Food, Part 3: The Spiritual and Ethical

Food is not only a biological necessity - it has been endowed with spiritual significance in most traditions. Perhaps this is because it is a necessity of life.

In Christianity, the core ritual, communion, is centered around food. It is a remembrance of the final meal that Jesus had with his followers. That meal itself was quite significant for them: it was the passover meal, the celebration of the freedom of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

Most spiritual traditions include some sort of blessing over the food before eating. Native American spirituality included rituals of thanksgiving and respect at the end of a hunt.

I am a panentheist. A panentheist is someone who believes that God interpenetrates every living being. God is more than that, which is why I'm not a pantheist. But I do believe that there is some of God in every creature, and that means there is some of God in every meal. I find deep spiritual meaning in the cycle of life--all of the cycle of life. I've written about it before.

People make many ethical and spiritual arguments about what they choose to eat. There are spiritual traditions that forbid some foods. For example, Hinduism and Buddhism forbid eating meat, Judaism and Islam forbid pork, shellfish and other foods.

People who don't follow a specific tradition may choose to be vegetarians because they feel that they don't want to harm animal life. Some people are vegans because not only do they not want to harm animal life - they don't want to benefit from animals in captivity. I do appreciate those arguments, and have chosen, at varied times in my life to eliminate (or greatly limit) my intake of animal protein. And I am also very aware of the ethical/political arguments about the carrying capacity of the planet - it can't possibly sustain 7 billion people who eat like Americans. But I have chosen, at this time, to eat some meat. But I want to decrease the suffering of the animals I eat as much as possible, which is why I only eat humanely-raised meat and eggs, and stay away from anything factory-farmed.

The idea that there is a food chain, and we are on top, is both true, and not true at all. If an animal eats meat, it is true that there may be one, two or more layers between the sun-fed plants (or algae) and their stomach. But the truth is, it's a cycle. The molecules entering our bodies, whether it be through breathing or food, will leave our bodies in one way or another, to be eventually part of life again.

Spiritual traditions that embrace this understanding make the most sense to me. Tibetan Buddists have Jhator, where they "bury" their dead by feeding them to vultures. Jhator is considered a final act of generosity.

Sky burials aren't legal in the US, but you can get a natural burial, where your body will become food for the myriad organisms under the soil. I think that's the least I can do for the years I've lived on other organisms.