The Seven Deadly Sins of classic moral theology still today get their fair share of attention from the Sunday pulpit. Bar one, that is. When was the last time you heard a sermon on gluttony and the peril it brings the soul? If we ever did, we'd probably laugh it off as silly, akin to being admonished about cleanliness as a pathway to godliness.
Very few of us truly believe that we overeat. Given the opportunities to consume food in a nation of plenty, we are more likely to have pride in our restraint. In the United States, at least, the results of health research paints a different picture. The vast majority of Americans are carrying around more body fat than a healthy body should. It's not only the amount we eat; it's the kind of food we eat. To keep a nutritious eating regimen in this country means swimming arduously upstream. Recently I drove on the interstate from San Francisco to Los Angeles and practically my only options for a meal on the entire trip were McDonalds, Burger King, and other fatty food distributors.
Given the fact that four-fifths of the world goes to bed hungry each night, gluttony is a sin of social injustice. Hordes of children are more than happy to send their peas and squash to the other side of the world, of course, but the structural mechanisms for a just distribution simply are not in place. Put plainly, there is more than enough food to go around the planet, but too much of it stays on our kitchen tables.
Gluttony also takes a toll on the interior life. When we preoccupy ourselves with food, our capacity to pursue more transcendent values is curtailed. It's sobering how much of our soul force we forfeit anticipating food intake. If you're like me, you can spend an entire day looking forward to a delicious Thai curry for dinner. A glutton is not only susceptible to overconsumption. Delicacy wraps a pretty bow on the same package.
Oh, by the way, how's your diet going? Nearly everyone you bump into these days is either on a diet, breaking a diet, or hoping to embark on one soon (after the next holiday). Talk about dominating your sense of self! Dieting is one of the more subtle forms of gluttony. In this case, it's anxiety about the food that you're not eating—or the list of foods that you can eat—that sucks up your spirit.
As you can see, gluttony wears many masks. Its practice does not rely on the quantity, quality, or even scarcity of our consumption. It feeds, so to speak, on our obsession. And that's the peril of gluttony. It turns sustenance—and the natural pleasure of appetite—into an end unto itself. We no longer eat so that we can live; we live so that we can eat.
Once a year I spend a weekend at a Buddhist monastery populated by a community of monks and nuns. The retreat serves as an annual reminder of how spiritually out of focus I am. Invariably, at the beginning of my stay, I find it very hard to sit still for even 10 minutes in meditation. My mind appears to have a mind of its own. That's the right observation, my spiritual teachers tell me. If we cannot control our own minds, then we have to inquire into the forces that actually do control our thoughts. And let's not even get started on those untamed emotions....
In that light, it is foolish to search for the magic diet sufficient to resolve our obsession with food. In most cases, the obsession fills a void that we have left untended at the core of our self. Our souls are malnourished. Jesus once instructed the disciples that some crises are only resolved by prayer and fasting. I submit that our culture of gluttony qualifies as one of those crises.
David Batstone, executive editor of Sojourners, is author of Saving the Corporate Soul & (Who Knows) Maybe Your Own (Jossey-Bass, 2003).