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Church Practices and Public Life: The Thickness of Fasting

Like other ancient Christian practices, fasting has cosmic implications. It not only has wisdom for our public life, it is wisdom embodied as our public life.

Editor's Note: We're accustomed to thinking of the practices of the Christian faith as something that happens within the church, shaping those who engage in them. But we don't always think about what it looks like when those same practices translate into and affect public life, informing society beyond the church walls. Comment asked some writers to explore this question in reference to a number of the distinctive practices of the Christian faith—like tithing, prayer, preaching, baptism, and singing.

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I grew up on the spiritual disciplines. I practiced them frequently. When I was a pastor, I introduced several of them to my congregation. My favourites have always been lectio divina, fasting, and the Ignatian Examen. (One time I did the Ignatian Examen during a sermon I was giving. I would not recommend that.) Today I would say I grew up understanding and practicing these disciplines like most do. I thought of their "spiritual" nature in terms of an inward posturing of oneself before God.

But I have since recanted this understanding as rather narrow. Spiritual does not mean not material. It does not mean interiority as opposed to exteriority. And it is not just about me and my relationship with God. Spiritual disciplines have a more material, external, inter-relative influence and power in our lives than we think. They affect not only us, but also our surroundings and the "world" of others, and they can put us in touch with ourselves, God, our neighbour, and our environment. They are thick, with more complexity, focus, and implications than we often consider. Realizing their dimensions might make us more aware and appreciative of them and their purpose in our lives.

For example, consider fasting—which is not simply "not eating." There's a lot more to fasting than that.

I do things when I fast that I may not ordinarily do. For instance, I pray more. I change my routine. I incorporate more time to clean. I walk more, but exercise less. I change the "position" of my world. I change my body's world—where it is and how. My suspension of biological nourishment positions my body in a particular way: I put it in spaces that I don't ordinarily inhabit; I put me in space I don't ordinarily inhabit.

Fasting also impacts the space and time of others. The silence I devote myself to in fasting affects my wife and daughter. It tones their temperament, conditions their interactions. It encourages them to fast and pray (well, at least my wife). Similarly, it affects my neighbours. I'm a gregarious and rambunctious chap, but on fast days, I don't enter my apartment shouting. I am calm and collected. I walk more, and walking more puts me in contact with others I would not ordinarily meet or see. I salute them, comment on their outfit, or offer them a word of encouragement. I would not have been there if I had not fasted. I entered their space and time because I altered mine.

Fasting puts me more in touch with my body. It incarnates me deeper in my everyday life. It teaches me my parameters and what I am capable of. It reminds me of what and who I am. It alters what and who I become. If fasting truly recalibrates how I sense, and what I consider pleasure and pain, then it must influence what pleasure I seek and what pain I willingly endure.

When I fast, I feel unlike I do every other day. Usually, when I'm hungry, I feed myself and stop my stomach's pesky grumbling. The "disturbance" is arrested before I feel it or have to endure it. But fasting is unusual: it feels different. When I fast, I change how I sense things. My register of pleasure and pain is recalibrated. I tweak how I respond to bodily pleasure and pain. When my stomach "reaches" for the table or "turns" because of what it "sees," I know what it wants and respond differently because of previous experiences of fasting. When I become nauseous, get a headache, feel fatigue, have a limb fall asleep, or "feel emotional" for no apparent reason, I am better aware, attuned, and able to act in response to these symptoms than if I didn't regularly experience them.

But again: This doesn't only impact me. It also affects the body and ethos of others. It affects culture. I shape culture by fasting—and I don't just shape culture, I make it. My fasting creates and cultivates attitudes, behaviours, and social entities.

By participating in the practice of fasting, we participate in a history. But because we participate in this practice, we create a history—and not only a Christian culture or history. This is because fasting signifies something to the world; it communicates a story to them. It tells them that personal nourishment and sustenance is not the primary or ultimate goal of life. It tells them that they are not their own—that they should be willing to sacrifice what is ultimately necessary for their well-being.

In a real and tangible way, fasting symbolizes our creaturely existence. Like a flag, it waves the colours and symbols of imago Dei. It is a symbol of a life embodied. But, of course, it's not simply a symbol. It actually enacts the symbol it captures. Fasting puts me in social settings that I may never have been in otherwise. It promotes and improves my interactions with the world. It encourages me and those I fast with to reach out to the world. Because it is cultural, it has economic instruction and implications.

Fasting shapes my notion and pursuit of resources, property, and money. When I fast, I reserve food—I save my sandwich for another day. By saving it, and longing for it when I need it, I come to appreciate it more. Fasting adds value to my property (you don't know what you got 'till it's gone!) and gives me a greater appreciation for what I take for granted every day—the necessities of life. Accordingly, it beckons me to give more discernment and wisdom to what I spend my money on and how much I consume. Do I really need four slices of pizza when two will do? Is indulgence the goal, or satisfaction?

Where there are resources, there is always the question of justice and love—fasting has political and ethical aspects, too. By coming to appreciate my resources, property, and money through fasting, I can come to appreciate those who produced these resources, property, and money. Individuals grew, picked, shipped, drove, unpacked, and stacked orderly and aesthetically the carrots I eat. The same goes for the steak I eat. And the house I live in. And the coins and bills in my pocket. And the credit cards that they are represented by. In fasting I can come to appreciate what I have and what others don't, but I can also make a statement to others through my action about what is right and wrong—what is indulgence and what is moderation. I can reveal and promote justice toward people, animals, and the environment. I can align myself with those who lack and I can remind others that their neighbour is in need. And I can come to sacrifice what I once thought I needed for the benefit of those who are truly in need.

All spiritual disciplines are like this: the spiritual is tied to the material; the private to the public; the interior to the exterior; our relationship to God with our relationship with others. This is the nature of the intricately woven created order. We serve a God who creates, incarnates, and consummates. We must start seeing how the ancient Christian practices we engage in are more powerful and influential in our creaturely existence than we often consider. These disciplines should not be celebrated because they help us transcend this world and personally connect with God. Rather, they should be celebrated because they thrust us into the world where God is at work in our neighbour. These practices embody us more and more in the way we were created, called, and destined to be. They attune us to the rich complexity of God's creation, the comprehensive focus of his salvation, and the intense implications of his eschatological kingdom. Like others, fasting has cosmic implications. It not only has wisdom for our public life, it is wisdom embodied as our public life. It is a thick expression of our creaturely existence.

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Kyle David Bennett Kyle David Bennett
Kyle David Bennett is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, and former reviews editor for Comment. ... read more »
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