Sunday, September 29, 2013

Disgusting Communion

At the recommendation of a colleague, I've started reading Richard Beck's book, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Cascade Books, 2011). Beck, an experimental psychologist (= social scientist, not a theologian or biblical scholar), brings the psychology of disgust to bear on questions of purity (food, sex), hospitality (social acceptability), and mortality (death).

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):

  1. core disgust: revulsion centered on eating and oral incorporation;
  2. sociomoral disgust: revulsion centered on moral and social judgments;
  3. 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.


  1. I'm not sure how far you are, and I don't want to spoil anything, but one of the interesting things Beck brings up in the research is the idea that contamination is governed by something called "negativity dominance" - in other words the contaminant always wins. I believe the classic formulation is something like "A drop of urine in a bottle of wine renders the wine undrinkable, but a drop of wine in a bottle of urine does nothing to make the urine clean."

    Anyway, one of the keys that Beck points out is that this is one of the implicit assumption of the Pharisees in the Gospel narratives when it comes to Jesus interacting with sinners - they never entertain the idea that Christ could be "positively dominant" - in other words that contact with Christ might redeem what is broken.

    Also not to spoil, but I will be interested in your thoughts on the metaphors that mediate various sins.

  2. Interesting, Jeff. I'll look for that. In my Gospel of Mark class, I contrast what I call the "defensive purity" of the Pharisees (i.e. purity must be defended against contamination and contagion) with the "offensive purity" of Jesus (i.e. purity must overwhelm and cleanse contamination and contagion). But what really interests me is that we can all agree with this re: Jesus vs. the Pharisees. But as soon as I hear, "a drop of urine in a bottle of wine," I am viscerally confronted with my own defensive notions of purity.

    I'll try to remember to blog as I read. I'm also reading Gino Segré's Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics (Penguin Books, 2007). Fascinating reading all around.