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A World Food Day for All World Views

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While it fails to make most of our calendars, every October the world selects a day to recognize the importance of food, and they call it World Food Day. This year's is today, and it comes in the midst of a political climate where we seem to agree on less than ever. So perhaps we can find some slight encouragement in recognizing that, on the issue of food, there really aren't stratified, opposing ideological camps. Food is good! We all like it. We all want there to be enough.

While food policy debates and the wonk-ish people who care about such stuff are plenty polarized -- divided and charged about exactly what policies are best -- I would contend that there are few important global issues among the general public that find more agreement than our attitudes and feelings around food. There are the obvious reasons for this, like the fact that all humans like to eat and to have enough to eat. But underneath it all, it may well be that this agreement stems from the fact that the very earliest narratives we trust and the most basic assumptions we have about humanity come from gardens and food production.

Sunday school 101 goes something like this: God made a man. We started in a garden, not for sentimental reasons but because our creator God wanted us to be well-nourished and experience life at its fullest and best. We were tossed out because we chose malnutrition over nutrition. As a curse, the creator God told the man that nourishing himself with food for a full life would be much tougher in a regular garden. Soon his sons are fighting and killing over food/god issues, and so began a long saga that continues today... a God who loves to feed us, and a malnourished world.

That's the "god" version as I know it, as Christian and Muslim and Jewish traditions have handed down through the years. It sounds like an absurd story, a fairy tale in these modern times. It can sound ridiculous and uneducated in fact, until you listen to the "educated" version.

The goo version says man made a god. But before that, there was rock and rocks collided and became star dust. As particle physicist Lawrence Krauss likes to say,

It's the most poetic thing I know -- that we are literally all star dust. That the atoms that make up your left arm are not from the same planet or asteroid as the ones that make up your right arm.

The goo version theorizes that after these rocks collided eventually there was goo. Goo grew opposable thumbs, and eventually became a human. I'm a theist so I am certainly selling the goo version short here, but not by a whole lot. The entire happening is unlikely and preposterous... just like the God version. There seems to be no higher ground here for smart people, just goo vs god. The goo-view says we are all here on accident and the god-view says we are here on purpose for a purpose.

Those two world-views inform and divide our country, a divide that isn't getting any smaller. As Lawrence Krauss says, "Science never asks why, and when it does it really means how." If he's right about that, then the two world views are unlikely to arrive at a similar answer when they are incapable of even asking the same question. But getting bogged down in the differences in those two is of less use than noticing the incredible similarities of the two. Whether we are here on purpose or on accident, whether we are goo-creatures or god-creatures or some combination... both stories (shall we call them faiths?) offer us a narrative that begins in a garden.

The earliest thing we know, categorically and with any historical certainty about humans is that we really got our act together and formed something called "civilization" around a garden. It was in the fertile crescent, the land between the rivers where men and women managed to first grow more food than we actually needed. We know from our world history classes, and we know it with certainly because they actually wrote it down and Sir Leonard Woolley dug it up. Etched in clay tablets unearthed by Woolley and his team over a dozen years of work in the desert are records that basically say things like, "Elki traded three bushels of corn to Ashkem for two vessels." These writings were found in and around Mesopotamian sites like the ancient city of Ur, home to the Sumerian peoples. They are really pretty mundane as far as historical documents go, but they are anything but mundane given that they are the very first documents we humans have to read about the humans who preceded us.

Sir Leonard Woolley excavated the ziggurat of Ur for 12 years from 1922-1934 in what is modern-day Iraq. Thomas Cahill in his book, Gifts of the Jews claims that thus begins what we call "history." Anything we know about anything before that period is largely a guess. Cave paintings, reconstructed pots, bones and carbon dating all give us a decent guess at what happened before that period. But that's all it is. As with clues left behind at a crime scene, we use our best science to venture our best guess. But here in Sumer and Ur we have the first real human history. Real notes written by real people. Boring stuff like basic accounting. All of it, most of it anyway, revolving around their gardens -- who grew what and who swapped it for what in the world's first complex economy. Here men and women first grew more than they needed and thus it freed up a bunch of people to do things like paint their huts or make them pots. Metalworkers thrived, plows got better, gardens got bigger, the stone age was gone for good. All that combined with a healthy dose of slave labor from less fortunate conquered neighbors and we have what has come to be known as "progress."

Sir Leonard Woolley's work in the 1920's is significant to the goo people and the god people alike. The God people know of Ur because their very first archetypical hero hailed from there. His name was Abraham and he left Ur "not knowing where he was going" because he was called by God to start something altogether new. Many a preacher, Imam and Rabbi has made hay from that one, interesting since having your 80-year-old leader hear voices and get lost in the wilderness is hardly a flattering founding narrative. When Abraham became the first to hear the voice of this new god and promptly wandered out of town with his barren wife, he must have walked within sight of that Ziggurat that Woolley dug up in the 1920s.

So the God people have their narratives of Abraham, Adam and Eve and the goo people have their historical artifacts and science. For one we are star dust infused with happenstance/accidental life, and for the other we are dust with life breathed into us by an intentional creative force for good. Believing either one maybe guesswork, faith or science... but both narratives basically begin in a garden.

The encouraging thing is that our very best theologians of all stripes are adamant that they serve a god of plenty and abundance, not one of scarcity. And at the same time our very best scientists increasingly tell us that with new records for food production shattered every year food security is not a scarcity problem but a political and social problem that can be resolved when we share more. They both agree! Wow! That's amazing in world where stubborn, intractable, opinions and beliefs have ground systems to a halt of late. What's more, on this World Food Day they agree on more important thing: Both the God people and the goo people know deep down that if we don't get global food security right there is hell to pay. Either here on earth, or hereafter.