Sin and Food

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SIN AND FOOD. "Rich as Sin," "My Sin," "Sin Pie"all are recipe names found in community (and church!) cookbooks in the United States today. Initially these may entice the prospective cook or eater with the implied promise of an exceptionally delicious indulgence, so delicious in fact, that it ought to be too good for humans. Behind these sweet temptations, however, is a somber history. Because these foods are too sweet, too rich, too good, humans who eat them go too far. People have long associated food with sin. Although a complex concept that varies throughout human cultures, sin is at its most basic a violation of the boundary between the sacred and the profane. In most religious traditions, food, literally and symbolically, is a vehicle for transgressing limits. As an ancient Babylonian psalmist confessed, "The food that belongs to god, I have eaten." This is one side of a powerful paradox. Food has divine origins as other recipes for "Heavenly Hash," "Angel Food," and quite literally, "Ambrosia" (food of the gods) attest. It is the means by which life is sustained and through which mortals may commune with the divine and each other. To take food in ways that violate divine intentions, however, can have grave consequences.

In early religions, sin is usually an offense against the cosmic order of things rather than personal disobedience of a god's command. It is the violation of a prohibition, or taboo, that leads to defilement. To be in right relationship with the cosmos is to be pure or in one's appropriate state vis-à-vis the cosmos. Religions often have rules about food consumption and preparation that symbolize order on many levels. The Hua of Papua New Guinea, for example, have a complex system of food-related taboos. One should not eat the food of another with whom conflict may exist, as the vital essence transferred in eating may have negative affects. Pregnant women should not eat hard yams lest they induce a hard labor. Young men must avoid foods prepared in certain ways by menstruating women lest they be weakened by them. In each case, the idea of ordered relationships that perpetuate life is reinforced.

The major Eastern traditions, Hinduism and Buddhism, also conceptualize transgression as a violation of order or karma. In the Hindu caste system, offenses are relative to one's assigned station in life. A Brahman of the highest caste can be rendered impure by eating food touched by a lower caste Hindu. Even Brahman women render food impure if they touch it during menstruation, a time of ritual impurity. Among the major offenses in Hinduism are two general food-related ones. Killing or eating a cow, which is sacred, is forbidden. Drinking intoxicants is also forbidden because it arouses human sensibilities to levels for which they are not intended. Violating either of these proscriptions will lead to a lower state of existence in the next life. In Buddhism, one of the three roots of evil is lobha, which has a range of meanings including "craving." Craving foods, being attached to this existence through them, affects one's karma negatively. Eating must be done dispassionately lest it lead one out of the bounds of discipline. Conversely, the disciplined consumption of rice and tea have become means to enlightenment in some Buddhist traditions. Some gurus have advanced to such a high spiritual state that they are able to go without eating for long periods, having lost the need for feeding. In their perfectly balanced existence, they are self-replenishing.

Western religious traditions have defined sin primarily as willful disobedience of God's commandments and the resulting immoral actions. The sense of disorder and taboo remain, however. In Judaism and Islam, dietary codes help to define proper relationship to God. Jews must not eat foods that are terefah (unfit). Many foods are unfit because they are hybrids that defy order themselves. Shellfish are terefah because they do not have fins like other fish. To eat such foods is to become impure, separate from God and God's people. Muslims must avoid haram (unlawful) foods. Jewish and Muslim dietary laws overlap somewhat, most notably in the prohibition against consuming pork. Disciplined eating and periods of abstaining from food aid Muslims in their quest to submit themselves to Allah's will.

The connection between cosmic defilement and offending God also remains in Christianity. Some early Christians, as evidenced most clearly in the epistles of St. Paul, followed classical notions of food as healthy for the body and a licit pleasure to be enjoyed in moderation. For St. Paul, eating meat had nothing to do with one's spiritual state. Others maintained the Jewish dietary laws or other forms of dietary restriction such as vegetarianism. While the Pauline position won out in normative Christianity, and Christian sects that advocated special diets were often suspected of heresy, the notion that food had nothing to do with one's relationship to God did not pass into Christianity unchallenged. Gradually, eating became associated with desire that cannot be curbed and seen as an illicit pleasure that distracted from godly matters. And it became connected to that other unruly human urge, sexuality. Some church leaders advocated fasting, especially for women, as a means of curbing sexual desire. Thus celibacy and abstaining from food became hallmarks of Christian purity. Original sin, as St. Augustine came to define it, further connected food, sexuality, disobedience, and disorderliness. Because the first parents, Adam and Eve, ate fruit God had forbidden, every human inherits their lack of control through lust. For St. Augustine, it was the uncontrollable desire for the pleasure of eating, even more than sex, that was most difficult for him to control. So although the paradigm for communion with God in Christianity is a sacred feast, eating has become suspect in the Christian tradition as something mired in the profane and attached to human weakness. This takes many forms. Somewhat like the Eastern gurus, medieval Christian mystics gave up earthly food and fed only on Christ's body.

Though the "sinful" recipes in church cookbooks are taken lightly by the communities that enjoy them in fellowship meals, a growing movement among evangelical women in the United States encourages them to abandon their sinful cravings for food and strive to be, in the words of Christian dieter Patricia Kreml, "Slim for Him."

Food is often the central focus of another side of sinning, the failure to consider the needs of others as well as one's own. Greed, closely associated with gluttony and lust, is railed against in all of the world's major religious traditions. Lobha means 'greed' as well as 'craving', implying the close connection between transgression against the divine and the community. Taqwa (piety), a chief Muslim value, involves the proper fear of Allah and purity of intention, mind, and body. But charity and hospitality toward others are also necessary to taqwa. During Ramadan, a fasting period in which Muslims strive with particular rigor to submit to God, giving food to the poor is also required. Attitudes toward another's feeding reflect one's relationship with the divine. St. Augustine illustrated the human condition in a story about an infant wailing loudly while his brother fed at their mother's breast: "But it can hardly be innocence, when the source of milk is flowing . . . abundantly, not to endure a share going to one's blood-brother, who is in profound need, dependent for life . . . on that food." (Confessions, I, vi).

The association between food and sin runs deeply through human cultures, perhaps because eating so clearly involves penetration of boundaries. It is the gift of God that comes from the earth, the sustainer of life through slaughter and harvest, substance that becomes self; and binder of one to another, child to mother, human to divine. Such transformation is mysterious business, not without risks. As anyone who has overindulged at a fellowship meal well knows, too much of a good thing can make food of the gods into devil's food.

See also Buddhism ; Christianity ; Cookbooks, Community ; Fasting and Abstinence ; Feasts, Festivals and Fasts ; Hinduism ; Islam ; Religion and Food ; Women and Food .


Augustine, Saint. Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Griffith, R. Marie. "Don't Eat That: The Erotics of Abstinence in American Christianity." Gastronomica 1, 4 (Fall 2001): 3647.

Grimm, Veronika E. From Feasting to Fasting: The Evolution of a Sin. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Kreml, Patricia Banta. Slim for Him. Plainfield, N.J.: Logos International, 1978.

LaCocque, André. "Sin." In The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade, vol. 13, 325331. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Langdon, Stephen. Babylonian Penitential Psalms. Paris: P. Geuthner, 1927.

Meigs, Anna. "Food as Cultural Construction." In Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, 95106. New York: Routledge, 1997. (Previously published in Food and Foodways 2 [1988], 341359.)

Murphy, Christopher P. H. "Piety and Honor: The Meaning of Muslim Feasts in Old Delhi." In Food, Society and Culture, edited by R. S. Khare and M. S. A. Rao, 85119. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1986.

Corrie E. Norman