The Other Half of Eating

Michael Metzger

“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.


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  1. Mike, Been too busy to read much or write, but this was a delight. As a “hospitality specialist” I think Kass’s book is the best ever written on the topic you’re addressing. Where I used to live, my ecclectic Baptist church in Amherst MA thrived on “college lunch” after the service. No one can conceive of “church” without it – and yet it happens after the service! Where I go now, “coffee hour” is such a mainstay I think there’d be a church split if it was edited in any way. If the worship service isn’t conjugal, we humans will find a way to “make it so” one way or another. That reminds me: I couldn’t hold a student Bible study on campus without a snack of food and drink and expect success. And my favorite memories of Campus Crusade weekly meetings were of Guinness & cigars afterwards.

    “Communion happens” in all shapes & sizes…

  2. Mike, nice piece, as usual. However, I’m interested in one step further in this discussion on eating. Those I know who struggle most with eating too much (including the wrong things) would agree with this commentary too. Often, the reason they eat the way they do is because of the community interaction. One person I know finds it much easier to be appropriately disciplined in eating when alone than when they are with others. This piece doesn’t quite get down to the place where they live. They completely agree with the need to take good care of God’s temple, their bodies, yet they apparently don’t have the right perspective to make that possible. I really think it is a matter of perspective and not just learning to do a better job of saying “no” when they should. How do you suggest addressing them in this area?

  3. Hi Mark:

    As you rightly note, our whole eating culture is vast. Real vast. In this piece, I am narrowing the focus to faith communities, not thinking so much about the wider world per se. That’s grist of another ten thousand mills! My point is that (perhaps) salvation might start in the faith community, where few of my friends see any integral connection between chowing down on Sunday afternoon and Sunday morning communion. Communion is such an afterthought that we cannot comprehend a connection between our most common activity (after breathing) and some sort of deeper reality in the cosmos. Part of the problem is a general disdain for liturgy, wrongly assuming it’s tired traditionalism. Bad example makes bad law. Younger people are weary of Baby Boomer tendencies to be too cute by a half or our fixation on being relevant and up-to-date. They want reality. The church ought to have it in spades.

    Changing from a fast food to a slow food culture will have to be considered another day.

  4. Hi, Mike,

    Thanks for helping me place the context of your piece. It does what you intended well, and I applaud your continuing efforts to bring highlight the ways our faith is relevant daily life.

    To partially address my own question (and perhaps plant seeds for further commentary on this subject), I do see that those who eat the way they ought to find that they struggle least with the whole area of eating. I’ve heard the argument that some people don’t struggle with unhealthy eating simply because they are not tempted in the same way that those who struggle with it more. That may be partially true. However, I tend to ascribe to the view that those who make good choices and benefit from the results of those choices find it easier to avoid the wrong choices. Temptations lesson as they are conquered and good habits help use avoid them. If we live as we ought to, we find the most freedom.

    Those who tend to eat in ways that are unhealthy find it a constant battle to avoid the wrong eating choices. I see that mostly as a result of the fact that they are not completely committed to the decision to eat properly. They are torn between what they know to be right and what their flesh desires. Just like proper choices form good habits to help use avoid temptation, poor choices tend to form bad habits that make it even harder to avoid the temptations. Worst of all for those fighting more on the losing side, they are constantly bothered by the negative consequences of their poor choices. It’s no wonder that it takes a crisis for most people to find a way to permanently change tracks.

    Success breeds success and failure breeds failure.

    Enough of my contemplations for now. I look forward to further input on this subject. Thanks again.

  5. In being 28 years of age, I guess I ought to offer my opinion, although my education, experience, and insight are vastly less manicured than the rest of the commentators.

    I think one of the reasons that my generation seeks liturgical services is to avoid what this article avoided today: the death and resurrection of Christ, and its implications on my life. Religious Christians seem to always be in the pursuit to create worship experiences, spiritual settings, and personal philosophies that bring us close enough to Christ gain something for ourselves, but not close enough to actually allow him to change us. And this is what many, not all, modern liturgies offer.

    For those who doubt or disagree with this point as it relates to the blog’s missing content, let us examine the theme of the comments from today’s post: behavior modification for personal gain, rather than heart transformation for God’s. Is it concerning that we are thankful to food and drink from keeping our churches from splitting or our our belief that settings affect our obesity more than our idols and excessive desires?

    It seems clear to me that the “take and eat” pattern (thank you Mike for raising my eyes to see this theme from the garden all the way through to Revelation) is most powerfully embodied in the work of Christ, especially his death and resurrection. Mike, you have so clearly asserted in the past, often these are just facts, so to infuse them into our imagination requires that we understand that we all must both rely upon, and participate in, Christ’s death and resurrection. Unfortunately, the attraction of young people to liturgy, is to merely RECOGNIZE this through communion and let the mysticism warm our emotions. Liturgical AND “end-of-service-tack-on” styles both have a great propensity to diminish Christ’s work because our idols are not confronted, our brokenness is not directly identified, our hearts are not pierced, we practice no confession to one another, we pray not for one another, and we fail to understand the depths of our disengagement with God in order to be restored to a new creature. Without these, we are just seeking to live a new life, without dying any death. If you doubt this, ask a younger generation Christian about what angers them most or what breaks their heart the most. If they respond with poverty, AIDS, injustice, and starvation at the top of their list you’ll better understand the hypothesis. And this, is just another example of the uncoupling of death and life, take and eat. We want to enjoy the benefits of eating, without experiencing the consequences of taking.

    Thank you Mike for indicating our need to couple take and eat, death and life. I just hope I can die to and with Christ, before I expect to live with and for him.

  6. As a college student, I can personally attest to seeing a hunger for a “deeper experience of reality” in many people my age.

    We are far more drawn to churches that help connect the gospel to all of life than a Sunday morning moralistic pat on the back.

  7. Transcendence is not an experience, he is a person.

    We seek transcendent experience, when we should be seeking a relationship with the transcendent one.

    This is the only way we will ever experience transcendence.

  8. Thanks for your work on this, Mike—helpfully thought-provoking. I was especially drawn to these items: “a sacramental view of reality,” Hamlet’s fine phrase, and the value of liturgy (I realize that Shakespeare’s little contribution should probably not weigh in equally with the other items in terms of importance—it’s just a good line.) Beyond what you have written here, what this piece made me ponder was this question that I’ve wondered about before: In the ideal state of things (the “ought” and “will” in your framework), was there/will there be anything besides a herbivore? In the descriptions that I read of the “ought” there is only discussion of what I would call a green-plant food cycle with a sort of ideal balance, not unlike the rain cycle that we know now. In the descriptions that I read of the “will,” we see symbols of the carnivorous food chain apparently in a truce (the lion lays down with the lamb). I’ve not been a vegetarian, but I do wonder about this, especially when pondering ideals.

    Thanks again, Mike.


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