Thursday, January 31, 2008
Looking for an ancient godly gourmand[e]
In the Hebrew Bible, the material creation is good.
According to ancient Hebrew stories, God made a world, "saw all that he had made, and found it very good" (Genesis 1:31). He made plants that were beautiful as well as delicious (2:9) and gave them to the first humans as food. He created love and sex: "The Lord God said, "It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him" (2:18). He told the primal pair to enjoy each other: "Be fertile and increase" (1. 29). And Adam's lyrical response to Eve (2:23) leaves no doubt about his attitude: "This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh."
In the earliest Christian tradition, God became part of the good material creation.
When the good world was broken, according to ancient Christian stories, the God who created the world came up with a way to re-create it. The creative Word "became flesh and lived among us." Jesus, said the creeds, was "true God," "one in Being with the Father." He also "became man," a man who turned water into wine--gallons of it--so a wedding feast could continue, a man whose enemies called him "a glutton and a drunkard" (Matthew 11:19).
The ancient Hebrews, like today's Jews, had a healthy attitude about bodily pleasures. The ancient Christians went one better--their God became a human being and earned a reputation as one who appreciated a good party. So here's my question--
Why did so many Christians quickly switch from enjoyment and thanksgiving to abstemiousness and guilt? Why did some early monastics think they were honoring the Creator when they shunned the company of others and gave up most food, all sex, and even clothing and shelter? Why did a great saint, Jerome, write, "I praise wedlock, I praise marriage; but it is because they produce virgins"? Why did a greater saint, Augustine, believe he had to be "continent," that is, to give up marriage and sex, in order to follow Christ? Why are there so few married people on the list of Catholic saints, even post-Vatican II saints?
I'm looking for an early Christian writer who praises creation, affirms marriage, revels in beauty, delights in good food, and gives thanks to God--without adding, even in small print, that forsaking all these things is even more admirable than enjoying them.