I’d therefore disagree with a few early twentieth century studies of religion such as E.B. Tylor’s Religion in Primitive Culture, or Edward Westermarck’s The Principles of Fasting, which linked the practice to “artificial ecstasy.” These kinds of primitivist views of the origins of all religion haven’t weathered well over the past hundred years as post-colonialist and post-enlightenment critiques have changed how we study religion today.
However, this is not to say that we can’t find honest and productive ways to talk about some of the commonalities and overlaps in fasting practices in different traditions. One way to do this, is to look at the question of embodied human life that religious traditions address. The generality of this problem is helpfully illustrated in a recent Coke Zero advertisement (see the youtube below).
The ad starts with a little kid being handed an ice-cream cone. Before receiving it, he asks, “And?” The vendor quickly adds sprinkles and a cherry. Time flips ahead and the boy is now in a job interview and having just been offered the job he replies, “And?” The boss goes on to add stock options. The story flips ahead to a lunch with friends. The man opens a bottle of Coke Zero and takes a sip. A palpable expectation of dissatisfaction subsumes the restaurant. Instead, he reads the label, which says “AND zero calories.” He finally responds, “Thank you.”
Why is it so hard to be satisfied with what we are given? We always seem to want more. Life is haunted by the spectre of this “And!?” Consumer culture sells us satisfaction, (with zero calories so you can still fit into your skinny jeans), but we’re acutely aware that this doesn’t last. One widget follows another in a dizzying parade of promised digital paradises. This is what makes Slavoj Zizek’s various comments on capitalist culture’s super-ego injunction to enjoy so interesting to me. His own post-marxist response merges pscyho-analysis with various theological accounts of desire and suffering in a way that points us back to the wisdom of religious traditions.
I think it’s interesting to look at fasting in light of this strange human paradox. The more we get, the more the “And?” interrupts our enjoyment. The ever open possibility of something better refuses contentment and satisfaction. However, if you deny your body completely, you starve and die. Fasting embraces a rather counterintuitive way to deal with the basic problem of spiritual life as an embodied creature. If you deny yourself a little, you can accept what you do receive more graciously, more thankfully, and with greater contentment.
So, let’s look at different fasting practices in a little more detail:
Buddhists fast, but not to foster ecstatic states, or mortification of the body. Their middle way between pleasure and total self denial is to fast only enough to foster the acceptance of reality as gift. This can be seen in the practice of alms. That is, the Buddhist’s aim is to awaken to the reality that all of life is already connected and fulfilled. There is no need to desire food, to want after it or any-thing else. All is already provided and sustained. As the Buddha touched the earth under the Bodhi tree, the earth was his witness to this. However, precisely to continue to pursue enlightenment, he recognized that human beings must eat.
If we turn to monotheistic traditions, fasting in Islam, Judaism and Christianity is encouraged to varying degrees, and is usually connected to thankful reception of God’s gift of creation.
In Judaism, for instance, fasting is linked to eating and drinking in a law-ful, kosher way. This can be seen in key Jewish fasts, such as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, as well as in paradigmatic figures such as Moses, who fasts before receiving the Law on Mount Sinai. Jewish fasting is integral to the way the Torah structures daily existence in terms of the Creator’s provisions. Isaiah 58 makes this explicit with regard to fasting and the wider issue of social justice, and we might also consider the Talmudic call to tikkun olam, or to repair the world, as well as later commentators such as Moses Maimonides’s 12th c. Guide for the Perplexed, which linked fasting to the wider Jewish food laws and the manner in which all of life should foster morality and wisdom.
In Islam, the prophet exhorts Muslims to fast just as those who have come before have done (i.e. Jews and Christians). Again, however, in Islam, fasting fits within a wider set of food laws about what is halal or permitted and the Muslim’s wider participation in the umma, or community. For instance, the muslim butcher must thank Allah before the killing of an animal as an acknowledgement of his provision of all life. So too, the fourth pillar of Islam, fasting at Ramadan, celebrates the prophet’s reception of the Qur’an. During Ramadan, the entire Qur’an is usually read during evening prayers, and, Muslims are encouraged to meditate upon the scriptures in submission to Allah. Again, though, the emphasis is not upon mortification and denial of the body, but devotion to God. The day’s fast is followed by a more festive evening meal which is eaten together with friends and family. Like the hajj pilgrimage, Ramadan affirms the unity and equality of the umma, the Muslim community’s solidarity as a people who all participate together.
When we turn to Christianity, it is interesting to note again that fasting is often linked with a meal. Christianity begins in Judaism, but re-interprets its food laws precisely through the bread and wine, understood as the body and blood of Jesus. One way to think about fasting in the various Christian traditions is as a response to the grace of God in Christ’s atoning death. Just as Jews fast on the Day of Atonement, Christians echo this in their fasting before the Eucharist and in preparation for their Day of Atonement, Good Friday. It’s indicative here that Eucharist means thanksgiving.
The question is how should Christians give thanks? It’s a matter of emphasis and degree, but I’d suggest that Roman Catholic tradition has focused more on the Christian’s preparation for grace. Lent is discussed in the Vatican II documents as including forms of penance to prepare for the arrival of Easter. Palm Sunday is a ritual re-enactment of Jesus entering Jerusalem in the Gospel narratives. Catholics are encouraged to prepare themselves to receive God’s grace with contrition and in thanksgiving.
With the reformation period, Calvin and Luther both tended to focus on the reception of grace as gift received by faith. However, they then went on to emphasize that the response to this grace must be good works. So, fasting should be done by Christians, but not to prepare for a grace that was already given. Rather, it was linked more to disciplining the self to worship God and live in a Christian way indicative of their thankfulness. Calvin encouraged frugality as a matter of such disciplined Christian life, and Max Weber later linked this hard working frugality to the origins of modern capitalism as such. We could say much more here on the modern political emphasis on discipline over against punishment, and Michel Foucault would likely be of some help. We might also want to say something about obesity rates in countries with Protestant roots, UK, Australia, US, and the rather portly dispositions of the reformers, Luther, King Henry VIII, and the de-emphasis on the practice of fasting overall (now consider those French and Italian formerly Roman Catholic countries and our recent infatuation with French and Mediterranean diets).
Again, I want to avoid trying to reduce these various religious forms of fasting to any common denominator as some past studies have tried to do. Why people fast in different traditions is unique and nuanced in each, and the specific theological techniques and beliefs which orient fasting practices differ greatly. But, if the answers and approaches differ, I do think it is possible to discern a common deeply human disposition that they may share, and here I want to return to the “And?” of the Coca-Cola advertisement mentioned above.
Why is it so hard to be satisfied with what we are given? What’s the solution to our endless dissatisfaction? These questions were at the heart of the Buddha’s pursuit of enlightenment and liberation from suffering. They are also at the heart of the Jewish and Muslim law codes, which give thanks to the creator and follow his laws in pursuit of social justice. So too, these kinds of questions are at heart of the eucharistic event of thanksgiving in Christian worship.
St. Augustine, the 5th c. Bishop of Hippo, sums up the question of embodied spiritual life in his City of God. In brief, he asks what do we love? Do we love temporal things, or eternal things? He argues that temporal things don’t last, are scarce, and lead to strife and restlessness. Loving eternal things leads to fulfillment, peace and satisfaction. For Augustine, if you direct yourself to God, then it becomes possible to enjoy temporal things as well. This is his vision of the city of God he hopes for.
I wonder if part of the broad appeal to fasting in different traditions is that when we refuse something as basic as food for an hour, a day, or over longer periods of time, we’re reminded that there is a self there who is not limited to bread alone (Matt 4.4, Deut 8.3). Having said that, none of the fasting practices described above deny life, or lived experience. Rather, they’re all aimed at true fulfillment, satisfaction, and happiness. This may be why fasting is often linked to feasts (except in most forms of Buddhism). It seems that a little self-denial goes a long way at helping people sit down to eat with friends and family and genuinely be able to say, “Thank you.”