Sunday, October 06, 2013

disgusting thoughts

I mentioned earlier that I've started reading Richard Beck's, book, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Wipf & Stock, 2011). Chapter 2 focuses on purity and continues Beck's fascinating discussion of the psychology of disgust. I heartily recommend the book, if only because it puts a new perspective on so many things that many of us (myself included) regularly say about Jesus and the gospels. However, I have to admit I really struggled with this chapter. Let me explain.

Beck draws—or rather, Beck uncovers the fact that we draw—a connection between the way we think of physical revulsion (a drop of urine in a bottle of wine, food coming into contact with fecal matter, etc.) and the way we think of social and/or moral revulsion. He mentions four principles of disgust at work in all three dimensions (pp. 26–27; all italics in the original):

  1. A Boundary Psychology: Disgust is a system that monitors boundaries. Disgust regulates the act of incorporation and inclusion.
  2. Expulsive: Disgust is a violently expulsive mechanism. In mild forms disgust simply prompts withdrawal and avoidance. In stronger forms disgust involves violent rejection, expulsion, or elimination.
  3. Promiscuous: Due to disgust's developmental peculiarities (i.e., its sensitive period [Beck is referring to the way disgust reactions are learned rather than innate; babies will put anything into their mouths and only later learn that some things should never come into contact with the mouth or tongue; -RR]), culture can link disgust to a variety of stimuli, many unrelated to food. Consequently, disgust is often found regulating moral, social, and religious experiences.
  4. Magical Thinking: The contamination appraisals involved in disgust are characterized by magical thinking, which over-rides reason and logic. Consequently, when disgust regulates moral, social, or religious experience magical thinking is unwittingly imported into the life of the church.
These are all helpful principles to identify and think about. Beck accepts certain triggers of a disgust reaction as appropriate or useful for maintaining good health and/or survival: "Many of these stimuli are legitimate vectors for disease (e.g., feces) while others are the product of our learning histories (e.g., food aversions due to food poisoning)" (22). But when disgust reactions are transferred from the physical realm to the social or moral realm, Beck leaves little if any room for ever accepting this transferral: "However, many sources of contamination are driven by culture and have little or nothing to do with food. . . . although contamination monitoring is at root healthy and adaptive, we should worry when judgments of contamination are extended into the religious, moral, and social domains" (22; my emphasis).

Here's my question: Is it n/ever appropriate to protect the boundaries and/or the internal well-being of the religious, moral, or social organism? I don't have an answer, although I admit that I'm uncomfortable saying that disgust reactions are always inappropriate in the moral and social domains. Rather, given how powerful these reactions are—how viscerally we feel them, down deep in our bowels—Christians have to take special care to be self-critical and self-reflective to ensure that we deploy the evaluative and expulsive functions of disgust in ways that work with rather than against the redemptive and transformative core of the gospel. Paul did, at least once, enjoin a church to expel an immoral member, and Jesus himself excoriated those whom he judged harmful for the people and kingdom of God.

I have so much more to say about the book thus far, but this post is long enough. If you're curious, I recommend you get the book!

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