Formation: Purity, Disgust and the Meaning of Love

Imagine spitting into an empty cup in front of a crowd of people. And then being asked to drink your spit. For most people, this triggers a disgust response. The spit causes a visceral response that compels us to push it away from us and reject it; this is disgust psychology. 

Generally speaking we are born without the ability to determine what is good for us to ingest and what is not. And so early in life we experiment, usually by putting things in our mouths. Disgust psychology is something that develops over time and so there are many things that we learn to see as a threat only by experimentation. Our disgust reflexes are designed as protective mechanisms and we are trying to determine what is allowed to be a part of us, and what needs to remain external and so should be repelled i.e. disgust psychology has to do with physical boundaries. 

What is interesting about the spit in the cup example is that we have saliva in our mouths all the time and we don’t even think about it. It is not disgusting - it is normal. Yet when it comes out of our mouths it becomes something else; we call it spit. And its gross. It is our boundary of self that helps us to determine whether it is okay or not. Another thing that is interesting about disgust psychology is that it is an innate or compulsive reflex. We don’t intellectually process it – it’s a compulsive reaction that bypasses logic.

One of the observations that psychologists make is that while our disgust reflex is designed to help us determine what is okay for us to eat, we often extend this innate reflex into the social, moral and spiritual domains of our lives. Historically, human beings have found all sorts of ways to determine who is clean and who is unclean, who is pure and holy or who is dirty and sinful. Our community becomes an extension of our body, and so if we deem someone or a group of people to become unclean or impure, then we will find ways to get them outside of our community so that we won’t become tainted by their uncleanness. Psychologically, its the same reflex as the disgust reflex, although that’s often not the language we give it.

These initial reflections are based on the insights of psychologist and theological explorer Richard Beck in his book ‘Unclean’. Beck notes that there are four principles of contagion that we tend to see extended into the moral or religious domain:

1.   contact => contamination comes from contact or physical proximity

2.   dose insensitivity => all or nothing, binary judgements that become illogical, things are either pure or impure

3.   permanence=> things are spoiled and unable to be regained

4.   negative dominance => bad spoils the good

Which brings us to the New Testament and the world in which Jesus lives. One of the things that troubles the religious leaders about Jesus is his crossing of boundary markers  - they believed he was compromising holiness and purity by eating with the tax collectors and sinners, coming into physical contact with lepers, having his feet washed by a “sinful woman,” and so on.

The religious leaders didn’t think Jesus should have such close physical contact. They felt that any contact would ruin purity, and once purity is lost its nearly impossible to get back. Jesus could not maintain his identity as a religious leader and simultaneously be crossing these purity boundaries. In many ways we see the climax here of a debate that was going on throughout the Old Testament and in the centuries leading up to Jesus i.e. is God’s holiness defined as purity (ethnic, moral etc) or is it defined as love and embrace; this was an argument among the prophets, the scribes and the religious leaders.

And Jesus lands squarely on the side of holiness as love and embrace. When challenged on his crossing of these boundaries, he quotes the prophet Hosea in saying “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” The prophet was challenging a community who were obsessed with making themselves “clean” before God through blood sacrifice, but who were not showing mercy, compassion and love to their fellow humans. Jesus highlights this claim that what God desires is mercy, not sacrifice.

What we see Jesus doing here is living out the reality that love fundamentally involves the crossing of these boundaries. If we return to the spit in a cup example for a moment, we recognise that when the saliva leaves our mouths it became disgusting to us, unless we are expressing love through the act of passionate embrace. Suddenly, something which is kind of disgusting is overcome by the fact that love (hopefully, or at least something close to it) allows us to transgress these everyday boundaries. 

In fact Jesus reveals the very thing that religious leaders thought to be most holy/religious, to be their most problematic sin. That is, the religious leaders saw their acts of exclusion as one of their most devout features, but Jesus reveals it to be one of their deepest problems. And this is a challenge that is then taken up in the early church too.

Acts 10:9-19

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.  He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance.

He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.  It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.  Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there. While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”

In this passage the language here has to do with clean and unclean, purity and impurity, who is in and who is out of the religious community.

So what does this have to do with us here and now? 

Firstly, if we view our spirituality primarily through a contamination framework, then we will try and push away everything (or everyone) that might taint us – an ultimately impossible endeavour. So what often happens is that we are tempted to pretend that we don’t have internal challenges and issues, for fear that it will reveal us as impure; instead we push them deep down in avoidance. But the consequence of this kind of spirituality can be a a profound level of anxiety, fuelled by a subconscious disgust at ourselves. Sometimes the outcome can also be anger, especially when we observe the same thing in others. Many Christian leaders who have been angry and aggressive moral campaigners, striving to be the moral police of the world, have often been struggling with the very things they have angrily protested against. 

At different times in our recent history, we can point to the ways in which this has played out, sometimes deeply entwined with religious language. More extreme versions of this include religious communities who have committed genocide or holocaust, marginalisation and discrimination. But the Christian story invites us into a radical grace, the love of God, and the encouragement to love ourselves; the starting point is a profound acceptance - mercy, love and compassion instead of sacrifice. 

Secondly, it is important to recognise that there are particular areas of life in the Christian tradition that are almost exclusively associated with metaphors of purity and impurity. In particular, conversations about sex and sexuality are shaped by purity language, and we need to be aware of how our language triggers the kind of instinctive responses that sit below the surface.

Because religious language about sex and sexuality is shaped almost entirely by a purity discourse, it is often sex that triggers the most volatile reactions from the Christian community. Think of exclusionary and reactive attitudes toward people from the LGBTQ community for example; when you listen to the rhetoric of many Christians, it is often shaped by language of purity and is subconsciously connected to boundary and disgust psychology – something that is profoundly problematic.

Thirdly, if we are to embrace connectedness, then perhaps we can recognise that at the core of true connectedness is love, and love involves the transgressing of  exclusionary boundaries. There’s a lot of talk about inclusiveness these days, but not necessarily as much talk about love, and so some of the inclusive rhetoric can sound very angry. But for Christians, it is love that challenges us to genuinely and authentically transgress these kinds of social/moral/purity boundaries. One of the things that made the early Christian community so profound was the mixing of Jews and Gentiles, the mixing of women and men, the mixing of slaves and slave-owners. Peters vision of the unclean becoming clean. The boundary markers getting broken down. Recognising the deep connectedness between people who had previously been isolated from one another because of all sorts of social, moral and religious boundaries.

So if holiness is defined by a Jesus kind of love, rather than exclusion, we are challenged and invited to think about the implications for church community, spirituality, and belonging.