can Eat, p. 106.
All You Can Eat, pp. 104-105.
The Experiment Hope, edited and translated by M. Douglas Meeks (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), pp. 124-125.
See his books Godly Materialism: Rethinking Money and Possessions (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994) and The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
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