Purity: Morality and Metaphors...
There are without a doubt, numerous metaphors for both sin and redemption in the New Testament (he lists 22!). But Beck warns us that an overemphasis or downplaying of this diversity can have destructive implications. He says,
The point is that metaphors can distort as much as they illuminate. No doubt this is why the biblical writers deploy a diversity of metaphors in approaching the experience of grace. And yet it is often the case that certain metaphors can come to dominate the conversation about grace and sin. Not only does this represent a loss of complexity, but it should also cause us to wonder about the entailments associated with the dominant metaphors. As noted above, these entailments can hide as much as they reveal. And without countervailing metaphors in play the distortions inherent in a given metaphor can affect the life and mission of the church. (36)
There are two categories of metaphors he categorizes for us: (1) Purity/Pollution and (2) Clean/Unclean. Purity metaphors he points out are connected to language of sacrifice and "washing" (whether in the blood of a sacrifice, ceremonial washing of hands, or baptism). Beck however picks up on a particular metaphor and its implications for missional engagement in the life of churches, Penal Substitutionary Atonement. He explains,
The concern over the ascendancy and dominance of penal substitutionary atonement in many sectors of Christianity is the concern expressed above, that the salvation experience is being reduced to the handful of metaphors that govern penal substitutionary thinking. The worry is that an over-reliance on the penal substitutionary metaphors is leading to a loss of complexity and nuance within the Christian community. More, there is a worry that the entailments of the regulating metaphors behind penal substitutionary atonement are being pushed too far, that the “logic” of these metaphors is being taken too literally, creating confused and thin understandings of sin and grace. … some suggest that the penal substitutionary metaphors, read too literally, create a problematic view of God: that God is inherently a God of retributive justice who can only be “satisfied” with blood sacrifice. A more missional worry is that the metaphors behind penal substitutionary atonement reduce salvation to a binary status: Justified versus Condemned and Pure versus Impure. The concern is that when salvation reduces to avoiding the judgment of God (Jesus accepting our “death sentence”) and accepting Christ’s righteousness as our own (being “washed” and made “holy” for the presence of God), we can ignore the biblical teachings that suggest that salvation is communal, cosmic in scope, and is an ongoing developmental process. These understandings of atonement—that salvation is an active communal engagement that participates in God’s cosmic mission to restore all things—are vital to efforts aimed at motivating spiritual formation and missional living. … restricting our view to the legal and purity metaphors blinds us to the fact that atonement has developmental, social, political, and ecological implications. (40-41)
...one reason penal substitutionary atonement might be so popular is that it is sticky; it activates an emotional system that makes its metaphors highly memorable and, thus, more likely to be shared in the activities of evangelism, testimony, or catechesis. Penal substitutionary atonement might be a theological sweet tooth. … the metaphors of penal substitutionary atonement make it a kind of theological “junk food”: appealing and alluring, but problematic if overindulged. One needs a balanced theological diet. (42-43)
...one of the concerns regarding the penal substitutionary metaphors is that they might attenuate missional engagement. Feeling “saved” and “clean” we lose missional motivation and downplay the biblical injunctions that suggest that salvation is an ongoing process of sanctification and, following the Greek Orthodox tradition, theosis: The gradual process of being formed into the image of Christ. But is this true? Do purity metaphors cause us to become morally lax and self-satisfied? The answer appears to be yes. (45)
Beck brings us back to the image of the "theological sweet tooth" to talk about why this metaphor can become so dominating and so eclipsing of the otherwise diverse expressions of the realities of redemption…
...although the experience of purity helps us understand morality, the metaphorical connection between the two is so deep that the experience of physical purity can come to replace moral action. And, given that the church is awash in purity metaphors, particularly those churches who privilege penal substitutionary thinking, there exists a constant danger that the church will exchange the private experience of salvation, being washed in the blood of the Lamb, for passionate missional engagement with the world. (47)
Beck continues to point out that while much of our soteriological imagination may be dominated by the purity metaphors (e.g., Penal Substitutionary Atonement), very few sins actually fall into this category, and that in reality the only sins that consistently fall into this realm are sexual in nature. This not only makes them metaphorically more potent, but it makes the communal and theological consequences much heavier.
But why are purity metaphors such a source of stigma, shame, and guilt? A part of the answer has to do with the possibility of rehabilitation. Recall, most sin categories are structured by metaphors that entail rehabilitation. But purity metaphors have no such entailments. Recall that contamination judgments are governed by the attribution of permanence. (49)
...purity metaphors, by activating disgust and notions of non-rehabilitation, are some of the most powerful metaphors used to regulate behavior. That is the good news about purity metaphors: they erect strong emotional and behavioral taboos that can be harnessed by moral communities. The bad news is that once the taboo is violated, the offender is crushed by the emotions (self-loathing prompting social concealment) and entailments (permanent, non-rehabilitative ruin) of purity violations. This is very often the experience of sexual sin within many churches. (49-50)
Implications for our work and conversation together:
While this chapter has some hard-hitting implications for the life of specific communities of faith, it seems a little more difficult to connect the dots to the conversation that we are attempting to engage in. I think however that there are a few points of connection worth exploring.
(1) How has the metaphorical framework of the "purity of the church" functioned in your particular religious tradition or congregation and how has that impacted (for better or for worse) your engagement with people of other Christian traditions?
(2) Maybe we need to think about the diversity of metaphors for the church. The body, the bride, the family of God, royal priesthood and holy nation. This chapter's discussion of the purity boundaries especially in relation to sexual purity causes me to wonder if our metaphors for the church have had a similar effect. What would the implications be for our work together if the primary metaphor was "bride" as opposed to "royal priesthood and holy nation". One of these has much more the sexual intimacy metaphors within it, and my hunch would be that this would be at work implicitly in our presumption about the risk of engaging people from other traditions.
(3) If we have in the past (as my tradition has, although it wasn't always this way) labeled other Christian traditions with an irreversible mark of pollution, how do we go about undoing this stigma both theologically and tangibly?