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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Disgust has a high degree of plasticity. While the disgust psychology and reactions are universal, the objects of disgust are culturally conditioned.
- Disgust monitors the environment for contaminants. We make sure that our environment is healthy and safe.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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?