If vegetarianism is the dietary equivalent of pacifism, then Soylent is a form of dietary celibacy. Soylent is a nutritional drink designed by a software engineer for urban professionals too busy to cook and easily tempted by fast food. Not a supplement, it contains everything your body needs in a few daily gulps of doggedly bland sludge. Think of a vanilla milkshake without the taste of vanilla, milk, or ice cream. Theoretically, you can live on this stuff for the rest of your life. Soylent promises freedom from food.
That sounds utopian, I know, but it’s also deeply theological. That’s why I’ve been consuming it for almost a month. Sure, my friends talk about the ceremonial importance of shared meals and the basic human pleasures of smelling and chewing, but I also know my church history. Early Christians, and not just the desert fathers who fled the fleshpots of Rome, longed to exercise mastery over the basic desire for food. Sex, they discovered, was nothing to give up compared to grilled meats, spicy condiments, savory vegetables, and sweet deserts. After all, gluttony came before lust in Adam and Eve’s exit from Eden’s bounteous garden. The drive for nourishment is something we unashamedly share with the animals, the Church Fathers taught, but the overweening desire for delectables makes us fallen human beings. Only fasting from food altogether can give us a taste of the life of the angels.
Early Christians valued asceticism for all kinds of reasons. Most pertain to the purity of heart and clarity of mind that comes from minimizing distractions. Everyone who is not married is called to go without sex, but going without food for even one meal is a hard proposition. The importance of sacrifice for Christian living should hardly need any explanation, and food has always been the Christian sacrifice of choice. Throughout Christian history, fasting and prayer go hand in hand, and Roman Catholicism has long taught that fasting, along with almsgiving, is the most preferred form of external penance that anyone can perform.
Soylent is a postmodern version of fasting. You get to satisfy your stomach while disciplining your taste buds. I thought it might work for me because I’ve never been a foodie. For better or worse, I’ve always treated food as little more than fuel. I hate going to fancy restaurants, unless someone else is paying, because the time and effort strike me as slightly obscene. When the staples of a famine diet, from lichen to beech leaves, become haute cuisine, you know that the affluent have lost their minds to their bellies. When I cook for myself, I prefer a starkly simple diet, but that is hard to pull off when you have kids in the house. I don’t like thinking about what I am going to eat throughout the day, although the more I try to avoid such thoughts, the more they turn into persistent worries.
For those who might worry that my new diet distances me from the quotidian claims of the universal human condition, I am still the primary shopper, chef, and dishwasher for my family of seven. Soylent doesn’t save me much time, but without the distraction of worrying about what I want to eat, I have been able to put more time into preparing healthy meals that my kids actually like to eat. I’ve also lost a few pounds, which is always good. I’ve never been one to try trendy diets, but I do skip meals with some regularity, which I think of as a mini-fast. The problem is that when I skip one meal I end up overcompensating on the next one. The more I treat food as a mere means of survival, the more I end up stuffing myself like a man dying of starvation.
So I turned to Soylent as a convenient way of bringing rational order to my appetite. More than that, I hoped for the restoration of some kind of alimentary innocence. I am trying to discover a sanctified form of eating liberated from the daily demands of hunger. That is why I still eat a few “real” meals a week, with the goal of treating every bite as if it is the first morsel I’ve ever eaten.
It hasn’t worked, of course. Even the spaghetti and frozen pizzas I make for my kids drive me crazy, and I end up devouring whatever they leave on their plates. I should have known better. Hunger is more about the heart than the stomach. Even when fully satiated, our bodily needs cry out. That is why the Church has always taught that fasting without prayer is as sinful as gluttony, or worse.
I have a better dream now. I dream of being so full of God that, like certain medieval mystics, I can satisfy my hunger with the barest of Eucharistic ingredients. I don’t know yet if Soylentwhich tastes a little bit like a liquefied communion wafer, now that I think about itcan help me realize that dream. Probably not, since my dream is really nothing more than a longing for heaven. And who knows if we will even eat in heaven? But if we do, I am certain it will not be Soylent! It will be angel’s food (Psalm 78:25), nourishment just for the joy of it. We will have a direct share of the bread that came down from heaven (John 6:58), and our diet will be as light as our resurrected bodies.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.