I grew up believing the world functioned in a series of dichotomies. What is not good is bad, what is not right is wrong, what is not black is white or red or some hue other than gray.
But as I’ve entered the early years of adulthood, I’ve been forced to loosen my grip on absolutes and embrace a love for question and critique. Living in a broken world means acknowledging that the effect of sin is not always blatant evil, but a small toxic thread woven into everything that is also good.
It is the ability for rocks to cry out the glory of the Lord while causing pain under a bare foot; for vibrant rhubarb to beckon a forager to her tart stalks while threatening anyone that munches on her leaves; for the grain that spurred the domestication of agriculture and thus civilization, the staff of life, to become feared as a widespread allergen.
This tension of sin interwoven in God’s perfect creation is manifest in every aspect of society, but I understand it most poignantly through the study of food.
I not only witness the tainted tensions, but I ingest them every day. I am what I eat, and what I eat simultaneously nourishes and harms, excites and overwhelms, communes and divides.
When I first started dipping my toes into Gastronomy, it was out of a belief that understanding the harmony between “sustainable” methods of agriculture and “healthy” eating would lead to resolution for all sorts of environmental and social injustice. I thought that if God created our bodies and called them good, and God created plants and animals and called them good, and God gave us the garden to tend and the plants and animals to eat, then responsible care of creation would lead to responsible care of the body and thus responsible social action.
Instead, I found tensions woven into every aspect of production and consumption. I read the fervent desire to feed the world underlying Monsanto’s literature; I was forced to acknowledge the elitist undertones of most attempts to get farming “right”. I was asked to look for the positive ways the fast food industry fostered female empowerment in the workplace. I sat in class with vegetarians and vegans, with meat farmers and cheesemongers. I read nutritional theory that all saturated fat is bad, that some saturated fat is good, that sodium is evil, that salt is the necessary flavor enhancer. That taste informs our brains what to eat and what to avoid; that tastes have been engineered by science and their messages cannot be trusted.
Every attempt to solve an issue is rife with other ills, and every aspect I’d been socially trained to condemn contains some seed of hope.
So I had two options.
Study to critique, to attempt to find some “final fix.”
Or to embrace the inevitability of tension, and within that, choose to hope.
To work towards the flourishing of the good always interwoven with evil.
I could use my education to shun GMOs, to speak out against school gardening programs, to hate on fast food, to overwhelm myself with the decision of whether or not to eat meat, to count fat and calories, to shun umami cravings. I could find a thorough argument to condemn all that is bad.
Or, I could suggest alternative approaches to addressing Monsanto’s questions. To view the positive potential of training children in a love for agriculture, while advocating for listening to the concerns of parents, while seeking to make school nutrition training diversely culturally aware. To embrace the way my own career has been made possible by the McDonalds brothers, to enjoy fresh Roquefort and Camembert, and to indulge sometimes a warm Pad Thai in all its MSG-laden glory.
I can use my education to find and foster the beauty dancing alongside aspects that might also be bad.
While giving into an attitude of constant critique might make me feel intelligent and empowered, I’m learning to lay down my pride for the sake of hope. And I must say, the world is much more pleasant to live in when admiring the positive potential for change intertwined with all the despair.
This past weekend, popular Christian writer Rachel Held Evans re-wrote her commencement address from 20 years ago. She called it Let the World Change You.
“The world, it turns out, is not all weeds,” she wrote. “There is evil growing, certainly, and fear and hate and prejudice. But I’ve found life sprouting out of all sorts of unlikely soil, wheat enough for a lifetime of harvests.”
It is so tempting to try to understand God and to understand the world in a series of dichotomies: labeling evil versus good. To maintain absolutes of what to eat and what to avoid, of people to love and people to ignore, of habits to embrace and sins to abhor.
And yet, when we attempt to live in two distinct and different hues, we fail to see the vibrancy and confusion that colors every word, every article, every book and song and piece of art, every person, every plant, every dish and drink and dessert.
When we focus on the thread of evil woven into all that is good, we fail to see the hand of the Creator at work within the ill.
Perhaps to live as a responsible Christian, in care of creation and body and world, is not to fight against the limitations of pre-restoration, not to hold firmly to a need to be right, not to strive to change all that is wrong in the world right now.
But to embrace the tension of the Christian faith: to see the face of God in every human being, to look for signs of flourishing in what our own social camp might view as death. To be changed as we watch weeds grown alongside stalks of wheat, because our focus is not on the ugliness of weeds, but the bountiful beauty of wheat.
Because it is embracing these tensions that makes God’s grace so profound. It is chasing after beauty that allows me to see beyond the pain. It is learning to love the questions and to balance my critiques that fills me with hope that my work has been called good. That creation has been called good. That all the men and women and children and plants and animals around me have been created by God, humanity made in the image of God, and continue to be called good.
That despite the pain and the presence of evil, God has made it all and it is good.