Eating Our Lunch

Michael Metzger

A Buddhist monk recently helped solve a problem at Google.

Last fall Google recognized it had a problem. Its California headquarters is frantically abuzz with activity. Scarfing down a burrito is standard lunch fare. This presents a host of potential problems, including lower productivity and higher healthcare costs in the future. To correct the problem, Google called in a Buddhist monk. It’s yet another instance of other faiths eating our lunch.

Google is a go-go place. “Few places in America are as frantically abuzz with activity as the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.,” wrote the New York Times earlier this year.1 Hoping to instill healthy eating habits, Google brought in Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, in September of 2011. Nanh is co-author of “Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.” Hundreds of Google workers showed up to enjoy a lunch in silence. There was a discussion afterward. The result is that scores of Google workers now enjoy a monthly hour-long wordless vegan lunch at the Google campus.

I’m happy they’re eating healthy but sad at another missed opportunity for the church. Why didn’t Google contact a Christian? The Christian faith has much to say about mindful eating. The answer of course is that America’s culture-shaping institutions generally do not take the church seriously. It’s a TGIF world, Twitter-Google-iPad-Facebook. Google is a culture-shaping institution. It takes Max De Pree’s maxim seriously – its first responsibility is to define reality. Google does not imagine the church as helping them define reality. What then would it take to change the equation?

In the first place, Christians would have to know the equation. In his book “Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge,” University of Southern California professor Dallas Willard writes how the church once made five contributions to culture. It was seen as a resource for:

• The knowledge of reality
• Belief
• Commitment
• Profession
• Adherence

The most important contribution was the knowledge of how reality works. For “most of Western history, the basic claims of the Christian tradition have in fact been regarded by its proponents as knowledge of reality,” Willard writes.2 The Western church taught what was considered real and right as a “public resource for living.” This knowledge “was made available to people in general through institutions of one kind or another.”3

In the 19th century, the knowledge of how reality works came to be reserved to institutions other than the church. This was largely the result of a philosophy called positivism. Positivism grew out a general revulsion with religious wars in the Middle Ages. By the 1700s, positivists sought to “cleanse” the world of religious involvement by making an “absolute distinction between facts and values,” writes Harvard professor Louis Menand. By the 1800s, it was generally assumed that facts were the province of science while values were the province of what was mockingly called metaphysics.4 There was no reality beyond – meta – the physical world. Thus, the church was relegated to merely offering belief, commitment, profession, and a call to adherence. Google however does not take these seriously unless they are perceived as grounded in reality. The result is the modern church is out of the reality business.

This leaves a world where tolerance is the highest virtue. Religion has no place in the “real” world. It is merely a matter of an individual’s private “values.” This is why Buddhism is popular. It is a philosophy, not a religion. It preaches tolerance while promoting ideas such as mindful eating. This kind of philosophy explains how the “real” world works, and ‘fits’ how Google imagines reality.

The good news is that there is still plenty of opportunity at the Google trough. Their in-house food service is a thing of legend, both in New York City as well as Mountain View. “Orchestrated by an official Top Chef and regularly winning plaudits,” writes Adam Martin in the Atlantic, “you pretty much expect to see things like suckling pig on display; but that doesn’t make it any less impressive.”5 Newsweek iPad editor Melissa Lafsky Wall is not impressed however. She tweeted photos of a suckling pig recently served at the New York headquarters. Viewers have been mostly grossed out. Google, cognizant of maintaining its “cool” image, might start sniffing around for healthy alternatives.

The best way to get in the reality business is to solve real problems. Google, Twitter, Apple, and Facebook have problems. Every institution does. But solving them is not a matter of curriculums and discussions according to professors Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. They are the authors of The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge, noting how real life problems are, by nature, unpredictable and uncertain. Curriculum-driven approaches (typical of many churches) are static and don’t capture how reality works.6 Their solution is to stop talking, roll up your sleeves, and solve problems. The gospel for instance has much to say about pigging out. But until we solve these kinds of problems, our faith won’t be taken seriously. And that means Buddhism will keep eating our lunch.

1 Jeff Gordinier, “Mindful Eating as Food for Thought,” the New York Times, February 7, 2012.
2 Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009) p. 8.
3 Willard, Knowing, p. 200.
4 Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), p. 207.
5 Adam Martin, “Google Wins at Pigging Out,” the Atlantic wire, March 13, 2012.
6 “The innovation machine” The Economist, August 28, 2010, p. 57.


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  1. Mike,

    Excellent example! Only one problem….I like a little protein!

    Keep up the good work!


  2. Chris,
    There is more protein in a pound of broccoli than a pound of pork. Research your favorite foods and you will discover the truth. Most libraries have books on nutritional content of foods. Plus USDA packaging requirements. You are what you east…on a micro level at least.

  3. Great article. Solving problems isn’t even on the radar screens of many believers unless the problem is a spiritual one. We act as if that is the only business God is in today. I once looked at the list of speakers at a global conference on solving various problems. The session on life balance was taught by a Zen specialist and I asked myself the same question you are proposing–why not a Christian?

    It also occurs to me that a book written by a Christian on mindful eating would never have even been published because Christian publishing houses would not see it as marketable. And that may be true….but sadly so.

  4. I wonder why, @ age 57, I feel more and more uneasiness about slaughtering my fellow creatures to satisfy my own appetite? Perhaps, more importantly, why am I afraid to mention that uneasiness, as if I “wimped out?” I love the taste of a well done piece of crunchy bacon, but is it no coincidence that there is absolutely nothing else good about it; no benefit other than a fleeting treat to my taste buds? Also, I wonder why what I put in my mouth has so much impact on the happiness of others; people always trying to get me to eat more, eat this, eat that…..I fear I have almost become rude in my declining of the “offers.”
    My word for 2012 is ALIGNMENT and on the occasion that I can get in touch with my own soul, I frequently find its message is not in alignment with values proposed by the external world. I think I would have been quite enamored with that monk’s idea of a good lunch; unfortunately, more so than with the idea of attending one more church pot luck. I THINK I SHOULD be at the pot luck, but my soul seems dead when I am there. I SHOULD not be learning from a buddhist monk, but his plan seems to be more in alignment with my soul. Hmmmm, better go chew on some broccoli. But, thanks again Captain Mike, for stirring the pot with some excellent questions and challenges for us. Captain Brad

  5. Michael
    I believe your premise to be correct: that we must approach reality as problem solvers. However, the architecture of our ‘religion’ unfortunately encourages working from a truth rather than a hypothesis. It is not a ‘Socratic’ conversation. I do not believe that has to be our reality. At the end of the day, everyone wants to be ‘known’ with no pre-determined outcome planned.

  6. Mike: I think one problem the church faces is it is not “new” in the marketplace of ideas. Americans are fascinated with “new” ideas. Christianity has been around since the Pilgrims in America and it is not “new” anymore whereas Buddhsim has only been around since the 60s and is virtually unknown to most americans.

    Buddhists also market a “lite” version of Buddhism which hooks people on Yoga and vegetarianism. Few people move beyond this simple version.

    What could a Christian representative offer Google employees when dealing with stress and time management? While Christians meditate and fellowship with other Christians, our solutions are not “lite” and easy. Our solutions may be more satisfying in the long run but most people haven’t got the time to pursue the spiritual disciplines needed to gain balance and fulfillment in this world.

  7. I’m still trying to figure out why being a Buddhist allowed this monk to get the job of a nutritionist. What about being a Buddhist Monk grants him nutritional authority? One can be (in fact there are many) atheist or naturalist who are successful nutritionalist – the two having nothing to do with one another. It doesn’t mean for a minute that if you are a Monk that you have great nutritional values, same for Christians… I just don’t follow the logic.

    It is true that the church got caught behind the eight ball with not understanding how to defend the most powerful characteristic of reality – metaphysics. America has only ever been responsible for producing one philosophical ideology and that is Pragmatism (Charles Sanders Pierce and William James) If the best Buddhism, “a way of life”, can do is speak about livelihood/pragmatic issues of reality and offering some sort of console, I wouldn’t change my faith for something so fickle. I believe they will even have a difficult time doing that.

    Positivism is science based and believes that social and natural sciences, data collected from sensory experience, are the exclusive source of all authentic knowledge. There is the exclusion of metaphysics. If we as Christians would like to trump this pragmatic philosophy it would seem that metaphysics should be our ace in the hole. If you want to gain worldview respect from the world, start with the real issues first, metaphysical issues that define and govern reality not the pragmatic stumbling blocks of livelihood.

    Just a thought!

  8. Here is another example of where the secular university is “eating our lunch”.

    Tanya Luhrmann has been studying Christian prayer, specifically that called “hearing God” for a number of years, focusing her attention on several Vineyard churches she has attended for her research – here near The University of Chicago while she was on the faculty here, now near where she is at Stanford.

    Her book When God Talks Back should be released this week.

    As is clear from the review in the Chronicle of Higher Ed * * and a review in Science News * she has only the category of “hallucination” to describe the experience of “hearing God”. None other currently exists in the psychology literature.

    Where are the #^!?&.. Christians in the science of psychology who should have long ago begun to develop some research programs and terms for analyzing prayer?

    Yikers, talk about a group “eating our lunch”. They have eaten our breakfast and dinner as well, and emptied the frig and pantry.

  9. Mike,

    You knocked me for a loop on the broccoli / pork comparison so I did do the research on

    280 grams of steamed broccoli has 9 grams of protein, or 3.2%.

    112 grams of lean pork has 21 grams of protein, or 18.8%.

    So if I am what I eat and when I am looking for protein…I pick pig!

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