Gluttony: Being the First in a Seven Part Series on the Deadly Sins

“You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on a stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?..... There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest in their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips.”

Some heady thoughts from the fifth chapter of the third book of Mere Christianity. Lewis is of course making a point about the unhealthy cultural attitude towards sex, but I want to reverse the analogy and deduce the inverse. Lewis claims here that our attitude towards food could become just as corrupted as that toward sexual expression. And as we know, the sins most comfortable to us are often the ones we must remain on guard against. How many Christians preach sexual chastity but think nothing of unchaste indulgence in the pleasures of food? I touched on this briefly in a previous essay, asking how many fat Baptist preachers (yes, it’s a generalization, but one that experience has proven accurate) inveigh against the evils of even moderate indulgence in tobacco or alcohol, railing that it defiles the temple, but who are poisoning their bodies with an excessive and unhealthy diet.

Now, this is a difficult topic to broach, because in our society some things are acceptable to condemn people for, while other character flaws are socially protected. If you doubt my premise, consider this: how often is it considered normal to personally confront a smoker about their “filthy” habit, but if someone addresses overeating, which I shall herein refer to as gluttony, we are insensitive to people whose metabolisms or stressors predispose them to obesity? Understand that I am not condemning those who eat any more than I condemn those who smoke or drink. All can be done in moderation, and they can also be indulged in to excess.

Let us first understand what we are talking about: Gluttony, properly understood, is expecting more of food that it can offer. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a proper Christmas repast, even if we overindulge a bit on that occasion. No, gluttony is a far more insidious vice. It consists of using food as a panacea for stress, for depression, becoming dependent on food to lift our spirits. To quote Church Father Thomas Aquinas: "Gluttony denotes, not any desire of eating and drinking, but an inordinate desire... leaving the order of reason, wherein the good of moral virtue consists." This is a vital distinction. Not all those who are overweight are gluttons, men like Chesterton and Luther, “giants side to side,” spring first to mind. Nor are those like myself who possess a rapid metabolism immune from the influences of the vice. You may be, for whatever reasons, prone to being larger, but if you have a proper emphasis on the spiritual, and do not use food for more than it was intended, you may not be a glutton. If you are slender but eat for purely sensual pleasure, or deny yourself without reason, you may well be gluttonous. Like many failings in the church, we overlook the dangers of gluttony by looking at things in and of themselves, when we should rather take a systematic approach to how everything in our lives affects our spirituality.

From First Corinthians 11, When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.

In the early church gluttony was divisive and separated the church. Today, it unites us, but it is still as dangerous to our moral state.

If I may beg the reader’s indulgence while I engage in a bit of speculation: Food has become a central pillar of church fellowship. Churches, especially of the evangelical variety, eat together almost every time they gather. And it is not just a simple meal of fellowship. We have fattening foods and coffee (ahh caffeine, the ignored social drug of choice in the Church) after worship, we hold potlucks on any pretext, men’s groups hold prayer breakfasts during which there is little prayer and much breakfast. Obesity is set to over take smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in this country, and yet the church comfortably gorges itself at the table of fellowship, smugly content that we don’t destroy our bodies with liquor or nicotine. If the aforementioned pastors are concerned about the state of our bodies, they would realize that comparatively, gluttony is a far wider-reaching sin in the church than smoking.

So far we have established what gluttony is, and that it is a serious sin in the church. Gluttony and materialism are linked, and western society, and the American church specifically, are in thrall to materialism. So how can we correct our gluttony? I would suggest a few systematic approaches, leaving issues like dieting and exercise (asceticism perhaps) to the more educated than I. First we must become more concerned with those who have less than us. If we are mindful that there are many poor and homeless among us who are dying for want of a decent meal, if we are truly moved to compassion, not just pity, by news reports on the plight of those in Africa, in sum if we consider others before ourselves, we will go a long way toward correcting our own over indulgence.

Now if overeating is gluttony, so too can be an artificial show of deprivation. We are liberated, Peter’s vision opens up to us the opportunity to enjoy a good Delmonico on occasion. If we choose to eat not just moderately, but modestly, we must beware the temptation to another sin, that of Pride. I do not want the reader to exchange a smug confidence that we do are not drunkards or smokers with an equally arrogant and hypocritical confidence that we are not gluttons.

In everything we must remember that Christ is more concerned with our spiritual well being than the purely physical. Gluttony, drunkenness, or drug abuse are sins not purely because they are physical, but because they take the place of a proper emphasis on the spiritual. When it comes to the physical virtues, we must remember Colossians chapter 2:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

It is clear that the indulgence of the flesh has at its root an improper emphasis on the spiritual. It is not that we overemphasize the physical, but rather we denigrate the spiritual and allow our natural appetites to fill the void left by an unspiritual life. If we construct a moral code, as much of the Evangelical church has, based on a laundry list of physical dos and don’ts, then we miss the mark. The key to appropriate and moderate indulgence in the things of the flesh is to have a proper conception of the spiritual. If we give the best to God of our soul, and focus on the spiritual virtues as primary, we will naturally bring our natural appetites in line with a moderate enjoyment of the physical things God created for our pleasure. Hold fast to the Head, which is Christ, and our whole body will be properly nourished, and we will not rely on food to satisfy ourselves.


The Brain said…
My thoughts (hopefully extensive enough to justify my delay in making them):

Defining gluttony as the unreasoned desire for food still leaves unanswered the question of what reasoned use of food is. This in turn requires looking at what food is itself good for, in order to determine whether the use in question is calculated to accomplish this without unjustified adverse effects.

Beyond simple metabolic maintenance, food seems to have valid cultural uses. The sharing of food is an essentially unifying event - it is a demonstration of trust and vulnerability, of willingness to be in the other's presence, of service to their basic needs, and a demonstration of esteem by creating an "unnecessarily" pleasurable experience (whether in presentation or atmosphere) for the others at the table. It isn't by mistake that we demonstrate our communion with Christ by taking food. And that communion is by extension to the rest of the church similarly so gathered. Similarly, negotiations are often most productive for all parties when some food can be shared at breaks in the negotiation - it forces a recognition of the persons on the "other side of the table" and promotes goodwill and cooperative behavior. Even at interviews, the hard questions ("What makes you think you are important to this company's mission?") are asked in the office, but when they take you down to lunch and you shed your business personality, they start asking the more personal questions ("Do you subscribe to any magazines?") which let them gauge whether you will be able to work congenially in the company's atmosphere.

Whether these rise to the level of saving church potlucks and prayer breakfasts would seem to require a factual survey of the individual event in question. For many modern American men's prayer breakfasts, I think it may actually be rather helpful in putting away the distrust, competition, and personal privacy barriers which we maintain in our "outside the church" lives, and creating an atmosphere of trust, collegiality, and helpability which would allow free and open sharing, discussion, and heartfelt prayer. Perhaps it would be better to change the non-food factors; however, absent that change, food may be a good and valid way to mitigate its effects. (This answer leaves untouched whether love or wisdom require a lowering of, inter alia, caloric or caffeine content in otherwise reasonable meals.)

Food also seems to have a divisive effect insofar as it can prevent eating together, though an answer as to whether that divisive effect is still a valid use of food after the Petrine sheet vision and Paul's lines quoted in the article above would take more analysis than I am ready to make now.
J said…
I would also put forward that gluttony is quite distinct from eating in quantities and frequencies that will result in becoming fat.

Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, and rightly so because it's an aspect of the sin of worshiping something other than God. But fatness does not equal gluttony. It can be a result of gluttony, but the two are not equivalent. The act of gluttony is the carrying-out of an excessive desire for food, but many people who are fat do not have an excessive desire for food. What they have is a society and set of personal patterns that is largely centered around food as a common community event.

Some (or many) fat people do indeed fall into the category of the gluttonous. But most of those fat Baptist preachers you mentioned (and that is SUCH an accurate generalization!!! LOL!) along with many other fat Christians are instead guilty of Slothfulness. They have no excessive desire for food. They do eat more than they should, but not because of a desire for food, but rather because it's a societal norm to eat and they don't stop themselves. In some ways it's the "opposite" of gluttony - laziness. Church meals are a great opportunity for people to bond together, but they don't bother to limit themselves to a single plate without dessert while others are going back for multiple plates. They don't hit the weight room to pump iron or force themselves to regularly go running, swimming, or biking.

There definitely are genetic predispositions - I can eat two or three times what most other people eat and still remain thin, largely due to my genetics. But I know my metabolism is going to slow down at some point. I don't consider myself a glutton, I enjoy food but not excessively.

If I keep eating what I'm eating now, but in ten years my body starts slowing down and I start packing on a lot of weight, do I suddenly become a glutton? No, I'm lazy. I don't bother to place strict controls on myself to eat less and exercise.

I don't disagree with your analysis of gluttony itself, I enjoyed it, but many of the examples you gave of those who condemn various sins while ignoring their own gluttony aren't quite accurate. They aren't ignoring their own gluttony, they're ignoring their own slothfulness.

All your condemnations of Christians looking down at perceived sins in others while ignoring their own sins are well put. I think you might need to substitute Sloth for Gluttony in a couple of your examples though.
Jeff said…
Father Robert Capon's 1967 book The Supper of the Lamb might be a good introduction to thinking about the positive side of how to approach, think about, and enjoy food rightly, to the glory of God.

Brendan O'Donnell reviews it in the most recent Credenda/Agenda.

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