Does God Care? Christian Liberty and Food

In a sermon clip recently posted on CanonWired.com, renowned Reformed pastor Doug Wilson asserts, “The Triune God of Scripture doesn’t care.  Bacon is fine. . . . Oysters are fine.  Refined sugar is fine.  Processed stuff made out of something that used to be like corn is fine . . . As far as God’s concerned, Fairtrade coffee is fine, rip-off trade coffee is fine . . . God doesn’t care what’s on the plate, God cares what’s in the heart.”  This might at first seem strange to anyone familiar with much of Wilson’s other teaching on theology and cultural issues, in which he is fond of saying that “theology should come out your fingertips” and insistent on applying Reformed Christianity to everything from teaching mathematics to dancing.  In fact, however, it represents but another installment in Wilson’s ongoing crusade against the ethical food movement.  My point here, however, is not so much to directly engage Wilson on this issue, but to use this clip as an opportunity to reflect on what the doctrine of adiaphora and Christian liberty really means, and how it might afford clarity for us on this vexed topic. 

The doctrine of Christian liberty is commonly invoked in many contexts to tell Christians to bug off and stop being judgmental, not to lay down Pharisaical burdens beyond what God himself requires.  And often, there is a good reason for this.  Legalism is a perennial temptation, and many sectors of evangelical and Reformed churches are heavily weighed down by it.  And yet, we must always take care that the call not to be judgmental does not become an excuse not to exercise judgment.  The fact that God does not require something does not mean we can check our consciences at the door and any choice is as good as any other.  There is no escape from the need for moral thinking.  

 

So what might it meant to say that God doesn’t care about food?  Well, in classical Protestant terminology, what Wilson is saying is that what we eat is adiaphora.  However, there are at least two different ways of parsing that.  On the one hand, we might mean that God does not require it in the sense of making it necessary to our salvation, to the state of our soul or our ability to have a relationship with him.  From God’s standpoint, all who are in Christ have Christ’s righteousness, and their foibles–even quite massive ones–do not change that fact.  Even the drunkard, the adulterer, the thief, yea, even the murderer, may enter the kingdom in heaven if they put their trust in Christ alone.  In this sense, one might say that God requires very little.  But we mustn’t push this antinomian line too far.  God doesn’t just care that we get to heaven by the skin of our teeth.  He cares that we live well, for our own sake and for the sake of his other creatures around us.  And so there are many things God wants us to do and many things he wants us not to do, if we are love ourselves, our neighbours, and our creation rightly.  Many of these things he commands or forbids in Scripture, and in this sense, God requires of us rather more than he requires.  Adiaphora, on this second perspective, are those things that God neither commands nor forbids in Scripture.  In this sense as well, we might reasonably say that “God doesn’t care” what we wear, for instance, since he tells us little or nothing on the subject in Scripture.  

And yet, we would want to be cautious about this “doesn’t care.”  Is it a neutral matter if Christian women go around dressed like sluts?  Certainly Wilson would be the first to say no, having preached and spoken repeatedly on the subject of “feminine modesty.”  Perhaps one might reply that is an unfair comparison, since Scripture does speak on this subject–women are commanded to dress modestly.  And yet this remains at the level of general principle–the Bible does not tell us when skirts are too short or jeans too tight.  But does that mean “God doesn’t care”?  The legalist seeks to compensate for God’s silence by inventing his own rules and attempting to give them the force of divine sanction.  The libertine takes God’s silence as guaranteeing divine sanction for whatever he or she chooses to do.  But the godly Christian takes this silence as a summons, a summons to exercise judgment–fallible, human judgment, but judgment nonetheless. 

The concept of an adiaphoron, you see, is really a logical abstraction, a “useful hypothetical” as Oliver O’Donovan put it to me in a recent conversation.  It means that an action, taken on its own, independent of any context, is neither morally good nor evil.  But of course, no action ever is–it is always embedded in circumstances, circumstances that call us to consider its fittingness, its lovingness, its edification.  This does not mean, of course, that it is pointless or meaningless to designate something adiaphorous.  If something is adiaphorous, this does liberate us.  It liberates our conscience from a burden of fear, since it means that if we do our best in good conscience, we’re not in sin just because we decided wrong.  It liberates us from the burden of inflexibility, since it means that we recognise our judgments are provisional, and we can respect differing conclusions that other conscientious Christians may reach.  It liberates from the burden of ultimacy, since we know that there are often much more urgent serious and urgent matters that demand our moral attention and action, and if tending to these means we neglect the lesser matters, that’s OK.  

 

But while all this should and must be said, we must not stop here.  God’s silence on “adiaphora” is an invitation to get to work–not burdened by fear, but empowered by love–and to seek what is good and acceptable and perfect.  Oftentimes love will mean submission–submission to the rules or expectations currently prevailing in church or society, submission to the scruples of a neighbour or the wishes of a spouse or pastor.  But sometimes (and quite often in our very free and un-rule-bound societies), love will mean action–studying to to learn the way of excellence and right action, prayerful attention to God’s wisdom expressed in Scripture and in teachings of the church and meditation on how to apply it, discipline to improve one’s own actions in accord with virtue, and dialogue with (or, if in a position of authority, teach) others to persuade them to share the same concerns and take the same actions (with a charitable willingness to accept their disagreement).  And, rightly qualified, God does care that we do this, and do it well. 

We apply this already in so many areas of life that are adiaphorous–lacking any direct or specific divine guidance–how to vote in local elections, what films to watch or avoid watching, how to pursue romantic relationships in a godly way, etc.  Can we not do the same with food?  

 

(As this post is in many ways prolegomenal to the issue of food ethics per se, I don’t want to go into any great depth here, but merely to sketch the contours of an answer.)  Clearly, the answer seems to be yes.  All three levels of horizontal Christian love apply–love of ourselves, love of others, and love for the creation.  God does desire us to love ourselves–to be concerned with our well-being, that we may enjoy him and serve him and others effectively.  Obviously, what we eat is absolutely central to our well-being.  If we eat foolishly and destroy our bodies, or weaken them so that we have to spend thousands of dollars on medical care for chronic and easily preventable conditions, we are exercising extremely poor stewardship, harming ourselves and indirectly others.  So, to this extent, while surely even the worst foods are essentially harmless in sufficiently small quantities, we can say that in general, God does care (in our carefully qualified sense) if we eat too much bacon or refined sugar or “processed stuff made out of something that used to be like corn.”  

God desires us to love others–to work for their physical and spiritual well-being, and to be mindful of the ways in which our actions directly or indirectly help or harm them.  Obviously this means, in the case of food, that we should care not only that we don’t destroy our own bodies with foolish eating, but that, as much as reasonably possible (mindful of the thousands of taxing duties that parents have, and their very human limits) we protect our children from it as well.  Beyond this, though, it also means cultivating a concern for those involved in making our food and getting it to us–do our purchases enrich the lives of producers or degrade them?  If we have an option of buying a product that will directly support the livelihood of a local farmer, versus buying a product that will undermine the livelihoods of ordinary farmers and simply line the pockets of a food processing corporation, all other things being equal, perhaps we should buy the former.  To this extent, we can say that in general, God does care (in our carefully qualified sense) if we buy fair-trade coffee or rip-off-trade coffee.

God desires us to love the world that he has made–to live in harmony with it and enrich it by our presence in it, rather than degrading it.  He desires us to discern the relationships that he created it to have, and to seek to strengthen and encourage those relationships, instead of destroying and inverting them.  He desires us to have regard for the lives of our beasts–to treat the animal creation as something that exists not merely to serve our whims, but to enjoy its own place within the world.  Obviously, when it comes to food, we are having to devour part of this creation–plant and animal–in order to nourish ourselves, and that’s perfectly appropriate.  But we can do this in a way that honours and preserves that creation, or a way that degrades and destroys it.  Anyone remotely familiar with much of modern industrialised agriculture will recognise that it does a great deal of the latter, often in ways that are downright sickening (literally and figuratively).  All other things being equal, we ought to seek to avoid supporting the production of such foods.  To this extent, we can say that in general, God does care (in our carefully qualified sense) about the bacon we buy and even about that processed corn stuff as well.

 

Now, again, this is not an invitation to legalism, guilt, or strife.  The insertion of the “all other things being equal” qualifier is essential, in reminding us that these moral responsibilities are not absolute, but exist in relation to a host of circumstances–our own limits of time, money, and energy, existing economic relationships that are highly complex, with the ability to transmit unintended consequences all over the globe, or the weak consciences of neighbours that might easily fall into legalism.  And of course, it’s not as if any of us have the knowledge to consider all these factors adequately, so if we do our best with limited knowledge, God smiles on that.  And even if we don’t, we can remember that in an ultimate sense, God doesn’t care–he will not arraign us on judgement day and condemn us for gluttonously indulging in refined sugar or refusing to shell out the extra dollars on free range chicken.  At most, he will gently chide us, let us look down sheepishly for a moment, and then comfort us with a “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  So no point in being paralysed with fear.  But he does want us to live excellently, and shouldn’t we want to as well?  So no point in remaining paralysed by apathy either.



Some Natural Law Goodies

I’m finally back and ready to start revving up my blogging engines for a summer full of many words, tags, and comments; but if I may be excused for the moment in indulging in what may look like another cop-out, I’ll use this post to point to some other interesting blog-posts that have just been written, which offer a good sketch of what the attempt to recover of a Reformational natural-law concept looks like, and suggest that Moscow, despite undeniable tensions and ambiguities, might not be too far off from it after all.  

See first Peter Leithart’s post, “Augustine and Saeculum.

Then see a thoughtful interaction by Steven Wedgeworth, “Secular? Private? It All Depends What You Mean” (valuable especially for the comments section, where Wedgeworth seeks to clarify the traditional idea of natural law in defence against the knee-jerk antipathy to it that many of us have inherited).

And then Doug Wilson offers a helpful take on the idea of natural law with his typical gift for down-to-earth illustrations: “Natural Law and the Brownies.”

 

I hope to offer my own take on all of this at some point soon (or this summer at any rate), so consider this for now just a bookmark.  


Doug Wilson on the Eighth Commandment

Any regular reader of Doug Wilson’s Blog and Mablog may have been surprised, yea, dismayed to read my recent post “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” not unreasonably (given some interactions with Wilson on the previous incarnation of this blog)  imagining it to be a direct attack on Wilson’s post earlier this month, “Football Players or Pirates.”  As it turns out, I just stumbled upon that post today, and can thus assure you that Wilson was in no way the target of my post, despite the remarkable parallels in what was discussed.  I have always thought that attacking someone publicly without naming them was rather worse than doing it openly, so that is certainly not what I was up to.  However, since some may have already noticed it, since the contradiction between our conclusions is quite striking, and since it affords me a good opportunity for reiterating the significant and relevant parts of my earlier post, I might as well interact explicitly with his post now.

Wilson starts off by insisting that this is all quite simple and straightforward: “I don’t believe in complicating economic discussion more than is necessary,” and then turns right to the eighth commandment as his prooftext: “The Bible requires some form of capitalist society in the basic commandment, ‘Thou shalt not steal.'” This command, he asserts, is enough to show that private property is divinely mandated: “This command presupposes the institution of private ownership — private property as a divine institution — and sets up a fundamental protection against assaults on the right to own property.”  And then, remarkably enough, he goes on to fortify the case by drawing on the same analogy I did–the seventh commandment: “It does this in just the same way that the prohibition of adultery presupposes the institution of marriage. If marriage is just a “social construct” that our laws can redefine or abolish, then the same goes for adultery.” 

Now, Wilson is not undertaking a detailed exegesis here, so perhaps it would be unfair to criticize him for being simplistic, but as he starts out by suggesting that it really is just that simple, it is worth reiterating why I just don’t think it is.  First, a “private property” regime and “a capitalist society” are simply not the same thing.  Believe it or not, most people who rail against capitalism till they’re blue in the face are not, on the whole, opposed to private property.  In fact, those who could justly claim to be the most adamant anti-capitalists–the distributists–rail against it on the very basis that it is too hostile to private property.  All kinds of private property arrangements have existed long before what we know as capitalism emerged, and the conception of private property that capitalism advocates is far from the only possible conception.  Second, it still seems clear to me, that all that the eighth commandment, taken on its own, could prove is that it is wrong to violate the prevailing property rules, not that these must be private property rules.  Third (as a corollary of the second point), while certainly appearing to permit and safeguard a private property arrangement, it does not seem at all evident that this commandment mandates one, as a “divine institution”–a phrase that is rather too rashly thrown around in political theology and ethics.  Fourth, even if it did mandate a private property system, I am convinced by Jeremy Waldron’s argument that there are a variety of possible conceptions of that system.  This being the case, it does not follow that the eighth commandment “sets up a fundamental protection against assaults on the right to own property”–since by this Wilson means, I take it, not an individual’s taking it upon himself to take another’s property, but a society’s attempt to place certain constraints on property rights in general.  In fact, as I never tire of pointing out, subsequent chapters in Exodus go on to make what our society would consider fairly radical “assaults on the right to own property.”  

The comparison to marriage, rather than strengthening the point, actually raises a further set of problems.  First, it highlights why we can’t equate property as a “divine institution” with marriage as a “divine institution,” for the seventh commandment rests on an explicit divine act of institution that has no parallel in the case of the eighth.  Genesis 2:21-24 provides about as clear-cut a “divine institution” as one could ask for, giving us a pretty straightforward answer to anyone who would claim that marriage was only a “social construct.”  But if the first discussion of the subject we had was the seventh commandment, then I don’t know that we could be sure it wasn’t just a social construct.  Perhaps in that case, all that the adultery commandment would mean was that, given that you live in a society that observes marriage boundaries, you shouldn’t trespass willy-nilly on those boundaries.  And this is where we are left with the eighth commandment.  There simply is no Genesis passage that says,

“And God saw that it was not good for man to be propertyless.  So he took Adam to a plot of land, and mixed his labor with the soil, and presented the plot to Adam.  And Adam said, ‘Sweat of my brow and labor of my hands!  You shall be called “Adamsland” for you came out of Adam’s labor.’  Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and seek his fortune in the world, and it shall be his private property.”  

Second, the example of marriage actually proves the role of social construction.  For, as I mentioned in my previous post, the particularly understanding of what marriage involved, and the accompanying rights and boundaries, were dramatically different in Moses’ Israel than they are for us today.  Presumably, even assuming that some kind of property regime, even private property regime, were a “divine institution,” we could expect equally dramatic variation in its particular form.  Third, the analogy with marriage might well be taken as evidence of the optional-ness of private property.  After all, the logical corollary of “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is not “Thou shalt get married.”  Singleness is a perfectly appropriate option.  So is propertylessness.  Based on Wilson’s analogy, it would seem that at the very least, a Christian society should have as much room for mendicants as it has for celibates.  Of course, it is perhaps then no coincidence that in American evangelicalism, the one ideal is mocked and marginalized almost as much as the other.  

Perhaps all this may come across as “complicating economic discussion more than necessary,” but unfortunately in this case, such complication seems the only way to handle the text with integrity.