18 May 2009

the sacramentality of food

I've blogged before about Michael Pollan's wonderfully written and fascinating book, The Omnivore's Dilemma (see here and here).

In the third part of the book, Pollan describes his quest to create a meal entirely from ingredients that he hunted, foraged, or grew: morel mushrooms he picked growing from the ashes of a forest fire, a wild boar he shot among oak trees, natural salt collected from the Bay, cherries picked from a neighbor's yard. After the effort, each ingredient and dish came with its own story, stories recollected as he sat at table together with his fellow foragers and hunters with whose help he had learned to procure the ingredients. He describes the meal:
The stories told by this little band of foragers ventured a long way from the table, the words (the tastes, too) recalling us to an oak forest in Sonoma, to a pine burn in the Sierra Nevada, to the stinky salt flats of San Francisco Bay, to slippery boulders along the Pacific coast, and to a backyard in Berkeley. The stories, like the food that fed them, cast lines of relation to all these places and the creatures living (and dying) in them, drawing them all together on this table, on these plates, in what to me began to feel a little like a ceremony. (407)
While this specific meal was uniquely "storied," with rich narrative texture and intimate knowledge of particulars, what was true of this meal is, in other and lesser ways, true of all meals. And it reveals to us the character of what we do and are as we live and feed upon the gift of God's good creation.

Our modern technology of food production may have mystified our relationship to the created world and pulled us away from the varied and complex histories that rest upon our dinner tables. But that does not make the "lines of relation" to various places and creatures any less real - though perhaps the ethical issues raised by modern food production grant bliss to our ignorance.

Though the ethics of our patterns of food production and consumption are worthy of serious reflection, I'm interested at present in the notion of food as story. The idea that what we eat connects us with other places and to larger stories about the world is central, I think, to understanding the spiritual character of eating in general and the nature of the eucharist as a sacrament in particular. Indeed, the eucharist reveals to us the ultimate meaning of eating, the way in which God's grace takes up and transforms creation.

When we, as the gathered body of Christ, share bread and wine set upon a table, we not only engage in a token, ritual meal that might nourish our bodies in some small way, but we are also caught up within a larger story that nourishes our sense of identity and community within the mission of God.

Pollan sees such dimensions even among friends gathered to consume his foraged meal. He continues:
And there's a sense in which the meal had become just that, a thanksgiving or secular seder, for every item on our plates pointed somewhere else, almost sacramentally, telling a little story about nature or community or even the sacred, for mystery was very often the theme. Such storied food can feed us both body and soul, the threads of narrative knitting us together as a group, and knitting the group into the larger fabric of the given world. (407-408)
What Pollan says of the meal he shared can be said also of the eucharist.

We can be begin by noting that the meaning of "eucharist" is thanksgiving. We rightly speak words of thanks to God over all our meals in virtue of the sheer giftedness of the world to us and the remarkable way in which God has enmeshed us as human animals within the reciprocal giving over of life, one to another, that feeds and sustains us as living organisms. In giving thanks to God, we acknowledge the sacred order he has established and so, as it were, give thanks to his creatures of vegetable, mineral, and meat that we receive unto ourselves and assimilate into our own ongoing life.

But such thanksgiving is not only a matter of words, but also enjoyment and celebration. When we tuck into a meal - savoring its tastes, breathing in its aromas, discerning its flavors, noting the blends of texture and seasoning - it nourishes our senses as much as the food nourishes our bodies. This too is a form of tangible thanksgiving, as our senses revel in the experience of food, giving themselves over to the meal.

And our thanks-filled delight is only deepened and enriched when we know something about where the food came from, its particular provenance and story, the efforts expended to procure it, and the care and attention that went into its preparation.

In the case of the eucharist, the experience of bread and wine betokens the range of complexity in human food-making. Bread reminds us of our most basic needs, the simplicity of grain, harvested from the field, refined by human labor, and worked and baked into a simple, yet nourishing and sustaining meal. That's part of the story of bread.

Wine, by contrast, comes at the end of a process: the planting of vines, their growth and development, the complexity of the grape corresponding to the age of its vine, the gathering of the clusters, and finally that grand process of crushing, fermenting, casking, aging, and blending what will become a delight to the palate and a source of relaxation to the body. And that's part of the story of wine.

In both cases, production presupposes the attainment of a certain level of social settlement and technology, of at least a period of peace and security. And yet wine goes further than bread. Where bread is a gift of nature and culture that can sustain life and labor, wine requires sustained peace that lends itself to leisure and celebration. Together bread and wine tell a story, indeed an eschatology, of movement towards wholeness and festivity.

As tokens of the created order and a present manifestation of God's reign, the eucharist points back to the establishment of the world, seen through the lens of Jesus' action at his final meal with his disciples. From there it moves us into his death and resurrection, all the while pointing forward to the fullness of God's reign, the renewal of world and of human life.

Thus, following Pollan, the church enacts a narrative in the eucharist that knits us together as a new humanity, and knits us into the larger fabric of the world made new.

14 May 2009

american philosophy

Beginning at the end of June, during Summer Session II, I'll be teaching "American Philosophy."

This is the first time I'll be teaching this course. Some of our philosophy majors take the class, though I get the sense most of the students who take it are enrolled in the American Studies major (or minor) where it fulfills one of the requirements.

The text I'll be using is the two volume The American Intellectual Tradition, edited by David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper (Fifth Edition, Oxford 2005). It contains a variety of texts from the early Puritans and Enlightenment-steeped founders up through the American pragmatists and various 20th century thinkers.

Here's what I'd like some help with. You can find the tables of contents from both Volume I and Volume II at the OUP website.

I want to focus upon, on one hand, texts that are historically central and formative in the American tradition and, on the other hand, texts that could rightly be countenanced as philosophical in character, at least to some degree. I also want to be able to weave the texts together into some larger story about America.

So which texts from among these would you choose and why? What are the contours of the larger story they fit into?

And it's not as if I haven't given this any thought yet. And I do have a variety of secondary sources at my disposal, from Sacvan Bercovitch to Bruce Kuklick. But I'm interested in some other viewpoints and voices.

another school year...

Another school year has passed.

My university responsibilities were a large part of why I haven't blogged since September, though family and church have also occupied my time. On the whole, it was a good year, but tremendously busy.

In terms of university, I always enjoy teaching my classes, getting to know students, and trying to draw them into the kinds of issues that philosophers think and write about. I think I was mostly successful on that front, judging from the kinds of essays students wrote for me, from the very positive evaluations I received from students, and from the several new philosophy major or minor students emerging from my classes.

All told, I taught 32 credit hours worth of courses in the past year, most of which were fairly writing-intensive, which made grading a rather time-consuming process, especially since we don't have teaching assistants for "busy work" (such as quiz grading). Courses I taught included "Human Person" (philosophical anthropology, which serves as a foundational course), "Moral Choice" (introductory ethics, also a foundations course), "Problems of Knowledge" (an upper level epistemology course), and "Business Ethics" (an upper level ethics course). I also taught a couple sections of "First Year Odyssey," an orientation course that all freshmen are required to take.

Like many places, my university has been hit hard by the financial crisis, though we seem to be weathering it better than several comparable and sister institutions. While we've experienced pay and hiring freezes, suspension of retirement contributions, and various sorts of in-house austerity measures, we haven't faced the layoffs, pay cuts, and service cutbacks that some universities have. And the projected number of incoming students enrolled for autumn seems to be exceeding expectations.

Nonetheless, the university introduced a number of classroom changes for next year that will profoundly affect how I teach and assess students.

For one thing, I've taught the past six years in what is called the "Doubles" program, where my introductory philosophy classes in the Core Curriculum have been paired with courses in another department, sharing the same students, and trying to foster learning communities and interdisciplinary thinking. Because of the extra work involved in such courses and the amount and intensiveness of writing expected in them, the cap on section enrollment was kept relatively low.

The Doubles have been indefinitely suspended now, so not only will the courses have to be redesigned - given that they are no longer linked to another discipline - but the number of students enrolled will also grow by about 50 percent. This will, of course, reduce the overall number of course sections offered and allow the university to eliminate sections of introductory courses that have been taught by adjunct faculty in the past. On the plus side, this is not only a considerable cost savings, but it also puts more freshmen in contact with full-time faculty. On the down side, it also increases the workload for faculty.

Accordingly, my task over the summer will be to reconceive and reorient how I teach these introductory courses. I'll post something more detailed on that later, since I will probably want whatever input people may have to offer. In addition, since my job description was originally tied to teaching the now-suspended Doubles in the Core, my duties will now broaden, enabling me to teach a wider range of upper level courses. This is quite a boon in terms of giving me more teaching variety, but also will require more new class preparation on my part.

Beyond teaching, I've kept busy with a variety of activities related to my field or with the life of the university.

Last summer I attended Princeton Seminary's Barth conference, which is always fun and a good chance to reconnect with various friends and acquaintances. In July I spoke in Colorado Springs on postmodern thought at a leadership event for The Navigators. In the autumn I commented on a paper by Phil Carey as part of an Augustine Blog Conference.

I also attended, gave a presentation at, and chaired a session during Villanova's Patristics, Medieval, and Renaissance Conference. The presentation concerned the ways in which Aquinas and Bonaventure took up Augustine's discussion of the phenomenon of prophecy. In the late autumn there was also a political conversation at our church, attempting to demonstrate how Christians can dialogue about politics charitably and constructively, have many common values and ideals, and yet come to differing conclusions on matters of policy and candidates.

In terms of writing projects, I have a publication forthcoming (next year some time, I think) in a new collection of essays on Harry Potter and philosophy in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series.

And last week I went to part of the Rutgers Epistemology Conference, which is really the top of the field in terms of epistemology discussions in the analytic tradition. I brought a student along with me who is a philosophy major and thinking about graduate school. He seemed to enjoy the proceedings.

Among other university activities, I helped last August with a week-long college preparation program for select incoming students. There was also a faculty-run segment of Opening Weekend where I, along with several colleagues, had the opportunity to address the incoming class of freshmen about classroom and academic expectations. And then there's all the various committee work: the Core Advisory Board, a subgroup on liberal arts students who don't come in with a declared major, and a search committee for a program director. Time and budget constraints at times made for rather hectic and lively committee work.

Finally, in a wonderful news item, our department recently completed a year-long search for a full-time replacement for a faculty member who had passed away a couple years ago. Since the search was already underway and involved an already existing budget line, the open position didn't fall under the university-wide hiring freeze. The new hire, John Hymers, specializes in modern European philosophy and had previously worked at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.

The school year this year also coincided with my daughter beginning full-time Kindergarten at the Miquon School and Laurel, my wife, returning to work (three-quarters time) as the managing editor for the Journal of Modern Literature. The new patterns took quite a bit of adjustment for all of us, but have worked out well.

Church, likewise, continues as an important part of our lives, with our three year old parish continuing to grow and mature as a congregation situated between West Philadelphia and several universities and trying to engage with all the sorts of issues, problems, opportunities, and challenges that such a setting presents. I've especially enjoyed helping with the liturgical life of the community, as well as university-facing aspects.

So, all in all, it's been a good, busy year. I'm glad it's over and look forward to a different pace of life over the summer.

12 May 2009


This appears to be me, blogging. Surprise, surprise. More to follow.