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.’