Gluttony and Grace

I’ve had a question plaguing me for some time. Assuming that capitalism, and more basically, human inclination is gluttonous, how does then gift — an economy of grace — operate? Certainly there is martyrdom and the christological kenotic life, but there is also the responsibility for self-care, to make healthy choices. How do we reconcile the Christian work of universal gift, when it seems to conflict with healthy choices against people who would simply consume us?


8 thoughts on “Gluttony and Grace

  1. Joe says:

    My initial theological response to reading this isn’t nearly as interesting as my practical one. (Theologically, I’d start with a deep suspicion of language around self-care and human nature, then probably move on to accounts of desire and wind up with participation in God’s self-giving love, etc.) There’s a lot of ink on this topic, obviously.

    The self-care issue arises becuase with modern technology we are confronted with the needs of the world, the problem of strangers in the city multiplied a billion-fold. The demands that press on us are functionally unlimited. The move a lot of my friends make is to try and reclaim some sort of limited space where pre-modern kinds of community can exist. But I’ve never been satisfied with this. It involves a kind of willful blindness (always dangerous) and it’s not actually the world we live in.

    Ultimately we will be consumed (not in the good way) if we simply offer ourselves. However, the point that this happens is far, far beyond where most of us feel safe. Other things, other desires are more immediate roadblocks for most of us. So simply believing in and practicing abundance is actually a pretty good strategy, even if there are limits.

    I think the ultimate answer is that you don’t do it alone. How you stewart your time, money, emotional energy, etc. involves a process of discernment that is absolutely the appropriate role of community and/or church. Community also empowers us to give in ways we may not have felt possible. That said, I think it’s worth being careful of rationalizing gift giving. The work of the Spirit always exceeds the scope of our instrumental reason, and that adds an additional layer of wildness to something that is already a dangerous and uncertain adventure.

    • Thanks for the response Joe. Sorry it took me so long to reply.

      I should probably clarify what I mean when I say self-care. I know of this definition you’re using, and you’re right, it is a thin ethic if it is simply hiding in the sand. However, I was thinking a bit deeper, I think. I was trying to describe people, particularly people you know, who will consume you because they’re frightfully selfish people — people who will use, abuse, and then when there is little left, they’ll leave or attempt to dominate ya. Self-care, then, would be understood as a resistive act, one that works towards a healthy act and telos. But will this self-care entail an act of preservation? The kenotic life seems to say no? Here community is clearly important, if not crucial, as you noted. Perhaps the tension can only be lived in gift to us where we need it as well.

    • My question is more specific than giving to needy people. Rather, how do we deal with people all too like vampires — people who consume others? Now, there is one answer so far: we give because we are given to already — we can give no matter to whom it is because we’re in a community that gives.

      • Ben says:

        “Talking about consumerism has become a way of not talking about capitalism.” -Eugene McCarraher

        Consumption or consumer behavior is not the main problem with capitalism to which the gift is a remedy. If it were the main problem and the only remedy was the act of giving in a self-emptying way then we would be trapped in merely a pious moralism that really challenges nothing about capitalism at its roots.

        • I certainly agree with McCarraher in the interview. But he is trying to get at those who won’t get at the structure, right? Which is why he can say the following that helped me in this direction to confront one of the seven sins:

          The corporation parodies the ecclesia, and the trinkets of the market ape the delights of the heavenly city. The enchantments of capitalism pervert our longing for a sacramental way of being in the world. A fat, greasy, hoarding slob in ancient Babylonian lore, Mammon appears, in capitalists modernity, in a counterfeit angelic rainment. – Eugene McCarraher

        • Ben says:

          You’re wanting to move way to fast. This quote you give is not from an interview but from the same article I quoted. The problem with your use is that it takes it out of context. The quote is from the beginning of the article and is an introductory phrase that does not really refer to the problem of gluttony and consumer behavior at all except in an ostensible way. When he mentions mammon here this is not consumer behavior, it is no longer a “slob” but abstract accumulation as an end in itself in “angelic raiment”–capital–around which forces of production are structured.

          Consumer behavior is merely perpetuated by these forces to keep them going as they continue to store power. And consumer behavior need not be always gluttonous although this helps at certain times (but the spirit of capitalism is more of an ascetic calculating spirit–think prude Calvinists even if this is a somewhat outdated Weberian motif). But the key problem that he is getting at is a structural problem regarding commodity fetishism and relations of production that can’t be simply dealt with by behavioral comportment alone. That’s why later in this article in Modern Theology on the Enchantments of Mammon he wants to affirm that “Marx, against the drift of much high-minded palaver about “consumerism”, locates the roots of commodity fetishism in the relations of production. Talking about consumerism has become a way of not talking about capitalism.” 437-8.

          If we talk about grace and the relations of production we might find that grace and gluttony is not the real issue here.

        • I figured you were quoting from Keller’s interview:

          “First, I think that Christians should stop yakking about consumerism. Consumerism is not the problem—capitalism is. Consumerism is the work ethic of consumption, the transformation of leisure and pleasure into duties. Talking about consumerism is a way of not talking about capitalism, and I’ve come to think that that’s the reason why so many people, including Christians, whine about it so much. It’s just too easy a target. There’s a long history behind this, but the creation of consumer culture is very much about compensating workers for loss of control and creativity at work, and those things were stolen because capital needed to subject workers to industrial discipline. (I don’t, by the way, believe that we inhabit a post-industrial society. Our current regimes of work are, indeed, super-industrial.) Telling people that they’re materialistic is both tiresome and wrong-headed: tiresome because it clearly doesn’t work, and wrong-headed because it gives people the impression that matter and spirit are antithetical. As Christians, we should be reminding everyone that material reality is sacramental, and that therefore material production, exchange, and consumption can be ways of mediating the divine.”

          I am indeed trying to avoid this, that is, trying to refuse the trap of the avoidance of capitalism by simply talking about gluttony. However, I wonder if this is largely a side issue in some respect. The main thrust of the question in the original post is the tension between kenosis and healthy choices (informed by a feminist reading) in a world with people that would treat us like batteries to be drained of life for the power of others. Still, this cannot ignore the structures, perhaps we should get a beer soon?

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