Transubstantiation, Halal and Kosher – How Food Becomes Magical
A couple of years ago I attended a funeral of a friend of mine’s father, who passed away after a long battle with cancer. The attendees were mostly of Italian backgrounds, and mostly Roman Catholic, and I stood at the back, a lone atheist in a sea of belief, mostly there in support of my friend during a difficult and sad time in his life. A larger than life-sized Jesus hung next to the altar, seemingly magically suspended about a half a metre away from a giant metal cross which was suspended from the wall, blood dripping from his hands, feet and head. Prayers were spoken, hail Mary’s and the like, and the departed was sent off to heaven by the will of God. As with all good Catholic ceremonies, the time eventually came for The Eucharist, where the faithful are given a chance to drink and eat the body of their saviour, Jesus, in the form of stale crackers and red wine. Of course, the body and blood of Christ have not existed since he was alive some 2000 years ago, but some claim, that by some magical incantations and some closed-eyed head bowing, the cracker and the wine literally become the body and blood of Christ, and that what they are consuming is the living flesh of an actual, albeit supernatural, human being. This is a process known as transubstantiation, and it is taught that these magical words somehow channel the living essence of the long-dead Christ into these foods, redeeming the consumer for his or her apparent sins.
From CARM, the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, paragraph 1376 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states,
While CARM denies any actual transformation has taken place from these incantations, it is the view of the Catholic Church that these foodstuffs actually become the flesh and blood of Christ. But this is all really just semantics, for in the mind of the Catholic partaking in the ritual, the bread and wine become the flesh and blood of Jesus, incarnate. According to this belief, the rigourous nature of scientific testing cannot help us to understand the “miracle” of transubstantiation, as is backed up by this forum answer from Friar Vincent Serpa at the Catholic Answers Forum “… science doesn’t have the tools to determine theological matters… The substance or essence (that which makes a thing what it is) of the bread and wine changes, while the accidents or non-essentials (the appearance and all that is physically measurable) remain the same. There is no physical way of determining the change.
… They couldn’t prove that a change would take place that couldn’t be verified by physical examination. Nor can we. The question remains, do we love Him enough to trust Him in this.”
So the change is untestable, unobservable, and unfalsifiable, much like most religious claims of the supernatural. This is all part and parcel of the Catholic, and much of Christian belief; Belief and faith are the two tools used by religions to reinforce belief and faith, in an unending example of circular logic.
Apart from the ritualistic and token consumption of Christ through magically converting an ordinary cracker and some cheap wine into magical foodstuffs, the church also claim that by the use of salt and some more magical incantations, ordinary (tainted) water can have the evil spirits exorcised from it making it pure and holy. Once this transformation has been made, the water can be used for Baptisms and exorcisms, among other things.
Outside of Christianity, ordinary foodstuffs for daily consumption need to be prepared in a certain way, or blessed, to become suitable for eating or drinking. In Islam it is necessary for for to be halal or “permissible”, or the person eating it is not following the word of Allah. The practice of eating non-halal food is called haram, which means “forbidden”. Halal is most important to an Islamic person when talking about meats, and the animal must be slaughtered in a certain fashion and in certain steps in order to make it permissible. These steps include:
- Allah’s (God’s) name must be pronounced during slaughter.
- The instrument must be very sharp to ensure humane slaughter. The animal must be slit at the throat.
- The animal must not be unconscious
- The animal must be hung upside down and allowed to bleed dry. Eating blood is not halal.
It is also done under the supervision of an Imam, or Islamic priest, and any meats that don’t meet these criteria are haram. Islam also forbids the consumption of pork or any pork products. On a topical note, yesterday I was alerted to a news article outlining the fact that Cadbury, a company mostly known for its production of chocolate goods, are claiming the label “halal” on their Easter eggs in order to assure the Islamic community that their products are safe to eat under sharia law. In Victoria, in order for a product which doesn’t contain any forbidden food to be labels as “certified halal”, they simply need to pay a fee to Co-Ordination Council of Victoria (ICCV). Since chocolate products do not contain any of the forbidden foodstuffs under the law, it seems that the certification process is simply a way to make money. The article also notes that Purina cat food now has halal certification, meaning that an Islamic cat, if such a thing can exist, will not eat haram food, thereby following the laws of Allah. I’m still waiting to see if there is such thing as halal dog food, since dogs are considered filthy beasts in Islam. This aside, the fact that Easter eggs are a pagan symbol co-opted by the Christian church to represent the rebirth of Jesus on Easter Sunday, something that most Islamic people probably would rather not celebrate, points out that this is simply a money-grabbing scheme by the certification board.
In the Jewish faith, one that also forbids the consumption of pork products, the allowed foods are called kosher. It is very similar to the Islamic halal in that foods need to be prepared in a certain way and under the guidance of a rabbi, or Jewish priest. In kosher food laws, banned foods include meat that has been “torn by beasts” and carrion, and require that the animal be killed by slashing of the throat with a razor sharp knife. The animal must be free of disease and “glatt”, or “smooth” in Yiddish. Pork is also considered to be forbidden, as is any meat not slaughtered under the strict rules of Judaism. Like with Halal, there is a certification board which determines whether the kosher standard is met. There is also a fee which needs to be paid in order to reach certification.
Many of the foods banned under Islamic sharia law, and under Judaism, may have their roots in the fact that these teachings were there to stop people from getting ill by making the wrong food choices. The ingestion of carrion, shellfish and pork, when done in the wrong manner can lead to disease and death, as there are many potential parasites within foods of this nature. But the ritualistic nature of the slaughter, that the food is somehow magically transformed from a lump of flesh into a blessed meal by the incantations and prayers of holymen, is an untestable, unfalsifiable and unobservable claim made by the religious to further exclude themselves from the non-believers (that’s non-believers in their particular faith). The fact that something can be labeled “kosher” or “halal” by simply paying a fee might give some clue as the the efficacy of the claims of a blessing.