Thursday, 18 October 2012

FCC: Food, Religion and Spirituality

Following an extended weekend away from campus, and the end of fall break, I returned to an even busier Denison, if that's even possible. Also returning this week was the Food and Culture Colloquium and our continued look at the complexity of food identity, and by extension the identity of food. With a focus this week on the religious influence on our diets, we welcomed as a presenter Mark Orten, University chaplain and Director of the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, to the colloquium stage.

Imagine moving into a communal space, one which includes a kitchen; especially given a wide variety of dietary restrictions based on religious practice, how would you accommodate this diversity? Is it your responsibility to do so? To what extent should those using the shared kitchen conform to a set of standards that may go against their beliefs? Such types of questions were those facing Mark and his staff as they've settled into The Open House throughout the last few years. And it was these kinds of considerations that guided Mark's presentation which began by discussing the essential relationship that exists between food (that which is consumed) and diet (that which is chosen/allowed to be consumed).

While many diets may be motivated by health and/or sociopolitical practices, others may be prescribed by religious traditions. In this way, especially, food as object may serve the role of preference (choosing one over another-- for health benefits, enjoyment/memory, social activity, etc.) or of obligation (intimately tying ourselves to our environment); in either case, food is just as much about a relationship than it is about nutrition. As an expression of the relationship between food and consumer, "diet" in it of itself speaks to what, when, how, how much and why we consume the food we consume. In essence, this Buddhist way of relating to food is akin to the more commonly suggested phrase that "we are what we eat."

This manner of understanding food from the level of preference, it should be noted, is much more of a first world lens; one may rightfully question then the application and limitation of this lens when one does not have choice (an unintended allusion to next week's colloquium presentation, I'd venture). In a similar way, diet as obligation and as a component of [religious] tradition narrows the options for us and again prescribes (/suggests) the manner in which we should relate to food (in this case, do we have a choice if the preferences are limited?). However one understands the relationship to food because/in spite of religious doctrine or some other form of cultural practice, the relationship becomes one which expresses one's personal/political commitments in relation to consumption.

Specific manifestations of religious expression through food comes in the form in a variety of mainstream ways which may or may not be, for the individual, rooted in religion at all (but more so because of health benefits, sociopolitical stances, etc.). In any case, one might consider fasting (the specific rapport to how much one consumes, as an awareness to spiritual existence and a sensitivity to choice); vegetarianism/veganism (considering the respect to animal life, e.g., cows within the Hindu tradition, and one's view on whether or not one can choose one animal over another); and ritualistic observances. In some cases, health benefits (as in the case of Islam) may specifically govern a religious commitment, e.g., in the relationship between halal, haram and mushbooh. For a great introduction to specific relationships to food, as understood by a variety of religious traditions, click here.

And so, we return to the questions first presented above and those considered throughout this colloquium presentation. Participation in any one or combination of the aforementioned views of understanding the "essential relationship" between food and diet further represents an expression of identity--whether as one of difference or sameness to the other--as we consider personal and communal inclusivity and commitment as lived through food. As we look forward to understanding our relationship to food throughout the rest of the colloquium, I encourage you to consider the relationship you may have to others on the basis of diet; wherever you may exist within the spectrum of religiosity and/or spirituality, arguably understanding how you relate to food in terms of the essential relationship might indeed suggest an intersection of your own life to, at the very least, religious/spiritual practice.

Suggested readings for this session:
"Eating My Religion: Finding Faith in Food" (Zanthe Taylor, 2011)
"Professor Explores Food and Religious Identity" (Sarah Barrese, 2011)
"Food and Religion" (Comenius Partnership 2009-2011, n.d.)
"Food Culture and Religion" (Nadia Hernandez, n.d.)

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. To check out the album of photos from our October colloquium sessions, click here.

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