Friday, February 8, 2008

Theologie Gastronomique

Karen Armstrong once said that good theology should be like poetry. It's a fine analogy: both are, or at least should be, used to describe qualities which are beyond empirically quantifiable measures. There is nothing dryly 'scientific' in good poetry. It has a numinous aesthetic. And an appropriate theology should likewise reveal a numinous aesthetic.

That said, I am perhaps more amenable to science than she is. That is to say, I think good science has a numinous aesthetic all of its own. Mathematicians will tell you that an explanatory equation that isn't 'elegant' is probably wrong, which I think betrays the fact that even in a field such as mathematics the human need for beauty is present. Personally, when I read about, say, the functioning of the brain I find in myself a sense of awe and wonder at the contraption by which I apprehend the universe. There are more synaptic connections in our brains, for example, than there are stars in our galaxy: if that thought doesn't produce in you a sense of the mysterium terrible et fascinans then I'm not sure what will. Certainly not direct revelation of God.

Therefore, I would propose that instead of good theology being 'like poetry', that good theology is like cooking.

I'm biased in this proposition - I like to cook. I haven't a creative bone in my body unless I'm in the kitchen. Everywhere else I stand on the shoulders of giants to glimpse the Ineffable, but in the kitchen I stand between their legs: not as great as any, but at least standing on my own.

Good cooking, to my mind, is predicated upon three things: science, craft, and art.

To cook - to cook well, that is - one needs to know what one is doing. Why does grilled food possess a flavor unique to it, and therefore different from, say, boiling it? Well, the answer is in the science. Grilling causes the Maillard reaction, an interaction between an amino acid and sugars capable of being reduced to an aldehyde or ketone. A chemical reaction between these two in a relatively anhydrous, hot environment produces a variety of molecules responsible for odors and flavors, all of which are dependent upon and characteristic of the food being grilled. Additionally, you have molecules from the grilling materials (charcoal, for example) which adhere to the grilled material producing additional flavors and interacting with those produced on the grilled material by the Maillard reaction.

Boiling, because it occurs in a hydrous environment (amongst other factors), does not produce the same chemicals responsible for odors and flavors associated with grilling.

Of course, you don't need to know exactly what's occurring when you grill versus boil in order to grill or boil a food. Most cooks don't, they just know that these two methods produce two different results. Knowing it, though, allows you to understand why you would want to a certain food in a certain way, and that can affect what you do creatively later on. It is the basis, the backbone, of good cooking, and only heightens one's ability to produce good food.

Theology - good theology - similarly needs a strong 'scientific' background. A theology which is not grounded in reality is not a good theology. For example, a theology that denies or minimizes the basic fact of human suffering, that strives to cover it over or evade it, does not work.

It seems to me that all the religions, all of the faiths, have both the good and the bad of these. It is understandable to want to evade the reality that suffering exists, but that does not make it beneficial to do so. "God wants it so", "It is their karma", "Suffering is inevitable, therefore to act doesn't really change anything": such pat-answers are unacceptable because they are simple and simplistic attempts to avoid a fundamental truth, rather than address it.

Good theology doesn't attempt to avoid reason, empiricism, or science. Science has demonstrated that the Earth is millions upon millions of years old; scripture does not abrogate such an independently-verifiable truth. Sticking fingers in our ears and denying something which can be repeatedly demonstrated does not make it vanish.

Yet, neither - I would say - does science possess the single and sole route to truth. Mathematics may be able to tell us that the construction of a minor chord is dependent upon logarithmically-related sinusoidal waveforms, but that still does not explain why minor chords appear 'sad' to us. There are some things not dreamt of in science's philosophy.

Primarily, however, cooking is craft. It is taking raw materials and transforming them into usable - edible - substances. Craft is a matter of skill and technology, the application of usable science in a skilled manner to create a desired end. In cooking, we grill (technology) to both decrease the likelihood of parasitic or otherwise-pathological contaminants entering our bodies, as well as to produce odorous chemicals which heighten the flavorful nature of the foodstuff.

(An interesting scientific question would be: which came first? The flavor or the safety of the food? Are we drawn to the flavor of cooked foods, or are we drawn to the safety of cooked foods because of a learned or genetic association of 'safe food' with those flavors?)

There is skill involved in the appropriate utilization of cooking technology, because we may apply too much technology, which decreases the bioavailability of the substances we eat in order to metabolize them. There is a world of difference between a well-charred steak and a steak that has been burnt to the point that it is nothing more than charcoal: one tastes good and is nutritious, the other tastes awful and offers little but carbon.

This is a skill, something learned - when cooking steak it is necessary to know how much heat for how long, whether to move the meat (which disrupts charring), the importance of resting the meat so that fluids present are able to re-enter cells and maintain the 'juiciness' of the meat but not resting it so long that it goes cold, etc. We usually learn these techniques in a couple of ways: first, we follow recipes, utilizing the guidelines by which others have produced the food we are trying to produce. Secondly, because no circumstances are ever exactly the same, we discover our own methods through having to make necessary adjustments to differing conditions. Some ovens are hotter than others (no matter what the temperature gauge may say); stovetops can be gas or electric; climatological conditions, including ambient air humidity, can be different in different parts of the world at different altitudes on different days.

Like all skills, we begin making conscious changes based upon conscious observations, but over time we learn to make changes based upon gut-instinct. We flip a steak based upon countless observations of time passed, sounds made, colors apparent in countless like-situations, all of which lead us to act in a certain way at the correct moment now. Craft, skill, becomes ingrained; we are well on our way to becoming a real cook.

Similarly, the absolute vast majority of spiritual life is this sort of training. Usually at first we follow ritual forms, acts and behaviors of which we are highly conscious. Over time, the consciousness of the action begins to slip away; the skill becomes ingrained; we begin to act upon some form of instinct and intuition.

Prayer and meditation are both premier examples of this process; because I have more experience with the latter, allow me to use it to demonstrate.

At first during meditation, we are highly conscious of our actions. We scatter our minds, trying to monitor a number of different variables: am I sitting straight? How is my breathing? Where are my eyes? Am I using a soft-focus? My mind won't shut up! The largest mistake I, and every other meditator I know, makes in the beginning is believing that they must stop their thoughts to 'achieve' meditation. It's only constant practice that begins to teach one that the point isn't to 'stop thought', but simply to observe it without engaging in it.

Over time, with practice, the act of sinking into meditation becomes more automatic, requires less conscious effort. It becomes something closer to second nature, and at this point we begin to learn how to carry that method for experiencing the world into other areas of our lives, which is the point at which, I would say, meditation really begins. This all comes, of course, through repetitive practice. The goal of practice is to practice.

(Very Zen that, isn't it?)

In my experience, all of spiritual life is just that: practice. We practice carrying prayer with us at all times; we practice meditating through dinner; we practice kindness, patience, tolerance and love. The point isn't to get these things right all the time, every time; it's to practice, to develop the skill to be able to carry these around with us more often. There is no 'end' to the spiritual path, only continual practice.

At a certain point, though, we've practiced enough to be able to do new and different things with our skills. This is art. This is also the point to which everybody - and I mean everybody - wants to get. For cooks, it's when you get to be a chef, when you are creating meals entirely on your own, off the top of your head. You're able to combine different foods and techniques in different ways in order to create unique recipes, unique meals, on your own, without anybody else's aid. It's having the ability to go to a market, look at what's there, and begin picking out the ingredients to make a meal that exists nowhere but in the imagination. It's where we become fonts of creativity and beauty; it's where people admire us for the things we can do.

The spiritual life isn't a whole lot different: we want to be able to take the skills we have practiced and apply them in new and creative ways to the dilemmas around us. It is being able to see the unity behind Reality (with the capital 'R'), have boundless compassion, unassailable optimism, a pure sense of humor; to tread lightly, speak with wisdom, become a source of beneficence to all those around us. It is the supreme art of living well.

The trap - for me at least - is thinking that art is the goal, both in cooking and in spirituality. It is not. Every time I make conscious efforts to produce 'artful' cooking I fail miserably; similarly, every time I try to be a 'spiritual artist' (or even artiste, with the fanciful final French 'e'), I end up a right jack-ass trying to be somebody, something, I am not.

Art, in this sense here, is simply a byproduct of the practice of craft. It happens to us maybe 2% of the time, while the other 98% is simply practicing craft. Now and then, purely on a whim, I'll concoct something new in my kitchen - a tomato sauce, a chicken stew, a mushroom soup. I'll come up with the idea in my head, try it out, and I'll have some success in making something new, something tasty, something flavorful and yummy. Almost inevitably, in these circumstances, I won't be able to repeat it. I won't be able to remember quantities, timing, the amount of heat, the proper order. I'll have vague memories of what I did, but... nothing definite, nothing concrete. The next time, it'll be different and, maybe, not as good. Though sometimes, the next attempt to re-create the original will end up better: it's truly hit-and-miss.

Most of the time, though, my efforts are more along the lines of a craft. I'll find a recipe for something I want to try and incorporate a little creativity of my own: a tequila-lime chicken cous cous, a black bean chili, a soy-sauce steak. I'll take a basic recipe as a rough draft and change things here and there to suit my needs; but ultimately, it's not my idea. I'm doing little more than paraphrased plagiarism. I'm OK with that; these sorts of cooking attempts almost invariably end up far better than my attempts at artistry, and I wouldn't call them my own, not really.

Similarly my spirituality. Every now and then I'll do or say something truly loving, truly wise. These seem to happen a great deal less than my 2% of actually-creative cookery, some minuscule little percentage of the time. Those moments occur and I'm blown away by them, amazed, wonder how the hell they happened and how to recreate that more of the time, all of the time; and then I'll try to do such a thing, and fail. Never the less, I don't want to give up trying, because those moments are so incredible to watch unfold.

I don't think that they necessarily happen to anybody all of the time, no matter how 'spiritual'. I prefer to think of those as moments when God picks us as an instrument for His action, and when He has completed acting through us, He no longer uses us. So it's not really a matter of developing our skills to the point where such a thing can happen all the time; it's more that we develop the skills so that when it does happen, it's subtler, more powerful, more effective - like cooking, our dishes become understated, we pile on fewer herbs and spices and restrict ourselves to those that highlight and complement the ones that exist in the meats or vegetables or oils already. Perhaps, as well, we learn something from them, and if we are lucky, can repeat such acts again.

Maybe equating theology to cookery isn't the best analogy. Maybe another, different analogy will make more sense to more people; certainly, people treasure cooking less than I do. Good groceries give me a thrill I don't think others necessarily share. Trying new flavors also gets me excited: certainly I seemed to be the only person thrilled to try artificial bird's nest soft-drink with added white fungus flavor (it was disgusting, by the way, but I'm glad to have tried it).

So make your own analogy. Maybe, for you, spirituality is like painting; music; theatre; sports; chess; skydiving; whatever.

I'm willing to bet, though, that at its core you'll find it's all the same: grounded in reality, a long-term practice with sometimes, though not always, spectacular results.

1 comment:

SaucyVixen said...

PS --

You're right.

Bird's nest with white fungus IS disgusting.