Richard Beck asks us to imagine spitting into a Dixie cup…and then drinking its contents.
Disgusting, right? Although this seems like the natural reaction to have, it’s actually rather odd, if you think about it. We swallow our own saliva all the time. “But,” as Beck notes, “the second saliva is expelled from the body it become something foreign and alien. It is no longer saliva—it is spit.”
Saliva and spit are practically identical in terms of physical composition. Yet, they are vastly different from a psychological standpoint—“We don’t mind swallowing what is on the ‘inside.’ But we are disgusted by swallowing something that is ‘outside,’ even if that something was on the ‘inside’ only a second ago.” Disgust, in other words, isn’t rational. It’s visceral, tapping into something more primal than the way we think. Yet, it impacts the way we act. We recoil against and reject things that are disgusting.
Sadly, we also recoil against and reject people we find disgusting. Lillian Smith shares the story of white social activists in the deep South breaking taboos of the day by eating with black women. Recounting her first meal, one of these church women admits to Smith that although she was intellectually she convinced about the equality of all people, she was “seized by an acute nausea which disappeared only when the meal was finished.” Upon reflection, she attributed this physiological reaction to an anxiety that was rooted in the “bottom of her personality” and had been formed during her childhood.
In past summers, we’ve explored the intersections of the life of faith with disciplines like philosophy, science, sociology, and theology. This summer, we turn to the field of psychology and will be grappling with Richard Beck’s Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality. His reflections are especially timely considering some of the deep divisions that are evident in society, as well as in our own communities of faith.
“Why do churches, ostensibly following a Messiah who broke bread with ‘tax collectors and sinners,’ so often retreat into practices of exclusion and the quarantine of gated communities?” Beck wonders. He suggests that it has a lot to do with the psychology of disgust. By understanding it, we can better understand the drive that shapes how we think about theological concepts like sin, salvation, and holiness. Beyond this, perhaps we can learn to regulate the propensity we have to thinking and acting in ways, which seems perfectly natural, but betrays the ideals we profess, much like the way, Beck suggests, we deal with the cravings we have for fatty and sugary foods we know are bad for us.
The book is divided into four parts and eleven concise chapters. Our bloggers, including old and new friends, will guide our discussion in a series of ten posts. The schedule we’ll try our best to stick to is as follows:
Part 1: Unclean
July 10: Ch. 1 - Darwin and Disgust: Ron Osborn
July 17: Ch. 2 - Contamination and Contagion: Karen Ong
Part 2: Purity
July 24: Ch. 3 - Morality and Metaphors: Jody Washburn
July 24: Ch. 4 - Divinity and Dumbfounding: Jody Washburn
Part 3: Hospitality
July 31: Ch. 5 - Love and Boundaries: David Barrett
August 7: Ch. 6 - Monsters and Scapegoats: Will Johns
August 14: Ch. 7 - Contempt and Heresy: Robert Jacobson
August 21: Ch. 8 - Hospitality and Embrace: Michaela Lawrence Jeffery
Part 4: Mortality
August 28: Ch. 9 - Body and Death: Lisa Clark Diller
Sept. 4: Ch. 10 - Sex and Privy: Keisha Mackenzie
Sept. 11: Chapter 11 - Need and Incarnation: Brenton Reading
Sept. 11: Conclusion: Elimination and Incarnation: Brenton Reading
We invite you to join us and anticipate your comments, questions, experiences, and insights. Let us know if you plan to participate by leaving a comment below.
Zane Yi, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University, where he teaches courses in philosophy and theology. He currently serves as the president of the Society of Adventist Philosophers.