Caleb Roberts

A recent graduate of Oklahoma State University in Economics and Philosophy, Caleb Roberts currently dwells in Stillwater, OK with his wife Julie and directs his moonlighting interest of embodied theology into either his blog genu(re)flection or into a bright red cast iron pot. Mostly, he attempts to pursue all things requisite for human flourishing such as lard and monk-made beer.

Eschatological Butter

Though I am a devout Christian, I don’t have a problem with Feuerbach’s famously cynical aphorism, “man is what he eats.”  Of course, as a materialist 19th Century German philosopher, he was attempting to assert, with a certain amount of wit, a vision of human life devoid of any transcendence in which we all are but meat.  But I embrace and celebrate the fact that I am what I eat and food and cooking are surely some of the most spiritual of enterprises.  It is a bit odd that modernity has found nothing curious about the simple observation that all the earth’s creatures, humans included, abide in the world only as long as they consume it, literally taking the earth into their bodies to abide within themselves.  No, we think that the chief end of cooking is to sterilize our food of all its “living” properties such that we render for ourselves an effective means of “nutrient” ingestion, the chief end of eating.

And yet there is something intensely spiritual about such matters, as it is with all things whose primary nature is one of union.  As an example, people often forget that the foundation of the Christian Church’s life is not firstly a subscription to a creed or confession, though that is certainly central, but rather, it is a meal, one in which the object of feasting is the very body and blood of the Lord.  The Church is what she eats.  And in describing this meal, Jesus said that those who eat of his flesh and drink his blood shall abide in Him and He in them and ultimately receive eternal life.  Coincidentally, that is the same condition for life on earth.  To have life requires feasting.  This is not to elaborate upon eucharistic theology, but merely to express that the simple fact of eating, a practice that all living creatures share, seems to be woven into the very fabric of Creation; it is a form of life.  And at the same time, eating seems to be intrinsically redemptive as well, both with physical satiation as well as with sacramental eating.  But one need not only consider the nature of the sacraments in this discussion.

Whatever the specifics are, if one believes that God did in fact create the world, there is truth in that God took that which was “formless and empty” and ordered the cosmos in such a way to make things new.  But the newness of the original Creation did not remain static, nor was it intended to remain so.  The creatures upon whom God bestowed his own image, human beings, have never passively received the creation that surrounds them.  No, we have instead, in many cases, taken the rawness of Creation and refined it, perhaps even redeemed it.  Now, of course, we have “refined” our sugar and flour but that’s not what I’m talking about.  If we have the ability to redeem the cosmos, then we also have the ability to desecrate it.  No, I’m talking about sweet cream butter.  About Burgundian Pinot Noir and Camembert de Normandie.

In Christian theology, eschatology denotes the contemplation of those things that are final, ultimate, and conclusive.  It seeks to understand this seemingly unrelenting movement towards coherence, union, and culmination that the earth continues to display to us.  We do live in a world whose mountains groan.  But the realm of “last things” is not the only category in which the eschatological can be seen.  Ironically, the moment of Creation was eschatological in that the chaos of the cosmos was ordered and redeemed in the most fundamental of ways.  In this framework, we have profound reason to see the singularly human practice of cooking in a gleaming new light.  Cooking is mini-redemption and if the Greek word eschaton, from which “eschatology” is derived, denotes an “unveiling” then how else could one describe the moment when a crème brulee is finally graced with that beautiful flame?  If humans are the single creatures who possess the Imago Dei, then no action in which the raw resources of Creation, our own “chaos”, is taken and renewed into something better can escape possessing that essentially redemptive nature. And this should give us reason to enjoy food and cooking even more than we already do.  I am trying to understand that pot of marinara on the stove as a “sacrament of sustenance” because while that simmering sauce is actually nothing more than its constituent parts of tomatoes, garlic, basil, and oil, once I’ve stewed it and stirred it, can it ever go back to being its original ingredients?  Of course not.  It is something new or, rather, renewed.  The ingredients have been redeemed.

I will now enjoy it alongside some bread slathered with eschatological butter.

Minimalist Paradoxes

“Today the happening thing is just what is happening. We have reached the end of ‘isms’.”  So Stephen Bayley lamented in his article entitled “Does Minimalism Matter?” commenting on the current exhibition John Pawson’s Plain Space at the Design Museum in London.  He forecasted an obituary of sorts for minimalism, that unrivaled arch-snob of the art world; in fact, it was that minimalism has lost its throne that led Bayley to question its continued relevance.  And yet, is that a fair characterization?  Certainly, minimalism relaxes in the lounges of our highest social brows, but as I write this, I stare at the screen of a MacBook that is charging an iPod: two artifacts of a thoroughly populist impulse of unadornment.  Bayley continued,

“Was minimalism the last absurd, exhausted spasm of neophilia, the cult of the new that so defined modern taste? Or is it still, and will it remain, the ultimate refinement of aesthetic sensibility: the place we go when we have been everywhere else?”

It’s a fair question, for John Pawson is responsible for both an austere Cistercian monastery in the Czech Republic and a Calvin Klein store in New York City.

John Pawson, Plain Space.

Modernity is taxonomy; postmodernity is after that.  That minimalism can inhabit both the realms of high art and the lowbrow pulses of style in the fashion industry perhaps testifies to its status as the last “ism.”  Yet, it is peculiar that certain designers like Pawson so enthusiastically embrace the blurring of art and style.  Stephen Bayley fears that this fusion will be the end of minimalism, but I wonder if it is not something within art and style that has birthed their recent interchangeability, but rather something in our postmodern conception of things.  Until recent times– by which I mean, since the advent of mechanical means of reproduction such as film and photography– there always existed a sharp dichotomy between art and style based upon the opposite sources of the two: visual art represented the cosmos, while style represented an individual’s self-aware and introspective judgments and preferences.  Thus, within visual art, there was a hierarchy and an order that was acknowledged and saluted with conventional paintings, sculptures, and buildings.  There was a belief that there was objective meaning and form embedded into Creation that we, as the subjects thereof, passively received and represented in our art.  Though we have always been mobile, there was a steadfast constancy that we could never escape this meaningful world.

On the contrary when considering minimalism, Plain Space has been described by Rowan Moore of The Guardian as “a sort of ultra-tourism, a consummation of the secret affinity between static architecture and travel, where both are about place and escape.” This could be why Pawson is still the only architect to have designed both a monastery and an airport.  Perhaps it is minimalism that has the unique ability to bestow upon us both the titles of subject and object; we are its form and content.  Could it be the ultimate in anthropocentric art?  For whether we are contemplatively meandering through Plain Space or browsing the aisles of American Apparel in the spirit of  the Helvetica typeface, we are conferring our humanity in all directions.  This quality can only come about when the traditional hierarchy and cosmology of the universe has been lost, and the distinction between art and style ultimately collapses.  There is then no reason to represent the physical world because there is no longer anything to represent, all that is left to serve as the objects of art are the subjective judgments of individuals.

There is something final and conclusive about minimalism that embodies the tension of our present age.  Maybe it rests upon the notion that there really isn’t anything mysterious anymore about our surroundings after the endless dissection and analysis of modernity– that what is only and truly wondrous are the grand forms that we construct and impose onto our cosmos.  And after all, what genre of art is better equipped to passively receive all those forms of ours than minimalism?