I would like to offer my own take here, which is a synthesis of my views on nutritional science and what I believe is the most genuine, ancient, and traditional appraoch to Christianity.
The crux of this view is this:
Jesus said, “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble in heart,” but he did not say, “Learn from me, for I eat fish and bread.”
More broadly, this post will cover the following: why you can be a creationist and still eat paleo; why you can be a Christian and believe in evolution; the relationship between faith and science; the proper approach to understanding the Bible; what, if anything, the Bible teaches about how we should eat; a glimpse of some interesting Christian hunter-gatherers from our own continent; and how Loren Cordain accidentally introduced many in the paleo community to an ancient form of Christianity often overlooked in the modern West, and how he completely forgot to point that out.
I realize that religion is a touchy subject, and I am not trying to force any of the non-scientific information in this post on anyone else. Please feel free to take what you find interesting and leave the rest, and to speak your mind and heart as much as you wish in the comments.
Paleo As a Heuristic, Not a Diet or Dogma
While some people may see paleo as a definitive diet and argue something along the lines of “paleolithic man ate fill in the blank, therefore I will eat fill in the blank, and if you don’t eat like me you will die an early death,” the wisest people within the paleo movement do not treat the paleo principle this way.
Wise people within the paleo movement treat the paleo principle, the idea that the diet and lifestyle of our distant ancestors provides critical information about how we should eat and live, as a heuristic. In other words, they treat it as a mental model or framework through which they organize information, develop hypotheses, and then test those hypotheses with personal experience and science.
Richard Nikoley of the Free The Animal blog articulated this in his post, “The Paleo Principle Is Neither Authoritative Nor Dogmatic.” Richard runs an excellent and widely popular paleo blog, but refuses to eschew the modern white potato. He is also a very happy atheist, even though atheism, as Ned Kock recently pointed out, is a recent neolithic invention. Of course, it is important to note that Ned defined “atheism” loosely as non-spiritualism and Richard is not against all forms of spiritualism per se. Richard learns what he can from what he considers the best science of the paleolithic era, but he doesn’t pay unthinking subservience to what that science uncovers.
Stephan Guyenet of the Whole Health Source blog likewise refuses to eschew the potato, and while he often incorporates paleo perspectives into his posts, he provides rigorous and objective scientific analyses of everything he posts about, and frequently incorporates information generated by other ideas as well as by paleo.
Melissa McEwen, who co-organizes the Eating Paleo in NYC meetup group with John Durant, with whom she has also been featured in the New York Times, recently made several posts, including “How Do I Love Thee, Neolithic Foods,” emphasizing the need to evaluate ideas generated by the paleo principle with solid science.
Thus, we arrive at the question, must someone who rejects the heuristic used to generate ideas and results also reject those ideas and results? Certainly not.
Consider, for example, some of the ideas we currently hold to that were generated using Biblical literalism as a heuristic.
Most of us are familiar with continental drift theory. I was first taught in fourth grade science class that all the current land masses were originally one land mass and have since separated by sea-floor spreading and the resulting drifting apart of continents. Let’s take a moment to consider how this theory formed:
The first credible proponent of continental drift was Antonio Snider-Pellegrini, a belated advocate of catastrophism who, in 1858, ascribed the biblical flood to the former existence of a single continent that was torn apart to restore the balance of a lopsided Earth.
That a single land mass existed “in the beginning” is implied by Genesis 1:9 and its division after the flood could potentially be read into Genesis 10:25, but Snider-Pellegrini also provided observational evidence for the theory, including a map of how the continents could have fit together and how the fossils of plant and animal life at the edges of these continents fit together similarly.
Would any of us reject the theory of continental drift simply because one of its early proponents used a Biblical heuristic to shape it? Of course not.
Why, then, should a Christian who believes the earth is roughly 6,000 years old and that humans have no common ancestry with apes or any other creature reject dietary principles developed within the paleo framework if, in fact, they are validated by modern science and are helping people improve their health?
The answer is that there is no reason. Just like folks who believe the earth is billions of years old should feel free to accept continental drift and people who accept the paleo principle should feel free to eat white potatoes, people who believe in a young earth and the independent creation of created kinds or species should feel free to eat whatever aspects of the paleo diet they deem likely to help improve their health.
Cordain, Dobzhansky, Evolution, Orthodox Christianity
Loren Cordain wrote the following to Jimmy Moore:
The great evolutionary biologist, Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
Cordain could have communicated his point more effectively to the Christians that Jimmy’s post was aimed at if he had pointed out what the commenter Patrik pointed out on Richard Nikoley’s post:
The only thing I would add to this discussion, if someone else hasn’t already mentioned it, is that evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky who wrote the essay: “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” was a devout Russian Orthodox Christian.
Indeed, in the very essay that bears this oft-quoted title, Dobzhansky, generally credited with the modern synthesis of genetics and evolutionary theory, stated the following:
I am a creationist and an evolutionist.
Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts. As pointed out above, the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.
He concluded by commenting about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French geologist and paleontologist:
Teilhard was a creationist, but one who understood that the Creation is realized in this world by means of evolution.
Just how devoutly Dobzhansky held to the beliefs of the Orthodox Church is a matter for debate. Francisco Ayala, who credited him with contributing “to evolutionary biology perhaps more than any scientist since Darwin,” described his beliefs in this way:
Dobzhansky was a religious man, although he apparently rejected fundamental beliefs of traditional religion, such as the existence of a personal God and of life beyond physical death. His religiosity was grounded on the belief that there is meaning in the universe. He saw that meaning in the fact that evolution has produced the stupendous diversity of the living world and has in fact progressed from primitive forms of life to man. Dobzhansky beheld that in man biological evolution has transcended itself into the realm of self-awareness and culture. A metaphysical optimist, he believed that somehow mankind would eventually evolve into higher levels of harmony and creativity.
Ayala offers no citations for these statements and I am therefore unsure of how much more I should trust them than the Wikipedia article that completely ignores them. Nevertheless, Dobzhansky’s personal religious beliefs should not hold captive the religious beliefs of evolutionists or the scientific beliefs of Christians any more than the timeline of the domestication of the potato should hold a paleo dieter captive.
The Orthodox Church, often called “Eastern” or associated with various ethnicities, initially existed as a single multi-ethnic entity in North America. Owing in part to the loss of Russian financial support as a result of the Bolshevik revolution, it was later broken up into multiple ethnic jurisdictions, contributing to the misconception that it is somehow integrally tied to these ethnicities. While its distinction from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism owes historically to the divide between eastern and western Christendom that culminated in the eleventh century, Orthodoxy sees itself as continuous with the western church of the first thousand years of Christendom.
While Dobzhansky’s faith in the teachings of Orthodoxy may be unclear, many traditionalist Orthodox Christians who take the Church’s teachings very seriously do believe in biological evolution. OrthodoxWiki provides a list of publications by Orthodox Christians with varying views on evolution.
One does not need to look as far as Orthodoxy to find Christians who accept evolution. Indeed, while Orthodoxy has no official position on evolution, the Roman Catholic church has essentially endorsed it, and there are also many Protestants who believe the same. Indeed, while the Apostles and most Christians through history seem to have considered the events of the Old Testament to be historically true, even within the New Testament we can see that the overwhelming use of the Old Testament Scriptures has been allegorical and spiritual, considering them to be prophecies of Christ and lessons about the spiritual life.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “everything that was written in former times was written for our instruction.” Paul wrote to the Galations that Abraham’s two sons were a metaphor for the Old and New Covenants. The Apostle Peter wrote that the Great Flood represents the saving power of baptism. Indeed, it is quite telling that Peter refers to the saving power of the water, and not its destructive power.
Thus, it was not difficult even for Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, to convert to Evangelical Christianity, more commonly associated with literalist interpretations of the Old Testament.
While these allegorical interpretations are available to all who use the Christian Scriptures, the rich abundance of allegorical and Christ-centered interpretations of the Old Testament found in Orthodox hymnography would certainly assist many people who question literal historical interpretations of the Old Testament grapple with the meaning of those passages.
When Orthodox Christians begin Lent, for example, they commemorate three stories of exile: the self-exile from Eden, the capativity of Israel to Babylon, and the story of the Prodigal Son. The story of Eden tells of man’s alienation from God and the Prodigal Son tells of his return. In each story, the exile is self-induced. Humans leave God, rather than God leaving humans. Israel’s captivity to Babylon represents the captivity of humans to sinful patterns of thought and behavior. “Sin” is seen in the context of the literal meaning of its Greek word, amartias, which implies the “missing the mark” of divine likeness. The seemingly gruesome line at the end of Psalm 137 is understood to mean the dashing of angry, hateful, lustful, greedy, selfish, unloving thoughts against the rock of Christ before these “infant” thoughts grow into mental and behavioral patterns that will hold us captive. Lent, for Orthodox Christians, is thus a time to make the resolve to use this rock for strength, and make the return home to God.
While there is nothing in Orthodox hymnography that indicates these stories are not historical, it would be easy to become immersed in these interpretations and realize that they have meanings that go far beyond the historicity of the events to the point that the historicity becomes of secondary importance, and one is willing to tolerate discussion and debate about the historicity while realizing it has no bearing on the central theme.
Orthodox Christianity may be of interest to those in the paleo community for several other reasons: we have an example of an Orthodox Christian hunter-gatherer population on our own (American) shores; many of the dietary practices of Orthodox Christians have parallels in the paleo community; and Orthodoxy provides some valuable input on faith and reason that may appeal to many scientifically oriented people.
Orthodox Christian Hunter-Gatherers
We hear the story over and over again. The natives eat traditional diets, have beautiful teeth, well formed dental arches, robust skeletal frames, and they live vibrantly healthy lives. In come the missionaries, bringing Christ, money, English, flour, and sugar, and it all disappears.
There is an interesting counter-example to this. The Russians brought Orthodox Christianity to the Inuit and Aleuts native to Alaska in the 1700s. The missionaries had profound respect for the natives, their culture, and their language, and had very little impact on their diet. Until the twentieth century, these Christian natives remained hunter-gatherers.
This topic deserves its own blog post, and I will write about it in the future. Two books of interest include Fr. Michael Oleska’s Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission and Alaskan Missionary Spirituality, a collection of primary source documents that Oleska compiled. Oleska, though not a native himself, is married to a Yup’ik native and is recognized as an honorary Elder by the Alaska Federation of Natives.
Orthodoxy, Intermittent Fasting, and Protein Cycling
In my recent review of Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Body, I discussed Ferriss’s comments on intermittent fasting and protein cycling as ways to increase longevity. Paul Jaminet over at Perfect Health Diet considered these to be “Art De Vany-related ideas.” De Vany is considered the “grandfather” of the paleo movement.
In fact, Orthodox Christians incorporate these concepts extensively, in a way that looks very much like Ferriss’s diet. For example, Ferriss recommends one day a week bringing protein down to 5% of calories and practices 18-hour fasting once a week, eating his first meal around 2:00 PM on Saturdays. Orthodox Christians eat a near-vegan diet on Wednesdays and Fridays, reducing protein intake to a similar level, and, if they follow the strictest form of these fasts, eat one meal on these days at or around the ninth hour after sunrise, which is generally around 3:00 PM.
Some evidence suggests that Christians have been fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays since the first century. Some people interested in paleo for its ancientness may also be interested in this practice for its ancientness alone.
Of course, Orthodox Christians have other fasting periods and the purpose has nothing to do with longevity. Nevertheless, folks worried about the conflicts between Christianity and paleo might also be interested in these points where the two seem to collide.
Incidentally, Nicholas Taleb is a prominent Lebanese Orthodox Christian who considers himself paleo. Here’s John Durant paying him some love. Here’s Taleb appearing in the NYT with Durant and Melissa McEwen.
Orthodoxy On Faith and Reason
Many Christians seem to need “empirical evidence” to support their faith. This can be witnessed, for example, in the recent Intelligent Design (ID) movement, or the older Creationist movement.
Personally, I have much more respect for Creationism than ID because the ID’ers seem to believe that God is incapable of making a physical or chemical law that spontaneously leads to marvelous beauty. If God wanted to create by using evolution, would he really have to constantly intervene in the process? Is this the same God who can raise the dead, who can’t make a self-perpetuating material system?
Regardless of how beautiful the theory is, of course, the desire to provide empirical evidence for it is fundamentally flawed. Intelligent Design and Creationism are both entirely legitimate theories. However, neither of them are scientifically testable, and thus one can hardly complain that they are being “expelled” from science.
Here is an excellent diagram from Dr. Kirk Fitzhugh (original source) demonstrating what an experimental test of Intelligent Design might look like:
Since we have no ability to randomize some organisms to the power of God and others to the power of Satan or an intelligence-free control, we can never perform an experiment demonstrating or falsifying Intelligent Design.
Dr. Fitzhugh has elaborated his criticisms of Intelligent Deign in the journal Evolutionary Biology, available here.
Whether one can test the hypothesis of universal comment descent that underpins what is colloquially called “evolution” is a more complicated question that I will address in a future blog post.
Another example of the search for empirical evidence can be found in Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. While I think this book is an interesting read, most of the “evidence” provided in it could hardly nudge a skeptic.
McDowell: Jesus’s tomb is empty.
Skeptic: That’s not Jesus’s tomb.
McDowell: Why did Jesus allow us to believe he is God when there is no evidence he was a liar or insane?
Skeptic: Who cares?
McDowell’s “evidence” contrasts greatly with the evidence that St. Athanasius the Great wrote about in his On the Incarnation in the fourth century. St. Athanasius considered the masses of martyrs in the preceding centuries to have shown the evidence that Christians did not fear death. Christ destroyed the power of death with his own death, setting humans free of the fear of death. Like Paul before him, Athanasius considered faith the “evidence of things unseen.”
Would this “evidence” convince a skeptic? Hardly. But it makes no pretension to.
Indeed, anyone with an interest in history, I would think, would at least consider it a rather fascinating curiosity that while Christianity had no state power, it managed to spread through all of western and eastern Europe and into parts of Asia and Africa, when the promise of Christianity was often death in the arena at the hands of gladiators or wild animals. That Christianity grew in response to persecutions rather than being eradicated is an interesting phenomenon.
But it’s not empirical evidence of anything. And empirical evidence wasn’t really what Athanasius was writing about.
The recent book The Mountain of Silence features a “Fr. Maximos,” an Orthodox priest-monk from Mount Athos (the “Holy Mountain,” a peninsula of Greece dedicated to monasteries) who is now a bishop of Cyprus, who transmits the teachings of Orthodoxy through dialogue with the author, a sociologist with a western, rationalistic and relativistic mindset that he only partly shakes off by the end of the book.
In the chapter “Knowledge of God,” Fr. Maximos explains how logic and empiricism are simply the wrong tests to use in order to obtain knowledge of God:
“Let’s assume that we wish to investigate a natural phenomenon. As you very well know, in order to do so we need to employ the appropriate scientific methods. If we wish, for example, to study the galaxies, we need powerful telescopes and other such instruments. If we wish to examine the physical health of our hearts, then we need a stethoscope. Everything must be explored through a method appropriate to the subject under investigation. If we, therefore, wish to explore and get to know God, it would be a gross error to do so through our senses or with telescopes, seeking Him out in outer space. That would be utterly naive, don’t you think?”
“Yes, if you put it this way,” I replied. “Can we then conclude that for modern, rational human beings, metaphysical philosophy like that of Plato and Aristotle or rational theology is the appropriate method?” As I raised the question I thought I knew what Father Maximos’s answer would be.
“It would be equally foolish and naive to seek God with our logic and intellect. . . . Consider it axiomatic that God cannot be investigated through such approaches.”
. . . “Does that mean that God cannot be studied?”
“No. We can and must study God, and we can reach God and get to know Him.”
“But how?” I persisted.
Father Maximos paused for a few seconds. “Christ Himself revealed to us the method. He told us that not only are we capable of exploring God but we can also live with Him, become one with Him. And the organ by which we can achieve that is neither our senses nor our logic but our hearts.” . . . This is the meaning, Father Maximos argued, of Christ’s beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
“Do you understand what that means? Those who wish to investigate whether God exists must employ the appropriate methodology, which is none other than the purification of the heart from the egotistical passions and impurities.”
In modern discourse, we use the word “dogmatic” to mean unthinkingly proclaiming that something must be so while refusing to consider evidence to the contrary. I believe this comes froma misunderstanding of the Christian usage. “Dogma,” is, after all, a Greek word.
St. Basil the Great, who many credit with having invented the hospital and orphanage, presided over the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, which finished formulating the last passage of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan, often called Nicene, Creed. In his work, On the Holy Spirit, he uses the word dogma to mean what the Church proclaims outwardly. He never contrasts it with evidence. He contrasts it with kerygma, that which the Church holds in secret as the inner mysteries of the liturgical life and spiritual life.
Indeed, Fr. Maximos would shudder at the thought of anyone believing anything unthinkingly, without evidence, or in the face of evidence to the contrary:
“If people manage to cleanse their hearts and still fail to see God, then they are justified by concluding that indeed God is a lie, that He does not exist, that He is just a grand illusion. Such people can reject God in all sincerity by saying, ‘I followed the method that the saints have given us and failed to find God. Therefore, God does not exist.’ Dont’ you think that would be utterly misguided,” Father Maximos continued, “if we believed in a God for whom there was no evidence of existence, a God that was utterly beyond our grasp, a God that remained silent, never communicating with us in any real and tangible way? . . .
“So when during the liturgy we recite the prayer ‘I believe in one God . . . ,'” Father Maximos went on after I shifted to second gear, “we try in reality to move from an intellectual faith in God to the actual vision of God. Faith becomes Love itself. The Creed actually means ‘I live in a union of love with God.’ This is the path of the saints. Only then can we say that we are true Christians. This is the kind of faith that the saints possess as direct experience. Consequently they are unafraid of death, of war, of illness, or anything else of this world. They are beyond all worldly ambition, of money, fame, power, safety, and the like. Such persons transcend the idea of God and enter into the experience of God.”
With this view in mind, the conversation with the skeptic might go something more like this:
Christian: I love God.
Skeptic: Prove it.
Christian: Come and see.
There is no weakness of faith in this conversation so great that one begins to bend and twist science into proving what it cannot prove.
And likewise, there is no challenge to faith by open-mindedly considering scientific evidence about the valuable information it may provide about how we can improve our physical health and quality of life.
Conclusion: What Does the Bible Teach Us About Food?
The Bible teaches us that all foods are clean, that in the last days scoffers will come and tell us we can’t eat meat, that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that we should become partakers of the divine nature so that we be transformed by the Spirit in greater and greater degrees into the likeness of God.
Jesus said, “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble in heart.” He did not say “Learn from me, for I eat fish and bread.”
Moses descended from Sinai, not the great walls of the Food Pyramid. And he descended with the Ten Commandments, not the periodic table of the elements.
God made the human mind; it should hardly offend God if we choose to use it. Thus, he has left most of the science to us.
For those specifically interested in the topic of the Bible’s relationship to wheat, I would recommend reading some of the cardiologist William Davis’s posts on this topic, here (In Search of Wheat) and here (Ezekiel Said What?).
In future posts, I will provide a series of critiques of Dobzhansky’s essay from a scientific perspective, as I have several quibbles with it. This should prove of interest to creationists, evolutionists, and people who couldn’t care less how we got here but are interested in the fascinating story of how twentieth and twenty-first century genetics has pushed us into new understandings that we, stuck in 19th century views of heredity, have stubbornly resisted.
For now, the verdict is: can Christians eat paleo? Of course they can!
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