Patrick Ryan, S.J., has held the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society since 2008. Photo by Chris Taggart

The fall McGinley Lecture examined a complicated theological matter from a point of view to which anyone can relate—food.

Patrick J. Ryan, S.J., focused his lecture, “Law and Love: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Attitudes” on the laws and customs concerning food prohibitions in the three religions. He also presented theories for the origins and purpose of the prohibitions from relevant scholarship.

Father Ryan said that while Islamic and Jewish traditions hold a favorable perspective on the law and those who study it, Christians tend to have a prejudice against religious law that spills over into civil life.

“We tell more jokes about lawyers than we do, for instance, about butchers, bakers and candlestick makers,” he said.

Father Ryan spoke about the Christian reversal of Jewish food prohibitions outlined in the New Testament, including Peter’s dream in the Book of Acts, Chapter 10, where all food was declared acceptable to eat.

Though Christians are traditionally thought of as not having food prohibitions, modern Christian movements have included Catholic prohibitions on meat during Lent and America’s alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.

Father Ryan suggested that the failure of Prohibition demonstrates that law alone is not enough to maintain strict abstentions.

“It is only love for that which transcends the individual—God and one’s community—that can motivate any variety of food prohibition or any type of total abstinence,” he said.

Claudia Setzer, Ph.D., professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, and Amir Hussain, Ph.D, professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, responded to Father Ryan’s lecture with Jewish and Muslim perspectives, respectively.

Setzer said that food and beliefs about it are a powerful representation of a person’s religious and personal identity.

“How we deal with [food], talk about it, prepare it, restrict it, or refuse it to others reveals our deepest values and sense of ourselves,” she said.

For example, Setzer said gratitude for food is a strong Jewish value, bearing a stark contrast to the fear-based approach to calories in our modern diet-conscious society.

Father Ryan said the law and its study are highly esteemed in Islam, which established itself as a “civilization of love based on law.”

“Jurisprudence has been at the center of Muslim intellectuality ever since [its early days]—not theology,” Father Ryan said.

Though its focus on the law is perhaps better known, Hussain said that a close study of the Koran reveals it as a “book of love.”

“It will surprise most non-Muslims, and unfortunately some Muslims, that Islam is a religion with a strong emphasis on love,” Hussain said. “How many of us, Muslim or not, think about love as the first word that comes to mind when the Koran is mentioned?”

Food prohibitions have a distinct place at the intersection of law and love, and can play a role to greater understanding amongst the three religions, Father Ryan said.

“Laws regarding what we eat and what we don’t eat unite us as communities of faith, but also divide us from other communities of faith, simultaneously promoting love in our community and discouraging love for other communities,” he said.

Despite the deeply varying perspectives amongst world religions, the dinner table still has the power to bring people together.

At the recent Assisi Interfaith Summit, while no common prayer was shared, a lunch accommodating various religious restrictions was served to all summit delegates.

“Law and love—lawyers and lovers—can sit down at the table together if the buffet is sufficiently varied,” Father Ryan said.

The McGinley Lecture is delivered biannually as part of the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society. Father Ryan has held the chair since 2008. The lecture endeavors to facilitate a “trialogue” between people of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.

The McGinley Chair, previously held by Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., was founded in 1988 to attract distinguished scholars interested in the interaction of religion with the legal, political and cultural forces in our pluralistic American society.

– Jennifer Spencer