I Corinthians 8:1-13
I will admit something that no good Protestant – let alone a Presbyterian – should have any business revealing: sometimes I just don’t get what the apostle Paul is trying to say, whether this is in his theologically rich letter to the Romans, or in his more practically focused epistles to the Corinthians. I know I could make the task much easier if I simply allowed his words to be filtered through the screen of Calvinist or Lutheran doctrine that I have learned over the years, but I have never trusted short-cuts. Too often I have taken the easy road by letting the sixteenth-century reformers tell me what Paul is up to and have not grappled critically with the issues in context.
Let's face it: when it comes to a straight reading of the text – something the literalists are always trying to impress upon us – the guy just flat out contradicts himself.
…we know that "no idol in the world really exists," and that "there is no God but one." Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as in fact there are many gods and many lords – yet for us there is one God the Father… (I Cor. 8:4b-6a).
Attempting to read this at face value, without drawing on my theological assumptions, I am left only to ask, "So which one is it? There is no God but one, or there are many gods and lords?"
I have to sympathize with Paul and what he was trying to do in the midst of an incredibly diverse city like Corinth. The problem at hand – eating meat sacrificed to idols – is complex indeed, and it does not even involve the one group who seemed constantly to be at Paul's throat. Jews would have had no problem deciding whether they should sit down at table with pagans who were sharing a sacrificial meal. The act of doing so would implicate them in the sins of both idolatry and the consumption of food that had not been slaughtered according to the dictates of the Torah. So the dilemma that Paul addresses is peculiarly Gentile in origin.
Anyone who has ever sat on a church committee will have a pretty good idea of how the lines were being drawn with respect to this issue. On the one hand were those whose special knowledge – the Gnostic overtones here should be evident – gave them the advantage of insight that was clearly lost on some of the less spiritually advanced members of the community. They could reason sufficiently along the lines that Paul had already established that if all things are permitted – that is, if Christians are not ultimately saved by the letter of the Jewish law – then it only stands to reason that food sacrificed to idols, graven images of gods who do not actually exist, is in no way tainted by the sin of idolatry.
On the other hand, there were those who could probably affirm with their lips what those in the know were claiming, that pagan deities were not real. Yet in their hearts they were still not entirely convinced. And who could blame them? They were living in a city whose very existence seemed to depend upon the favor of the gods to whom so many of their friends and neighbors were dedicated. One could not help but acknowledge the power that lay in the convictions of these pagan faithful. Wouldn't the very act of accepting an invitation to a sacrificial meal be tantamount to affirming the religious beliefs of the host, regardless of whether his or her gods actually existed? And would this not amount to an affront to the sanctity of the one God and one Lord?
There were some in Corinth – those with a weaker conscience, as Paul admits – that could see the wisdom in the Jewish notion of being a priestly nation, a people set apart. It is for their sake, Paul finally concludes, that he will abstain from sacrificial meals, lest by his actions the "weak believers" be destroyed. "[I]f food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall" (8:13). Though spiritual knowledge may suggest one approach, Christian love demands another.
Yet if we read further in this epistle we soon discover that Paul has other reasons for his prohibition, and his comments help clarify the apparent contradiction referred to earlier. His admonition also allows us to get a handle on how this seemingly context-specific focus on Christian attitudes toward pagan rituals is still relevant to us today.
In chapter 10, Paul gets to the real meat of the matter, if you'll pardon the expression:
What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons (I Cor. 10:19-21).
Now I will admit that bringing demons into the picture seems all the more to call into question the relevance of this first-century practice to our present-day lives. Not only are we living in a world in which animals are no longer slaughtered on altars, we are all pretty much on board with the idea that demons are merely the phantoms of pre-modern, superstitious societies. Principalities and powers, as Paul refers to them elsewhere, make for good apocalyptic best-sellers, but when it comes to our everyday experiences they should surely be left behind.
Walter Wink sees it differently, and I am inclined to agree with his perspective. In his book, The Powers that Be, he explains that we do ourselves a disservice if we cannot imagine how "demons" are still with us in the form of corporate entities whose disruptive influence in the world cannot be denied (see pp. 25-30, passim). They establish in every corner of the globe their attractive altars on which many of us are only too eager to sacrifice, justifying our actions at times with the assurance that all things are lawful. Some in the church, however – perhaps because of a "weaker conscience" – are not so sure, and we are left to wonder if this blithe acceptance of contemporary pagan rituals is indeed beneficial.
Take the issue of meat, for example. "All of us possess knowledge," as Paul might say, that God gave humans dominion over the earth, and after the flood God provided the beasts of the field as food for human sustenance. We should therefore feel no compunction as Christians to abstain from this divine gift, and anyone who says otherwise has not read the Good Book.
Meat is a ubiquitous staple of the American diet, and with each man, woman, and child consuming an average of eight ounces a day, it is fair to say that it has become for us a kind of civic sacrament. The mark of hospitality in homes all over the country – and certainly on Super Bowl Sunday – is to serve invited guests only the finest beef or pork, and lots of it. Yet in our increasingly global context it is both compelling and responsible to ask the very questions posed by those of weaker conscience in the Corinthian church: "On what altar has this sumptuous meal been sacrificed? What are the moral implications of my partaking of it? With what demons will I enter into communion if I do so?"
In a recent New York Times article, "Rethinking the Meat Guzzler," journalist Mark Bittman enumerates the deleterious effects that a meat-centered diet continues to have not only on our environment but also on the approximately one billion people who suffer daily from malnutrition and starvation. According to some estimates, the world agricultural output is now sufficient to provide every person on the planet with a diet of 3500 calories per day, yet the lion's share of the grain is being distributed to ethanol processing plants and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). This only serves the needs of the wealthy few. Add to this the deplorable health conditions associated with "growing" meat animals – feedlots have now been implicated in many strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria – and the invisible demons that accompany our seemingly innocuous happy meals are brought clearly into focus.
Clearly – though in a manner quite different from what is implied in Paul's letter to the Corinthians – food in our day has caused many whose lives are removed from our day-to-day existence to fall. Their bodies have been broken as well as their spirits. In response to this, we might first draw upon what our knowledge of global interdependence is now telling us, that the energy-intensive pound of beef we eat this evening represents a moral choice, a decision to worship at the altar of First World abundance and commune with those corporate demons who endeavor always to keep us there, fat and satisfied. But as Paul argues, the strength of our treasured knowledge must ultimately be fulfilled by love, "the better way," and this finds its greatest expression in action.
It is from this perspective, then, that I read anew the Apostle's advice to the Corinthians, and ponder the nature of my next meal:
[I]f food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall (I Cor 8:13).
Many businesses and corporation executives ignore God's humanizing purposes, and speak rather of profit as the "bottom line." But this is a capitalist heresy. According to the eighteenth-century philosopher of capitalism Adam Smith, businesses exist to serve the general welfare. Profit is the means, not the end. It is the reward a business receives for serving the general welfare. When a business fails to serve the general welfare, Smith insisted, it forfeits its right to exist. It is part of the church's task to remind corporations and businesses that profit is not the "bottom line," that as creatures of God they have as their divine vocation the achievement of human well-being (Eph.3:10) (Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, p. 30).