Musings on Gluttony

My name is Jeff, and I am a glutton. Big time.

This is easily my most constant failing, the part of my life in which I most lack self-control. I have a few thoughts on why this is.

Gluttony is not only dismissed as being sinful, but it’s encouraged in our society.

Gluttony is one of the famous Seven Deadly Sins. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what most of the others are, and I don’t even know for sure where that list of Seven Deadly Sins came from. Presumably it’s a Christian tradition, probably still upheld by some Catholics somewhere, but Evangelical kids like me are so completely disconnected from tradition and history that most of us are surprised to hear that there’s anything on that list other than sex stuff. Sex stuff is always the worst sins, right? Who cares about food?

Food is actually one of the biggest issues in our world today, and food companies spend more on marketing than the entire GDP of 70% of the countries in the world, every year. In no other issue is our “consumer culture” more obvious than in what we physically consume: food. I bought groceries today, but then I didn’t want to wait until I got home to eat them, so I sat in the Tim Horton’s drivethru for fifteen minutes so I could eat two bagels on the twenty-minute drive home. I was done in less than five minutes. Why did I get two bagels? Well, they were out of all bagels except for two kinds, so naturally I needed one of each.

Do I deliberately choose to eat too much? Not really; I do it out of habit and conditioning more than anything. Growing up, I was always encouraged to eat more. I’m a big guy, and people have always been amazed at how much food I can eat, so they egg me on. Not that I need them to egg me on (mmmm…eggs), because I eat too much as a matter of (second) course. At the same time, everywhere I go there are images and smells of cheap food, deliberately wafted odours of salt, sugar, and fat, meant to reel me in. Feeling hungry is strange for me, and the slightest hunger pretty much incapacitates me, so as soon as my stretched-out stomach starts to feel empty, I stuff it again; and if I know I’ll have to go a long stretch without access to more food (you know, like three hours), I double up my intake to make it last. Wouldn’t want to get hungry.

So I’m a sucker for the marketing, but for the most part overeating is just a bad habit. How could it be one of the Seven Deadly Sins? Well, I know that obesity can be deadly (it’s behind the biggest healthcare spending the world has ever known), but sinful? The thing about the Seven Deadly Sins is that they’re all habits. They’re habits of thought, behaviour, and attitude. They’re the opposite of virtues, and like virtues, they reveal our fundamental orientation toward God, others, and the world we live in. That’s what makes them deadly.

But gluttony is more than just overeating, it’s overindulgence to the point of waste. I’d say this characterizes almost every aspect of consumer culture, including alcohol and sex (the usual Christian taboos), but also food, gadgets, media and commentary (including blogs), and…well, pretty much everything that we have, we have to excess. Our general orientation toward things is not based on needs or goals, but desires. We are a culture of gluttons, and our basic function in society is to acquire and consume. In fact, our entire economy depends on it.

So how do we define gluttony? What’s the limit? When I overeat at a feast, like Christmas or Easter or Thanksgiving, I’m not necessarily being gluttonous: the feast is celebrating something important, it’s a social event with cultural meaning, and it is by definition a time when you can enjoy more food and drink than is normal or necessary. That said, if I “feasted” until I vomited, it would obviously be wastefully excessive; and if I “feasted” every day, it would no longer be a feast because it would normalize eating more than is necessary, and would be gluttonous. Similarly, it might be super handy to have an iPhone, but surely getting a new one every time they release a new model, or having an iPhone and an iPod and an iPad and a MacBook, is excessive and wasteful. Gluttony is a wasteful excess of anything, but it goes beyond that.

Gluttonous behaviour is not just overindulging, it is an orientation or disposition toward the world around us and everything in it. I’ve already defined this as consumer culture, but I’d also like to define it negatively, because this disposition involves a forgetfulness or ignorance toward the world as well as a desire for it. When I overeat, I do so casually, taking for granted that this food is at my disposal and for my enjoyment or whim. I am not conscious of where it comes from, how far it has traveled, who grew it, processed it, or packaged it, or Who created the seed from which it grew and made it rain to water that seed. Praying before a meal – I mean really, consciously offering gratitude to God – makes gluttony difficult to engage in, because it causes us to reflect on the nature of our food as a divine gift, not to be taken for granted or abused. A glutton takes for granted that this food is for their enjoyment, and by extension that the farmers and other food workers also exist for their benefit; a grateful person sees the true value of the food, and of everyone involved in bringing it to their plate, and recognizes that this gift from God comes with purpose beyond our sensuous enjoyment of it. It’s impossible to honour God and others and recognize the true value and purpose of our food while at the same time treating it so lightly that we ignorantly waste it.

One of the things I realize about gluttony is how easily it’s hidden behind good intentions. I was raised to clean my plate, because there are starving children in Africa who’d love to have my food. This cliche shows a good intention: value your food, because not everyone has as much as you do. In effect, though, it just led to me always eating all of my food, even if I had more than I needed. I’ve recently realized that I habitually take too much food, then justify eating all of it by saying I need to clean my plate. I’ve even cited statistics about how much food is thrown out, shaming people for wasting it. But every time that I eat more than I need, it’s still waste – I’m just indulging in it more, gratifying myself in the waste. Gluttony. It’s wasted if it’s in my body or in the garbage, and if it’s in the garbage at least I won’t be getting extra calories from it and being perpetually overweight. What I need to change is how much food I take in the first place.

So let’s apply this to other problematic areas. Drinking: I don’t think you can make a case from Scripture that getting drunk is in itself sinful; usually the references are to “drunkenness”, and the implication (at least as I read it) is that this refers to habitual or ongoing drunkenness. When Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast, the quality of the wine was praised because the party guests had already been drinking long enough that their palates were less refined, which is when most people would break out the cheap box-wine. Jesus gave more top-quality wine to people who were already tipsy, but in the context of a wedding feast, this seems entirely permissible. If, on the other hand, we were to give more wine to someone on the street who is visibly intoxicated, it would be horrendous. Paul suggests drinking wine for medicinal reasons; Jesus encourages it for celebrations; and in neither case is it inappropriate or excessive. So go ahead and drink where and when it’s appropriate to drink, and don’t worry if you get a bit drunk at a celebration. But if every day is a celebration, and you’re drinking without purpose and treating alcohol as an assumption rather than a gift, you’re being gluttonous.

Sex: the purposes of sex are found in what it produces. Procreation, enjoyment, and a deep emotional bond. Casual sex only aims at one of the three, and when the other two happen it creates a lot of problems because the relationship of the people involved can’t handle them. Casual sex treats the other instrumentally, as a way for me to get off; it’s impossible to have a proper relationship with another person if you treat them as a mere instrument of your sexual pleasure, and it’s impossible to honour their humanity and value as someone who bears the image of God. Casual sex is gluttony. Porn is casual sex by proxy, or as is the case with many sex workers, rape by proxy. There is no positive, non-gluttonous version of porn or casual sex. Even for legitimate sex in a loving and monogamous relationship, there can still be gluttony involved: people who use sex to manipulate their partner, have sex out of habit or obligation, etc.

I’ve talked enough about consumer culture here and elsewhere to make the point about gadgets, etc. The point in all of this is that we have legitimate needs, and even legitimate desires. The difference between a virtue (a good habit) and a vice (a bad habit) is that in virtues we are in right relationship to others, whether that’s God, other people, animals, or the natural environment; in a vice, like the Seven Deadly Sins, we cut out or ignore those relationships for the sake of our own ignorant, excessive, and wasteful enjoyment of things and people that we don’t actually have a right to outside of those relationships.

So by all means, enjoy yourself. But not every day is a feast day.