Food and Teleology (Nominalism IV)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

The above poem is a masterful example of the way English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) was able to write poetry which sounds like the things he is describing. (This is especially true if the poem is read out loud and properly accented.). In the poem Hopkins explored how each thing behaves according the nature it was given by God. Dwelling ‘indoors’ of each mortal thing is its essence that gives the thing an identity distinguished from other things.

The notion that there is a natural ordering to the stuff of our world has been the theme of this present series of Changepoint articles on nominalism vs. realism. In a previous article I explored the implication that the debate between realism and nominalism has for our understanding of human sexuality. In this article I would like to extend the discussion into the area of food.

Nominalism and Food

Since food is something that has always interested me, I wrote a series of articles last year about the theology of healthy eating. Although I was careful to frame my discussion in terms of wisdom, cultural reformation and aesthetics, predictably I had friends who interpreted my articles as a call for culinary Phariseeism, or who thought I was saying that being unhealthy is sinful. It reminded me of another conversation I once had where I had been arguing that diatonic music best reflects the nature of the Trinitarian God, and a friend thought I was saying that listening to pentatonic music must therefore be sinful.

Those two interchanges alerted me to an important point, which is that many Christians do not even have the categories to address questions about the right-ordering of nature independent to questions of sin. Because we are legalists at heart, we are quick to reduce everything to a moral issue before we know how to think about it. However, consider a question that a friend of mine will often bring up to his students. Is it sinful to put a cow in a chicken coup? Well, no. But is wise? Is it rightly ordered? Is it respecting the nature and inherent telos of a cow? No, no and no. God did not create cows to do chicken-type things, just as He did not create chickens to do the types of things that bees do.

You see, there is a whole realm inquiry that is prior to questions of sin, namely questions about what is most fitting according to the nature of a thing. To understand the nature of a thing, we must appreciate what is the end, or telos for which it was created, and then respect that end unless it interferes with the telos of something more important.

One of the reasons why it is hard for Christians to embrace a theology of food is because our nominalist presuppositions rob us of the categories with which to meaningfully talk about the telos of a thing (whether it be an animal or a human being), independent to questions about right and wrong. Thus, the only objective criteria many Christians recognize for making decisions in the area of food is sin-avoidance, and since sin is not a category that applies to food in the New Testament era, it is assumed that the only criteria we should recognize is personal subjective choice.

However, both producers and consumers of food would benefit from a strong dose of realist metaphysics. According to the right ordering of our nature as human beings, is it more fitting to eat stuff that was grown in the ground or produced in a laboratory? According to the right ordering of a cow, is it more fitting for a farmer to feed his cows grass or recycled animal products? According to the right ordering of a chicken, is it more fitting to treat them like bees and cram tens of thousands of them together in a barn?

Deferring to Nature

Farmers who wish to respect the natural order will defer to this inbuilt ordering wherever possible. They will not treat their chickens like bees just as they will not treat their bees like chickens. As the Christian farmer Joel Salatin has put it, we must respect the chicken-ness of the chicken, the cow-ness of the cow, the pig-ness of the pig, etc. Consumers who wish to respect the natural order of the world will attempt to factor in these considerations to their purchasing choices.

None of this means we are sinning to purchase factory farmed poultry or eggs, because these considerations are on a whole different plane than question of sin. Instead, it is about exercising wisdom in respecting nature and submitting to how the bodies of humans and animals were designed to operate. However, this is nonsense for nominalists, who do not even recognize that things have distinct natures.

For the nominalist, nature becomes what it is by virtue of the categories imposed on it from without. There is therefore no intrinsic teleology to food, and if someday scientists could make beef burgers out of petroleum which taste exactly the same, that would be just as fitting as making burgers from beef. This is actually a state of affairs that Douglas Wilson longs to see as a result of the gospel advancing throughout the earth. (See my article, Jesus and Junk Food: A Response to Douglas Wilson.’) After all (thinks the nominalist) what is food other than the arrangement and re-arrangement of chemicals and organic compounds which are infinitely malleable?

Recovering Right-Ordered Patterns

Nominalism has deep affinities with the postmodern moment, in which it is increasingly assumed that the essence of our nature is the freedom to redefine ourselves, and that the only fixity of our world is its potential for endless adaptability. However, reality is not infinitely malleable but exists in fixed forms and patterns. If we do violence to those patterns, we end up destroying ourselves and our world in either a spiritual or a physical sense, if not both.

Some of these fixed patterns, such as those which underlie Biblical sexual ethics, are necessarily rooted in God’s eternal character and therefore could not be different to what they are. Other patterns, such as those which make certain foods objectively better than others, emerge contingently from the imaginative way God chose to create the world. In both cases, however, there is a natural order rooted in the inherent telos of things.

As food and health have been increasingly abstracted from teleology, the result is that health has become a matter of negation in popular discourse. It is associated with what we can’t do, with the prohibitions, dieting and legalism. This has shifted the emphasis of health away from its more historical context as wholeness. As Wendell Berry pointed out in a section of his book The Unsettling at America: Culture and Agriculture,

“The concept of health is rooted in the concept of wholeness. To be healthy is to be whole. The word health belongs to a family of words, a listing of which will suggest how far the consideration of health must carry us: heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy. And so it is possible to give a definition to health that is positive and far more elaborate than that given to it by most medical doctors and the officers of public health. . . .”

Of course, the concept of wholeness presupposes that there are fixed goals towards which our bodies may strive—goals rooted in the right ordering of nature. As simple as this seems, it is a point I have had to debate more than once when having discussions with Christians who were uncomfortable operating within teleological categories. When we consider the pervasive influence of nominalism, however, this discomfort should come as no surprise. For a nominalist, the natural order of creation, as represented in the biological realities of our experience as embodied beings, counts for very little. Reality becomes infinitely malleable, and we are left without the categories to assert that wholesome eating habits, like wholesome farming habits, should even be normative. More devastatingly, however, we cannot even understand man’s place in the universe. This was impressed upon me in 2009 when my friend Brad Littlejohn shared a quotation from Oliver O’Donovan’s book Resurrection and Moral Order. O’Donovan explains how the nominalist abstraction from teleology creates dangerous misunderstandings about man’s place in the world. Since O’Donovan explains things much more eloquently than I ever could, I will end with his wonderful words:

Abstraction from teleology creates a dangerous misunderstanding of the place of man in the universe. For it supposes that the observing mind encounters an inert creation–not, that is, a creation without movement, but a creation without a point to its movement. Thus the mind credits to its own conceptual creativity that teleological order which is, despite everything, necessary to life. All ordering becomes deliberative ordering, and scientific observation, failing as it does to report the given teleological order within nature, becomes the servant of techne. Of course, man continues to eat vegetables; but he no longer knows that he does so because vegetables are food, and comes to imagine that he has devised a use for them as food. And so he looks for other uses for them, which will seem to him to have as much validity as that one which was, if he could only have remembered it, given in nature. That vegetables exist as food for other animals than himself will not impress him–unless, of course, the continued existence of other animals too falls within his deliberative purposes for the world, in which case both vegetation and animal life will continue to hold their value as a feoff from himself. Thus arises the irony of our own days, in which the very protection of nature has to be argued in terms of man’s ‘interest’ in preserving his ‘environment’. Such a philosophy offers no stable protection against the exploitation of nature by man, since he can discern nothing in the relations of things to command his respect. And, of course, this unprincipled domination must extend itself to include his own psychosomatic nature, all that is not itself the devising mind, so that humanity itself dissolves in the polarization of the technological will and its raw material. Man’s monarchy over nature can be healthy only if he recognizes it as something itself given in the nature of things, and therefore limited by the nature of things. For if it were true that he imposed his rule upon nature from without, then there would be no limit to it. It would have been from the beginning a crude struggle to stamp an inert and formless nature with the insignia of his will. Such has been the philosophy bred by a scientism liberated from the discipline of Christian metaphysics. It is not what the Psalmist meant by the dominion of man, which was a worshipping and respectful sovereignty, a glad responsibility for the natural order which he both discerned and loved.

For further insight into this topic read Robin’s earlier articles in this series on nominalism. Also consider purchasing Oliver O’Donovan’s book Resurrection and Moral Order from our online store. Finally, be sure to check out Robin’s series of articles ‘A Theology of Health.’

Fiction and the Christian Faith

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

My dad, Michael Phillips, is a Christian novelist, so as I was growing up fiction played an important role in our lives. His career began by editing the novels of George MacDonald before he branched out to begin writing his own novels.

Though my father was a good story-teller, he never intended to just tell stories as an end in itself. Rather, he sought to use his fiction ministry to draw people closer to God the Father, and to spur believers on to a life of more faithful obedience to the commands of scripture.

Growing up it was sometimes interesting to hear people object to my father’s writing ministry. “Why not just tell the truth plainly, instead of putting it into stories?” I would sometimes hear people say. Other times I would sometime people say something like this: “If I wanted to learn more about the Lord, a novel would be the last book I would pick up. Why not go straight to the Bible or to works of theology?”

Fiction: A Clever Lie?

In its more extreme manifestation, this prejudice against fiction expresses itself in the idea that works of fantasy are little more than clever lying. The Christian evangelist Charles Finney seemed to hold this idea because he once dismissed both Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott as nothing more than “a host of triflers and blasphemers of God.”

The same idea was expressed earlier this year by someone interacting with the ministry of Zondervan publishing. “Fiction is wrong because it’s not true” the person said. “As Christians we should hold fast to the truth and not saturate our minds with falsehoods regardless of what ‘good’ they seem to bring about.”

The Christian Case for Fiction

There are many things we could say in response to this prejudice against fiction. We could point to the example of our blessed Lord, who constantly told stories to illustrate important spiritual truths. Or we might draw attention to the fact that the Bible’s definition of truth is far larger than mere factual accuracy, and so a novel can convey truth even if it deals with characters and situations that are purely imaginary. We might also point out that this prejudice against the novel often arises as a symptom of an unbiblical rationalism—a rationalism that fails to come to terms with the importance scripture attaches to the imagination.

While all the above points are crucial for developing a Biblical defense of fiction, I wish to share a more subtle and often overlooked reason why fiction is important, even crucial, for our sanctification as men and women of God. In developing my argument, I will be drawing on the incredible insights of screenwriter and film critic Barbara Nicolosi, editor of Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture.

Living Through Someone Else’s Experiences

In a fascinating interview with Barbara Nicolosi, titled ‘What’s the Story? – Today’s Filmakers Don’t Know the First Thing About Decent Narratives’, Nicolosi observed that it is through experience that we gain wisdom. But, she went on to point out, wisdom is the sum of way too many experiences for any one person to fit into his or her lifetime. Moreover, some of the experiences which lead to wisdom are devastating for the person who goes through them, and therefore these are experiences that none of us would wish to have.

Nicolosi then went on to point out that one of the important functions of story is that it allows us to vicariously participate in experiences that are not our own, and to gain wisdom as a result. A great story—whether in a novel or a movie—takes us on a journey. If the creator has done a skillful job, the journey becomes our journey, and we feel like we are really there. In the case of a good film, it can engage the emotions so skillfully that we actually have the same visceral response as we would if the events on the screen were actually happening. Our body actually experiences the physical symptoms associated with awe, terror, sadness, suspense, joy, confusion, etc. The physical response means that we have entered into the story and, on one important level, it is happening to us.

I’m not talking about shallow stories that simply manipulate our emotions, but stories that move us because the journey they take us on is so vivid that it feels like we’re really there. In the process of making the journey with the characters in the movie or book, we are able to grow in wisdom, in a way similar to what would happen if we were really having those experiences. Through story we can participate in the same experiential value that we would have if we lived those experiences ourselves.

 Experience and Wisdom

Think for a moment about the experiences in your own life that have helped you grow in wisdom, to become a richer, deeper, more complex and well-rounded person. If you are like most people, the experiences that lead to this type of growth are those which force you to wrestle with things over sustained periods of time. Wisdom only comes to those who are prepared to grapple with the pain, confusions, mysteries and ambiguities of being human and living in this type of a world. A day is all it takes to be taught the knowledge of the truth; but to grow in wisdom we must grapple with the truth over long periods of time. Often this is a process that we may not even be aware of, as we brood (often unconsciously) over the things that have happened to us and our friends.

The type of wisdom we gain from story likewise arises from grappling with the complexities and ambiguities of experience, but in this case experiences we have shared with fictional characters. Good fiction (whether a novel or film) draws you into the paradoxes that underlie the story, so that even when it is finished the story continues to haunt you, forcing you to brood over it. I have in mind some of the stories of Flannery O’connor right now, which I always read whenever I travel. These stories are filled with haunting moments that work on the reader long after you have put down the book. Another example would be The Godfather films. I watched these films about six years ago but I am still brooding over the paradoxes of Michael Corleone. What was it that changed Michael from being a nice guy who wanted to live the normal American life, to a murderous lonely gangster?

Another way to make the same point would be to say that the value of good fiction (whether in a novel or a film) isn’t that it teaches you a lesson, at least not in the straight-forward and didactic sense that we would expect from a fable. This is where so many of the recent “Christian films” miss the point completely. Many of these films take cheap short-cuts and simply spoon-feed a quick lesson to the viewer instead of doing the far more difficult (but ultimately, more rewarding and long-lasting) work of taking us on a journey that the viewer then has to come to terms with for himself. Now to be sure there is always some kind of a lesson or logos in every story, but in a good story it is diffused throughout it rather like a lump of sugar that has dissolved throughout the entire cup of tea.

One movie I have in mind which does a masterful job at this is The Lives of Others. In this movie you see the characters change and mature, but it is not always clear how and why, and because of this the story continues to haunt you long after you have watched it.

Another movie that does this very effectively is the 1998 film Les Misérables. There is a powerful scene at the end when the police officer Javert kills himself to save his long-time nemesis. The scene is so unexpected, shocking and disconcerting that it forces the viewer again and again to ask, “Why?” Eventually it hits you: it is because of the mercy that Jean Valjean showed to his enemy.

To sum, a truly great story sets the narrative up in a way that forces us to grapple with the paradoxes, ambiguities, complexities and poetry of life because the journey of the characters becomes your journey. In so doing, the story simulates the type of lived experiences that, in real life, can change us and work wisdom within our hearts.

Enriching Our Experience Outside the Book

Great artists and authors have always understood these important truths. But now scientists are also coming to appreciate the incredible power that fiction has for simulating experiences that are not our own. I’d like to close by sharing a quotation from Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, about some of the recent discoveries of the power of fiction. The research relates specifically to novels, but the same facts also apply to other mediums of fiction such as film:

“In one fascinating study, conducted at Washington University’s Dynamic Cognition Laboratory and published in the journal Psychological Science in 2009, researchers used brain scans to examine what happens inside people’s heads as they read fiction. They found that ‘readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences.’ The brain regions that are activated often ‘mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.’ Deep reading, says the study’s lead researcher, Nicole Speer, ‘is by no means a passive exercise.’ The reader becomes the book.

The bond between a book reader and book writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiring new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies. …writing and reading of books enhanced and refined people’s experience of life and of nature. ‘The remarkable virtuosity displayed by new literary artists who managed to counterfeit taste, touch, smell, or sound in mere words required a heightened awareness and closer observation of sensory experience that was passed on in turn to the reader,’ writes Eisenstein. Like painters and composers, writers were able ‘to alter perception’ in a way ‘that enriched rather than stunted sensuous response to external stimuli, expanded rather than contracted sympathetic response to the varieties of human experience.’ The words in books didn’t just strengthen people’s ability to think abstractly; they enriched people’s experience of the physical world, the world outside the book.”

Personal Challenge: The next time you hear someone say that fiction has zero spiritual value, be prepared to answer them with the insights in this article. Also, take some time to reflect on the books and films that have most deeply affected you. What was it about them that moved you?