Continuing a stale debate: Distinction between Foods

I realised today that Pastor Weedon had asked me a question which I hadn’t followed up concerning the practice of abstinence and the “distinction of foods”. He said in the combox:

I know the diff between abstinence and fasting, but among my people the usual way to think of the Lenten “fast” is to talk about abstinence and think that’s fasting. It is clearly the “distinction of meats” that the Lutherans in the 16th century objected to, NOT the discipline of fasting. So I was simply trying to encourage my members to truly HUNGER and find in God the one who alone can satisfy that hunger.

I replied:

What I am complaining about, Pastor Bill, is the confusion of categories. “Abstention” has nothing to do with the “distinction of meats”. I believe it might have suited the Lutheran confessors to deliberately confuse this issue, as it was then easy for them to dismiss the practice of abstention from meat on Fridays etc. as “Jewish” legalism.

He replied:

Well, David, then I am confused. Distinction of meats is used in the AC to discuss the requirement of abstention from flesh meats on Fridays, for example. It’s not referring to the Jewish practice of kosher and non-kosher meat, but does draw the parallel that all foods groups are free to the Christian, for all is cleansed in Christ. I think I’m missing your point a bit. Help me out.

Although we have given up all abstention and fasting for Easter, my reply now is that of course all food groups are free to the Christian. That’s one thing that is perfectly obvious as soon as you begin working in interfaith relations: as far as Christians are concerned, there is no food which in itself is considered sacred (eg. cow) or unclean (eg. pig) or immoral (eg. alcohol). When the Church gives rules for abstinence to her children, this abstinence is not based on some “distinction” between the quality of the food itself–eg. cleanliness, sanctity, or morality.

It is based rather on the principle of self-denial, and is therefore closely related to fasting and to hunger. It is possible to have a full belly and still hunger for some special craving or luxury (witness the way a child can leave half his vegetables on the plate saying “I’m full” and still have room for dessert). Fasting has to do with denying oneself a percentage of ALL foods (which may be 5% or 100%) even though (as you say, Pastor) “all foods are free to the Christian”, so abstinence has to do with denying oneself those particular foods which might be regarded as luxuries (eg. meat, alcohol, chocolate). This might change from culture to culture too. For instance, it really isn’t in the spirit of things to substitute a lobster thermador for a beef stew in a place where beef is cheap and plentiful and lobsters expensive and rare.

Therefore, unlike the distinction between foods made in other religiouns, the Christian practice of abstinence has nothing to do with distinguishing between foods on the basis of any iherant qualities of the foods themselves. A distinction is made, but it is made on the basis self-denial. Thus, if you don’t have an argument with fasting (self-denial on the basis of quantity) you can’t really have an argument with abstinence (self-denial on the basis of tastes).

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