Mary Louise Bringle is associate professor of religion at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, North Carolina.
This article appeared in the Christian Century. October 25, 1989, p. 955. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Drawing on her own experience as a compulsive overeater and dieter, Mary Louise Bringle maintains that the sin of gluttony is not against temperance but against trust, and that the remedy lies not in resorting to “caloric Pelagianism” but in following the path of grace.
was very nice
for Adam and his madam,
until they filched the fruit and took the fall.
They lost their place
and fell from grace
and you can bet we can’t forget
that eating is the oldest sin of all.
-- Victor Buono, Heavy
For as long as I can remember, I have been a compulsive eater and a compulsive dieter. I learned calorie tables before learning multiplication tables. I count calories the way hesychastic monks pray: constantly and unceasingly, recalculating the tally with each new mouthful, virtually with each breath. In addition to counting calories, I have labored through the Stillman Quick Weight Loss Diet, the Stillman 14-Day Shape-Up Program, the Scarsdale Diet, the Woman Doctor’s Diet for Women, and (most recently) the 35+ Diet for Women. When I was in graduate school I enrolled in an evening class at my university titled "Lose Weight and Never Find It Again." Unfortunately, my personal lost-and-found of adiposity continued to be more efficient than the title of the course suggested.
I remember, as if it were Camelot, one period of my life when my weight stayed stable for ten months, with relatively little effort. It was my senior year in college. I was living for the first time in a coed dormitory, and I was too bashful to go into the lounge where the snack machines -- along with the pool table -- were housed. Consequently, I never ate junk food between or in place of meals. I remember, as if it were Eden, two times when I actually lost weight without trying: in Paris when I had little money for food and spent most of my time walking and sightseeing; and one January at the Ecumenical Institute in Céligny, Switzerland, when I was eating only the prepared institutional meals -- the nearest épicerie was three miles away -- and jogging for an hour or so a day through picturesque Alpine villages.
But on the other hand, I remember the times in Sheol, times when I have been so set on a binge that I have fished for food out of garbage cans. I remember being tempted to steal food from stores, not because I couldn’t afford paying for it but because I was embarrassed for the cashier to see me buying so much snack food. I remember eating food that belonged to the three other women with whom I shared a duplex and rushing to the grocery store to replace it for fear of being discovered. I remember driving miles and miles around Atlanta to go to different franchises of the same fast food establishment because I was embarrassed to buy the number of biscuits I wanted at any single Mrs. Winners restaurant. I remember eating an entire bag of Pecan Sandies at one sitting, mouthful after frantic mouthful, and feeling my heart begin to pound irregularly. I remember thinking dully: "I’m eating myself into a heart attack; I’m committing a slow form of suicide."
For the past two years, I have stayed within the range of desirable weight for my height (according to the actuarial tables and calculating myself at a medium, not even a large, frame) Still, I catch myself thinking: five fewer pounds, just five fewer, and I would be a perfectly happy woman. A gain of as little as one notch on the scales, even when I know in my gut it is the result of premenstrual fluid retention, can send my mood reeling for days, with regrettable consequences for my work and my personal relationships.
Meanwhile, the theological response to this wide-scale predicament seems sadly lacking. While theologians and ethicists may discuss the politics of food distribution in our global economy, they say little about the ethical and spiritual entailments of daily food consumption by individuals obsessed with dieting and eating. Only from the fundamentalist camp are any voices heard, and these urge a simple submission to the will of God as a means of conquering food compulsions (and, consequently, of losing not only ugly but sinful fat). Such simple answers do not suffice. Do we really consider personal diet too trivial to warrant sustained theological exploration? Might we not appropriately -- indeed, urgently -- concern ourselves with the psycho-theology of everyday life?
The sensuality of sex is an everyday issue that consumes a great deal of theological and ethical attention. The even more commonly encountered sensuality of food, however, escapes notice. Perhaps theologians and ethicists are silent on the latter issue because they view eating as relatively harmless (except in its economic ramifications). Contemporary commentators on the traditional "seven deadly sins" tend to treat gluttony with indulgence; they see it as something comic, convivial, not really all that bad.
People (especially women) with weight problems and eating disorders offer a different assessment. To them (us) , fat is not "jolly" but hideous; feeding is not a convivial celebration but a shamefully wanton act that must be undertaken in secret. Out-of-control eating seems so awful it cannot even be talked about in public; discussing masturbatory practices and sexual preferences would be easier -- and more socially acceptable -- than discussing fantasies and fetishes having to do with food. To be an out-of-control eater, to eat in the ways described by the scholastics as the five forms of gluttonous behavior (eating too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly and with too much attention) , carries with it a horrendous burden of guilt, self-loathing and anguish.
While theologians may not take advantage of this fund of information, dieters know, perhaps better than anyone else, the meaning of fallenness. We understand perversion of the will. We are fully aware of the difference between knowing the good and doing it; wretched women and men that we are, we understand the war that rages between the law of our mind and the law of our members. We intentionally use the rhetoric of sin to describe our eating. We speak of being led into temptation; we convince ourselves that a wedge of leftover coffee cake can summon us into the kitchen to relieve it of its lonely misery -- by eating it we enable it to join its already digesting "better half." Then we blame hidden forces for our downfall: "I don’t know what got into me," we marvel; "I can’t believe I ate the whole thing." We categorize some foods (carrots and celery, low-fat cottage cheese) as intrinsically good, our allies in the war against the law of our members; others (chocolate, cookies, ice cream, fried anything) are intrinsically wicked, our sworn foes.
In this lone instance, we find it all too easy to love our enemies. When we have been valiant and "virtuous" in the struggle (which means we have not eaten anything "sinful") , we know the gates of heaven are at hand (it only feels like hell). When we have succumbed to sugars and fats, we act as our own confessors, assigning ourselves an appropriate caloric "penance."
By the same token, we use the language of Zion to chronicle our diets. "I broke down and ate a biscuit at breakfast this morning," we confess, "but I redeemed myself by jogging an extra three miles this afternoon." Dietary schemes promise both salvation and liberation. I have actually heard one hawker of subliminal weight-loss tapes proclaim on network television: "You are in bondage to food, but you can learn how to have dominion over it; my tapes can set you free." Every diet is an act of eschatological expectancy, an act begun with the ardent hope of making oneself into a New Creature, without spot, blemish or unsightly bulges. To diet is to embark upon self-transformation; calorie counting makes Pelagians of us all.
Indeed, the conflict between grace and works shows up vividly in contemporary literature on compulsive eating and dieting. The path of works, caloric Pelagianisni, focuses on the necessity of ascetic rigor. Most diet books preach this path in one form or another: "Take control of yourself, exercise self-discipline, practice austerity, and you will be saved from the wages of excessive eating, which is ugly fat." It seems so easy, really; we need but follow the prescriptions of the diet in question (all protein/no protein; all carbohydrate/no carbohydrate -- or any magic formula in between) Vigilance is all it takes -- a dedication to dieting commensurate with the previous dedication to food.
The only problem with caloric Pelagianism is the problem with works righteousness in general: it finally does not help. It ignores the pernicious war between the law of our mind and the law of our members. Of what value is it for us to know the good food we should eat, when the evil that we should not eat is precisely what we find ourselves devouring? Diets, the path of works, simply do not work. More and more frequently, the literature on compulsive eating is admitting as much; there is even a book or two by that approximate title. Diets don’t work for the physiological fact (appalling to seasoned dieters) that an already sluggish metabolism slows down further when subjected to restricted calories. Diets also don’t work for the psychological/spiritual reason that we cannot heal an obsession by replacing it with a counter obsession. Compulsively scrutinizing what we may and may not allow ourselves to eat merely perpetuates our consuming preoccupation with food.
Counting calories (or following some other dietary regimen) can become just the opposite of a spiritual discipline. Dieting is anti-spiritual. but not because it focuses on the body rather than the spirit; such thinking perpetuates a dangerous dichotomy. Paul’s exhortation to "glorify God in [our] bodies" is profoundly wise and profoundly Christian; appropriate care for the body’s health and nourishment is responsible stewardship of creation. Rather, dieting is anti-spiritual because it focuses on a part of the created self at the expense of the whole. Counting calories (or whatever) focuses so narrowly on the size-obsessed "shoulds" of eating that it loses sight of the broader needs of the embodied human for acceptance, pleasure, nurture and fulfillment.
The path of grace does focus on these broader needs. Learning to accept, care for and love ourselves, in our bodies, must come before, not after, attempts to lose weight. If we can really, lovingly be "at one" with our bodies, we will want to feed and nurture ourselves in certain ways; if we despise and distrust our bodies, we will misfeed and malnourish ourselves. For the overweight, weight stabilization or even weight loss comes as a super-added benefit of the loving path; wild fluctuations, culminating in permanent weight gain, mark the unhappy effects of the hate and distrust.
A number of books on compulsive eating are beginning to focus on the path of acceptance, finally recognizing what Christian theology has known since Paul: that works destroy, whereas grace "giveth life." Feminists like Susie Orbach, Geneen Roth and Kim Chernin are the major spokeswomen for the latter approach. The primary message in the feminist theories and therapies is to attune oneself and surrender: if we let go of striving and get in-touch with our hungers, eating what we want when we want to until we reach the point of fullness (but not beyond), then our eating and our weight will ultimately regulate themselves.
Gluttony is a sin, then -- but not for the reasons most often suspected. If gluttony were a sin of intemperance, a careful and restrictive diet would cure it. However, we can see that dieting merely refocuses and perpetuates that problem. Rather, gluttony manifests an even deeper sin against trust. If I turn a confessional eye to my own experience as a glutton, I recognize two basic motives behind my eating compulsively beyond the point of satisfying my physical hunger. The first is that I do not trust that the same pleasure will still be available to me in the future -- that I will be able to have the food I want to eat the next time I want to eat it; therefore, I feel perversely as if I must stock up on it. The second is that I simply do not know what to do next with my time: I am terrified by the openness and loose-endedness that come when I stop eating, and I do not trust that I can figure out what to do next or that I can find something that will be as intrinsically pleasing and gratifying as eating. The root cause of gluttony thus appears to be a reluctance or refusal to live in faith: an inability to trust the future, to let go, to have confidence in the reality of grace, newness and abundance of life.
Gluttony is a sin. But this is not tantamount to saying that fatness is sinful. Gluttony and girth are two separate matters. It is possible to be quite thin and eat too eagerly or expensively; it is possible to eat quite moderately and still tend to be fat. Some studies have actually shown that overweight adolescents consume slightly less food than their higher-strung and therefore slimmer compatriots. A dubious doctrine of election would interpret the speedy metabolism of the congenitally skinny as a mark of divine favor (I confess that sometimes I do wonder about those people) The proof of the pudding of gluttony lies not in the size of the body but in the shape of the embodied soul.
To have a soul in good shape, as far as gluttony is concerned, is to be able to live with suppleness in the midst of a number of paradoxes. On the one hand, to be obsessed with eating is to be unwell in the soul; gluttony deserves its ranking not only as a sin but as a "capital"’ one, insofar as it can spawn so many other sins, such as duplicity, theft, economic injustice, hostility toward neighbors and near-suicidal hatred of self. On the other hand, to be obsessed with not eating betrays an equally troublesome misorientation of priorities. To attend to the health of our bodies is appropriate stewardship of creation; but to focus exclusively on our bodies, or to make judgments about people based on their body shape or size, manifests inappropriate worldliness. To feast is a fitting celebration of God’s bounty; yet to fast is an equally fitting act of our disciplined devotion.
Eating may be "the oldest sin of all," as Victor Buono -- along with a number of the desert fathers -- has proclaimed. Even so, the most primordial images of blessing are the table spread before us, the bread and wine of companionship, the land flowing with milk and honey. The supple soul is the one who joyously anticipates sitting down to the heavenly banquet -- and who is able to do so with exuberant unconcern for whether or not the bread is buttered or the milk is 98 percent fat-free.