“The whole of nature is a conjugation of the verb to eat.” The Anglican priest and poet William Ralph Inge got it right. Conjugate means “joined together, especially in pairs.” Eating was once paired with another action. Together, these two symbolize the deepest reality of the universe. That’s worth considering, since reality is driving young adults to a particular kind of faith community—communities that celebrate this paradoxical couplet.
From the beginning of time there’s been a “great paradox,” observes Leon Kass, a physician and biochemist at the University of Chicago.1 To sustain life, individuals eat. Yet eating necessarily destroys life. The paradox is that life is dependent on death. This couplet, death and life, is also rendered take and eat, the deepest reality of the universe.
Take and eat is daily reality we all experience. It was God’s command to Adam, take and eat. Taking was pulling plants out of the ground. It was yanking yams from the soil. It was death. Take and eat ended life to renew life. The deepest truth is that death precedes life. It’s in such daily experiences as your dinner salad. Lettuce was cut, tomatoes were picked, and onions were pulled so that you could enjoy eating a healthy salad last night. If you enjoyed a burger with that salad, cattle were slaughtered. Sustaining and renewing life is dependent on death. Eating is always coupled with taking. Taking requires separating from a life-giving source. Separation is death. That’s reality.
Take and eat also gives us the remedy for—and reason why—there are problems in the world. In Hamlet’s fine phrase, “the times are out of joint” because Adam and Eve took and ate what was not rightfully theirs. Take and eat is the remedy. In the last supper, Jesus said, “take and eat—this is my body, broken for you.” Take and eat is the central image of life in the Bible, threaded from creation (where the whole world is presented as a banquet table to Adam) to the final restoration, where Jesus invites us to “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.” Because take and eat is a daily habit yet deep reality, Jesus reveres it as divine, as sacrament. Eating isn’t merely munching.
This sounds silly in a world lacking a sacramental view of reality. Today, take is simply grabbing a steak off the grocer’s shelf. Death is something very distant from our everyday experience. Even dead cattle are labeled, “beef.” A sacramental view of reality can also sound silly in a speeded-up world. In 1948, Richard and Maurice McDonald opened their restaurants with a new idea: increase the speed of service and the volume of food sold while lowering prices. “For the first time… principles of a factory assembly line were applied to a commercial kitchen,” Eric Schlosser writes in Fast Food Nation. Take and eat was no longer sacramental and experiential, it was speed and efficiency.
Speed and efficiency are two reasons why Americans don’t think twice about what they eat. Unfortunately, it’s also why many faith communities treat communion as an end-of-the-service tack-on, noteworthy for its speed and efficiency. But this is proving to be a turn-off for younger adults looking for a deeper experience of reality.
Reality is driving young adults to liturgical churches. According to Colleen Carroll Campbell, many young people yearn for both orthodox interpretations of the Bible with the mystery and symbolism of liturgy. In The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, Campbell says young adults are especially drawn to the Eucharist, practiced as a sacrament symbolizing deep reality.
“Liturgy” can be a negative word for some folks. It can denote dead ritual. But liturgy comes from the gospel. The gospel was once considered a description of reality, how the planet rotates. In ancient times, conforming to reality was considered a wise duty, not a private choice. “Liturgy” is the Greek composite meaning originally a “public duty.” Learning the rotation of reality led to ritual that became routine, or liturgy. Liturgy is the public service and duty of the church when people learn to conform to reality.
Liturgy is specifically shaped by the ought-is-can-will gospel. It “depicts the world as it ought to be, the real world as it is believed to be.” Peter Leithart writes.2 “Christian ritual displays the world as we believe and hope it will one day be.” The sacraments are the central feature of the service (not the sermon) since take and eat is the central image of life in the Bible. Liturgy means joining the rhythms of creational reality and training “the body and soul in suitable posture and movement,” Leithart adds. Most church services are standing to sing and sitting to hear a sermon. Liturgy is standing and singing, along with kneeling, bowing, corporate recitations, chants, and responsive readings, conforming congregants to the core truth of take and eat.
It’s this deep experience of reality that seems to be proving attractive to young adults tired of “relevance” and “authenticity.” “In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake [literally] in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God,” Alexander Schmemann writes.3 God made food and “all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation.” The deepest experience is our daily experience. Take and eat is a material, mystical, and spiritual reality. It’s why the Psalmist wrote: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” The Eucharist is tasting the deepest reality and the whole of nature.
We eat in order to live. But the other half of the equation, the paradox, is that we take in order to eat to live. Death precedes life. Religion once framed this reality. Celebrating take and eat resonated with seeing take and eat day in and day out. Dr. Peter Berger of Boston University says people often intuit that their everyday experiences call for answers that lie beyond the everyday. He calls them “signals of transcendence.” This might be what is driving young adults to liturgical faith communities. These churches see take and eat as a signal. They treat it as sacrament. They offer an experience of the whole of nature—which is a conjugation of the verb to eat.
1 Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
2 Peter J. Leithart, Against Christianity (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003), p. 91.
3 Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary Press, 1973), p. 14.