Agape Restaurants Could Revive Toleration and Multiculturalism

Debates surrounding tribalism and bigotry abound, many focused on biased media or public policy. Agape Restaurants conceptualize food as a cultural force for realizing toleration and nurturing community—all while dining with strangers.

Imagine you’re going out to eat with a group of friends. You have decided on a place which includes a small reservation fee, split between you and your 5 closest friends. As soon as you enter, you notice an open and uplifting interior design, maybe not as dimly lit and segregated as the place you had dinner at during the previous weekend. You and your friends are immediately assigned to different seats around the restaurant into unfamiliar groups strategically organized to rip you from your safe circle of friends, which likely consists of people from similar socioeconomic or ethnic backgrounds, education levels, religions, or hobby groups.

You do not see each other until the end of the night, but instead, spend it intimately with a coterie of strangers, seated around a cozy table talking for prescribed lengths of time about predetermined topics that are rather personal for a group of itinerants. You progress from questions like ‘Why is tonight different from other nights?’, and ‘Where do your children go to school?’, to questions like ‘What do you regret?’, and ‘What do you fear?’. No, this isn’t a speed dating event, although you’ll likely observe a series of questions reminiscent to those found on the list of 36 Questions to Fall in Love with Anyone.

It’s an Agape Restaurant, a dining experience of the future proposed by Alain de Botton, philosopher and founder of The School of Life.

What Is Love?

Agape is a unique type of love. Christian writer C.S. Lewis contrasts it with 3 other types of love: affection (storge), erotic (eros), and friendship (philia). He describes it as an unconditional love we model after the infinite concern God has for each of us, which exists regardless of person or context. It transcends human differences including all the hot-button identity groupings of today: sexuality, gender, political orientation, ethnicity, country of origin, socioeconomic background, and even consumer preferences (‘Oh, I only buy local’).

To Lewis, agape was the greatest of all the loves. ‘Love is love is love is love’ doesn’t just apply to individuals who have been designated lovable and non-deplorable by influential progressive figures though. And, it isn’t limited to the list of preferred lovables preached by prominent conservative leaders either. We must give love, in every direction, to all types of individuals, and we must get creative with the ways in which we nurture emotional maturity and foster fellowship among human beings who seem so other to us.

In specific terms, this would require us to love the Black Lives Matter activists alongside the ‘All Lives Matter’ proclaimers, law enforcement officers who properly preserve the rule of law as well as the brutal abusers who pervert it, the casualties of our militarized police state, and all other victims of a culture hellbent on hardening our tribal natures.  

In hopes of salvaging a beautiful and powerful concept for a more secular age, de Botton proposes a humanistic ritual growing from the hub of community and culture—food.

From Christian Mass to Modern Restaurant

Placing the Christian Mass under his atheistic microscope, de Botton observes a consecrated space filled with diverse peoples, where some of our highest human values are exalted—compassion, emotional connection, and understanding. Churches focus a great deal on absolving us of our loneliness in this life, and showing what we can do now to avoid it in the next. No doubt developed countries, including the United States, are becoming more secular, less-church-going cultures, but what if we could take this ritual and strip it of its warty religious history and theistic underpinnings?

Prior to codifying communion into the liturgical and formal structure we see today, the Eucharist was a feast for Christian communities. They would take a respite from their work and housekeeping, gathering together at a feasting table, to commemorate the Last Supper. This served as a more boisterous form of worship, full of good conversation, prayer, and renewal of obligations they had to one another. Some were familiar faces from the community, but many were outlanders. These meals, also known as agape feasts, helped meld together households and individuals of somewhat conflicting worldviews (though notably less tolerant in their views than we are in our liberalized world today).

These meals, also known as agape feasts, helped meld together households and individuals of somewhat conflicting worldviews (though notably less tolerant in their views than we are in our liberalized world today).

Rather than beckon us all back to church, an institution de Botton sees as more damaging than beneficial to humanity, he suggests that we create Agape Restaurants, echoes of the ancient feasts, refashioned to complement our modern sensibilities.  

Why Agape Restaurants?

In his book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believers Guide to the Uses of Religion, he contends, “The contemporary world is not, of course, lacking in places where we can dine well in company—cities typically pride themselves on the sheer number and quality of their restaurants—but what is significant is the almost universal lack of venues that help us to transform strangers into friends.”

Sure, bars and clubs exist. And, any number of community organizations or social clubs continue to operate, though their numbers are diminishing, as documented by social scientists, and most thoroughly by Robert Putnam in his groundbreaking book Bowling Alone. We have countless music festivals, which mirror some aspects formerly offered by agape feasts. That’s to say little about social media and the plethora of apps intended to help people make connections. Despite (or because of) our digital connectivity, a Pew study points out that Americans have fewer close ties to those from their neighborhoods and voluntary associations. And, given the high volume of easy access and low-level cost to these large pools of people online, meaningful connections are certainly in question.

These avenues do little to address the bigger issues of our day surrounding toleration and diverse social interactions. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the shrinking of intellectual diversity on college campuses and the rise in free speech skeptics, have sparked debate. They draw much needed attention to the illusions we maintain about ourselves as citizens of liberal, multicultural societies. We preach and virtue-signal all day, on social media, about how much we prize toleration or the diversity of our social circles. Truth is, we still very much live in bubbles in person, and self-gratifying echo chambers online. This is enhanced by the self-selective nature of social media, which further enables us to shape the world around us. We can easily allow in only the ideas and types of people who conform to our self-comforting worldview. (The debate remains open to whether social media changes human nature or merely magnifies it.)

One gift of Christian mass is the way in which it overcomes our tribal barriers—with exception to that of a shared religion—bringing together individuals from different income brackets, political orientations, education level, marital status, hobbies, ethnicity, and even along less visible markers like temperament or mental stability. Agape Restaurants could be one more salve available to those looking to smooth over the barbs of tribalism and partisanship. The fact of choosing to patronage such a dining space, sharing it with guests of presumably diverse backgrounds, would signal a commitment to the spirit of community and friendship, not too far off from what churches have historically done (in a very specific sense).  Furthermore, it inspires initially less-interested parties to reconsider their identitarian biases, for a taste of heaven on earth.

It is said that travel is one of the greatest anecdotes to prejudice. True, but not all can afford the luxury, and Agape Restaurants could offer a more accessible way for us to break down those stultifying barriers. Othering and vilifying people we deem our political or social enemies is easy to do when they stay in the abstract realm, like characters in a news article or strawmen in a late-night comedy sketch. As de Botton says, “Prejudice and ethnic strife feed off abstraction. However, the proximity required by a meal—something about handing dishes around, unfurling napkins at the same moment, even asking a stranger to pass the salt—disrupts our ability to cling to the belief that the outsiders who wear unusual clothes and speak in distinctive accents deserve to be sent home or assaulted.”

Othering and vilifying people we deem our political or social enemies is easy to do when they stay in the abstract realm, like characters in a news article or strawmen in a late-night comedy sketch.

It’s difficult to belittle a Christian when she’s passing you a basket of fresh rolls, to want to imprison refugee children when you’ve shared a bottle of wine with one of their relatives the month before, to mock the way a transgender woman dresses when she’s splitting a chocolate dessert with you, or, heaven forbid, to throw epithets at a privileged white man when you just found out over dinner that he too shares insecurities and doubts similar to yours.

Some visible differences between participants will create obvious tensions, like those along ethnicity, gender, or in some cases, even religion. More concealed dissimilarities, like one’s political beliefs or life-philosophies, are made manifest through the progressively-revealing nature designed into the dinner table questions.

For all the top-down or large-scale government solutions proposed to foster multiculturalism and toleration, there are few methods more effective and spontaneously ordered than creating spaces which encourage strangers to eat supper together.

Few will argue the centrality food has in culture and community. The reaction to the loss of Anthony Bourdain alone—who also used food as a vehicle for overcoming prejudices—is a testament to that fact. Why not use the already widely available and wildly energetic cultural realm of the dining hall to combat chauvinism, loneliness, and emotional ineptitude?

The Other Half of Agape Restaurants

Not only would these spaces be centers of toleration but also bastions of emotional intimacy—the other half of religious feasts. Religions have been long aware of how food can integrate moral and social lessons in concrete ways. We observe these in stringent dietary codes, like the Word of Wisdom, which prescribes Mormons to abstain from alcohol and tobacco, and to remain physically active. But, we also encounter virtues embodied in a dish of crushed apples and nuts during the Jewish Passover, hearkening back to Jewish enslavement in Egypt, or the way Zen Buddhists understand their tea to represent the transitory nature of joy and sorrow.

Not only would these spaces be centers of toleration but also bastions of emotional intimacy—the other half of religious feasts. Religions have been long aware of how food can integrate moral and social lessons in concrete ways.

Agape Restaurants would welcome guests to tables which include guidebooks, modernized canons of ritual, outlining the rules and expectations of the table community. Here, members of this burgeoning community would talk openly, moving from more casual questions like ‘Why is this meal so different from others?’,  toward more intimate ones, ‘What do you dislike about yourself?’ New initiates are likely to exhibit timidity, but they are sure to be supported by more seasoned strangers who can encourage them into more emotional authenticity.

One doesn’t expect to conjure up Eggs Benedict having never fried an egg before. One shouldn’t anticipate a transformation immediately after one meal. Give the encounter time to work its way into the system, nurturing the soul.   

Nutrition is essential for life, but why shouldn’t we task it with fulfilling other human needs? De Botton questions the conventional notion of food as a metaphor. To him “it’s just food,” writes Carole Cadwalladr. “What makes a meal an experience is when it’s a meaningful encounter in which either side reveals something of themselves.”

This idea that we can heal societal wounds and bridge cultural gaps—or least prevent new walls from being built—through modest methods like communal meals might seem ridiculous to activists and the politically-minded among us. At a time when distrust of government institutions and most fruits of the political process taste bitter, it seems as opportune a moment as any to experiment with peaceful, economic means of fellowship.

Some believe we have good reason to question the feasibility of Agape Restaurants. Musing in 2012, Brian Lapsa doubts their ability to overcome foundational differences in worldviews saying,

“The club’s most important activities—the meals and the conversations at table—are meant to be detached from its members’ most important beliefs. Man’s greatness and his frailty will be celebrated, as long as the talk skirts the anthropological and cosmological commitments necessary to understand them. Somehow the guests (including the religious, whom de Botton takes pains to invite) are to offer and receive counsel while avoiding discussion of the fundamental principles of their worldviews, for those would divide rather than unite.”

Individuals already firmly affiliated with a faith or church, especially one that provides them the meaningful bonds unique to religious communities, would have little incentive to attend.

Lapsa contends further, “If, in spite of all this, a community does form, it will hardly be the pluralistic microcosm of ‘orthodox and secular’ society that de Botton envisions. The religious (if they bother to attend at all) will tire of the implicit denials of anything but man and nature, and will not return. The club’s faithful, probably few in number, will be a lot like its founder: cosmopolitan and thoroughly secular.” In-groups and out-groups, history would suggest, are inevitable, but Agape Restaurants might be a beacon of multiculturalism, something reminding us to soften our group borders, making them more porous to those who call someplace else their homeland or home-tribe. And, who is to say that Agape Restaurants have to preclude discussion of our most foundational beliefs, “skirt[ing]” around our “anthropological or cosmological commitments” as Lapsa supposes?

In-groups and out-groups, history would suggest, are inevitable, but Agape Restaurants might be a beacon of multiculturalism, something reminding us to soften our group borders, making them more porous to those who call someplace else their homeland or home-tribe.

From my research, no Agape Restaurants have been founded since de Botton dreamed them up a few years ago, which could vindicate critics like Lapsa. Maybe there’s no market for them. I speculate that too many of us (and our surrounding cultures) lack the courage to venture further into the uncomfortable places of the heart. Arrogance, narrow-mindedness, and the confirmation biases which support our narratives about the other can appear sweeter to the taste than civility and humility. Plus, the notion of making food tertiary to the design of a restaurant seems too absurd to foodies, if not patently offensive. It should come as no surprise that de Botton has concocted this modern-day ritual, giving little thought to the cuisine. “I am not a foodie, thank goodness,” he says. “I will eat pretty much anything. A lot of my friends are getting incredibly fussy about food and I see it as a bit of an affliction.”

Although I align more with de Botton here, than with his afflicted associates, I have to admit that my foodie friends stand on fertile ground—there are few pleasures as simple as good food with good people. They usually mean pals and acquaintances, but why shouldn’t good people also mean strangers, foreigners, aliens, the other?   

Consider me as one who eagerly hopes an intrepid community cultivator will take on this challenge, to truly test our appetite for toleration and multiculturalism, expanding the marketplace of emotional commerce and human idealism.

(Image source: Kevin Curtis/Unsplash)

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