The fasts that we have chosen

I have just completed a sabbatical from blogging related to pressing professional obligations. In the time away I have made good progress on a variety of work projects such that I think I can once again contribute at BCC. I have decided to return with a monthly post on Fast Sunday at least initially including meditations on fasting.

Fasting means a lot to me. It was 20 years ago this August that I engaged in a fast that changed the course of my life. (More about that this August.) Today I want to reflect some on fasting itself.[1] In this post, I am not arguing for any particular understanding of fasting or prescribing any particular type of practice practice or belief. I want instead to introduce briefly different layers within the “cloud of meanings” surrounding fasting.[2]

Fasting has been a part of human culture from the beginning. In the earliest epochs, fasting was often a reflection of the scarcity of food. Such fasting, imposed by the vagaries of environment and now government policy, are not just found in remote human history. The Irish potato blight of the 1840s, the disastrous agricultural policies of Leninism and Stalinism, the current plight of many in sub-Saharan Africa all reflect settings in which externally imposed fasting, famine, continues to affect the lives of human beings.

Even in ancient times, though, there were people(s) who engaged in a ritual version of the starvation associated with famine. For some period of time such individuals went without food and sometimes without drink. Some religion scholars understand these early fasts to represent a time of acknowledging dependency on God. In this view such fasting is a brief ritual recapitulation of famine that emphasizes how much the people relies on God to keep famine away. By mimicking starvation, these people hoped to hold it at bay, in the complex religious logic of societies now alien to us.

Others, usually poor peasants, engaged in fasting in order to support itinerant prophets. Some scholars understand this as an important aspect of fasting in the earliest Christianities. Poor believers went without food several days a month in order to preserve the money required to support those who had heeded the call of Jesus to prepare for his imminent return and had thus abandoned work and family and other responsibilities and contexts that would otherwise have provided their sustenance. (Such an approach was still active in the early nineteenth century among the LDS and some of their peers; at times, communal fasts were the way the LDS supported and sustained Joseph Smith in his full-time religious work.)

In some settings and with time, such a communal fast also became a way to redistribute wealth and underscore the social flattening that occurred within Christian communities—even the wealthy who never had to worry over the source of their food in their public lives would participate in the ritual famine in order to spare the resources for those in the community who lived the embarrassed and alienated life of the urban poor. Such a practice persists, beautifully and radically, among modern Latter-day Saints.

Another important strand in fasting, one that draws my attention particularly, is fasting as an expression of the complex and sometimes strained relationships between body and soul. The problem of embodiment is a central one for perhaps all religions and cultural systems.[3] Whatever form of dualism (the idea that body and soul are separable) is accepted, modified, or rejected, there remains the fact that human beings perceive themselves as having both a physical existence and a consciousness that is somehow separated from that physical existence. For some it is the seemingly external awareness of the physical that constitutes consciousness itself. The literature on consciousness and dualism and the mind:body problem ranges from the tedious to the sublime, from the pedantic to the transformative.

I am not intending to treat the mind:body problem here, but rather to focus attention on the fact that we experience tensions in our lives as conscious beings that often relate to our experience of embodiment. Our backs ache, our digestion troubles us, we feel burning hunger to participate in sex, our skin burns painfully after a first happy day of summer. For a third of us the genetic material of our body mutates and then often overwhelms the body, terminally, in a disastrous process we associate with the zodiacal crab, Cancer.

We aspire to goodness and often greatness, we want to be like God or in tune with the harmonies of the cosmos, and time and again we perceive that our bodies have interfered. For people concerned with the meanings of the body, fasting has several possible functions. For some, and these are generally historical peoples or mystics, separating the body from its normal functions is a way to open the body for the visitation of God or divine energy or spirit. Not allowing the body to have what it wants restores a cosmic balance necessary to allow the spirits its free range.

For others such denial is a way of practicing the exercise of will over physical inclination. These are exercises that strengthen the spirit for its journey through life. Some are comfortable with the possibility that certain types of deprivation can actually cause the body and brain to malfunction or short-circuit. Fasts of sufficient duration do have measurable effects on brain function. Fasts from water as well as food can, if sufficiently long, alter perception and cognition. For some these special glimpses communicate divine truths of durable significance, and they do so without the cheapening effect of psychotropic medications.

Sometimes fasting can be a separation from society. Such thinking probably underlies in part vision quests or extended wilderness fasts, times when food serves as an emblem of human modification of the environment, of the complexities of social organization that allow the produce of the fields to nourish people other than those who harvested it. Fasting can be a time set apart, a time marked by the temporary estrangement from natural social rhythms.

This is little more than a fragment of an introduction to the topic of fasting. What meanings are present for you in the fast? How do you explain its significance?

[1] My wife has a chapter on fasting in her dissertation on Nation of Islam and Mormons, Radical Food, which I recommend for reading once it is done.

[2] Echoing the Hebraist’s “cloud of witnesses,” I have begun using “cloud of meanings” to describe the rich and complex multivalence of religious meaning in various contexts.

[3] For an example of how well the question of embodiment can be treated, see the now canonical Peter Brown, The Body and Society (the 20th anniversary edition has a nice new introduction).

Originally posted at

Banner image is of Mount Mkinwartsveri (Kazbek), with the Church of St. Mary foreground left, image © Samuel Brown 2000