A recent NPR article drew attention to the fact that American adults are increasingly eating alone: 46 percent of our “eating occasions” - meals and snacks - are solitary. There are numerous factors that contribute to this, including our on-the-go lifestyle, the increased habit of replacing meals with snacking and the rise in single-person households. Although technology can sometimes bridge the gaps between people eating alone, the piece points out that it also isolates people who are physically together.
What do we make of this shift? Anthropologists, sociologists and even theologians note that eating is woven into the deep underpinnings of our cultures. Eating and food are central to the Biblical narrative as well, so I think it’s worth asking what Christians should make of a culture in which eating is increasingly done in an isolated way.
In Scripture, food had a powerful ability to both isolate and unite humans, with God and with one another. Interestingly, the first act of eating recorded in Scripture is one of isolation: in eating from the one tree that God prohibited, humans transgress the boundaries that God has set and try to hide, to isolate themselves from God. But they also end up isolating themselves from each other and from creation. I wonder if eating alone - at least eating alone nearly 50 percent of the time - is more linked to the isolating force of sin than we’d initially think.
In our culture, there’s already a sense of separation and isolation in what we eat, which makes me wonder if that also manifests itself in how we eat. That is, most of us are already isolated from actively raising the plants and animals that are our food. We’re also somewhat alienated from the process of preparing our own food. With busy lives, who has time to spend an hour or two each day - let alone each meal - in the process of making a meal?
At a good meal, the bonds that sin broke begin to be restored.
Thus, plants, animals and our time are often commodified so that they can be bought and sold, resulting in already-prepared food. I wouldn’t suggest a romantic return to a purely agricultural society or that we become holier-than-thou foodies, but this pattern and habit of commodification nevertheless leads to our solitary eating. Why? Because these same habits of efficiency and commodification mean that taking a full hour to have lunch with coworkers or spending an hour fixing an evening meal doesn’t fit into our cultural calculus. After all, there’s nothing “efficient” about sitting down and eating with other people. There has to be some value above and beyond the tyranny of the urgent to make us eat together.
In contrast, Jesus’ way of eating unites rather than isolates. Jesus eats with intentionality, recognizing that eating is always more than just eating. He actively seeks out those who have been isolated by sin and brings them into the celebrative feast with Him. And Jesus - a single man - notably transforms our notion of “family dinner,” for what unites those who eat with and follow Jesus is not their biological kinship, but the fact that they do the will of God. Jesus’ kind of eating continues in the early church - neither poverty nor social stratification nor ethnic pride can stand in the way of the uniting power of shared food.
So is it morally wrong to eat alone? No. But we should, in the manner of Jesus, see eating as a central place for uniting what has been divided by sin. At a good meal, the bonds that sin broke begin to be restored. We reconnect with our Creator who provides the food, with the abundant creation that is our food and with other humans who share our meal and our lives. If we eat with this kind of gratitude, grace and intentionality, it may be that those who eat with us will have their eyes opened to sense the presence of Jesus.