SPECIAL SERIES: The Seven Deadly Sins
Gluttony: very much a relevant, contemporary issue!
To be honest with you, I never found the whole idea of the Seven Deadly Sins much help. I mean, they're not really sins, are they? Murder is a sin. Or adultery. Or stealing. But those are specific, concrete acts. The Seven Deadly Sins aren't. They're appetites, desires, passions; call them what you will. Sure, murdering someone out of anger is a sin, but how is being angry with them in the first place a sin? Anger is something you feel, not something you do.
Besides, the list is not all that convincing. There's a big overlap, for instance, between greed and gluttony, isn't there? And between gluttony and lust, when we remember that you can lust after things other than sexual gratification. Could it be that somebody just decided that seven was a good, satisfying number, and tried to think up seven words with negative connotations relating to human appetites, and called them 'sins'?
I don't think I'm alone here. The Seven Deadlies are not flavour of the month in modern Christianity. We don't even use them as a basis for considering morality, or examining conscience (if we ever did). Any systematic attempt to examine the moral dimension of human behaviour is likely to use the Ten Commandments as a framework, not the Seven Deadly Sins.
In fact, we mostly hear about the Seven Deadly Sins from people who are joking about them — or using them as marketing tools ("sinfully delicious!"). The general thrust of all the jokes is that Christians are killjoys — mean-spirited puritans who think that the ordinary pleasures of life are evil, and must be stopped.
What's behind all this is an accusation of dualism — the idea that Christians divide everything into opposites, and categorise one as good and one as bad. God is good; the devil is bad. The soul is good; the body is bad. Spiritual things are good; physical or material things are bad. This dualism, it is said, fundamentally affects the way we think, and even the way we speak — we go "up" to heaven but "down" to hell. And, in truth, there's no doubt that there is a recurring tendency to dualism in Christianity.
So, the argument goes, Christians, influenced by dualism, think that the physical, material side of life is basically evil. So they dislike anything associated with physical pleasure, satisfaction or contentment — "if it feels good, don't do it!". Appetites and instincts which are ordinary, natural and beneficial, like the libido, the desire to eat, or taking pleasure in relaxation, for instance, become the "sins" of lust, gluttony and sloth. The whole idea of the Seven Deadly Sins, in other words, is assumed to arise out of a distorted and unhealthy dualist view of life.
Maybe it's because of that view, and because we are sensitive to the risk of dualism and wish to avoid it, that the Seven Deadly Sins are unfashionable even among Christians.
But, you know what? I think this view of the Seven Deadlies is a mistake. And nothing illustrates that more clearly than gluttony. In fact, gluttony has nothing to do with a false dualistic view of the universe; quite the opposite.
Gluttony's about consumption. Lust, say, is all about craving for sensation, but no matter how often you experience a particular sensation, you can experience it again — and so can others. But gluttony consumes resources, and they can't be consumed again, by you or anyone else.
Gluttony could, to take a classic example, be eating all the cake and leaving none for anyone else. But the concept is much wider than that. Too much focus on satisfying any appetite I may have can affect those around me. Indeed, it can affect me. Here, for instance, is the story of someone who fears that his choice to spend two or three hours a day in the gym prevents him from living a balanced life, and jeopardises his relationships. We might not normally call that gluttony, but maybe that's what it is.
And, on a larger scale, the idea of gluttony probably has something to tell us about social and environmental issues. Why do some in our society consume so much, while others are in want? What drives that? Does it have to be that way, or could it be otherwise? Why are we as a society so profligate with scarce resources, preferring to run its air conditioners and drive its oversized cars and not think too much about how our grandchildren will live? Does it have to be that way, or could it be otherwise?
Nothing wrong with pleasure
So gluttony is not about consuming for pleasure. There is nothing inherently wrong with consuming (food, or anything else) for pleasure. Pleasure is good. That extra scoop of ice-cream is not a sin. 'Sinfully delicious' things are not sinful at all.
Aquinas says that gluttony is not just consuming a lot, it's consuming inordinately and unreasonably. And I think what he means is consuming without regard to consequences; consuming in a way which damages you or others, where the price paid for your pleasure is out of all proportion to your pleasure. The price could be damage to your health, it could be the degradation of your life, it could be the dedeterioration of your relationships, it could be that others are left in want, it could be almost anything. The point is that if we consume without regard to those consequences, then we are falling into the sin of gluttony.
So, far from reflecting a dualistic view of the world, in which everything in divided into 'good' and 'bad' and physical pleasure is 'bad', gluttony reflects an integrated, holistic view of the world in which the interconnectedness of all aspects of life is recognised. I can't consume without some price being paid, either by me or by somebody else. And if I ignore that price, and consume without restraint, without balancing my own pleasure and satisfaction against the wider good of myself and others, then I'm guilty of gluttony.
I think you don't have to be a moral theologian to recognise this. You don't even have to be a Christian. Everyone recognises compulsive, disordered, irrational consumption as unhealthy. In fact, in extreme cases we categorise it as a disease — bulimia, for example. And we instantly recognise addiction and addictive behaviour as not just a health issue, but a psychological issue. The idea of gluttony implies that it has a moral dimension as well, and I think few people would disagree with that.
Of course I'm not saying that bulimics or people in the grip of some addiction are necessarily failing in moral terms; not at all. But I am saying that we make choices in life, and we can choose to engage in behaviour which may fall well short of bulimia or substance addiction or the like, but is still damaging to ourselves, to people we care about, or to the community. And that is a moral issue.
So where does all that leave us? The language may be old-fashioned, and even slightly funny, but gluttony is very much a relevant, contemporary moral issue.
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