Toward An Adventist Theology Of Health (Part 1) — On Food

Toward An Adventist Theology Of Health (Part 1) — On Food

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November 12, 2015

Expo 2015– the Universal Exposition hosted in Milan, Italy – closed few days ago on October 31, after six months and twenty million visitors from all over the world. Exhibits from 145 countries brought the best of their knowledge and technology on food production and distribution. The Japan Pavilion received the gold prize for the best exhibition. Milan Expo 2015 was held under the theme Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, and the exhibitors divided their proposals and displays under seven subthemes:

- Science for Food Safety, Security and Quality

- Innovation in the Agro Food Supply Chain

- Technology for Agriculture and Biodiversity

- Dietary Education

- Solidarity and Cooperation on Food

- Food for Better Lifestyles

- Food in the World’s Cultures and Ethnic Groups

Expo Milan 2015 now passes the baton to the next Universal Exhibition to be held in Dubai in 2020, with the motto "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future ". The discussion on the future of food will include sustainability, opportunity and mobility.

While visiting with my family what struck me about the various innovative architectural pavilions (particularly the Co-op food store of the future – a large Italian supermarket corporation) was a dual constant and implicit message. First, without technology, food production and distribution would be a total failure and insufficient to respond to the increasing demand of today’s world population. Second, in order to limit the collateral effects of industrialized food production we need to urgently re-orient our lifestyles to more organic and qualitative ways of production and consumption.

But can both aspirations coexist together? Maybe, but more certain is that behind the topic of food and these genuine aspirations hide two deeper problems: a cosmological and an anthropological one. First, food is not exclusively dietary. It is, above all, an ecological problem. In changing the traditional way of producing and consuming food we have also changed our “vision of” and our “relation to” nature. This is the cosmological question we need to ask whenever we speak today of food, from whatever perspective we are standing on. Second, to speak about food is a disguised way of speaking about us humans. In other words, in transforming food and the way of producing and distributing it, we have changed ourselves. We have deeply modified the way we understand and affirm our human identity and action. This is the anthropological question we need to ask today whenever we speak of food. To address this issue I will be speaking of a new cultural syndrome, born in Europe, adopted in the Western world as standard and from there exported and now applied planet-wide. This is what I call the Western “Control Syndrome.” This cultural syndrome has two structural components: an anthropological and an ecological one.

1.      A voracious anthropology of absolute “control on food”

The Western contemporary world, through the massively adopted industrial food production, has created an unprecedented level of food availability. This indisputable sign of success and technological progress has resolved three classical food problems that heavily conditioned the so called “subsistence economies”: scarcity, contamination and the problem of food distribution. Thanks to this incredible technological progress now millions of people and whole societies (particularly but not exclusively Western societies) have, as never before, eliminated the problem of sufficient food. And this new cultural situation of incredible food availability, on the macro-level of single countries and as a planet, has also had a tremendous and lasting impact on a micro-level. This includes us all through use of a widespread technological product known as – the refrigerator. Consequently food availability is for many of us a daily, concrete experience. We have food at hand whenever we want. But the food problem has not really disappeared, simply emigrated to another level. In fact, while in some parts of the world people are still dying of hunger and malnutrition, elsewhere others are dying for having too much food – via the continuous increase of chronic and degenerative diseases. And the problem of food goes also beyond the increase of these “progress related” diseases such as Hypertension, Diabetes, Cancer, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Fundamentally it overlaps with a paradoxical anthropological question: is food a “gift from nature” or rather a “product of our hands”? Surprisingly, the traditional food-is-a-gift paradigm has been drastically substituted into the technological food-is-a-product paradigm. And this diffused technological perspective is a model of control and, as such, gives birth  to a new anthropology –  one that rejects the subordination of humans to nature (food) and instead defends the subordination of food (nature) to humans. Industrial food production, chemical food flavors and complements, artificial fertilizers, genetic reinforcement, hybridization strategies, the supremacy of mono-cultures, transcontinental food transportation, all seasons food availability etc. – all these legal and well-accepted mechanisms and strategies – are “control mechanisms” that express and reinforce the power of humans over food. The manipulatory trend of modern Western anthropology is certainly not new. It was already present at the birth of the Industrial Revolution in the middle of the 18th century. But paradoxically this obsession with control has not diminished at all since then, but rather increased. So, to a large extent, even the holistic and nature-friendly food strategies proposed today as a solution (and visible and promoted also at the Expo 2015 Universal Milan Exposition) end up paradoxically reinforcing the same control paradigm of food typical of Western anthropology.

2.      An impoverished cosmology of a “disenchanted food”

But this “control syndrome” has a second component that is the natural consequence of this strong controlling anthropology: a subordinated and impoverished cosmology. The relation between humans and nature has never been easy. Structurally they should coexist together in a tension that is a very central aspect of life itself. Humans and nature are not completely identifiable but neither are they completely detachable. But what has happened in the Western world is unique in history. While all pre-modern and non-Western cultures, at various levels and degrees, were or are based in cosmo-centric world views, Western modern culture has overthrown this paradigm to adopt an unusual and unique anthropo-centric paradigm. This is not bad per se. The condition of tension between humans and nature is always there. But his anthropo-centric Western option that conditions us all in our identity and action has unfortunately dismantled that tension. And has done so in a paradoxical way. Because this period is also the historical period in which, as never before, nature has been observed, researched, understood and described the most. So, while we presently give the greatest interest and attention to nature itself, nature paradoxically has been more exploited and depleted in its intrinsic value than ever before. The ecological crisis is the summary of this situation. And the permanence of a strong “anthropology of control” is just the human contribution. But what does all this have to do with food?  The “anthropology of control” is a consequence of the reduction of food to a thing. Depletion of the intrinsic value of food was a necessary condition to the emergence of this manipulatory anthropology. And ironically this objectivation and reification of food has been done by modern science and technology themselves, which have the merit of providing insight into nature as never before. What formerly had been nourishment, symbol and transcendence merged together has became merely – quantity. Food reduced to only one of its traditional dimensions: the measure. This is the birth of our modern food conception. A “dis-enchanted food” which is measured only by its constituents: vitamins, proteins, lipids, carbohydrates etc., completely depleted of its other dimensions such as vitality, aesthetics, symbolism, social or religious components. And the officially stigmatized, but at the same time loved, “Junk Food” is just the radicalization of this reductive and objectifying structural trend of the whole Western culture. The more “dead” (disenchanted) the food is, the more triumphant and controlling humanity becomes. And in order to become more triumphant and controlling humanity needs to manipulate and disenchant the food even more.

But a symbolically and culturally impoverished food is incomplete. So a complementary strategy is an aesthetic intervention. We add in new and sophisticated components of food cosmetics: flavors, colors, additives, preservatives etc. to make food appear alive and beautiful from what in fact is lifeless.

How has Adventism reacted to this long cultural process that ends by excessively reinforcing human control on food on one side, and unduly impoverishing the understanding of food itself on the other?

The answer is not easy. If ever there is a religious group that has paid courageous attention to food and lifestyle it is surely Adventism. But on a deeper level, Adventism has paradoxically not corrected at all the “strong anthropology” and the “weak cosmology” of our contemporary culture but rather has reinforced them by adding a theological justification. Our voluntaristic anthropology on lifestyle issues on one hand and our pragmatic approach to food issues on the other are clear expressions of our paradoxical complicity with core presuppositions of our contemporary culture. The obsession of an absolute coherent believer always in control of all what he/she eats and the plastic and disenchanted soya-made chicken, are the Adventist metaphors of this shared Western “hypertrophic anthropology” and “impoverished cosmology”.  Through an ideological and unilateral attachment to the principle of “Sola Scriptura” and the parallel inattention or unexplainable disinterest in a serious socio-cultural analysis of its own identity, Adventism, up until now, has not pushed back against this “Control Syndrome” at the root of today's food ecological problem but has unwittingly reinforced it.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

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