Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lust and gluttony

Two of the seven deadly sins – lust and gluttony – emphasize bodily appetites. Of course, some lust and some gluttony involve coveting, wanting to enjoy a sexual relationship to which one has no right or privilege or a food that belongs to another. Lust and gluttony may also express greed: an insatiable appetite for more.

Both lust and gluttony receive too little attention today.

Lust properly denotes wanting to possess another person sexually The word's broader connotations that encompass strong desires for food, drink, money, power, etc., all of which are forms of envy, greed, or gluttony.

Morally, lust is wrong because it dehumanizes the object of one's lust, reducing that person to an instrumental means of satisfying the luster's sexual appetite. Mutual passion is not lust, distinguished by both persons' equal interest in giving and receiving pleasure.

Unfortunately, the presumption that women are male possessions permeates the Bible's condemnations of male lust are riddled. In Scripture, for example, adultery is wrong because it violates the claim of the father on unmarried and the husband on the married woman. This dated and incorrect view of women does not negate the more basic rejection of lust as dehumanizing.

Contemporary condemnations of pornography, prostitution, and sexualized product promotions most helpfully emphasize that dehumanization of a person for the sexual gratification of another is wrong. Even when the person being dehumanized participates freely and receives generous remuneration for doing so, the practices are wrong because they erode human dignity and worth.

Concomitantly, lust dehumanizes the person who lusts. Lust diminishes aspects of being human that differentiate us from other animals, especially our self-awareness or self-transcendence, our ability to love and to be loved, and our limited autonomy. Lust enslaves one to her or his passion, often causing a person to do acts later regretted. In lust, a person is less than fully human.

Gluttony has a similar effect on the glutton. Eating, rather than sex, becomes the driving passion. The glutton's hunger diminishes self-control (part of limited autonomy), maybe the ability to love and to be-loved (certainly true for the morbidly obese unable to move without assistance), and the aesthetic sense (quantity not quality of food is important). As with lust, that which diminishes one's humanity ultimately destroys one's spirit.

Today, people often emphasize the physically destructive aspects of lust and gluttony more than the spiritual and relational issues. Lust puts one at increased risk of having sexually transmitted diseases. Gluttony leads to obesity and increased odds of health problems and dying prematurely. The deadly sins are illustrative of how the spiritual wisdom of the world's religions has much of value in spite of being found in the often anachronistic, inaccurate, and incomplete vessels of ancient scriptures.

How can the person, whose life is spinning out of control, caught in the grip of lust or gluttony (or envy or greed) experience transformation, returning from death to life?

Twelve Step programs, such as Overeaters Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous, are one path that many people have found helpful. For the glutton, as for the person trapped in a life define by lust, envy, or greed, what began as sinful overindulgence can become a pathological pattern over which the person has no power or control. These powerful, spiritual programs recognize that what may have begun as sin, can become pathological illness. Sadly, no Twelve Step program exists for the pathologically greedy.

Community offers another path out of gluttony, lust, envy, and greed that many people have found helpful. The power of community has received particular emphasis among commercial organizations formed to help people take control of their eating, e.g., Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig. Healthy religious congregations of all major religious traditions have provided countless people essential lifesaving assistance in coping with deadly sins, helping people to regain their humanity by focusing on God and others.

Yet a third path, perhaps the most difficult, is for the individual tempted or ensnared by the deadly sins to embark on his or her spiritual journey in solitude, refracting personal experience and struggles through the prism of other people's experiences, encountered in oral or written form.

Only a fool thinks I can do this alone; I don't need any help. From birth, we have leaned on others to learn how to walk, to talk, to drive a car, and to live. My parents, when frustrated by my stubborn independence, would remind me that I could go through life the hard way, learning everything for myself, or the easy way, learning from others and their mistakes. The interiority of the spiritual life, and the inability to experience another's interior life, lulls the unsuspecting into thinking that the spiritual journey is an exception to learning from others.

Greed, envy, lust, and gluttony destroy a person's own humanity. They are indeed deadly sins. What is your path to freedom, your path to living more fully and abundantly?

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