Unclean: Darwin and Disgust

Beck gives a rich description of disgust as a boundary psychology:

...disgust is a boundary psychology. Disgust monitors the borders of the body, particularly the openings of the body, with the aim of preventing something dangerous from entering. This is why, as seen in Matthew 9, disgust (the psychology beneath notions of purity and defilement) often regulates how we think about social borders and barriers. Disgust is ideally suited, from a psychological stance, to mark and monitor interpersonal boundaries. Similar to core disgust, social disgust is triggered when the “unclean,” sociologically speaking, crosses a boundary and comes into contact with a group identified as “clean.” (15)

But disgust, although it is a universal experience across cultures (14), is not a reaction that is "pre-programmed". In other words, the things that trigger disgust in us are things to which we are formed to respond with disgust. There are things that are found to be offensive/disgusting in most/all cultures (feces, vomit, corpses, gore, deformity, etc.), but many of the things that trigger disgust in the sociomoral categories are conditioned and cultural (clothing, food, ethics, etc.).

The disgust domains (which Beck points out go quickly and deeply into social and religious implications) work out something like this:

Core Disgust (food): Revulsion centered on eating and oral incorporation: the adaptive core of disgust.
Sociomoral Disgust (moral offenses, social groups): Revulsion centered on moral and social judgments: the aspect of disgust related to issues of hospitality in Matthew 9.
Animal-Reminder Disgust (gore, deformity, animals, hygiene, death): Revulsion centered on stimuli that function as death/mortality reminders: the existential aspect of disgust. (19)

Implications for our work and conversation together:
I don't think anyone would deny that boundaries are not only important but indispensable. Boundaries are not only about purity, but they also mark out identity, they are formational, the are unavoidable. This highlights that tension brought out by Jesus in his confrontation with the religious elite in Matthew 9. Purity demands boundaries and by their very nature, the expulsion of things that violate those boundaries. But mercy, it crosses boundaries, it ignores them, it frustrates them. The ministry of Jesus confronts the boundaries that are set up, even ones that are based on the revelation of God in Scripture (or so it is perceived by those who are offended). Is this an irresolvable tension, mercy and sacrifice? Regardless of how we work out this question one thing is clear, disgust is deep, it is strong, and it is impactful in our lives and communities of faith.

Questions…
(1) Are there things that our particular traditions have formed as an object of disgust that are unique to our own interpretive traditions and church cultures that need to be reevaluated or rejected? (In my tradition, this might be something like the use of instruments in worship, or particular language surrounding the understanding and practice of baptism.)

(2) It is important I think to recognize that Beck does not suggest that we could/should find a way to move "beyond" the reaction of disgust, but instead suggests that Jesus consciously chooses to go beyond those very boundaries. What does this tension say about a God who (especially in the OT) clearly erects boundaries and in the NT (both in the life of Jesus and the early church) chooses to consciously ignore or surpass many of the same kinds of boundaries?

(3) What would the implications be of naming disgust as just that, disgust? Do you think this might have some impact on the way that we think about "them" (whoever that might be)?