November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
July 6, 2011
Food is primal, and the way in which we see the literal taking in of the inanimate, the recently animate, and the sort-of-animate says a great deal about how we see the world and our place in it. Christians are foodies of necessity. We worship a God who offers himself as food (the Bread of Life) and the ritual that sits at the center of our faith involves us eating that God whose body was broken for us.
I was first struck by the elemental and primal nature of this practice when my three boys were quite small. The congregation was being prepared to receive communion, and to keep their wriggling to a minimum, I had all three seated on my lap. As the requisite Scripture was read, words like “flesh” and “blood” and “bone” took on new meaning as tiny and delicate rib cages pressed against my arm and hearts beat in the flesh of my own flesh. What father could not think anew of sacrifice and of Christ’s body broken? The elemental and primal nature of this rite that I so often take for granted is an articulation of what is most basic about the world.
What I mean by “most basic” is what Thales, the first scientist in Western history, meant when he declared that everything is water. He did not mean, of course, that our impressions of the world are completely wrong and that there are no dry things. What he meant was that if there were a single principle that could unify metaphysically and explanatorily the nature (physis) of the cosmos, then that one principle would be water—what living thing does not require water? What comes to be without water? In declaring the cosmos to be water, he was declaring that it possessed a fundamental physis (the Greek word that we translate “nature”) that provided the interconnected key to all things. The ancient Greek scientists worked out their physics/physis in terms of the basic elements of earth, air, fire, and water. We followers of Christ have blood and bone, but rather than theorizing about the basic constituents of the universe, we eat them. The problem is we don’t always agree on exactly what we are eating and therein lies the rub.
The food of the communion table denotes a kind of physis because it indicates how we view the fundamental elements of the world: food as physis. Although most Christians would agree to the centrality of this meal and that it sits at the heart of our faith practices as Christians, we are in serious disagreement over the ontological status of the bread and the cup. We disagree about the physis that is revealed by the communion table. If I am a Catholic believer taking the Eucharist I would see the real presence of blood and body of Christ as literally in the elements of the table (this view is called “transubstantiation”). And although there are more Protestant views on the sacraments than one could shake a stick at, chances are that the average Protestant does not see the Welch’s grape juice in a plastic shot glass and its accompanying cracker as metaphysically containing the real presence of the blood and body of Christ. Rather, the elements of the table are seen as symbolically pointing to the higher realities, but not containing them. But why do we have these different stories? Why does roughly one half of Western Christianity take the physis of the elements of the table to be one thing, whereas the other half takes it to be another?
Answering these questions definitively is beyond the scope of what can be accomplished here, but I would like to highlight two relevant disputes that figure into the story of Western Christianity. The first dispute is well known, the latter less so. I hope that by articulating these disputes we can, as Christians, frame our own dispute more clearly, with greater humility, and with an eye to how our cherished religious traditions interact with the cultural traditions from which they originate.
Dispute 1: Plato and Aristotle
How did Western Christians come to see the elements of the table differently? Why do some think that the physis of the bread and cup consist of the actual blood and body of Christ, whereas others think that the elements of the table only symbolize (i.e., do not embody or contain) the actual blood and body of Christ?
If one has ever taken a philosophy course or perused the philosophy section at a large chain bookstore, it is very likely that one has been exposed to the Renaissance painter Raphael’s masterpiece, The School of Athens. Countless publishers choose this image for the covers of their introductory anthologies, and it is ubiquitous on philosophy department websites and departmental propaganda (this author feels compelled to admit that he has overused it in nearly every applicable context). The School of Athens was completed between 1510 and 1511 as a part of Raphael’s commission to decorate the rooms in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace with frescoes. The reason this image is so beloved by philosophy professors and introductory textbook editors is clear: it portrays one of the most important philosophical disputes in the history of Western thought with the kind of colorful imagery that philosophers can only dream about with their locutions. In the painting, all the great luminaries of Classical Greek thought are present, but at the focal point of the painting, one finds the twin towers of Western philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, engaged in a debate. We find Plato cradling his work Timeaus in his left hand while gesturing heavenward, index finger extended, with his right. Meeting Plato’s gaze Aristotle holds his Nicomachean Ethics in his left hand while countering Plato’s heavenward gesture with his right arm outstretched and palm downward as if to say, “But what about right here?”
Plato and Aristotle’s dispute is quite complicated but it boils down to this: where does one find the good stuff? Are the formal and explanatorily relevant properties of the cosmos apprehended by transcending the sensory world (as shown by Plato’s vertical gesture toward the world of Forms that exists beyond the sensory world)? Or is the metaphysical address of those formal properties found within the sensible world itself (as shown by Aristotle’s horizontal gesture toward the phenomena of intelligible principles to be found through empirical investigation). What both student and teacher agree upon is that the world is, in fact, intelligible. In other words, that intelligible principles exist which allow us to explain the world is not under dispute; Plato and Aristotle merely disagree about the location of formal intelligibility and the method one uses to apprehend it. For Plato, one needs to move beyond the senses to the Forms, whereas for Aristotle, all knowledge begins with the senses.
What the introductory philosophy textbooks and departmental advertising seem to leave out, however, is that the School of Athens is intended to elucidate a theological difficulty particular to the Christian faith. The School of Athens fresco was painted on a wall in the Stanza della segnatura (“Room of the Signature”). On the opposing wall of this room, above where the Pope signed important documents, was the Disputa, which depicts a debate over the nature of the Christian sacraments. The two paintings where meant to be viewed together: one could stand in the room and see on one wall the dispute between Plato and Aristotle and on the opposite wall the dispute over the sacraments.
In the Disputa we have a crowd of theological luminaries, but at the focal point we find the mirror image of the gestures employed by Plato and Aristotle. In this painting, however, the dispute is over the nature of the sacraments and their metaphysical status. On the one hand, we have a figure employing the gesture used by Plato to indicate that cup and bread of the table are merely symbolic, their true reality lies elsewhere. According to this view, the bread and wine point to, or symbolically represent, the blood and body of Christ. On the opposite side of the table we find a figure making the horizontal gesture of Aristotle to indicate what will become the orthodox Catholic position of transubstantiation, that the true realities of the cup and the bread are found within the mundane composites of bread and wine. According to this view, when the elements of the table are consecrated, they may maintain their appearance as bread and wine, but their true reality or substance is altered, actually becoming the body and blood of Christ.
Raphael’s paintings, completed before the Reformation hit its full stride, prefigure the basic metaphysical positions between each respective side: the Catholic position will come to accept that the sensible properties of this world can actually bear the divine presence, whereas the Protestants will eventually agree to the basic idea that the elements of the table point to but do not contain the metaphysical robustness of the actual blood and body of Christ. This dispute has implications far beyond the nature of the sacraments and affects everything from differing perspectives on the role of art in worship (compare virtually any Catholic church to your average Protestant church in terms of how they are outfitted to incorporate visual art into the worship experience) to reproductive ethics (compare the Catholic concern regarding birth control to the Protestant lack of concern regarding birth control). This debate is crucial because it is essentially a dispute about the human being’s relationship to the sensory world: can the sensory world deliver the goods or not? Are we people of Aquinas’s notion of natural or general revelation? Or are we a people of Luther’s sola scriptura?
Arguably the most fundamental relationship that we have to the world of the senses revolves around food. It is literally an ingesting of nature three (or more) times a day. What one thinks about food follows from one’s metaphysics. Raphael got it right: Plato and Aristotle set out the metaphysical positions that would be ultimately adopted by Christian theologians—Catholics rely more heavily on the Aristotelianism found in Aquinas, with Protestants finding the Platonism transmitted through Augustine (as read by Luther and Calvin) more useful. However, Raphael should have added a third painting, one that would help shape why Plato and Aristotle disagreed. And this third painting would get us even closer to the notion of food as physis. This third painting should have been of Odysseus and Achilles arguing over when to have lunch.
Dispute 2: Achilles and Odysseus
What do Achilles and Odysseus have to do with the sacraments? Raphael’s visual argument is that debates in Christianity are often influenced by views and positions outside of Christianity itself. But what of Plato’s and Aristotle’s views? What prefigures their metaphysical positions? Here is my claim: the positions of Plato and Aristotle are prefigured in Homer, and the metaphysical options that they stake out are actually embedded in the debate between Achilles and Odysseus in Homeric epic. If I am right, then our debate as Christians over the sacraments is influenced not only by Greek philosophy, but also by the first and most important works of Western literature. I am not claiming that Plato and Aristotle consciously read Homer and formulated their metaphysical positions accordingly. Plato and Aristotle (as well as the Gospel writers writing in Greek) imbibed Homer as they would mother’s milk. The Homeric view of the world was so deeply embedded in antiquity that it constitutes the backdrop against which conceptual developments in philosophy and theology occur, and the Iliad and the Odyssey provide us two competing conceptions of the good and how it is obtained. It is these competing views that prefigure the elaborate metaphysical positions of Plato and Aristotle and, subsequently, Western Christianity’s views on the sacraments. Christians, like the surrounding culture must come to terms with food, and I am arguing that the dispute over food between Achilles and Odysseus frames and prefigures the debates that Plato and Aristotle will work out. Food, once again, is at the heart of our view of the world.
In the Iliad Book XIX, we find Achilles enraged by the death of his friend Patroclus who was killed by the Trojan hero Hector. Achilles rallies the troops for an assault on the Trojans when a dispute breaks out: the argument, between Odysseus and Achilles is essentially over whether lunch would be a good idea first. Achilles will have nothing to do with lingering, whereas Odysseus thinks that lunch would be in order. Here is their exchange:
It’s wrong to malinger here with talk, wasting time—
our great work lies all before us, still to do.
Not so quickly, brave as you are, god-like Achilles.
Achaea’s troops are hungry [. . .]
No, command them now to take their food and wine
by the fast ships—a soldier’s strength and nerve.
No fighter can battle all day long, cut and thrust
till the sun goes down, if he is starved for food.
Even though his courage may blaze up for combat,
his limbs will turn to lead before he knows it,
thirst an hunger will overtake him quickly,
his knees will cave in as the man struggles on.
But the one who takes his fill of food and wine
before he grapples enemies full force, dawn to dusk—
the heart in his chest keeps pounding fresh with courage,
nor do his legs give out till all break off from battle.
Come, dismiss your ranks, have them make their meal.
You talk of food?
I have no taste for food—what I really crave
is slaughter and blood and the choking groans of men!
[. . .] Greater than I, stronger with spears by no small edge—
yet, I might just surpass you in seasoned judgment
by quite a lot, since I have years on you
and I know the world much better . . .
So let your heart be swayed by what I say.
Now fighting men will sicken of battle quickly:
the more dead husks the bronze strews on the ground
the sparser the harvest then, when Zeus almighty
tips his scales and the tide of battle turns—
the great steward on high who rules our mortal wars.
(Fagles translation, XIX, 190–268)
It is a simple dispute but its metaphysical implications are vast, for it reveals the fundamental orientation toward the world that each hero takes. Achilles, true to form, is ready to disregard the fundamental needs of the body in his pursuit for a disembodied, eternal glory (kleos). Odysseus, on the other hand, makes food and the orientation toward the goods of this world a big deal.
Two points regarding Odysseus and food are relevant here. First, Odysseus has a reputation for thinking that meals are important. A few lines before the dispute cited above, Agamemnon chides Odysseus for failing to show the same zeal for battle as he does for a good meal:
Agamemnon (to Odysseus):
First you are, when you hear of feasts from me,
when Achaeans set out banquets for the chiefs.
Then you are happy enough to down the roast meats
and cups of honeyed, mellow wine—all you can drink.
But now you’d gladly watch ten troops of Achaeans
beat you to this feast,
first to fight with the ruthless bronze before you.
Food is a big deal to Odysseus: to be dressed down for thinking too much about his belly and then turn around and argue with Achilles that lunch should be served is no small matter. Second, Odysseus, master of argumentation, makes the following subtle argument in his exchange with Achilles: we need food because we become food for the gods (Christianity happily reverses this notion with God becoming food for us). Odysseus’s macabre argument for why the boys should have lunch before battle is that warfare is connected to eating: slain warriors become “husks” cut down by the bronze for the “harvest.” Zeus is even compared to a “steward” who presides over this surreal banquet. Odysseus’s argument to Achilles is this: by denying the importance of food, you attempt to surpass even the gods; for even they, it would seem, are concerned about food and the protocols surrounding it. Food has not only pragmatic significance, but also divine significance for Odysseus.
Why is this dispute really that important? For starters, it frames the important themes of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Achilles is, of course, the central focus of the Iliad, whereas the Odyssey revolves around the character of Odysseus. The Iliad is about Achilles’s quest for eternal kleos, whereas the Odyssey can be read as a critique of what Achilles had to do to achieve that kleos: Achilles chooses to die gloriously, never returning home, whereas Odysseus’s tale is all about returning home. Achilles chooses the eternal transcendence of undying fame; Odysseus chooses the immanence of his wife, son, and land. Metaphysically speaking, then, Achilles in the Iliad has more in common with Plato than Aristotle. He has located the metaphysical location of the goods he desires and they are not found in the contingent things surrounding him; they are found in the attainment of a transcendent fame that outlasts and supersedes the world of the senses. On the other hand, Odysseus seems to have more in common with Aristotle’s metaphysical preference and makes his case not through philosophical argumentation but through his choice to return to those physical things that constitute his world. It would seem that for Achilles, the world of the senses is devoid of ultimate meaning and he/we cannot bear it, whereas for Odysseus the world of the senses is where this meaning is ultimately to be found: the physical provides the means of accessing the divine
True Food, True Physis
Food is a big deal. At the advent of Western thought, we find a couple of guys disagreeing about when to have lunch, and if I am right, then perhaps this Homeric dispute escalated into one of the most important metaphysical disputes in the history of Greek philosophy. Jesus himself is often in hot water over his relationship to food—that he was a glutton, that he was an ascetic, that he dined with the wrong crowd, and that he dined without the concern for the proper religious etiquette.
How do we as Christians fare regarding our orientation toward food and particularly our view of the elements of the table? Following the lead of Achilles, Odysseus, Plato, and Aristotle we either push for transcendence or immanence. Here is one way of seeing it: Homer needed two epics to fully capture the human experience and its relationship to kleos: the transcendence of Achilles in the Iliad and the immanence of Odysseus in the Odyssey. Following suit, Achilles-like Plato exhorts us to move beyond the material by organizing our souls in such a way that the appetitive, spirited, and reflective aspects of our persons become entirely oriented to the transcendent good that illumines all things, just as the sun makes all things visible, Aristotle, picking up where Odysseus leaves off, exhorts his students to the “this-worldly” study of biology echoing Heraclitus’s dictum that “there are gods here, too” (Parts of Animals I.1). The dominant theological paradigms of the West transmitted through the likes of Augustine and Aquinas utilize the good work done by the students of Socrates and formulate the physis of divine food in nearly the same terms: Protestants, Plato-like and pointing skyward, locate the goods beyond the veil of time. Catholics, Aristotle-like, hold fast to the immanent divinity mysteriously present when dinner is served; God is indeed, here too.
Holding the middle ground is the Bread of Life. It seems fair to say that Christ had the right relationship to food, that he understood its true physis. He knew the importance of dining appropriately: where, when, and with whom. We, on the other hand, at least with respect to our most important meal, have difficulty coming to terms with its physis. We swing from extreme to extreme, unable to hold with the Logos. That this is so should teach us humility regarding the limitations of our religious traditions to get every detail right consistently and should drive us toward an analysis of the worldviews that we appropriate without reflection. Most importantly it should drive us to the one that eats right and is true physis.
 Detailing each Protestant position, from Luther’s less than straightforward assertion that the real presence of the body was behind the elements rather than in the elements as the Scholastics had held, to the Anabaptists straight up symbolism, is beyond the scope of this essay. For the sake of simplicity, I here assume that Protestants take the Platonic side of Raphael’s visual representation, whereas Catholics take the Aristotelian side.
 I would like to thank my colleague Michael Robbins for this observation.
David Williams is an associate professor of philosophy at Azusa Pacific University. He lives just outside of Yosemite National Park teaching full time at Azusa Pacific’s High Sierra Semester, a great books program integrating the humanities and outdoor education.