Christianity, Islam, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

End of the series/back to work

I have to get back focused on other things now, so no more posts from me.  If anyone found the prior posts useful and would like to see the rest, you can read it for free in the kindle library , or if you like paper I published at the minimum allowed price. Especially in these times, when so many people seem to be citing God as the sponsor of hatred and violence, I think it is important to counter the nonsense that confuses people into accepting that sort of thing, and bring all of what Mohammed called “the People of the Book”, his approving term for anyone who followed an uncorrupted version of  Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, back to an understanding of God as a loving being who gives us all what we need generously and freely if we will only take the time and focus to find it, asking nothing in return, but who cannot force us to be good. We must each work to learn to feel pleasure in doing the right thing, which is to do good for all God’s creatures and to participate in the love that is God. The message is simple. It only needs a book full of explanations because people have been so determined to complicate it and distort it to serve their own ends.

Love and peace to all.

 

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Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Sin and Repentance – The Deadly Desires and Their Cure

Greed, envy, lust, wrath, gluttony, vanity – all are sins of Wanting, of non-virtuous desire.  Sloth is a sin of a somewhat different sort, one of lack of virtuous desire. By examining these we may understand more complex varieties of sin.

To understand sin we need only recall the above discussion of the nature of heaven and hell. Those who allow themselves to be preoccupied with material desires become incapable of experiencing the bliss of heaven, and instead fall into the self-feeding torment of insatiable Wanting. They actively follow a path to hell. Those who simply are too lazy to develop virtue, who waste their lives merely earning a living and finding amusements to fill the dreary hours of their lives, also fail to develop the ability to experience the bliss of heaven. They may not be punished by the gnawing hunger of Want that the more active sins involve, but still they do not achieve the bliss of virtue. Both types of sin, if engaged in to excess without repentance and reform, involve a choice on the sinner’s part not to follow the only path that leads to divine bliss, the path of developing alignment with God. It is for this reason that they are sins. Thus, sins are not arbitrary rules that God has set up just for fun. Rather, sin is something that inherently, in the nature of things, prevents the mind and soul from focusing on virtue.

It is important to understand that sin is not a matter of making God angry by breaking the rules. God does not look down upon a rich and greedy man and think “he must be punished for that after he dies”, any more than a good parent would decide to punish their child for something years after the fact, when the punishment couldn’t any longer be expected to help the child to improve her behavior and avoid future mistakes. God does not have the angels taking names of teenage boys who see an attractive girl and think about having sex with her. Sin is a disappointment to God, not an offense.  It is a disappointment because it is a distraction from the process of alignment with God. If the rich man remains so concerned with earning his next million that he cannot learn to find joy in taking time and wealth to help others, then he will fail to develop the habit of mind that leads to eternal bliss, and God will not be able to help him. If the teenager, after he grows up and his hormones calm down, still spends his days and nights looking for new and more extreme sexual gratification rather than finding true love and learning to regard sex as a way of giving pleasure and affection to his wife, then he will become increasingly obsessed with desires that cannot satisfy the soul. If a woman spends her whole life watching videos and staring at a computer screen to stave off boredom, she will never develop the ability to feel the joy and excitement that flows from love and virtue. God does not banish these people from heaven as a punishment for breaking the rules. They keep themselves from heaven by choosing paths that can only lead elsewhere.

This fact, that God does not become angry with us for sinning, but rather that we lead ourselves to unhappiness through sinning, makes it easier to understand the process of repentance and “forgiveness”. I have often heard people express puzzlement over the Catholic rite of confession. Their statements go something like: “Boy, Catholics have it good. You can be the worst person in the world, but if you confess it to the priest before you die and say a few Hail Marys it’s all okay.” In reality, confession and repentance are not that easy. Confession, for those who practice it, is not about revealing your sins to the priest. Rather, it is designed to force you to think about your actions and reveal your sins to yourself. Once you have reviewed your behavior and found your errors, the next step is to repent of the sins.

Repentance is not a matter of telling God that you are sorry. It is a matter of being sorry. Many parents will at some point have been through the following little drama. Brother hits sister, making her cry. Parent tells brother to say he is sorry, which he does. One minute later, brother hits sister again.  Upon seeing parent’s look of displeasure, brother voluntarily says “I’m sorry!”  Parent then explains to brother that just saying he is sorry isn’t enough, when obviously he wasn’t really sorry or he wouldn’t have done it again.  This same simple understanding of the true nature of repentance applies to all sin. True repentance involves thinking about the nature of the action, realizing that it is wrong, and developing an intention to avoid doing it again.  It is a process of moving away from sin and towards alignment with God.  Without this sort of repentance, no amount of confessing or apologizing will do any good. Likewise, if the sinner truly does repent of his action, if he truly is sorry for what he has done and has resolved to improve, then no particular act of repentance or granting of forgiveness by a priest or anyone else is required to heal the soul of the sinner. The rite of confession is merely an aid to true repentance.[1] Likewise, the acts of penance prescribed by the priest are not a form of reparations to God, but rather are a way to help lead the repentant sinner to further contemplate his error and strengthen his resolve to avoid repeating the sin. Unfortunately, too many people regard them as a form of payment for the sin, to be gotten out of the way before going and sinning some more, rather than taking the opportunity of the prayers to improve their resolve and make real progress in their alignment with God.

Can major sinners be redeemed? Yes, but it isn’t easy. It is hard to change a habit of mind. A person immersed in greed, lust, or vanity will have a very hard time getting away from those desires and finding pleasure in virtue. It is, however, possible, in the rare case that something happens to cause the sinner to make a real about face and realize the error of his ways.  Is it fair that such a person, if he successfully repents and reforms, should be able to achieve heaven, just as a person who has been good all her life can do? Yes, for two reasons. First, again the main reason why sins are sins is not because they involve breaking rules, but rather because they involve a distraction from virtue. A person can be immersed in greed or lust his whole life without necessarily ever harming anyone except himself, so if he then succeeds in seeing the error of his ways and turns around to pursue active virtue, why shouldn’t he achieve bliss? Secondly, to the extent that the sinner has harmed others in his career of sin, if he truly repents and reforms he will suffer in his own mind in proportion to the amount of harm he has caused.  If a wrathful person has gone about beating people up for years and does not greatly regret those actions, feeling real pain of heart for it, then he has not really repented and reformed. Thus, we should not think of the reformed sinner as going unpunished, for he will be punished in and through his own repentance. Indeed, if a formerly grievous sinner claims to have seen the light and adopts a serene and peaceful attitude, one may guess that his reform is far from thorough. Have you ever kicked yourself for days over some fairly minor insensitive or ill-conceived action of yours? Imagine how you would feel, as a normal good person, if you had committed the offenses of the grievous sinner; the truly reformed person will suffer at least that much from the arrows of his own conscience. Indeed, Dante envisioned purgatory, the afterlife waystation where some sects believe reformed sinners go before being admitted to heaven, as a place where the sinners rather gleefully jumped into searing fires of purification. Having truly repented, they are so aghast at their own sins that the pain of burning away the taint is a relative comfort. Don’t try this at home, of course, but Dante’s vision helps us to visualize how true repentance inherently pains the sinner in direct proportion to the degree to which others have suffered from his sins, which should satisfy our sense of fairness. Further, we can be assured that there is no way to get around this. Anyone who truly repents will feel that pain, and anyone who does not truly repent will not be saved.[2]

This brings us to the distinction between sin and crime. People have often been tempted to make all sins crimes, but the two things are different.  If a man steals a loaf of bread because it is the only way that he can feed his child, he has technically committed a crime but he has not committed a sin.  His action does not lead him away from the path of virtue, for he is risking punishment out of love and concern for his child. If consenting adults choose to spend their evenings in a sex club pursuing their sexual desires, they are committing a sin but not a crime. By feeding their wants they lead themselves away from the path of virtue, but they are not hurting other innocent people. If a person, on a sudden whim, shoots someone dead just to see what it feels like to kill someone, then he commits a terrible crime but not – by the act – such a terrible sin. Since the action itself was short and impulsive, it was not a great distraction. The terrible sin came earlier, in developing the depravity of mind that made the murderer so concerned with feeding his own desires that he considers the satisfaction of a whim of his own more important than the very life of another person. Sin is internal, a process of inflicting harm on one’s own mind and soul. Crime is external, a process of inflicting harm on others. Crime can be controlled by governments through punishing and locking up offenders, though they should bear in mind that virtuous people rarely intentionally hurt others, and that investments in stimulating virtue may thus be very effective in lessening crime. Sin, on the other hand, cannot be effectively controlled by putting offenders in prison, for such punishment is unlikely to cause the misguided sinner to reform his mind and soul. The concept of prison as a penitentiary was never notably successful.

Understanding that sin is, in essence, distraction from virtue can also help in understanding a class of actions that are, for want of a better term, “sin-like” without being in themselves something we would think of as bad.  Even the finest of emotions, such as the love of a parent for a child, can go wrong. The infamous Texas cheerleader mother is an example. She was obsessed with wanting her daughter to do well and get whatever she wanted.  This obsession grew to the point where she tried to hire someone to kill the mother of her daughter’s rival for a position on the high school cheerleading squad, in the hopes that the death of the mother would cause the rival to be depressed and drop out of contention. Clearly, trying to have someone murdered is a crime. The more interesting fact here, though, is that the normally good impulse of loving and wanting to help one’s daughter had been warped into a sin-like obsession that was itself a bad thing. As far as the press reports revealed, she had no hatred for the intended victim of the crime, but her obsessive devotion to her child’s wants had the same poisonous effects as sinful, seething hatred.

How can you tell when this line has been crossed? To find the answer, we should recall the principle of connectedness. All actions must be viewed in the context of our place in a world filled with other humans and animals.  Our devotion to ourselves, our families, and our friends must be evaluated in light of its effects on others. Charity begins at home, and it is right to spend extra effort looking after the people who, by virtue of being family or close friends, are your special responsibility. However, when serving the apparent interests of family and friends results in harm to others, the interests of everyone must be considered. God does not play favorites, and those who wish to align themselves with God must be willing to take that broader perspective. A mother who finds that she has great devotion to her child but no sympathy at all for other children has gone astray. A parent who fights for the unrestrained liberty of a child who has proven himself to be an incorrigible danger to other children has also gone astray; the parent should continue to love the child and try to help him reform, but should not fight for the child’s freedom to continue to harm others. We are all creatures of the world, and we must try to be good citizens of the world, promoting the web of good behavior that will help all of God’s children to have the best life possible.

If an act, viewed in isolation on the basis of its individual facts, would normally be seen as evil, then chances are that it is not any less so just because it is performed from a misguided surplus of family loyalty, patriotism, or religious fervor. Using a bomb to blow up a person on the street who has committed no particular offense is evil, even if that person happens to be a member of a religious group that has tended to treat the perpetrator’s religious group unfairly. The religious tribalism that underlies the act is sinful, and has taken the place of real religious devotion. A soldier who intentionally injures a noncombatant citizen of the enemy country acts, at best, out of a sinful excess of anti-foreign hatred that has dispossessed the type of good patriotic pride that causes other soldiers to be careful always to act with honor, even at danger to themselves. People who act as an accomplice to a criminal boyfriend or girlfriend act out of a sinful obsession that masquerades as love. All such obsessions are just as harmful as conventional sin in preventing alignment with God.

[1] For avoidance of doubt, I am not suggesting that Catholics not bother with confession. To the contrary, my point is that they should take the process seriously, and that persons of other faiths without this rite should seek an equivalent means of repenting and steering away from their sins. Also, in fairness, Catholic doctrine would dispute that the rite is not strictly necessary, noting that Peter was delegated power to forgive or not forgive sins. However, I believe this is a matter of how one views the nature of the delegation. One cannot think that God intended to give Peter arbitrary power to deny forgiveness to a good and truly repentant person on a whim, so one must suppose that Christ’s meaning was “Peter, you understand how true repentance works – if you and your followers say someone’s sins are forgiven, it means that they have done what is needed to repent and cure the sin.” Similarly, though the church may not say this, I think most Catholics would be convinced that if a man dies alone after confessing and repenting of his sins in the presence of only God, it will still work. Priests are intended to be a help, not an impediment

[2] In my own unsupported opinion, I think this is the reason why Catholic doctrine really puts a strong emphasis on having a priest perform the Last Rites and grant forgiveness. Even a mundane sinner, upon having her mind focused by impending death, may feel such anguish over her relatively minor sins that her soul will be heavily disturbed not only despite but because of her true repentance. The priest may calm this disturbance and help the soul to depart in peace.

 

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Christianity, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Good Works – Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

Different Christian sects differ on the importance of doing good works in the process of salvation, but I believe this is due to a lack of common understanding as to the nature and purpose of good works. Can a person do good and charitable things throughout their life and still not achieve heavenly bliss? Yes. Can a person achieve heavenly bliss without doing good and charitable things? No. Good works are a symptom of faith, so that any person who has faith and virtue will do them, but good works are not in themselves virtue. It is possible, and indeed common, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

How can there be a wrong reason for doing a good act? Again, one must recall the nature of heavenly bliss and of faith. To achieve bliss you must have enough faith to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing, not because you expect any kind of reward. If I give hours each day and much of my earnings to charity because I will be fussed over and admired by other people, then I am acting like Contracting Connie. I will not be enjoying the acts themselves, but rather will be suffering through them in order to get an external reward from other people. The character of Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House, who devotes herself to prominent charitable causes while seriously neglecting her own children, is a notable example of this breed. If I give ten percent of my earnings to the church because a minister has told me that unless I do I will be cast into a lake of fire, then I am just trying to avoid punishment rather than receiving enjoyment from the knowledge that I have done a good thing. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is better than doing the wrong thing, but it will not lead to the ability to feel heavenly bliss. We must learn to feel enjoyment just because we have done a good thing, even if we receive no gratitude or admiration at all.

Should you encourage your children to do good works even if they don’t (at least at first) want to? Helping someone just to avoid being scolded by your parents is doing the right thing for the wrong reason, so a child cannot necessarily be expected to achieve virtue this way. However, being persuaded to do a good act can help the child to achieve real virtue by giving them a chance to experience the good feelings that flow from good actions, so that at some future opportunity they may be more inclined to do the good thing simply because it is good. The task for a parent, then, is to try to help the child to enjoy performing the good action. The child must understand why it is good, and should be helped to see the beneficial effects of the action on the person or animal that they are helping. The act should not be referred to as a “sacrifice”, but should be celebrated as an enjoyable activity (“wasn’t it nice to see how she cheered up when you helped her?”). Such little steps, though they may be initiated by the parent rather than by the child’s own desire to do good, can help to lead a child to the point where she no longer needs the parental prodding. Of course, if the parent performs good works and discusses the good feeling that they produce, the lesson will likely be more convincing than if the parent simply sends the child off to help a neighbor while the parent watches a football game.

Should a grownup force herself to go out and do good works? Perhaps, but just as with a child it should be done with a view to learning to do the right thing for the right reason. If you think back over the past year and discover that you have made very little effort to help others, then you should use your prayer time to examine your priorities and to seek the degree of faith that will enable you to want to spend time helping others. Then, forcing yourself to overcome your inertia by simply making up your mind that you are going to go and do some good deed will help you to put that faith into action. In this way, you will be doing the right thing for something pretty close to the right reason, and you will likely find that you rapidly begin to take real pleasure in doing good deeds. On the other hand, if you simply feel embarrassed because you feel that people expect you to be doing some good deeds, and so you look around for some easy ones to satisfy the obligation, you will be unlikely to progress in virtue. The key is to keep in mind the goal of doing virtuous actions for virtue’s sake, and of learning to draw pleasure from the act of doing good itself.[1]

Should adults be pressured by others to do good works? We need to be very careful here. Consider the effects of the typical American United Way campaign. Most Americans are generous, and unless they are desperately poor (and often even if they are desperately poor) they will seek to donate to worthy causes without prodding. Employers and organizations, though, like to boost their reputation in the community by harnessing the giving of their employees or members into a campaign in the organization’s name. If the company or organization does that the right way, it’s a great thing. They can make it easy for employees to give by payroll deduction, they can increase the power of giving by providing matching gifts, and they can make it easier to spend time on charitable works or provide funds for charitable endeavors. The problem comes when they have “100% participation” campaigns where employees are pressured to give. This taints the charitable impulses. Gifts that were freely and anonymously given just for the pleasure of giving now become an obligation where one’s name is checked off on a list. Similarly, celebrating givers, rather than celebrating gifts, can shift a selfless impulse into a selfish one, replacing simple joy in giving with pleasure in being recognized and admired for giving. Corruption is a subtle thing, and we must be ever-vigilant to keep it from undermining virtue.

[1] It is interesting to see, as I write this, that Word’s grammar check thinks that I am unlikely to mean “doing good”, but does not raise any question on the phrase “doing well”. Apparently we spend much more time discussing our competitive performance than we do discussing doing good works. That should not be true.

Conversations starters in the media – In addition to Bleak House, an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati called Jennifer and Johnny’s Charity does a nice job on this one. More generally, Buffy the Vampire Slayer does a great job of illustrating doing the right thing for the right reasons; our heroes get no thanks or respect from their peers and get in trouble with the adults, but do the right thing simply because it needs doing.

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Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Difficult Concepts 9 – The Enjoyment of Goodness

While the general good feeling that comes from having done a good thing is not normally thought of as a grace, since it lacks a corresponding sacrament, this earthly version of divine bliss may in fact be the most important form of grace of all. If I find a spider drowning in the sink and put her safely outside, I know that the spider will feel no gratitude, and nobody else will know what I have done. I don’t think that this small act will get me into heaven, or earn me any other kind of reward. Yet, I am rewarded for the act by feeling good about it. This is not the earned reward of a laborer, a thing expected as payment for a task performed. It is a grace, a gift freely given to anyone with faith enough to believe in the virtue of doing a good thing just because it is good. Like the other forms of grace, it is a gift that can only be received by a person who is prepared to receive it. If I do the good deed because I am forced to, or to avoid embarrassment, or to impress someone, I will not receive the feeling of bliss. To receive the gift, I must see the chance to do the good deed as an opportunity, a thing to be enjoyed, not as a task. It is only by seeing the opportunity to help as being in itself a gift, rather than as a job to be gotten through in order to receive the reward of feeling good, that the good feeling may be received. By recognizing and accepting this gift, then, we help to bring ourselves into alignment with God, and prepare ourselves to receive the gift of heavenly bliss.

The nature of free will prevents God from forcing us to learn to align ourselves with Him, but He freely gives us every chance to find that path ourselves. All that we need to do to receive these gifts is to open our hearts and minds to the grace that is offered to us. We do not earn them, for they are truly gifts, but we must prepare ourselves to receive them. The joy that flows from these gifts is not the fleeting pleasure of material recreations, but participation in a divine joy that builds upon itself, leading us upward towards the perpetual joy of heaven.

Conversation starters in the media:  A scene that springs to mind is the Tuppence a Bag sequence in Mary Poppins. Using your tuppence to feed the ungrateful pigeons rather than  putting them in the bank has no obvious utility, but the movie helps us to feel that it is a superior choice in terms of embracing giving for its own sake.  Charlotte’s Web likewise show’s that Fern’s kindness is proper, even if others don’t immediately understand it.

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Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Christianity Made Simple: A Regular Parent’s Guide to Making Sense of Christianity, Answering the Hard Questions, and Building Lasting Values in the Modern World

My book is now available as a Kindle e-book,  a $2.99 download or free for Amazon Prime members. Also in paperback.  It is intended for parents  who wish to be able to help their children to develop a solid, logic-based set of values grounded in true Christianity, without the buzzwords and mystical noise that often gets in the way. Research shows that children typically will purport to sign on to their parents’ religion and values at home, but will dump them when they are with their peers or when they leave home. To be more successful in building a strong set of working morals parents need to be able to explain things in a way that makes fundamental sense. My goal is to help with that task.

Who is the book for?

This book is aimed at three main groups. First and foremost are parents who may or may not be particularly churchgoing, but who want to provide their children with a useful moral compass to guide them through modern life. You may have found that there is a lot of advice on Christian parenting that centers around worshiping and praising Jesus, rather than on helping to explain to your children how to make good choices and how to identify bad ones. We have all seen plenty of people who make a big show of their Christianity, but who seem to have completely missed the point and clearly don’t think or behave as Christ intended. The book arose from my own efforts as a parent to explain Christianity in a sensible and useful manner to my children so that they could avoid those mistakes. I found that church, Sunday school, and the religious books on the market provided surprisingly little help in this effort, so I have tried to fill that gap.

The second group is active, churchgoing Christians who find that they have questions that no one has been able to answer to their satisfaction. For you, this book offers a comprehensive framework for understanding Christianity, one that makes it easier to fill in the holes and to sort out conflicting information or things that don’t seem to make sense. If understanding Christianity seems to be unnecessarily difficult, and if your questions have been met with responses that are vague, mysterious, or unhelpful, this simple guide may provide what you have been missing.

Finally, this book is aimed at those who want the spiritual comfort and purpose of religion, who feel a void in their lives without it, but who have never been able to buy in to the versions of Christianity that were presented to them. For you, I offer a correction of the errors that you may have been exposed to. Because most people never get a very firm grasp of what Christianity is really about, many of us grow up being exposed only to versions that don’t make sense or that propose a vision of God that is unattractive, one that we can feel must be wrong. A proper understanding of Christianity will remove those errors and allow you to find the attractive, sensible, useful faith that can give you what you have been seeking to give your life meaning and to strengthen your marriage. If you have viewed God as cold, random, or unhelpful, then you have not been properly introduced to the God of love.

Table of Contents

Foreword and User’s Guide i

CHAPTER I – THE THREE PRINCIPLES

a) PRINCIPLE I:  Alignment With God

b) PRINCIPLE II:  Free Will

c) PRINCIPLE III:  Connection

CHAPTER II – SOME DIFFICULT CONCEPTS MADE SIMPLE

a) Heaven and Damnation – We Choose That Which We Desire

b) Faith – The Strength to Do What Needs to Be Done

c) Prayer – Ask and Ye Shall Receive

d) Prayer and Difficult Issues

e) Grace – The Reward to Him That Works is Not Reckoned of Grace, But of Debt

f) Marriage

g) Holy Communion

h) Baptism

i) The Enjoyment of Goodness

j) Good Works – Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

k) Sin and Repentance – The Deadly Desires and Their Cure

l) Virtue – The Good and the Misguided

m) Loving Your Neighbor – Love Works No Ill to His Neighbor, Therefore Love is the Fulfillment of the Law

n) Christ’s Death for Our Sins – His Humanity Displayed His Divinity

CHAPTER III – IS SEX SINFUL?

a) Teenage Sex

b) Pederasty and Other Nastiness

c) Prostitution and Pornography

d) Onan’s Issue

e) Homosexuality

f) The Significance of Marriage

g) Divorce

h) Sex Redux

CHAPTER IV – THOU SHALL NOT KILL, USUALLY

a) Murder from Sin and Sin from Murder

b) Capital Punishment

c) War: Is Killing a Million Innocents Less Sinful Than Killing Just One?

d) Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism

CHAPTER V – SORRY GORDON GECKO, GREED IS NOT GOOD

a) What Do We Face?

b) Can We Avoid Obsessing About Money in This Harsh World?

c) What is Greed?

d) How Does Greed Begin?

e) Green-Eyed Greed

f) “Look At Me!” Greed

g) Gluttonous Greed

h) Greed and Business

CHAPTER VI – THE PERILS OF POPULARITY

a) Vanity At Work

b) Vanity in the Neighborhood

c) The Vanity of Holier Than Thou

d) Vanity as in a Mirror

e) The Web of Vanity

CHAPTER VII – WEIGHTY MATTERS

a) Junk Calories

b) Junk Possessions

CHAPTER VIII – “WINNING IS EVERYTHING” IS A LOSING PROPOSITION

a) I Want What He Has!

b) “Sour Grapes” Can Be a Sweet Solution

c) He Doesn’t Deserve That!

d) Envy and the Vandal

e) Injustice, Real or Perceived

CHAPTER IX – BARTELBY’S BANE

a) America’s Culture of Isolation

b) Vapid Video

c) Placid Politics

d) The Disaster of Drugs

e) Slothful Spouses

f) Slothful Parenting

g) The Right Amount of Protection

AFTERWORD

EXCERPTS below and in my other posts

 

Junk Calories

I love the experience of food. I am always eager to try new things, and I spend a significant amount of time on buying and cooking food. (The eating part, sadly, tends to go by in a flash, with the dinner that took an hour to cook taking ten minutes to eat.) This is okay. Christianity does not ask us to give up the pleasant things in life and spend all our waking moments in good works. Creating and sharing food is a basic and positive way that people interact with each other. Many studies have shown that families that eat dinner together are more successful than those that don’t, and the common practice of saying grace at mealtime shows the importance that we place on the shared meal. We seek to remind ourselves of heaven’s bounty when we sit down to a meal, so that we appreciate the food before us and the company around us and think about the goodness of the world rather than just wolfing down the food. That can be a soul-enhancing experience, as much as appreciating and sharing a desert sunset or good music or art. God does not ask us to be cold and joyless. To the contrary, He works through the good things in life. The pleasure we feel when we experience love, beauty, the scent of a rose or the taste of a good meal helps us to ground ourselves, to shrug off frustration, pain, and despair and regain the warmth that our spirits are meant to have. By experiencing the joy of simple pleasures, by living in the moment and appreciating what we have, we can actually immunize ourselves against obsessive desires.

Gluttony creeps in when we start to crave quantity, particularly in a manner that causes us to lose sight of the experience of quality. Sinful excess involves, sooner or later, loss of real pleasure in the thing. Most of us have experienced at one time or another the compulsion to eat a whole bag of potato chips or candy, and to then feel slightly ill and realize that we did not even enjoy it. Gluttony and other obsessive desires are like that. Rather than savoring a single, exquisite chocolate truffle, we mindlessly down a pound of M&Ms and then look around for more, and more, and more. There is nothing wrong with M&Ms in their place, but when you scarf the whole bag at once you are not appreciating the experience of eating them. You are instead following a compulsion that undermines one of life’s simple pleasures.

American society tends to push people down the path of gluttony. I remember as a child enjoying what was then called a California hamburger at a drive-in, a sensibly-sized object that was generally accompanied by a little bag of French fries or onion rings. Then came the marketing companies, who wanted us all to consume more and thus spend more money. They told us that if we liked that burger, surely we would be happier with one that had a full quarter pound of beef. If we liked that, then we would REALLY like a burger with two quarter-pound patties. We would like it even more if both patties were covered with a large amount of cheese, and then some bacon. Since it would take us longer to eat that massive creation, we would run out of fries from that small bag as we took breaks from biting the burger. So, we needed a giant box of fries, and a big milk-like shake, and desert. The idea of settling for that little California hamburger came to seem foolish, like one was being cheated somehow. Likewise, if an urban desk-jockey’s breakfast did not include a stack of syrup-sponges, three pale eggs from hens in tiny cages, sausages, bacon, and hash browns, we obviously weren’t getting our money’s worth (which was true, because the clever marketers made a sensible breakfast cost nearly as much as the mega-breakfast, so that we would choose excess). As we became used to giant portions, we simultaneously got used to cheaper ingredients that substituted fat, sugar and salt for actual flavor. A smaller, better meal seemed too expensive, because after finishing it one did not have that somewhat uncomfortable sense of bloat that we had become used to thinking of as “feeling full”. These habits carried over to our home-cooked meals, and we bought and ate more per meal. Manufacturers were happy to encourage this, balanced somewhat by the rise of the calorie-controlled frozen meal industry as we started viewing our waistlines with dismay. We were offered thousands of calories of relatively flavorless and non-nutritive sugared glop.[1]

This commercially-induced form of gluttony is unlikely in itself to destroy your soul, as opposed to merely killing you, but it is instructive. Life is meant to lived observantly. To achieve alignment with God, we need to be aware of our fellow creatures and to want to make them happy. We need to want to make the world a better place. That involves appreciating the things that are good. Again, God wants us to enjoy love and beauty, scents and flavors, music and peace and contentment. We are to recognize that others would like to experience these things as well, and to want to help them to have that opportunity. When we see a particularly beautiful sight, we want to tell our loved ones about it and to take them to see it, too, or at least show them pictures. When we hear beautiful music we want to play it for others. When we find a delicious recipe, we want to share it with our family and friends. This is the proper, Christian reaction to all things good, to want to increase them and share them. If you have four M&Ms and four family members, each gets one and you all enjoy the experience.

As we move towards gluttony, we start to lose that interest in experiencing and sharing the good thing. When we look at that bag of M&Ms, we do not think of people that we might share them with. As we eat them, we do not savor the flavor. We just consume.

It is not that the desire for the food burns in our brain. Rather, the harm comes in undermining our better sensibilities, our desire to sense and to share. Most of us experience strong cravings for junk food just as a form of withdrawal. When a bag of sweet or salty fat is opened we will absent- mindedly devour it, but we don’t devote our lives to that pursuit. However, most of us know the feeling of going into the kitchen and finding that you are out of junk food, and being unhappy about that. As this experience repeats itself, we start to pay more attention to the chip aisle than to the produce aisle in the grocery store. (The produce section, objectively viewed, is a beautiful thing. I have taken photos of produce markets on my travels and they are always pretty. I have never felt the urge to take a photo of the junk food aisle.) We lose the battle of the bulge, getting fatter than we want to be while knowing that we should be eating less and exercising more. We suffer from high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and take pills for it that have assorted nasty side-effects rather than just correcting our diet. Our eating habits, to that extent, control us, interfering with romance, health, and well-being despite the fact that we know we should do better. We know that we do not get twice the pleasure from that second slab of beef on our burger, but we order it anyway. We lose effective control over an important aspect of our lives. What was a shared family pleasure becomes a mere guilty compulsion. The family dinner, which should be an occasion of joy and conversation, becomes meaningless, and we lose closeness because of it.[2]

It can get worse, of course. Now imagine the people who eat so much that they can no longer care for their children, or work, or even walk, who find someone who will enable their self-destruction by continuing to feed them when they become too grossly obese to feed themselves. Such people effectively devote their entire lives to feeding their obsession with consuming (not necessarily enjoying, but consuming) food. They do not have room in their lives for healthy love, charity, or support for others, because they are consumed by their consumption. That is obsessive gluttony of a type similar to obsessive greed or lust that involves a cycle of wanting desperate enough to crowd out everything else.

But it would be a mistake to think that that is the primary hazard of gluttony. The more dangerous version is the type discussed above, which merely undermines our observant, sharing, engaging lives. As we drift away from active interaction, sharing and enjoyment, our souls move from divine warmth towards the cold limbo of apathy. As with sloth, mindless chip munching does not lead us down a path of sinful desire so much as it diverts us from the path of virtue. Despite our high levels of obesity, few Americans are obsessive gluttons, but almost all of us allow ourselves to be diverted to some extent from the caring, mindful co-enjoyment of real food that is supposed to follow the saying of grace. Because of this we lose a part of the life that we are meant to have. This becomes a serious danger when it is mixed with the other types of gluttony discussed below.

What can we do about food gluttony? Pay attention. We feel like we are too busy to spend time making real food, but we need to find ways to de-busy our lives and make time. (Not by sacrificing more sleep, please.) Cook together, or at least have a child within sight of the cook to allow for interaction. Look at recipes with someone. Shop together, or at least plan the shopping together. Spend time looking in the produce aisle and imagining what you could make with what looks good, or even better grow things in a garden. Have family dinners and family breakfasts. Have lunch with friends. Focus on making the food taste good, on adding variety, on noticing the flavors and sharing the experience. Keep in mind that a lot of restaurant and chef-type cooking is overly dependent on butter and other fat. Experiment with instead adding flavor with herbs and appreciating the flavor of fresh food and real ingredients. If you are careful you can reduce your calorie intake while enjoying the food far more and feeling happily full. While this may seem like a recipe for becoming MORE preoccupied with eating, it is a different type of eating, one that restores the appreciative, loving, sharing experience that we are meant to have. As you try to please others with your creations or to notice the creativity and love that went into the meal before you, you will move from the cold realm of the chip-eating chair to the warmth of family and friends. Volunteering in charitable food pantries and soup kitchens is a good and Christian thing to do, but we can do much, and perhaps even more, to place ourselves on the path of virtue just by paying attention to how we eat at home.


[1] Read jars of spaghetti sauce and notice how hard it is to avoid added sugar. Your Italian grandmother probably did not add sugar to her sauce.

[2] The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University conducts periodic studies on family dinners in America. Only 57% of teens report having dinners with their family at least five time a week. Those who do not have family dinners are 3 ½ times more likely to say it is okay for teens their age to get drunk, and over 32% more likely to report high stress levels.

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