Unclean: Introduction

This is the summary and working review of Unclean that is being read and discussed by a number of pastors and church leaders here in Chandler. You can see more about what we are doing here.

Beck begins the book by engaging the perpetual tension between mercy and sacrifice. He points toward two important psychological elements that have immediate and deep theological implications. First he explores the idea of disgust.

...disgust is a boundary psychology. Disgust marks objects as exterior and alien. (2)

The second idea has to do with the matter of contamination.

how are we to draw the boundaries of exclusion and inclusion in the life of the church? Sacrifice—the purity impulse—marks off a zone of holiness, admitting the “clean” and expelling the “unclean.” Mercy, by contrast, crosses those purity boundaries. Mercy blurs the distinction, bringing clean and unclean into contact. Thus the tension. One impulse—holiness and purity—erects boundaries, while the other impulse—mercy and hospitality—crosses and ignores those boundaries. And it’s very hard, and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see this, to both erect a boundary and dismantle that boundary at the very same time. One has to choose. And as Jesus and the Pharisees make different choices in Matthew 9 there seems little by way of compromise. They stand on opposite sides of a psychological (clean versus unclean), social (inclusion versus exclusion), and theological (saints versus sinners) boundary. In sum, the antagonism between mercy and sacrifice is psychological in nature. (2-3)

One of the major premises of this book is that psychology has significant implications or constraints on the church's theological reflection and imagination.

Theology—good or bad—affects how we experience the world, psychologically speaking. And psychological factors can affect and constrain theological reflection. ... Theology, one finds, is a deeply emotional and visceral activity. (4)

Beck brings to the table a metaphor that will be important as we continue through this book: Theological Sweet Tooth.

Some theological metaphors, ecclesial practices, and boundaries of inclusion and exclusion are rooted not in rich theological and biblical reflection but in their intuitive "feeling right". This is a reality in church life that is deeply rooted and hard to overcome.

In the absence of advanced theological training or the daily immersion in critical give-and-take, the church will tend to drift toward theological positions that psychologically resonate, that “feel,” intuitively speaking, true and right. … Striving after good theology is similar to managing a sweet tooth. Psychological dynamics will always make certain theological systems more or less appealing. And yet psychologically appealing and intuitive theological systems are not always healthy. In short, these psychological dynamics function as a sweet tooth, a kind of cognitive temptation that pulls the intellectually lazy or unreflective (because we are busy folk with day jobs) into theological orbits that hamper the mission of the church. As with managing the sweet tooth, vigilance and care are needed to keep us on a healthy path. (6-7)

The third element that Beck introduces is the idea of contamination and the connected framework of permanence. This is the reason that we are often attached to metaphors of washing, purification, and clean/unclean. To be sure these metaphors are replete throughout Scripture, but when used to the exclusion of other metaphors it serves a distortive rather than constructive role in theological reflection and practice.

Beck summarizes the groundwork that he has laid so far about the realms of disgust psychology: (19)

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.

In a suggestive clue to a later development in the book he notes that these three realms of disgust are all confronted/addressed in the central element of the Christian faith, the Lord's Supper.

Core Disgust: Food—oral incorporation—is at the center of both the psychology of disgust and the Eucharist.
Sociomoral: Socially, the Eucharist echoes and reenacts Jesus’s ministry of table fellowship. Coming to the Lord’s Table we are to “welcome each other, as Christ has welcomed us.” Morally, the Eucharist echoes the Day of Atonement, the ritual where the sins of Israel were “cleansed.” In a similar way, Christians remember that the blood of Jesus “continually cleanses us.”
Animal-Reminder: The Eucharist has strong, even scandalous, cannibalistic overtones. The emblems—bread and wine—represent the body and blood of Jesus. Consequently, the gritty, Incarnational and embodied aspects of the life of Jesus (and the church) are graphically confronted in the Lord’s Supper. (19)

His conclusion:

Suffice it to say, I think the Eucharist, providentially so, is engaged in shaping and reshaping how we think about purity, hospitality, and mortality: the three domains, as we have seen, deeply affected by disgust psychology. (20)

Implications for our work and conversation together:
I am personally interested in thinking about the ways in which the idea of contamination, disgust, and "purity" boundaries affect the way that we think about people, theological convictions, and church practices in other Christian traditions.

Beck's groundwork thus far has laid an interesting foundation for us to not only think about the ways that these psychological frameworks shape our own individual and communal practice and self-understanding, but also for how our churches might think about relating to one another.

A couple of questions (some of them might be rhetorical) that flow (at least for me) from the introduction…

(1) In what ways do I perceive sociomoral disgust at work in the way that I think of people of other Christian traditions and theological convictions?

(2) What are the theological sweet tooth's that are present in my own life as a church leader and in my congregation that must be named and (re)examined?

(3) What role does Communion/Eucharist/Lord's Supper play in my congregation now in mitigating or at least challenging these purity boundaries in favor of mercy?