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?

Unclean: Contamination and Contagion...

Perhaps most intriguing in this chapter is the introduction of "magical thinking". This is the idea that there are some certain types of psychological responses that don't really "make sense" and who's logic seems to be counter-intuitive and yet still remains valid to the individual. "Why is that disgusting?" someone might ask. Magical thinking would respond, "I don't know, but it just is." This magical thinking typically carries an element of permanence. Once the fly has been in the soup, or the feces have touched the cheeseburger there is nothing that you can do to rehabilitate it to a state of being clean. This brings us face to face with the theological and social implications of contamination and contagion.

...people tend to think about evil as if it were a virus, a disease, or a contagion. Evil is an object that can seep out of Hitler, into the sweater, and, by implication, into you if you try the sweater on. Evil is sticky and contagious. So we stay away. What we see in this example is how disgust psychology regulates how we reason about and experience aspects of the moral universe. Disgust psychology prompts us to think about evil as if it were a virus or a polluting object. When we do this the logic of contamination is imported into moral discourse and judgment. … We find magical thinking at work in Matthew 9. If sin is “contagious,” extending hospitality becomes impossible. This is the psychological dynamic at the heart of the conflict in Matthew 9. What worries the Pharisees is Jesus’ contact with sinners. This worry over proximity is symptomatic of the magical thinking imported into the religious domain through the psychology of disgust. (25-26)

We now have four features of disgust psychology that we see at work both in our own thinking and its implications for both our theological reflection and ecclesial practice:

A Boundary Psychology: Disgust is a system that monitors boundaries. Disgust regulates the act of incorporation and inclusion.
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.
Promiscuous: Due to disgust’s developmental peculiarities (i.e., its sensitive period), culture can link disgust to a variety of stimuli, many unrelated to food. Consequently, disgust is often found regulating moral, social, and religious experiences.
Magical Thinking: The contamination appraisals involved in disgust are characterized by magical thinking, which overrides reason and logic. Consequently, when disgust regulates moral, social, or religious experience magical thinking is unwittingly imported into the life of the church. (26-27)

Beck goes on to cite four principles of contagion that are helpful for understanding the various facets of this construction as they apply to our categories of sin and social inclusion/exclusion:

Contact: Contamination is caused by contact or physical proximity.
Dose Insensitivity: Minimal, even micro, amounts of the pollutant confer harm.
Permanence: Once deemed contaminated nothing can be done to rehabilitate or purify the object.
Negativity Dominance: When a pollutant and a pure object come into contact the pollutant is “stronger” and ruins the pure object. The pure object doesn’t render the pollutant acceptable or palatable. (27-28)

Beck's conclusion to this chapter is to point out that in Matthew 9 Jesus confounds all of these "rules"…

What is striking about the gospel accounts is how Jesus reverses negativity dominance. Jesus is, to coin a term, positivity dominant. Contact with Jesus purifies. A missional church embraces this reversal, following Jesus into the world without fears of contamination. But it is important to note that this is a deeply counterintuitive position to take. Nothing in our experience suggests that this should be the case. The missional church will always be swimming against the tide of disgust psychology, always tempted to separate, withdraw, and quarantine. (30)

Implications for our work and conversation together:
While this chapter has helped us think more deeply about the psychological mechanisms in-play in our theological presumptions and ecclesial postures we find at the end of this chapter a serious undermining of just that framework. With Jesus and the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God the rules of contamination and negativity dominance at the least are called into question, and at most are suspended entirely. For Jesus, it is not the impure that pollutes the blameless, it is the redeeming power of God that transforms brokenness into wholeness, impurity into purity, exclusion into restoration.

So my primary hunch here is that this idea of negativity dominance ("If they come in with us, we will be tampered…") must be at the very least reevaluated, especially as it pertains to relationships among people of other Christian traditions. The difference in this situation than from other boundaries that are set up for self-preservation (e.g., not eating rancid meat) is that this framework includes the person of Jesus Christ. In him, the polarity is reversed. So what does it mean for us to think about people who have been adopted as sons and daughters of God through Jesus to not be "contaminants" that will make us impure, but instead as conduits of redemption for our increasing wholeness. It seems to me that this is the primary implication here. God the Father through the accomplished work of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit uses others to aid us in our journey of "being saved" (e.g., 2 Corinthians 2:14-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18) and to expel them as "unclean" is to do harm to everyone involved.

So a couple of questions to consider…
(1) What if real, tangible unity amongst brothers and sisters in Christ across Christian traditions is not merely a part of the world believing that Jesus is who he claimed to be (John 17), but that it is actually an indispensable part of our salvation as well?
(2) Why is it that we can handle larger doses of contaminants from within our own traditions than we can from outside of them?
(3) Who are the "tax collectors and sinners" that the "religious elite" (a.k.a. the Church) has marked as "unclean" in Chandler and how can we invite them to the table?

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.

(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)?

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?

"Unclean" and the Unity of the Church...

This summer I, along with other church leaders in my community are embarking on an important and complex journey. Together, (some of us for the first time) we will be discerning and learning what it means to express the visible unity of the church in our community. To aid us in that task we are launching together into an important book that begins to get at the heart of the boundaries that seperate us.

Richard Beck, who serves as Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University, has written a challenging and important book for anyone who is in church leadership called Unclean: Meditations of Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality.

The blurb on the back of the book reads as follows:

"I desire mercy, not sacrifice." Echoing Hosea, Jesus defends his embrace of the "unclean" in the Gospel of Matthew, seeming to privelege the prophetic call to justice over the Levitical pursuit of purity. And yet, as missional faith communities are well aware, the tensions and conflicts between holiness and mercy are not so easily resolved. At every turn, it seems that the psychological pull of purity and holiness tempts the church into practices of social exclusion and a Gnostic flight form "the world" into a "too spiritual" spirituality. In an unprecedented fusion of psychological science and theological scholarship, Richard Beck describes the pernicious (and largely unnoticed) effects of the psychology of purity upon the life and mission of the church.

This book, primarily written to deal with the inner psychological challenges of local communities of faith (a.k.a. local congregations) is being read and interpreted in a different light in this project. Together with a number of other pastors and church leaders in my community we will be reading and interacting with the psychological and theological implications of this book as they relate to our (evolving) relationships with one another across lines of Christian traditions.

All church bodies (local, regional, or denominational) struggle with the implications and outworkings of purity psychology. Think about it this way:

If we (whoever that is: person, family, church, tradition) are right (or at least the "most right"...because none of us would claim to be perfect, right?) then "they" are wrong (or at the very least less right). This means that we must erect some sort of boundary or barrier to prevent them from tainting the purity of what we know or who we are.

Notice how one-sided such a posture is. "We" must keep "them" out, unless of course they are willing to leave where they are and join us. There is only one way in, and it's OUR way.

Jesus faced this situation more than once in his ministry, but perhaps never as clearly as the story that we read in Matthew 9.

   9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
(Matthew 9:9-13, NIV)

In this brief moment we see clearly the implications of these boundaries of purity. The Pharisees have said, "There is only one way for God to be happy with you, and that is if you are with us." Jesus defies such artificial and destructive boundaries.

In the ancient world (and still to this day), people believed that if you were clean (pure) and you came into contact with someone or something which was unclean (impure) that the uncleanness was transferred to you and you lost your purity. But things are different when Jesus is in the equation. Look at this story from Matthew 8:

  1 When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. 2 A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

  3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. 4 Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:1-4, NIV)

Notice the difference? When Jesus touches this man it is not he who is made unclean, it is the leper who is made clean. But the leper's request to be made clean is much more than a request to be cured of his leprosy. It is a plea to Jesus to make his whole life brought back into order. It is a plea for redemption both of his body and his place in the worshipping community of Israel. This is a transformation of mind, body, and soul.

This tension, the fear of becoming unclean, and the reality that the purity of Jesus is not ruined by the impurity of others but is itself transformed is captured in Jesus' powerful quotation of the prophet Hosea:

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

What are the implications of this for Christian communities? What does this mean for the life of churches especially as it relates to people of other Christian traditions? Why does Jesus (and the prophet Hosea) put mercy and sacrifice in tension with one another, can't we have both?

These and many other questions will be explored here as we embark on this journey together.

This project, these questions and this book have all been brought to the front by an upcoming conference this summer, Streaming: Biblical Conversations from the Missional Frontier.

This summer at Rochester College the implications of "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." will be explored by a number of scholars, theologians, and practicioners who are asking these questions in the day to day life of their faith communities.

One of the keynote speakers this summer will be the world-class Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann. There are few if any scholars who have had such a wide influence on both Old Testament scholarship and simultaneously the faith and practice of the church. He has written a ton of books, commentaries, and scholarly articles. The tension of Mercy/Sacrifice was one of the major themes of his important book, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.

Richard Beck serves as Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Abilene Christian University, has written two books including Unclean and his newest book, The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience. He also writes at his award-winning blog, Experimental Theology.



If you're interested in attending Streaming you can get more information here. In the meantime check out Richard's books and come back as we enter into this very important discussion for the faith and practice of the church.

Here are a couple of videos from Richard about the upcoming Streaming conference: