Gluttony: The Warm Sin
By Christopher Killheffer - New Haven, Connecticut, USA - 18 February 2015
When did gluttony stop being a sin? And yes, for a long time it really was a sin -- not just a sin, but no less than one of the seven deadly sins, the vices thought to be especially threatening to the soul. And not only was gluttony included on that fearsome list, it was often singled out for particularly harsh condemnation. Evagrius of Pontus, one of the first to develop the concept of the seven sins, called gluttony the “nourishment of evil thoughts,” the “extreme of outrages, confederate of lust, pollution of the intellect.” The danger of gluttony, to Evagrius’s mind, clearly seemed enormous, and he wasn’t alone in that view: for more than a millennium, saints and popes and theologians all abominated gluttony, often with language that echoes Evagrius’s sense of alarm. “There is nothing worse, nothing more shameful than gluttony,” said John Chyrsostom, the 5th century “golden-mouthed” doctor of the church. “It makes the mind gross and the soul carnal; it blinds and permits not to see clearly.”
It’s quite an understatement to say that we don’t hear talk like that about gluttony anymore. The truth is that we don’t hear talk about gluttony at all. And it’s not just a matter of something that’s still an important doctrine but is being neglected in the pulpit. Even official church discourse has no time for gluttony these days; in the Catechism, it gets only a single passing mention, without any attempt to even explain what it is. How did that happen? How did gluttony go from being “the extreme of outrages” to something too trivial to bother explaining?
As our teaching on gluttony has changed, so has our practice. John Cassian was alarmed to see monks indulging in the gluttony of exotic foods -- by which he meant “beans and vegetables and fruit.” Today a diet like that would be considered severely penitential. I once spent some time at a monastery renowned for cleaving to the old ways, a place where mass and the divine office are still sung in Latin. But the old ways stopped outside the refectory. After large and varied suppers, those holy and cheerful men would offer me my choice of as many as five different desserts. Five. Did we really need five? My guess is that in a way, those monks felt that we did -- not because we all needed to eat lots of cake, but because of how that kind of abundance can lend a sense of generosity and celebration to a gathering. That’s a part of our tradition too -- the Catholic emphasis on the conviviality of the feast, that big inclusive meal where God is known in fellowship and mutual contentment. That part of our tradition is particularly strong these days. Frank Bruni, in a recent New York Times column on Italian-American eating, argues that his family has to pile up the food because it’s a way of showing love: “Aunt Carolyn and Uncle Mario spread out everything that they do so that there can be no doubt about how much they treasure us.” Many families might recognize that impulse, but it’s probably especially true among Catholics. In Babette’s Feast (declared one of the all-time best movies by the Vatican), it’s a Catholic who prepares the expensive and elaborate meal which spiritually transforms a dour northern European town. That’s an image of ourselves that resonates. Isn’t ours the church that loves to talk about the vats of wine at Cana, the many extra baskets of multiplied loaves? Isn’t ours the church of the grand gesture, of the abbondanza of giving, of grandmas telling us to “mangia mangia” even when everybody’s full?
Those two strains of the tradition -- the “nourishment of evil thoughts” and the feast of togetherness -- seem hard to reconcile. Is gluttony a sin or isn’t it? Is it something that leaves us soul-blind and polluted, or is it the genial and innocuous thing we think of today?
We might suppose that the gluttony part of the tradition is really about extreme cases of overeating -- people who actually eat and drink themselves into ill health, or even to death. That would make gluttony more recognizable to us, something like our own concerns about obesity. But as much as that might make sense to us, it doesn’t actually reflect the way the sin was conceived of by people like Chrysostom and Evagrius, who certainly didn’t see gluttony as a marginal or a medical thing. Like many ancient and medieval thinkers, both Chrysostom and Evagrius actually considered gluttony to be the first sin, committed when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and brought about our alienation from God. Clearly whatever gluttony meant to them, it had nothing to do with extremes of overeating or the problems of diet-related illness.
Well then we might suppose that the church just had it wrong about gluttony. Maybe gluttony was one of those ideas that are actually alien to Christianity, which manage to somehow adhere to the tradition without ever becoming a real part of it, and which the church is right to abandon. The history of the sin’s origins lends some credence to that idea, but it would be hard to square with how important and established gluttony was in the tradition, far more significant and widely accepted than something like, say, limbo. For a millennium and more the church invested heavily in gluttony as a fundamental concept of moral theology. How could have it have made that kind of investment in something that turned out to be no big deal?
It’s possible that something else is going on here. It’s possible that gluttony no longer seems like a vice in our time because we’ve lost sight of what it actually is, confusing the sin with some of the impulses that lie beneath it. Dorothy Sayers, in a 1944 lecture on the deadly sins, offers some insight on how that might have happened. She divides the sins into two categories, the warm-hearted and the cold-hearted. The warm-hearted sins (including gluttony) she conceives of as vices “of the common man,” because they’re rooted in our humble, animal nature, perversions of what are ultimately humane and generous instincts. By contrast, the cold-hearted sins are vices of the powerful, and in no way seek to connect with others as the warm sins do, but instead try to assert an isolated superiority of self. Sayers considers the cold-hearted vices the more dangerous, noting that Jesus tended to be relatively mild in his admonition of warm sins, while speaking “the most violent vituperations” against the cold ones.
But of course the warm sins are dangerous too, perhaps especially so in our time, when people have grown frustrated with the church’s longstanding habit of taking a stance that is the opposite of Christ’s, treating the cold sins lightly and the warm ones with sternness. Because of that habit, Sayers argues, we can hardly blame people for siding with the warm sins. But the trouble is that they can end up not just preferring the warms sins over the cold, but actually treating warm sins like virtues: “The common man,” she says, “is rather inclined to canonize the warm-hearted sins for himself, and to thank God openly that he is broad-minded, given to a high standard of living, and instinct with righteous indignation -- not prurient, strait-laced or namby-pamby” like the cold-hearted.
We can see that kind of “canonization” of warm sins happening not just with individuals, but also on a societal level. The most obvious example of a socially canonized sin in our time would be lust, a vice that today is often associated with a healthy zest for living, generosity of spirit, even a kind of big-hearted capacity for love. And the fact is that people given to lust often do have those kinds of good instincts, and they wouldn’t be as prone to lust if they didn’t have them. But while those good instincts may in fact be the warm heart of lust, that’s not to say that the sin and the instincts it proceeds from are the same thing. Lust is a confusion or perversion of big-heartedness, not its fulfillment.
Is the same kind of thing happening with gluttony? We know our feasting is full of good instincts -- generosity, gratitude, the joy of making other people happy and seeing their contentment. But is there a sin lurking in the midst of our conviviality? Is there some perversion, some kind of excess which we’ve confused with the warm heart of our sharing?
To answer that question, we need to look at what gluttony was before it dropped out of our moral theology, before it somehow went underground and, apparently, resurfaced as the canonized version of itself we know today.
The idea of gluttony is not much developed or even referred to in Scripture. In the Old Testament, there’s a Proverb which warns that “the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty” (Prov. 23:20-21), but otherwise gluttony appears only in events which later Christian writers would interpret as examples of the sin – for instance, the destruction of Sodom, which occurred in part because its inhabitants had indulged in a “surfeit of bread” (Ezek. 16:49). In the New Testament, there’s a bit more development of the concept with Paul’s repudiation of those who make a god of the belly (Phil 3:19), a verse which suggests the weight of the spiritual, not just practical, issues at stake in the way we approach food. But even with Paul the idea is not elaborated any further, and it would remain for later writers to develop a more specific understanding of the meaning of gluttony.
The first Christians to undertake that task were the desert fathers, the ascetics who headed out to live in the wilderness during the 3rd and 4th centuries. Writers from the desert tradition like Evagrius Pontus and John Cassian were the first to introduce the concept of the seven (or in some versions, eight) cardinal sins, a list of the most important vices headed off by none other than gluttony. There are some variations in the lists these writers use -- Evagrius, for instance, includes envy while Cassian doesn’t -- but none of their versions bear any resemblance to the lists of sin that appear in Scripture -- for instance, those proposed by Paul. This raises a question: with no scriptural basis for the idea of the cardinal sins, how did it become so well established among the desert fathers? Where did the idea come from?
Morton Bloomfield, the great scholar of the seven sins, has traced their origin to a source not just outside of Scripture, but outside of orthodox Christianity altogether. The world of the desert fathers was one full of Gnostics of various persuasions, and their influence was particularly strong in Egypt, where the desert fathers were most active. A common and important belief among many Gnostics was the idea of the Soul Journey, the passage of the soul through the seven (or eight) spheres surrounding the earth, each of which was the precinct of a demonic power associated with a specific vice. This passage went both ways -- as the soul first descends to earth, it is burdened with a vice by each demon, and when it leaves the earth it is able to pass through each sphere only if it has been purified of the corresponding vice. The idea of the Soul Journey was known throughout the ancient world, and is even cited by orthodox Christian writers (e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Macarius the Egyptian, and even Augustine), and this idea clearly had some influence on the desert fathers, because their list of cardinal sins, with gluttony prominently on top, resembles nothing so much as the vices associated with the Soul Journey’s astral demons. As Bloomfield argues, the concept of the cardinal sins developed by the desert fathers seems to be an attempt to Christianize the list of Gnostic vices -- that is, to take what seemed a useful categorization of sin and purge it of Gnostic elements so as to make it available for Christian moral theology.
There’s nothing unusual about the church making that kind of appropriation, and there’s nothing necessarily problematic about it either; the church has picked up everything from the cardinal virtues to Christmas trees that way. But in the case of gluttony, it seems a fair question to ask whether the desert fathers managed to purge enough of the Gnostic elements from the concept. They got rid of the Soul Journey scheme with its airy demons, but they nevertheless frame their understanding of the sin in a way that feels at least Gnostic-tinged -- that is, as something which binds us to an earthliness we’re meant to transcend. For instance, Cassian, who is by far the most influential of the early writers on gluttony, tells us that “not only must a superfluous appetite for food be trampled upon by the contemplation of virtue, but even what is necessary for nature itself must be eaten with an anxious heart.” For Cassian, eating food of any kind, even a diet hardly meager enough for survival, is a dangerous business. Why? Because the carnal nature of eating involves the risk of indulging our cravings for pleasure, “the fiery impulses of the body” which draw us away from the spiritual life. Cassian seems to wish that we didn’t have to eat at all, but since we must we should “get it over with as quickly as possible, as something that keeps us from salutary pursuits.” We must “spurn the pleasures of eating,” must “destroy the impulses of the fleshly desires,” if we are to even begin to make spiritual progress. The only safe way to eat is to keep our meals pleasure-less, attending only to the barest needs of the body, without the slightest indulgence of portion or taste.
That pleasure-denying aspect of gluttony went far beyond the desert and the monastery, becoming a part of the tradition that lasted right into modern times. Anxiety about the pleasures of food informed the denunciations of gluttony made by patristic writers like Chrysostom, and is exemplified in the lives of medieval saints (like Catherine of Siena) who made a spiritual practice of starving themselves, or those (like Francis and Joseph of Cupertino) who added ashes or bitter herbs to their food to make it taste bad. Even when the experience of pleasure is not vilified, it tends to be tightly qualified. Many theologians sought to soften the Cassian’s uncompromising stance on pleasure, but even they tend to keep it tightly qualified. As late as the 18th century, Alphonsus Liguori explained that while “it is not a fault to feel pleasure in eating… it is a defect to eat, like beasts, through the sole motive of sensual gratification.” That certainly sounds more reasonable to modern ears than Cassian’s need to avoid all pleasure by rushing through your tasteless meal, but even Liguori faults any kind of eating that has pleasure as its primary object, presumably ruling out all the little snacks and sweets we’re so accustomed to. For Liguori as for Cassian, food is justified only by its utility, and the pleasure of eating is never something to be actually affirmed, but rather only condoned as a something like a by-product.
Anxiety about pleasure is a strong part of the gluttony tradition, and it’s likely that part of the tradition which we’ve reacted against in our time. To people today, casting suspicion on the enjoyment of food seems like a prideful rejection of the goodness of earthly existence, and as Sayers noted, it’s understandable that we’ve rejected that approach as “cold-hearted.”
But there’s more to the gluttony tradition than just the old Gnostic hang-up about pleasure. The early writers, Cassian in particular, did more than just fret about bodily desire, they also introduced new concerns to the gluttony concept, framing it in terms which are totally outside the Gnostic preoccupation with escaping earthliness. That framing has been elucidated by Susan Hill, a scholar of religion at the University of Northern Iowa, whose research into gluttony points to what we might call the social aspect of the sin. Hill finds that right from the start the Christian tradition of gluttony affirms a concern for how our eating affects not just ourselves as individuals, but also how it affects those around us; as she says, gluttony is ultimately about “one’s recognition of the proper place of food in one’s life and in the community as a whole.”
We see the social aspect of gluttony in Cassian most clearly in his description of the different types of the sin. Today we tend to think of gluttony only in terms of overeating, but Cassian asserts that there are actually three distinct kinds of gluttony, each of which he treats as equally problematic.
One of these kinds of gluttony is the familiar one: eating too much, or what Cassian calls “filling the belly to repletion.” This way of gluttony he mostly defines in terms of its effects on the individual -- overeating, he says, causes the mind to “stagger and sway and robs it of every possibility of integrity and purity.” But there’s also a suggestion of how this kind of sapping of spiritual strength plays out in the life of the community. “The mind that is suffocated and weighed down by food cannot be guided by the governance of discretion.” Moreover, overeating tends to beget other sins, particularly “the seeds of lasciviousness.” Eating too much, for Cassian, tends to disable us both spiritually and ethically, dulling our sense of responsibility to God and others.
Another kind of gluttony is eating outside of community meals, which Cassian considers a problem such eating on one’s own terms tends to erode the cohesion and discipline of the group, leading to “hatred of the monastery” and strife among the brothers.(cite) Cassian is obviously thinking within a monastic context, but he’s also asserting a principle which informed the broader gluttony tradition: how we eat is never just an individual concern because it has consequences for the world outside our individual body and spirit, affecting both the community we belong to and our ability to participate in its work. Losing sight of that reality by thinking of food as only about my own health (and pleasure), is a kind of gluttony, no matter how much or what kind of food I eat. To eat in a way that’s not gluttonous, I have to eat with awareness of how I’m affecting my community -- in Cassian’s terms, I have to eat with my community and according to its standards.
The social aspect is perhaps most clear in the third way of gluttony, which consists of demanding “more refined and delicate foods.” Such demands are sinful not only because they involve an indulgence of taste, but also because of the burden they place on the community. Food, Cassian argues, should “be cheap and easy to prepare, suitable to the life of the brothers.” Whether we grow it ourselves or buy it from others, food necessarily involves labor and effort, and we increase those burdens when we insist on foods that are costly or difficult to prepare. To eat responsibly, we need to be aware of the effort and expense involved with our food choices, so as to keep the burdens involved to a minimum.
Introducing these kinds of social concerns to the idea of gluttony is part of how the concept was changed as it was claimed for the Christian tradition. By interpreting gluttony through the lens of community, Christian thinkers moved it outside of the individualistic desire to escape the material world, and instead situated it in the real-world concerns of living in society with others and managing the burdens of earthly existence. And while the social perspective on gluttony was still relatively undeveloped in Cassian and other early writers, it became an increasingly explicit and significant part of the tradition as the idea of gluttony expanded outside of monasteries and into lay settings.
In the medieval period, the concept of gluttony as eating too much began to encompass drinking as well, with an emphasis on how feasting and inebriation lead to all sorts of social ills, from neglect of communal worship to poverty to fighting and murder. Eating outside of communal mealtimes became associated with defiance of communal fasts, or with eating and drinking at the “unnatural” hours associated with the tavern. “For they waste time in great riot and folly,” says a 15th century sermon, “and turn time against kind, that is to say, the night into the day and day into night…But men should spend the day in good works and the night in rest of the body, as need asks.” Gluttony, in these terms, is conceived as being deeply opposed to the health of the community; it may bring a very ephemeral pleasure to those who feast, but only at the cost of unleashing grievous ills on the society at large. “Of drunkenness comes war, pestilence and hunger,” argues another homily. “For where drunkenness and gluttony reign, there befall many diverse perils.”
The demand for delicate and costly foods is likewise considered in terms of social ill. Chaucer’s Pardoner decries how those who insist on refined foods “cause men to labor east, west, north and south, in earth, air and water, just to get a glutton all the choicest food and drink.... What an enormous labor and expense to keep you going! These cooks, how they pound and strain and grind, how they transform and transmute one thing into another, to placate your greedy, gluttonous appetite!” The massive increase of labor caused by this kind of gluttony was not seen, as we might think today, as “job-creating” or good for the economy, but rather as a source of injustice, funneling ever-more delicate luxuries to the rich while the poor are neglected. A 13th century homily calls gluttons “wasters of men’s sustenance,” those who “destroy what might have nourished a great many.” Another sermon assails those who “reckon not what they spend so that their mouths might be fed deliciously,” asking “Where is the compassion of such men that they should have upon the poor?”
The standard symbol of gluttony for medievals was the bear, both because the animal was known for inordinate appetite and because of its tendency to steal honey, the product of others’ hard labor -- thus, an elegant blend of both of gluttony’s primary meanings. That kind of blending of gluttony’s meanings is common in medieval contexts because the social aspect of the sin seems never far from the medieval mind. When, in The Vision of Piers Plowman, the personified figure of Gluttony confesses that he has eaten to the point of vomiting, he repents that he has thus “spoiled what might have been saved and dispensed to the hungry.”
The social aspect of gluttony, after becoming so prominent in the Middle Ages, seems to have died away in the early modern period, as the sin began to be discussed more and more exclusively in terms of inordinate desire. Historian Ken Albala has argued that that shift came about because of changes in medical science, which led to gluttony being framed increasingly as a problem of the individual’s physical health. Additionally, the social aspect of gluttony might have become more obscure because of the tremendous social and economic changes of the early modern period. The beginnings of what we now call globalization brought a flood of new food products into people’s lives, massively changing not only how they ate but also their relationship to food. The social realities of food became much less obvious as diets began to include new staples, products like tea and coffee, grown in unimaginably distant places. What went into producing such goods, what kind of labor and what kind of burdens, was obscured by the hugeness and impersonality of the global market. As the number of people engaged with agriculture decreased dramatically, and as more and more kinds of food entered the market and became commodities for transport, our meals began to lose all sense of history and context. Food became increasingly something which could be only consumed, not known in any sort of concrete way. By the 20th century, it became not only possible but almost unavoidable to eat, as Michael Pollan says, in “perfect ignorance.”
As the sources of food faded from people’s minds, it became increasingly difficult for us to feel, in the direct, intuitive way of the medievals, the effect of how and what we eat on the world around us. The loss of that sense made it inevitable that the social aspect of gluttony would fade and narrow, that the ethics of eating would begin to focus more and more exclusively on our own souls and bodies and households, rather on than the community at large.
The irony of that shift is that even as globalization made the sources of our food more distant and unknowable, it also vastly increased the impact of our eating on the world around us. Not only do we tend to eat much more than our ancestors, we also eat foods which are typically transported great distances and are so thoroughly refined by processing that they would have been unrecognizable to our forebears. Our food, we might say, is often even unrecognizable to us, in the sense that we don’t have any idea how it’s actually made, or even what it’s made of -- I can read the words “guar gum” and “soy lecithin” on a box, but I have no clue what those things are. About all we do know is that whatever the processes involved, they operate at an immensely large scale and involve lots of machines and chemicals. What does a food system like that do to us and to the world? The medievals sensed that their eating -- which didn’t involve anything like the industrial forces we’re used to -- could unbalance society and leave the poor burdened and neglected. What are the effects of our eating?
We hear plenty about some of those effects -- the ones which have to do with our own physical health. We hear about obesity and heart disease, about diabetes and gluten intolerance, all the ailments which particularly afflict those of us with a modern Western diet. And we sometimes feel that those effects make a grim kind of sense: we’re willing to acknowledge that there’s at least a medical price to pay for our food system, that all the processing and additives and hyper-abundance wreak a bit of havoc on our bodies. It’s of course much easier to overeat now than ever before in history, not only because our food system churns out a massive surplus of food, but also because the foods it produces tend to have a very high calorie-density, and the way it markets and distributes those foods has done much to break down the cultural and religious norms governing when and how we eat. Think of a drive-thru window: at any time of day, any day of the year, we can order and eat a 2,000 calorie meal while sitting alone in our car. That’s not only more calories than your average medieval would get in the course of a day, but it’s also a kind of eating that would have been culturally foreign and forbidden to him. That kind of eating -- super-sized, individualistic, unrestrained by any norms of time or setting -- isn’t limited to fast food. It’s actually representative of our overall eating culture. Whether we’re in a supermarket or a restaurant or a college cafeteria, everywhere we turn we see the same tendency toward giant portions and a multiplicity of choices, the same tendency against the very idea of communal limits.
So the modern way of eating definitely has effects on us, the eaters. Does it also have effects on the world outside of us?
We don’t hear as much about those effects, and they can seem harder for us to grasp, not because they’re subtle or small, but because they tend to occur so far out of view. Our food travels an average of 1800 miles before heading into our mouths. What’s happening on the other end of that journey? What does the production of our food actually look like? Usually not much like the small-scale, traditional farm many of us still imagine (and which is often pictured on our food’s packaging) -- the 100 acre plot, planted with mixed crops, with a pasture and an orchard and a hen house out back. That kind of farm still exists, but it has become very much the exception in modern agriculture, which has dispensed with the idea of maintaining cycles of natural fertility and the limits of scale those cycles imply. Today the norm is the massive monoculture –thousands of acres devoted to a single plant species, a phenomenon impossible in nature, achieved only through intensive chemical engineering: pesticides and herbicides to drive out other species, and artificial fertilizer to allow plants to grow in soils depleted of biodiversity and organic matter. Increasingly our fields include genetic engineering too: many common crops like corn and soy have had their genes modified for a number of marketable traits, including the ability to withstand living in degraded soils while undergoing a continuous chemical bath. Today’s typical agricultural operation is not so much a “farm” as a kind of huge outdoor factory, a highly technologized system for converting fossil fuel inputs into consumable commodities.
Raising livestock has become similarly factory-like. Most of the billions of animals raised for meat, dairy or egg production live their entire lives crowded inside tightly controlled confinement bunkers, in which they have no access to sunlight, earth, space to move around, or even a diet suitable to their nature. Predictably sickened by this kind of existence, they are continually medicated with large doses of antibiotics, and typically have parts of their bodies (e.g. beaks and tails) removed in order to discourage extreme stress behaviors like cannibalism.
The consequences of this kind of agriculture are huge. To begin with, there’s the misery it inflicts directly on the creatures involved, both human and non-human. We don’t hear much about the people who produce our food because they account for less than 2% of the population, and they’re often poor laborers or migrant workers -- the type of people who are utterly invisible to our culture. They nearly always work for shamefully low pay in conditions that are degrading and dangerous. Agriculture and meat-processing cause more debilitating injuries and workplace deaths than any other industries. The rates of cancer and other diseases linked to agricultural chemicals are extremely (and predictably) high among farm laborers, as well as among people who live in farming communities. The hyper-technologization of agriculture has compromised many of the pleasures of farming and rural life, while vastly increasing the risks and burdens.
The effects of pollution extend far outside of farming areas. The heavy use of petrochemicals creates severe problems on both ends of the farm factory -- on the front end, the extraction and refinement of fossil fuels results in the widespread contamination of air and watersheds, while on the back end, chemical runoff from fields results in huge dead zones in lakes and oceans. Industrial agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than any other industry -- more even than all our millions of cars and trucks on the road.
While agricultural pollution has become a major global problem, even more concerning is how rapidly agriculture is consuming wild areas. The enormous scale of our monocultures is possible only through the obliteration of huge swaths of natural eco-system. Roughly 40% of the world’s land area has been claimed for agriculture -- the equivalent of the entire continental mass of Africa and South America combined. Globally, 100 square miles of forest are cleared every day. In wiping out such natural habitats, agriculture has become a major driver of species extinction. Species are now disappearing so rapidly -- the global population of wildlife has been cut in half over the last 40 years -- that scientists are comparing our era to the other great extinction events of prehistory; it’s like when the dinosaurs were wiped out by a comet, only this time the comet is us.
Destruction of wild areas is one of the most serious problems caused by agriculture not only because of the catastrophic loss of species, but also because of the many other essential functions these areas have always performed to maintain the health of global environment, functions such as climate regulation, soil formation, and the cleaning of air and water. The world we’re rapidly creating -- one of sprawling mega-farms separated only by thin reserves of wild eco-system -- is a global environment unlike anything ever seen before, a fragile and volatile world unable to support the immense diversity of life it has maintained for millions of years. With the loss of the vital “ecosystem services” global health has always relied on, it’s an open question whether the world we’re creating will be able to support us.
All of these terrible problems are effects of how we produce food today, but that doesn’t mean that these problems are being driven by our need to survive. The reality is that these things are not happening so that we can eat. They’re happening, rather, so that we can eat the modern Western diet. They’re happening so that we can eat the large portions we’ve grown accustomed to, so that we can have ready access to an immense variety of products, and so that we can regularly eat the flavors we really like - sweets and meats in particular. Crops that are the staples of our food system like corn and sugarcane are among the most energy-intensive and ecologically damaging around, while raising livestock is far more destructive than any crop, requiring more than ten times the amount of fossil fuel and as much as 1,000 times the water. Yet these are the products our food system focuses on. To bring us cookies, cereals, crackers -- all the processed goodies we like so much -- it grows lots and lots of grain and sweeteners. To bring us meat so cheap it can be eaten three times a day, it keeps animals in confinement, where it can fatten them up quickly with grains their bodies were never meant to digest. To keep our markets and restaurants and convenience stores continually stocked with all the foods we might want at any given moment, it produces an enormous surplus -- so big that in any given year we throw away half of what is produced, much of it before it’s even purchased. That wasteful surplus includes meat -- in this country alone, more than a billion animals a year are slaughtered, after living a life of crowded misery, only to become meat that’s never eaten. To be able to eat the way we eat, we need that kind of waste. We need a polluting, misery-creating, world-gobbling kind of food production. We might mitigate some effects -- reduce some of the pollution, maybe, or give the overcrowded animals a bit more space -- but the problems will still go on. Billions of animals will suffer in darkness, lakes and oceans will continue to deaden, species will disappear from the planet, all so that we can enjoy our candies and burgers at a price we barely even notice.
By linking us to these kinds of disasters, our food system has not only promoted gluttony, it has in fact made gluttony unavoidable. We may try valiantly to keep our portions reasonable and to make our meal-times communal, but we can’t get away from eating in a way that destroys the world and its communities rather than building them up. We can’t get away from eating in a way that unduly burdens others, with consequences far more devastating than anything the medievals could have imagined. Like it or not, we are the beneficiaries of a gluttonous system, one that makes unwitting gluttons of us every day.
So what are we supposed to do? We don’t want any of the problems created by how we eat. We don’t want the burdens of our food to be pushed onto the poor. But we also don’t actually want to change how we eat, and not just because we really like eating this way. At its best, our way of eating is about more than our own personal enjoyment; it’s about bringing enjoyment to others too. It’s about generosity and care and togetherness. That’s why we give our kids candy, or treat our friends to a big turkey dinner. That’s why the monks put out five desserts for me. If we try to change our eating to somehow opt out of gluttony, won’t that change our generosity too? If we try to distance ourselves from a warm-hearted sin, won’t we lose some of our warm-heartedness?
That’s a real question, not just a cop-out. Changing how we eat brings the danger of falling into a kind of fussiness about food that could distance us from others, a sort of purist approach that’s more concerned with food’s social effects than with how it can help us take care of the people in our lives. It could be almost like bringing back the cold-hearted denial of enjoyment which once characterized the gluttony tradition and which we moderns have so vigorously rejected. Isn’t that what would happen if we tried to, say, stop giving our family any meat or sweets? If we treated our Thanksgiving guests to a meal that left everyone hungry and dissatisfied? Wouldn’t we be acting a bit like one of those half-Gnostic hermits who thought being Christian was all about denying ourselves, rather than about love?
If changing how we eat were just a matter of doing without things we like, then it could very easily become a cold-hearted exercise, a kind of endless Lent. But in reality what happens when we change our eating habits is that we actually gain much more than we lose. What do we stand to gain? It’s easy to lose sight of how much our way of eating, for all its abundance and variety, tends to impoverish our experience. “For it’s the great curse of Gluttony,” writes Sayers, “that it ends by destroying all sense of the precious, the unique, the irreplaceable.” Our food is plentiful and tasty, but it doesn’t feel like it comes from anywhere, not from the natural world or from real people -- it feels like it comes from the box. It tingles on our tastebuds and fills up our bellies, but that’s it -- it can’t offer us an encounter any richer than that. It has no story -- or worse, it has a story that’s so troubling it needs to be hidden if we’re to have any enjoyment at all.
That emptiness of our food experience changes when we make an effort to eat more consciously -- an effort which of course is difficult. Here’s Sayers, commenting on the effects of food shortages in Britain during the Second World War: “We are having to learn, painfully, to save food and material, and to salvage waste products; and in learning to do these things we have found a curious and stimulating sense of adventure.” Sayers isn’t romanticizing here; she acknowledges the difficulty of doing without, but stresses that in doing so we are stimulated, that we discover something we can’t know when we’re glutted with options.
We encounter this kind of discovery very quickly when we make even small changes in our eating habits. Instead of going to the supermarket, go to the farmers’ market. Suddenly you’re talking to the people who actually grow your food. You’re confronted by the variety of twenty different stalls, an un-standardized array which poses questions, opens conversations. You’re confronted by an experience which, compared with the sterility of the supermarket, is in fact an adventure.
That kind of experience is only more pronounced when we try to produce some of our food ourselves. Plant a garden, go hunting, forage some mushrooms -- however you do it, you’ll find it a far more varied and nourishing experience than anything the industrial food system can offer. And like the farmers’ market, it will tend to connect you with others in a novel way -- you’ll ask your neighbors about how they make their compost, you’ll spend long hours whispering in a tree stand, or maybe even trust your health to someone teaching you how to recognize the color of a chanterelle. You will encounter something of the old experience of food which deeply rooted our forebears in both the natural world and the human community.
Resolve to cut back -- or better yet, swear off -- industrial meat, and you’ll find yourself having these kinds of vivid experiences all the time. You’ll be visiting farms and learning about slaughter practices. You may even get the chance to actually see the animals you eat while they’re still alive, living an animal life. When you sit down to eat that meat, you’ll find that there’s much less of it than you used to eat, but that it’s flavored with an awareness and gratitude that is irreplaceable.
Resolve to cut back on processed foods, and you’ll find that you’re not only eating much less in the way of sugar and mysterious chemicals, but you’re also spending more time in the kitchen, baking your own bread or cookies. It takes effort to cook, and time, but the satisfactions it brings are profound, especially when you cook for others. You have only one dessert for your guests instead of five, but it’s one that offers the experience of the precious and unique. The cake is literally unlike any other, and the labor in it is your own, not some nameless sufferer’s. If you’ve been attentive to where the ingredients come from, the experience is only heightened -- it’s a pleasure for everyone to know the name of the farm that grew the berries, to know that the grain and butter came from small operations where the workers and animals are well treated. The quality of the dessert becomes not just a matter of how good it tastes, but also of savoring a history that can be known and celebrated.
These satisfactions more than recompense us for the cheap plenty we give up, for they reacquaint us with the deeply nourishing realities so desperately missing from our current way of eating. Rather than seeing our hearts growing colder, we find that they are in fact warmed to connections that we have (though we’ve hardly realized it) long neglected. We find that we are reminded that, as Pollan says, “we eat by the grace of nature, not industry.” We find ourselves coming to understand that eating is necessarily a participation in the goodness of the created order, a participation which, depending how it’s done, brings either health or ruin to ourselves and the world around us. “To live,” says Wendell Berry, “we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”