My interest in the topic is primarily sexual. A few years ago I read Donna Freitas's book, Sex and the Soul (Oxford University Press, 2008), which aroused in me a deep concern that we are raising a/nother generation without providing any guidance or wisdom regarding the connection between one of our most basic physical urges (sex) and one of our most basic spiritual urges (communion with God/the divine). In a profession such as mine (equipping, training, educating people for ministry), that lack of guidance and wisdom is scandalous, or it would be if we weren't so used to it.
Chapter 1 presents some basic thoughts on the psychology of disgust. Beck reproduces a three-fold typology of disgust (p. 19):
- core disgust: revulsion centered on eating and oral incorporation;
- sociomoral disgust: revulsion centered on moral and social judgments;
- animal-reminder disgust: revulsion centered on stimuli that function as death/mortality reminders.
Beck also suggestively maps this typology onto the Eucharist, an intriguing move that he will return to in his final chapter.
I'm enjoying the book already, but I'm not quite sure what to think. On the one hand, I want to defend "disgust" as a physical and even social concept. The expulsive impulse triggered by disgust is healthy, even life-preserving, as when we eat rancid meat or encounter a pedophile on a school yard. On the other hand, there are things that are not, intrinsically, disgusting that still curl my stomach. I eat the flesh of dead cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, etc., but never no never of dogs, pigs, cats, rats, or horses. I accept that every person in church on Sunday is a sinner, but if I find out about their sin (especially if it's sexual in nature) I am driven to passages such as 1 Corinthians 5 ("Remove the evil person from among you").
If I accept that disgust, as an emotion, is culturally determined in a way not true of other emotions (Beck, pp. 16–18), how do we distinguish between healthy and proper manifestations of disgust and those that block and run counter to the redemptive work of Christ? I do not have an answer. But I do have a suspicion. Some things, people, and ideas genuinely and urgently need expulsion from the body physical, political, ecclesial. Those things represent real and present dangers to life and health. But this is the scandal of the gospel, of a Jesus who not only heals the leper but touches him, of a God who not only redeems humanity but becomes her. That which is disgusting, which needs expulsion, is not expelled but redeemed. This is the shocking story of Ezekiel 16 (warning: this chapter is NOT.FOR.CHILDREN, but you absolutely must read all the way to the end of this long chapter). This is the good news (= gospel) of God: I was disgusting and revolting, but God called me to his table, offered me his own flesh ("Disgusting!"), and invited me, saying, "Take, eat. This is my body, broken for you."
Disgust is real. Revulsion is appropriate. If we truly believe in the gospel, disgust leads not to ejection (vomiting, shunning, excommunication) but to gratitude and humility. I once was filthy but now am cleansed. Who am I, then, to push you away in your noxious, grungy, stained rags. I know the One who clothes others like kings and queens, and he has asked me to bring you to him. He offers you the Cup that sates, but be careful. This is His Blood, poured out for you, too. Please don't be disgusted.