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”?