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Gluttony’s unconscious self-image of emptiness

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

In the seventh of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins, Graham Tomlin digests gluttony’s distorting obsession with food.

A recent report highlighted the problem of obesity in our society. The percentage of British adults who are overweight has risen by 11 per cent since 1993 to a whopping 64 per cent of the population, with almost one in four British adults classified as obese. In the USA it is even worse with 36 per cent of people classified as obese. And that has a knock-on effect on an already creaking NHS and healthcare systems elsewhere in the western world. The bill for the taxpayer for obesity is rising to unsustainable levels.  

There are many causes of obesity, some of them physiological, some genetic, some economic, with poverty often linked to poor diet. Eating healthily costs. Yet Christianity has always seen a spiritual side to the problem, relating to our relationship with food. As part of this diagnosis, Christian moralists have typically called out the sin of gluttony. 

Strange though it may seem, in the earliest lists of the deadly sins, gluttony used to head the list as the worst of them all. Pope Gregory in the sixth century wrote: “unless we first tame the enemy dwelling within us, namely our gluttonous appetite, we have not even stood up to engage in the spiritual combat.”  

Later assessment of the rank of gluttony in the list of deadly sins has taken a kinder view. Thomas Aquinas was easier on gluttons, because, for him, like lust, overeating mainly concerns the body rather than the soul, and as we have to feed ourselves anyway, it is understandable and less serious than the other sins. When Dante’s pilgrim arrives in hell, he finds the gluttons in the third circle of upper hell, not far from the top, tantalisingly within sight of the most succulent tree whose “crop of tempting fruit ambrosial odours spread”, but unable to climb to taste them. For him, gluttons are certainly better than the prideful, the envious, wrathful, slothful or covetous. The only sin that seems less harmful to him is lust.   

Obsessive dieting can be just as much a sign of gluttony as overeating. 

Our image-conscious society tends to look down on people who are overweight. Yet gluttony denies a simple rule that the fat are sinful and the thin are virtuous. When we think of gluttony, we maybe think of stuffing food into our mouths with no thought of tomorrow, over-indulgence to a huge degree. Yet the sin of gluttony has always been seen as wider than that, including that fastidiousness about food that obsesses over what you can and cannot eat. C.S. Lewis writes about the kind of old lady who simply asks for ‘a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, the teeniest, weeniest bit of really crisp toast’, adding, ‘Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it is to others.’ Obsessive dieting can be just as much a sign of gluttony as overeating.  

Gluttony then is an inordinate obsession with food, drink or plain consumption. It is allowing food to take up a distorted place in our lives, just as lust is allowing sex to become an unhealthy obsession. 

We have a fascination with food. A TV advert lingers slowly over a picture of a chocolate sponge, soaked in brandy, with rich cream being poured over it, all with a soft, seductive voiceover describing the scene – a culinary striptease. The cookbook section of my local bookshop is far larger than the religious section – who had ever heard of celebrity chefs thirty years ago? Now they are everywhere. The politics of food is also an area of tricky choices and legislation. Fine food and wine costs both time and money, and poorer families tend to eat less healthily. Should they be banned from doing so for their own good? Should we replace chips and hamburgers with healthy salads in school canteens despite what the kids and their parents want? Where does the health of the nation override personal freedom to eat what you feel like?  

There is one story in the Bible that sheds some light on gluttony. It is the one where Jesus was tempted by the devil. During the temptations, Jesus deliberately goes without food. One of the enticements of the devil is to persuade Jesus to feed himself by the magic trick of turning the desert stones around him into bread. After all, that should be no problem to the Son of God, and it would of course demonstrate his true identity by a display of miraculous power. Jesus replies with some words from the Old Testament:  

“It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”  

The point is that when food becomes a god it becomes dangerous. Food, like sex, has the ability to skew things, and so it must be kept in its proper place, and the evidence of that is all around. The irony of our western problem with obesity is that it occurs at a time when still half the world, three billion people can't afford a healthy diet. one in ten people worldwide go to bed hungry at night and nearly half the deaths of children across the world under 5 are related to undernutrition. In 2006, for the first time, the number of overweight people in the world (1 billion) overtook the number of malnourished people (800 million). First world gluttony is anomalous when related to third world poverty and hunger. 

Gluttony is trying to fill a spiritual vacuum with a physical remedy. It is like taking penicillin for a broken heart. 

But overeating is not the only way of abusing food. Obsessing about quantities is also a sign of bad soul health. Bulimia and Anorexia are not as common as obesity, but they still blight the lives of around 10 per cent of college-age girls in the USA, and in the UK, more young people than ever before are receiving treatment for eating disorders. Suffering from Anorexia, Bulimia or a Compulsive Eating Disorder are not sins, but they are an indicator of something that has gone wrong. Food is not a neutral thing, and in a complex way, our attitudes to food are all bound up with our spiritual and emotional health.  

This begins to point us to the reasons why Christianity has found gluttony a sin. Why do people overeat, or starve themselves? Many studies suggest that these disorders often emerge from a sense of lack of worth. We all know the pattern of comfort eating. When you feel a bit low, a slice of chocolate cake or apple pie can make you feel a whole lot better. Ten pints of lager or a couple of stiff whiskies can help you forget why you felt bad in the first place. Similarly, anorexia or bulimia often emerge out of patterns of unhappiness or self-dislike. The Eating Disorder Association says that such patterns of self-abuse are usually caused by such things as “low self-esteem, family relationships, problems with friends, the death of someone special, problems at work, college or at university, lack of confidence, sexual or emotional abuse. Many people talk about simply feeling ‘too fat’ or ‘not good enough’”. 

Now these of course are extreme cases. Yet they point to the ease with which we use food and drink to fill something missing in our lives, to comfort us when we feel lonely, to satisfy us when we are not just physically, but also spiritually hungry.  

The Ethicist Peter Kreeft puts it well:  

“The motivation for gluttony is the unconscious self-image of emptiness: I must fill myself because I am empty, ghostlike, worthless.”  

Gluttony is trying to fill a spiritual vacuum with a physical remedy. It is like taking penicillin for a broken heart – there’s nothing wrong with penicillin, but it doesn’t do much good for a restless soul, and too much of it can lead to all kinds of problems.  

Gluttony strikes when the connection between food and its proper purpose is broken. Food is given to sustain the body, to enrich our communal life and to give pleasure to the taste. It is not there to comfort the isolated and lonely, to bolster a fragile self-image or to substitute for mediation or prayer. If you begin to recognise that you are regularly eating alone for spurious reasons, for reasons that seem different from the purpose of food itself, that may be when you need to watch out for the place of food in your life, or to get some help.  

Gluttony rears its head when we begin to get food out of proportion. They key issue here is control. The overeater loses control over how much she eats. She is unable to stop herself taking the extra large Coke, the extra cream on the pudding, to finish off the packet of biscuits rather than stop at one. She believes the lie that it is impossible for her to control his eating. For the anorexic or bulimic, the issue is the other way round. For many sufferers from such diseases, or those who might have a tendency in that direction, the problem is too tight a control over what they eat, and their very identity becomes bound up with their illness. So here, the remedy is to learn to give up control, to re-form their identity around something other than eating habits, so that food can take its normal place as something to be enjoyed.  

If the abuse of food often comes from a deep sense of dis-ease, a loss of self-worth, then the Christian answer to finding a true sense of being worth something can come only from the source of life himself, the one described in the Bible as the ‘bread of life’ - the one who gives food for the soul. Speaking of the emptiness that gluttony tries to fill with food, Peter Kreeft goes on to give the Christian answer to that emptiness:  

“Only a knowledge of God’s love for me can fill that emptiness, make me a solid self, give me ultimate worth.”  

When our desperate search for love is met by the deepest and most satisfying love of all, the love of a God who is Love, these deepest hurts can begin to be healed.


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Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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