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Summer Reading Group: “Darwin and Disgust”


This is the first post in a ten-part series for Spectrum’s 2015 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Unclean by Richard Beck. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

Chapter One of Richard Beck’s Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality is titled “Darwin and Disgust.”  Beck is not referring to Darwin’s theory of natural selection but rather to a simple anthropological observation Darwin makes in his book, Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals.  Our feelings of disgust are often linked with the prospect of eating something toxic or polluted, and people across widely different cultures all show disgust the same way: by wrinkling their noses and raising their upper lips.  Disgust is a biological necessity that protects us from dangerous substances yet it is also a behavior that is culturally conditioned in ways that often make little rational sense from a purely nutritional standpoint.  According to Beck (building on the work of psychologist Paul Rozin), our natural though also frequently arbitrary food aversions represent the most basic or “core” form of disgust.

Beck believes that the phenomenon of “core disgust” illuminates the dynamics of disgust more generally.  What we are dealing with, whether in its innate biological or more elaborate and socially constructed forms, is a “boundary psychology.”  Beyond keeping us from ingesting unhealthy matter, the emotion of disgust serves “to mark and monitor interpersonal boundaries.” “From dawn to dusk, disgust regulates much of our lives: biologically, socially, morally, and religiously.”  Just as we spit out food that we fear may be polluted or contaminated, social disgust is built upon an “expulsive psychology.”  We might think of it as a kind of communal gag reflex aimed at maintaining group purity through various purging, exclusionary, or scapegoating mechanisms.

Beck does not discuss the possibility of necessary social disgust analogous to the protective role played by instinctive food aversions.  Nor does he consider in this brief opening chapter the curious ways in which disgust is often mingled with feelings of fascination and attraction.  Why is it, for example, that we take a strange pleasure from scenes in films (or, for that matter, in Christian art) that include elements of blood and gore, playing on our emotions of disgust?  Instead, he sketches the outlines of a reading of the New Testament in which Christ emerges as at once the victim of, and the victor over, social disgust.

In the Gospel narratives, Beck points out, much of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees centers upon questions of purity and who should and should not be included, embraced, or welcomed within the community.  Christ repeatedly challenges the exclusionary practices of the religious gatekeepers of his day through his contact with “disgusting” and ritually unclean persons, including lepers, bleeding women, and persons possessed by demons.  Where the guardians of “right” religion seek to safeguard the purity of Israel by rigorously monitoring and regulating the boundaries of who is and who is not a “true” insider and member of the tribe, Christ promiscuously mingles with “sinners,” untouchables, and “polluted” ones of every stripe.  In doing so, he becomes himself polluted in the eyes of the religious authorities, an object of social disgust whose very presence is deemed a dangerous threat to the social body.

Even more provocatively, Beck suggests that the Lord’s Supper systematically “maps” onto many of our biological as well as social “disgust domains”.  At the center of Christian liturgy is the consumption of Christ’s body and blood in the emblems of the bread and wine. The Eucharistic meal is a “gritty” reminder of the earthiness of Christ’s incarnation, and it carries “scandalous, cannibalistic overtones”.  The language and symbols of communion seem almost deliberately aimed at provoking our feelings of disgust, for they confront us with the brutal realities not only of Christ’s death but also of our own mortality, which so much of our individual as well as social nose-wrinkling is a desperate attempt to stave off.  What is more, when we gather round the communion table we are forced to face the dangerous implications of following a Lord of the outcasts who was himself an outcast, despised and scapegoated by his own people.

There is a paradoxical fact of disgust that Beck does not consider in this chapter that seems to me to also be highly significant in Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees: disgust, the Gospels reveal, can itself be disgusting. 
In George Orwell’s novel, Burmese Days, the beautiful young Englishwoman Elizabeth Lackersteen is viscerally revolted by nearly everything she encounters in Asia—its food, its customs, its thinking, its dress.  Yet Elizabeth’s judgments on Burma and its “uncivilized” people stands as a damning indictment of her own racism and provincialism, and more broadly of the casual barbarism of British imperialism (which its administrators are incapable of seeing, inured as they are by colonialism’s self-insulating and self-flattering language rules).  We are left disgusted by her disgust.

Similarly, in the New Testament it is the keepers of purity and order—laboring tirelessly and no doubt sincerely to draw their circles of righteousness and purity ever clearer and tighter—who we find truly appalling.  It is they, not Jesus, who are ironically corrupting and destroying Israel from within.  And Christ’s disgust at the Pharisees is unmistakable:

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in…Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves…Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.   So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness…Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!  For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Matthew 23)

Beck’s reflections on Darwin and disgust leave members of the Adventist tradition with an urgent and unsettling question: What does Christ say to us in response to the triumphalist rhetoric and exclusionary logic that has come to define and disfigure so much of our church life?  Can the Adventist story only, inevitably, be a glorious forward march, ever onward and upward?  Or can the Adventist “house” no less than the house of Israel in the end be left desolate by God’s Spirit, abandoned to those gatekeepers who would have us believe that they alone are faithful readers of Scripture and disciples of Jesus?  Can Adventism come to be stamped with the mark of a terrible and even revolting tragedy?

To any outside observer, the sight of a person self-purging is disgusting.  It is disgusting too when an entire community comes to exhibit a kind of institutional and spiritual bulimia, glutting itself with new members while at the same time intentionally vomiting out many of its own children in a manic attempt to make itself more beautiful.  Administrators lament the fact that the church has lost approximately 40% of its members over the past 50 years—and they then proceed with renewed enthusiasm and even seeming relish to ratchet the screws ever tighter on anyone who does not think the “correct” thoughts according to the narrowest rules of biblical interpretation.  Career bureaucrats audaciously announce that this, their tenure in high office, might well be the final chapter in human history, the last General Conference session before the eschaton—apparently imagining that they possess the wisdom of saints and the courage of martyrs to lead God’s vanguard into the millennium.  They are chiefly disgusted by the evolutionists and homosexuals in their midst, and they are determined to make sure the world knows it.  What more does God require of us, after all, than that we purge ourselves of the Other who is the corrupting source of our impurity?

Adventist officials are not disgusted in any visible way by the things that most obviously stirred the righteous anger of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus: poverty, injustice, oppression, religious hypocrisy, human suffering, abuse of power, and violence.  They were not, and they are not, shaken to their bones by the memory of Seventh-day Adventists hacking their fellow Adventists to death with purging zeal during the Rwandan genocide, pausing to rest on the Sabbath (in what was perhaps the most Adventist country in the world by share of the total population).  There is not, and there cannot be, a post-Rwanda eschatology for Adventists, for the script is already etched in stone and our own capacity for “expulsive psychology” and persecuting violence is no part of it—no matter how many facts of history prove otherwise.

There is much in Adventism that I fear can only be cause for divine disgust.  In candor, though, disgust is not the emotion I feel any longer when I hear reports of the latest pronouncements and power plays of Adventist officialdom.  What I feel above all is growing distance and tedium.  In the eschatological imaginings of Adventist fundamentalists, it is “lukewarm,” “liberal” believers—those lacking in sufficient evangelistic fervor and enthusiasm for what “we have always said”—who are corrupting the Remnant and thwarting Christ’s return.  Yet what is more enervating, more lukewarm, more insipidly Laodicean, than a people that collectively buries its theological talents in sands of nostalgia, imagining that the Master will one day return and praise them for their prudential caution?  Will he say, “Well done, good and faithful servants, you have been repetitive unto the end”?  Or will the Master be appalled and disgusted at those whose highest prophetic imagination is to fantasize decade after decade that they are the Last Generation Heroes of Salvation history—already possessing all of the theological riches they need for the final push to Zion, with everything to teach and nothing to learn from other Christians—when to all the world they are scandalously naked, impoverished, blind, and brutal in their utterly boring conceit?  Does Christ say to us, “Enter into my kingdom”?  Or does he say, “I will spit you out of My mouth”?


Ronald E. Osborn is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Burma/Myanmar and a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College.  He is the author of Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP Academic, 2014) and Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence, and Theodicy (Cascade Books, 2010).

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