Part 4: Mortality

Beck’s Unclean work is driven by a desire to explore the implications of disgust psychology in our constructions of theology. Disgust psychology, to review, is fundamentally a boundary psychology meaning we erect boundaries towards those things/people/practices that we deem “disgusting.”

In our discussions on this blog so far we have discussed the first two major domains where disgust psychology impacts our daily lives. The first is core disgust: disgust associated with eating and orality. The second is sociomoral disgust: disgust associated with morality and social interactions. And in his last section of the book (and our present topic of discussion) Beck addresses the third and final domain—animal-reminder disgust: disgust associated with stimuli related to death and mortality reminders. Beck’s basic argument is that we erect boundaries of disgust towards those things that remind us of our death, decay, and mortality as human beings.

The prime example he uses to illustrate this third disgusting impulse is the paradoxical nature of our bodily existence. While we yearn for things that are spiritual and of God (a movement we often associate with the upward direction) we are nevertheless confronted daily with our bodies as reminders of our vulnerability and weakness (a movement we often associate with the downward direction). Therefore, the mingling of these two aspects of our existence (the divine and the carnal, the up and the down, the soul and the body) creates a sense of discomfort. Beck calls this discomfort and tension “the scandal of anality.” In other words, it is scandalous for us to mix and mingle the divine things of life with the grittiness of this world (i.e., that which reminds us of our death and decay). So we erect buffering boundaries because we do not want to be reminded of our finality.

Beck fleshes out (pun intended) this scandal of anality through two examples—sex and vulgar language. While we often may refer to these two examples as merely “dirty things” Beck argues something deeper is going on with such labeling. He contends that our discomfort with sex and obscene language is rooted in a deeper anxiety with the way they draw us back towards confrontation with our mortality. Again, we have the impulse to “go up” to the divine things of life, but part of sex pulls us back down to the sweat and vulnerability of bodily existence. In a similar way, vulgar language dismantles the protective linguistic barriers we build and confronts us with the baser levels of our existence. So our uncomfortable posture to them is not just about dirt and filth, but it is also about death.

The reason Beck makes such a big deal about this animal-reminder disgust via the scandal of anality is due to the theological and missional implications for the life of the church. Theologically, since many Christians struggle with their own gritty existence, they also struggle with the gritty existence of Jesus. This “incarnational ambivalence,” as Beck calls it, implicitly creates a picture of God that is self-contained, self-sufficient, and in need of nothing. Christians struggle with a picture of Jesus in the flesh because his flesh is a haunting reminder of their finality and decay. As a result, the church builds its mission on such incarnation ambivalence, and creates a way of being in the world that is about fleeing the world. The purpose of the church thus becomes avoiding the gutters of life and evacuating to the spiritual realms “above.” Incarnation ambivalence creates missional ambivalence. The church becomes “too spiritual.”

Beck’s response is to create a renewed theological emphasis on the incarnation of Jesus. More specifically, he emphasizes the act of incarnation as an act of need and dependency and love within and on behalf of the Godhead (contra a self-sufficient God). Therefore, in the person and ministry of Jesus, we see him attempting to draw others into an awareness of need within themselves and within others because this reflects the loving nature of God (e.g., Matthew 12). The mercy of God drives the people of God into the world as agents of that mercy. As a result, the mission of the church becomes about entering into the needs of the world around them as a “fellowship of neediness” (a community aware of their need and filled with empathy on behalf of others in need). Incarnational embrace creates missional embrace. The church becomes “of God” by becoming “of the world.” And as Beck reminds us this embrace can only happen once the people of God begin to dismantle the boundaries we have created out of our fear of death.


  1. What about Beck’s final section did you find insightful or especially challenging?
  2. Key to Beck’s argument is his belief that we need a renewed view of the Incarnation to drive a healthier view of mission in the world. How might we implement such renewal in our churches? What Scriptures might we point to? What experiments might we try?
  3. Part of our resistance to viewing Jesus as fully human is rooted in our discomfort with our own mortality (170). In other words, our theology is rooted more in who we are than in who God is. Where else do you see this problem playing out in the way we do theology?
  4. Part of the task of ministers is leading our congregations into a deeper awareness of our mortality and neediness so that we can do the same with others (178-9). How do we go about better embracing the death and decay of our existence? What experiences have you had that have deepened this awareness within yourself and/or the life of your church?
  5. An aspect of this discussion that is burning with irony is that one of the most central claims of our faith and theology (i.e., the Incarnation of Jesus) is one of our most difficult to absorb and embrace (171). What other central claims of the Christian faith can you think of that burn with this irony? In other words, they are central to our faith as Christian, yet we struggle to fully embrace them.
  6. What might it look or sound like to preach a sermon on the Incarnation? What would you call the series? What texts would you use? How would you communicate a renewed theological perspective on the person of Jesus?


Part 3: Hospitality

Having already discussed the psychology of disgust (Part One) and how this disgust psychology regulates moral decision-making, especially in terms of salvation (Part Two), Beck now turns to the social aspects of disgust psychology, the way disgust psychology makes us feel about and treat people (rather than just the decisions they make).  Spoiler Alert: It’s not good.

Sociomoral Disgust
When disgust psychology is applied toward people, rather than just actions, this is called “sociomoral disgust.”  In religious circles, this is primarily displayed by the “Purity/Sanctity” moral foundation.  When Jesus encounters sociomoral disgust at work in the gospels he does the opposite of what is expected, and in so doing, reframes Israel’s notion of sin.  Instead of focusing on people as unclean, Jesus focuses on the boundaries between people as unclean.  The Old Testament prophets had a similar message, claiming that God despised Israel’s religious rituals because of injustice. 

This displays tension between the “priestly” and “prophetic” traditions (or, as Beck terms it, tension between “sacrifice” and “mercy”).  Beck claims that these two ways of thinking are inherently incompatible.  Jesus resolved this tension by siding with the prophetic/merciful tradition.  Rather than negativity dominance (one drop of poison ruins the whole drink), in Jesus, the clean cleanses the unclean.  Jesus overturns the locus of purity in the Jewish world.  Purity is now an attitude of the heart; purity is mercy.  Like Israel, the church tends to deal in terms of purity, holiness, and sanctity.  Because of the tension inherent between mercy and sacrifice, when we appeal to the notions of mercy, love, and hospitality we are asking our churches to do contradictory things.  There is no “both/and” – more of one means less of the other.  It is hard, then, to make decisions.

In the extreme, sociomoral disgust displays itself as racism, even genocide.  On a day-to-day basis, individuals are not that bad.  But when things are stressful, sociomoral disgust crops up, and it doesn’t come from nowhere.  The self is defined by a boundary (literally – we swallow spit in our mouths without thinking twice, but would not drink our own spit from a cup).  This selfhood is also symbolic; it extends beyond the body.  People, places, events, ideas, etc that I identify with are inside the boundary of myself, and vice versa.  The entire world is broken down into “Me” and “Not-Me.”  Described another way, it is psychologically natural to differentiate “kin” from “non-kin,” and extend “kindness” to those that we consider to be “kin.”  Once a person is admitted to your “in-group” it is natural to be affectionate toward them.  Out-group people are treated as tools, as means to an end – whereas in-group people are an end in themselves. 

Monsters and Scapegoats
Stated extremely: we see outsiders as less than human, as lacking a vital human quality.  It is not a question of degree (they are less human than we are), but of essential quality (they are not human).  The in-group marks the fully human standard.  Out-group people give a community someone to blame in crisis situations.  They are made into “monsters,” literally dehumanized.  Monsters are hybrids, mixing things that should not be mixed (a bug-headed person is a monster; a centaur is a mythical creature).  Something high is mixed with something low (bugs and people are on wholly different levels).  This makes it easy to scapegoat the monster.  It doesn’t feel like scapegoating, because monsters don’t seem innocent.

A scapegoat unites people who would otherwise be divided by stress; peace (of a sort) is achieved.  Therefore, it seems to be effective, and restructures a group’s worldview to the point that “sacrificing” people seems like the right thing to do to appease the gods.  Christians who read the gospel story see Jesus as the ultimate scapegoat, because he was in every way innocent, and are therefore able to admit (logically) that scapegoating is bad.

But, somehow, we do not know that dehumanizing (monster-ifying) people is bad.  “Sociomoral disgust makes it difficult for us to step back from monster-hunting crusades to expose the scapegoating mechanisms at work within [us]” (p.99).  We should be concerned about this because these subconscious biases have measurable impact on behavior, of which we are also unaware.  “In good times and with good people, these fissures might not amount to much.  But the effects are scalable and can add up…During times of stress and panic these fissures begin to crack open” (p.105-6).

Disgust may be rare, a “crisis-time emotion.”  But emotions like contempt, disdain, and superiority are more common.  These “day-to-day emotions” also signal a failure of inclusion (a failure to love).  This failure to love is displayed by the New Testament.  Despite the example of Jesus, Jews in the New Testament had a hard time eating with Gentiles (Peter in Acts 2, Paul in Galatians 2, 1 Corinthians 11).  Psychological habits were revealed by the practicality of table fellowship. This is ironic considering that the supper Jesus instituted was a symbol of fellowship, welcome, and inclusion.  At the meal Jesus instituted, the psychology of disgust is dismantled.  But our table does not always reflect that reality.  Now, just as then, it is hard for us to understand the radically egalitarian nature of the gospel.  The human tendency toward exclusion can reassert itself and cause us to import boundaries from culture into the life of the church.

Despite the many psychological forces working toward exclusion, hospitality serves as a positive action of inclusion.  The welcoming of strangers is the quintessential Christian practice.  It was the most controversial aspect of Jesus’ ministry, the most radical aspect of Israel’s God, and a defining feature of the early church.  What’s so great about hospitality?  Well, sin is dehumanizing; it divides between “in” and “out” – and those who are “out” are less than human.  Hospitality humanizes – it recognizes and embraces humanity in an outsider. Hospitality is countercultural.  Hospitality is resistance.

The potential critique is: If love (as displayed by inclusion through “extreme” hospitality) involves tearing down boundaries, aren’t we vulnerable?  This objection comes from two areas: psychotherapeutic and ecclesial.  In psychotherapeutic terms, talk of embrace flies in the face of recommendations to establish boundaries for your own emotional well-being.  Beck’s response to this critique is essentially, “That's right; love does not erect boundaries that psychotherapists recommend.”  Discussion of establishing boundaries does not have “love” in mind, but secular “healthy relationships.”  This is a secular idea that should not enter Christian psychotherapy.  The Christian “self” is in God’s triune, mutually self-giving image.

The objection in ecclesial terms is that boundaries are what make communities.  Scripture warns against losing our saltiness, and describes expulsive aspects of the early church (1 Corinthians 5).  Beck grants that this is true, but that it usually backfires.  In the extreme, it leads to scapegoating violence.  Mildly, it preserves rather than challenges the status quo.  Who are we to decide who is demon (out-group) and who is not?  Holiness pushes against hospitality – emphasizing withdrawal, expulsion, and quarantine.  Again we see tension between mercy and sacrifice. 

Ultimately, the question is not how churches handle discipline, communion, etc.  The question is whether those decisions/practices are affecting the way we experience others.  Are these practices reinforcing (or creating) sociomoral disgust?  It may be that boundaries are necessary for communal integrity, but these cannot be faithfully established before matters of the heart are addressed.

Unfortunately, many of these “matters of the heart” are subtle, subconscious psychological dynamics.  Therefore, we must be skeptical toward ourselves and assume that we are psychologically compromised by disgust.  “Discussions of purity and sin cannot be primary discussions.  For when the ‘will to purity’ trumps the ‘will to embrace’ (when sacrifice precedes mercy), the gears of sociomoral disgust begin to turn, poisoning the well of hospitality…The church begins to define its spiritual mission as the regulation of purity boundaries within the membership and between outsiders” (p.139).


Part 2: Purity

Metaphors are helpful little guys. We use them all the time…

Naomi’s down with the flu.

Adam’s life is a mess.

Wilson is wound pretty tightly.

Metaphors help us make sense of things. Citing research from by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Beck begins Part 2 of his book discussing the link between metaphors and morality. The biblical writers employ a number of different metaphors to approach the experience of sin and grace. Purity, freedom, nation, military, and family are just a few of the 22 sin/grace metaphors that Beck points. The great thing about each of these metaphors is that they provide illumination to a fairly abstract idea. The problem, however, is that metaphors can distort just as much as they illuminate. This is why multiple metaphors are used to explain something as complex as the issue of sin/grace. Each metaphor provides a small part to the whole and thus, no single metaphor accurately captures the idea at hand. The problem, Beck contends, is that the purity metaphor (clean vs. unclean) has dominated the soteriological landscape and left us with a thin experience of salvation that lacks the complexity provided in scripture.This “thin” experience of salvation is highlighted in the recent conversations that surround the notion of penal substitutionary atonement. In compressed form, Beck defines the core feature of this doctrine as such:

“Jesus ‘substitutes’ himself for sinners on the cross, taking upon himself the punishment of sin…the sacrificial shedding of Christ’s blood – seen as a perfect and thus, final sin-offering – washes, cleanses or ‘covers’ the sins of believers.” (39)

The purity metaphor that contributes to penal substitutionary atonement is where Beck begins to highlight how metaphors impact morality in powerful ways. If we are “washed clean” by the blood of Jesus than what more is there to do? Once we are “saved,” once we are found “clean” before God than the pursuit of social and political engagement no longer has any claim on our lives. As Beck states:

“…physical purity replaces moral action…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)

In addition to regulating morality, purity metaphors also activate aspects of disgust psychology. If something pure has been “contaminated” – especially those things linked to the divine (i.e. corporate worship, church doctrine, congregational polity) – the initial response to the violation is often an immediate, visceral disgust. This dynamic creates profound social and communal conflict that is not easily resolved. The reason for this, Beck contends, is that purity violations in the divine domain can often have no clear warrants as to why they feel the way they do. They can’t tell you why they’re disgusted, they just are. This is what Jonathan Haidt calls “moral dumbfounding.” This feeling of being wronged, but unclear as to why, leads us to search for rational warrants to explain why you feel the way you do. Given that a church is made up of individuals with differing notions of what is and isn’t a purity violation, when a person (or group of people) feel something has been contaminated, logic and theology will often take a back seat to emotion. Here is a recent example from the congregation I currently serve:

Over the past few years the leadership of the church has pursued gender equality in our public worship. On any given Sunday, you will find both genders leading prayers, offering benedictions, reading scripture, and leading our communal practice of “Dwelling in the Word.” A few months ago, the leadership invited both male and female to pass the communion elements during Sunday morning worship. Of all the ways our tradition has prohibited women from serving, refusing to let them pass the communion trays seemed to be the most ridiculous. There is no biblical, theological, or reasonable argument that can be made. This would be an easy transition…or so we thought…

While the majority of the congregation was relieved and excited at the transition, there were a few congregants who not only threatened to leave, they refused to take communion when a woman passed it to them. When asked to discuss the issue, they openly admitted that there is no biblical or theological support for their feelings, they just know (intuitively) that it is wrong and not appropriate for worship. The purity of their worship had been violated and the proof of this violation was not found in logic, scripture, or theology…it was found in their immediate, visceral response.

What followed is what Beck believes is the most worrisome aspect of disgust (I’ll end with this so smarter people can jump in). The feeling of disgust brought on by the contamination of our worship purity soon became attached to people. These individuals weren’t just disgusted at the act, they were disgusted with those who participated in it. Brothers and sisters in Christ were now seen as inferior. This, Beck claims, is the most disturbing aspect of Matthew 9:

“In the end, the real problem in Matthew 9 isn’t the moral reasoning of the Pharisees, that they shouldn’t have framed the situation using a purity metaphor. No, the real problem in Matthew 9 is that the Pharisees saw human beings as vectors of contamination and pollution” (69-70).

A few questions:

-I did not cover everything Beck said in this section (a bit obvious, I know). What should be added to this conversation from Part 2 of Beck’s book? Anything jump out at you?

-When we consider the spiritual formation of communities and individuals, how do we create dialogue that helps people (ourselves included) move past moral dumbfounding? Is it even possible?

-What are your own experiences with how purity metaphors regulate morality and how disgust psychology is activated when the divine domain feels “contaminated”?


Part 1. Unclean

"Disgust regulates much of our lives..."

While it is admittedly an odd subject and an odd starting place, nevertheless, disgust is an innate psychological factor within human psychology. Although to some degree disgust can be culturally conditioned (eating animal "X" may be disgusting in one culture but not in another culture), the psychology of disgust is more or less universal. For instance, we all, regardless of culture, make the same face when we are disgusted and usually have the desire or impulse to spit or vomit.

In this light he makes several baseline observations about disgust psychology:
  1. Disgust is a boundary psychology. Disgust monitors and determines how to keep the body safe from contaminants/harmful things, how to keep those unclean things from entering.
  2. Disgust is an expulsive psychology. In addition to keeping us safe, it also motivates our responses aimed at expelling/eliminating things that are disgustingly offensive.
  3. Disgust has a high degree of plasticity. While the disgust psychology and reactions are universal, the objects of disgust are culturally conditioned. 
  4. Disgust monitors the environment for contaminants. We make sure that our environment is healthy and safe.
Beck writes that "revulsion is very often triggered by a judgment or appraisal of contamination or pollution." While judgments about contamination and pollution are essential in many cases for survival (don't eat that poison), the "logic" by which contamination judgments are made plays by no systematic set of rules--instead, judgements of contamination operate by means of sympathetic magic:
  • Similarity - Similarity between two objects creates a connection between the two objects (ex: a voodoo doll and the person it looks like). Often we treat things that look like one another the same way, even if we know that is logically unfair or inconsistent (brownies shaped like poop are undesirable even if we know they are brownies).
  • Contact - Contact between two objects creates an indissoluble connection between them (ex: a voodoo doll that is in contact with a person's hair). The rule here seems to be that once something is in contact with a contaminant, it is always in contact with this contaminant.
To further elucidate the magical element to contamination judgments, Beck includes four principles of contagion: to which I have applied the example of finding a hair in one's salad at lunch.
  1. Contact: Contamination is caused by contact or physical proximity. This would be like finding a hair in your lunch--definitely grounds for not finishing the salad. 
  2. Dose Insensitivity: Minimal, even micro, amounts of the pollutant confer harm. The classic example cited is "A drop of urine in a bottle of wine will ruin the bottle of wine." The point is not how much of a contaminant is present. The point is that something is either contaminated or it is not. One hair on one piece of lettuce has made all of the salad repulsive.
  3. Permanence: Once deemed contaminated nothing can be done to rehabilitate or purify the object. Having found the hair, we will not eat the salad--it is a lost cause. Even if the hair is removed, we will not want to eat the salad. Many of us would not even exchange it or replace it. Some would even boycott the restaurant forever because of the hair--their salads can never be clean again.
  4. 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. To finish the axiom about wine and urine above it would say: "A drop of urine in a bottle of wine will ruin the bottle of wine. But a drop of wine in a bottle of urine will do nothing to make the urine drinkable." The salad dressing does not make the hair enjoyable food. 

Okay, that's great (and gross), but what's the point? What is the theological relevance of this grossness?

As Beck concisely unpacks the pieces of disgust psychology, he continually makes reference to how we export disgust psychology from physical categories (what foods are safe to eat and things safe to touch) to spiritual and moral categories (what kind of people are unclean and unsafe for us to associate with).
  1. Disgust is also a social boundary psychology. Christians and churches monitor and determine how to keep the body safe from contaminants/harmful things, and invest a good deal of time determining how to keep those unclean things from entering.
  2. Disgust is a socially expulsive psychology. In addition to identifying threats for contagion, Christians and churches expel things/persons that are determined to be dangerous/offensive.
  3. Social disgust has a high degree of plasticity. Faith communities often identify contaminants through culturally conditioned means and points of view. In one place something may be offensive and worthy of expulsion, in others it may not be considered as such (ex: women teaching publicly).
  4. Disgust monitors the social environment for contaminants. We make sure that our environment is healthy and safe by keeping our eyes and ears peeled for the wrong people who are dangerous.
The sympathetic magic of contamination works itself out in our churches. The primary object of disgust for churches is evil. So we tend to think of evil or bad as if it were a virus or disease--as Beck writes, "Evil is sticky or contagious. So we stay away." Beck utilizes the small narrative exchange in Matthew 9 to help illustrate how the four principles of contagion discussed above work themselves out socially on moral grounds.
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.
 10 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?”
 12 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.”
  1. Contact: Contamination is caused by contact or physical proximity. Notice that the Pharisees--the religious insiders--see Jesus as in danger because of his contact with tax collectors and sinners.
  2. Dose Insensitivity: Minimal, even micro, amounts of the pollutant confer harm. Jesus spent lots of time with lots of people, but any time with these contagions contaminates him.
  3. Permanence: Once deemed contaminated nothing can be done to rehabilitate or purify the object. The Pharisees cannot conceive of how Jesus could be religiously pure since he has spent time with these contagious people.
  4. 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. The Pharisees cannot see Jesus purifying the tax collectors and sinners; rather, the evil ones have drug Jesus down into their evil with them. 
Now how about our churches... how do we deal with outsiders, contagions, or threats that disgust us?

 Some churches frequently hermit away from contact with the sinful world. Some churches often fear any small change as a full scale infection that will corrupt the whole. Some churches certainly seem to portray some sins as irredeemable and some sinners as permanently stained. Some churches often act in such a way that suggests that when bad comes into contact with good, bad will always win.

The choice is not whether we will incorporate this way of thinking and living into our churches. It is already there. So what do we do about it?


So here are the questions/points that I am asking our team to respond to (one or all is fine, but try not to do too much in one response--like I have done in this one post):
  • What are the practical implications of the church's use of disgust psychology--especially sympathetic magic and the four principles of contagion--in terms of communal holiness and life in Christ?  
  • Playing devil's advocate here (or rather saint's advocate as the case may be), is there reason, biblical support or practical justification for utilizing disgust psychology in the church?
  • In what ways does disgust psychology compromise or support the gospel of Jesus? 
If you have any other thoughts that will elicit dialogue and thoughtful interaction, please feel free to include that as well.


the conversation

Good conversations often start around good books. For this conversation, the book being discussed is Richard Beck's Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. 

This blog will be an open forum of dialogue about the book and the implications and issues raised within it, as well as the praxis that arises from it.

The contributors are all Christians. All of us take seriously the commitment to communities of faith that seek to embody in real life our theological convictions. Some of us work professionally for churches, but all of us are ministers.

The goal of this dialogue is deeper faith and missional praxis. This dialogue will result in the production of a series of challenging and engaging teachings that will be designed to be used within the pastoral context within communities of faith.

Ultimately, this project will culminate in a conversation with the author at the Streaming Conference 2012 held at Rochester College, June 18-20 in Rochester Hills, Michigan.

Welcome to the conversation.