Spiritual Pollution, Part 10: Purity Logic Case #2, Homosexuality

In my last post on Sexual Sins I could have discussed homosexuality but homosexuality is different enough to warrant its own post.

In my last post I noted that the metaphor of Sexual Purity is problematic for the following reasons:

1. It activates sociomoral disgust which is then directed at the self leading to a potentially permanent sense of guilt and shame.

2. #1 would be fine, theologically speaking, were it not that sexual sins are practically the only sins structured by the purity/contamination metaphor. Thus, many sins get off easy, psychologically speaking, whereas sexual sinners bear an unequal yoke in the church. This seems very wrong.

Staying with this theme, in today's post I'll focus on a special case of sexual sins: Homosexuality.

Psychologists know that homosexuality is a disgust elicitor in many North Americans (Haidt, McCauley, & Rozin, 1994). Thus, homosexuality isn't just governed by a purity logic, it is actually, for many, a powerful disgust stimulus. And many of these disgusted people are church-going Christians. Thus we have a large part of the Christian population who are strongly repulsed by homosexual persons. And, as I've noted repeatedly in this series, those strong visceral reactions make it difficult for the church to love homosexual persons and reason effectively about the status of homosexual persons in civic society.

I think it is pretty clear that homosexuality generates a qualitatively different kind of reaction with a quantitatively greater level of intensity (bordering on the hateful) than we see in many other Christian campaigns for righteousness. A host of sins in the larger culture are regularly pumped into Christian homes via the media that don't raise an eyebrow in the pews or pulpits. Yet a movie like Brokeback Mountain gets a lot of "righteous" anger and attention. Why? Well, it all has to do with the psychology of the sin. Homosexual sins activate our disgust psychology in a way most sins don't. Thus we see all the signs of the disgust reaction as the church approaches the issue of homosexuality: Strong, illogical, negative, and emotional reactions. And, since the church isn't practicing what she preaches by treating all sins the same, the homosexual population sees the church as full of mean, irrational, hateful, and hypocritical "Christians."

Recall in prior posts I noted that you cannot "balance" sociomoral disgust with love. It is one or the other. The mechanisms of each are reciprocally related. This tension is reflected in another quote I'd like to share from Walter Brueggemann's "Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, dispute, advocacy." After discussing the "profound tension" between the holiness and justice impulses, Brueggemann uses the case of homosexuality to illustrate this tension:

"[I]t is evident that the current and freighted dispute in the U.S. church concerning homosexual persons, especially their ordination, indicates the continuing felt cruciality of the tradition of holiness, even after we imagine we have moved beyond such “primitiveness.” It is my impression that the question of equal rights and privileges for homosexuals (in civil society as in the church) is a question that may be adjudicated on the grounds of justice. It is equally my impression, however, that the enormous hostility to homosexual persons (as to proposals of justice for them) does not concern issues of justice and injustice, but rather concerns the more elemental issues of purity—cleanness and uncleanness. This more elemental concern is evidenced in the widespread notion that homosexuals must be disqualified from access to wherever society has its important stakes and that physical contact with them is contaminating." (pp. 194-195)

I don't here want to comment on the status of homosexuality as a "sin." (I've done that already in my series "Theology and Sexuality.") All I want to note today is that if homosexuality is structured by the purity/holiness metaphor we see, as Brueggemann notes, real problems in trying to treat people in an ethical manner in American society. So, as I've noted from my psychological vantage, it is one or the other: Sociomoral purity or love? That is not to say that a person can't still deem homosexuality to be a "sin." It is simply to suggest that, in order for love to be the goal of the church in her dealings with homosexual persons, the sociomoral disgust psychology associated with this particular "sin" MUST BE DISMANTLED. As long as the disgust mechanism remains in place, the church will be full of those "mean-spirited hypocrites" because these people will always treat this particular "sin" in a qualitatively different manner.

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7 thoughts on “Spiritual Pollution, Part 10: Purity Logic Case #2, Homosexuality”

  1. All right, Richard, I was behind on posts, but am caught up now. The one thing that I can't seem to get around is a seeming miss on your logic: is it not more accurate to say "You cannot both hate the sin and love the sin" plus "You cannot both love the sinner and hate the sinner?" The mutual exclusivity obtains only on the same item, it seems to me. In other words, I cannot both love and hate ice cream, but I can love ice cream and hate asparagus; they, like the sin and the person who performs the sin, are very different items in my heart's inventory.

    Please help me see where your argument is not hurt by this.

  2. Cole,
    You make a good point that I have been too loose with my "hate the sin" formulation. I've been purposely vague to allow myself the chance to clarify this point in a later post. But, I'll clarify now.

    If you read closely I'm equating "hate" in these posts with sociomoral disgust. And on this point I feel very strong: You cannot be both disgusted by a person and love them at the same time. Even if the behavior is the disgust elicitor the disgust response will be applied to the person as well. That is what the psychological research tells us. Thus, you cannot separate, if the disgust response is activated, the person from the behavior.

    But there are other ways to "hate" the sin other than sociomoral disgust. And these forms of hate may allow the "hate the sin but love the sinner" to be successful.

    So, just to clarify, when the "hate" in the "hate the sin" formulation is sociomoral disgust then love is undermined. However, the "hate" could be something else, like simple righteous anger, which might allow for the co-existence of both hate (directed toward the behavior) and love (directed to the person).

    Does that clarify?
    P.S. Thanks for the e-mail you sent me. It was very nice of you to pass on the student's comments. Looking forward to when you get back to the States

  3. I think it would be worthwhile for you to elaborate on the research in your field that argues the disgust MUST be placed on the person as well as the behavior. Your entire argument rests on this point (as I see it, anyway), so it bears elucidation; as yet, I am hesitant to believe it without more persuasion. Even a capsule summary would help.

    Thanks for taking the time to articulate all this.

  4. Cole,
    I think I've already made that case. I've even included scholarly references! How many blogs have scholarly references?

    My best synopsis of this is in "Spiritual Pollution, Part 5: Love and disgust at the boundaries."

    The scholarly support can be found in:

    Haidt, J., Rozin, P., McCauley, C., & Imada, S. (1997). Body, psyche, and culture: The
    relationship between disgust and morality. Psychology and developing societies, 9, 107-131.

    Miller, W.I. (1997). The anatomy of disgust. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Nussbaum, M. (2004). Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Princeton University Press.

    Corroborative theological accounts include:

    Belo, F. (1981). A materialist reading of the gospel of Mark. MaryKnoll, NY: Orbis

    Brueggemann, W. (1997). Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, dispute, advocacy.
    Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

    Finally, an interesting case study involving disgust and the failure of love can be found in the disintegraion of marriages. See:

    Gottman, J.M., Murray, C.S., Tyson, R., and Swanson, K.R.T (2005). The Mathematics of Marriage : Dynamic Nonlinear Models. MIT Press.

    Is my summary of all this work (with references!) just not sufficient? My blog posts are already kinda long and technical as it is. Plus, this argument of mine has already made it through a peer review process in a scholarly journal. Further, Paul Rozin, the world expert on this topic, was one of the reviewers. My point is, I feel my analysis is accurate and supported by experts in this area, but this blog isn't the forum for a more prolonged technical discussion. Who would read it? The references can guide the curious.

  5. I believe that your argument has made it through peer review and that it's sound academically; I just don't get it yet. I truly don't. I find homosexual behavior "disgusting" in the literal sense as you define it, but I am not disgusted whatsoever by homosexual people. That is, I love homosexuals, but I feel the boundaries you delineate above when thinking about homosexual behavior. Am I missing something? I am truly open to understanding why I MUST place the boundary on both person and behavior.

  6. Cole,
    Okay, let me try to do a better job explaining.

    First, we must admit that people are rarely good reporters of their inner lives and behaviors. This is just a psychological fact. What this means is that anyone can SAY "Well, I'm disgusted by their behavior but I still love them." But we should not treat that statement as factual. Just because you say you can do something doesn't make it so. So, I'm not going to discard a pretty strong argument just because someone thinks they are the exception. We need to look at their behaviors.

    And what do we find when we look at behaviors? Let's look at one extreme: Those who find homosexuality extremely disgusting. Now, among this group, particularly among the Christians, how many of these people are going to be warm, caring people to homosexuals? Vote for gay marriages? Don't mind having a gay teacher teach their kids? Probably very few. I could stop here, because this makes my case: When disgust is strongly in play love is, in principle, undermined.

    For you to rebut, you'll need to point to a fairly substantial group of people who viscerally and deeply loathe homosexual behavior who are at the same time among the most charitable persons toward homosexual persons. I don't think you'll find a group like this. Thus, my analysis holds.

    What you will find, and you are probably an example of this, is someone who is only mildly disgusted by homosexuality. For example, you might attend a movie like Brokeback Mountain and be able to watch the homosexual scenes with only a slight sense of unease. Well, then, you're not wholly disgusted. You're mildly disgusted, which means that your capacity to be moved emotionally by the film rather than enraged by it is much greater. However, your mild disgust probably still causes you to be slightly less moved than if your disgust were completely absent. You'll leave the movie touched by the plight of gays, but something in you will still hold a little tiny part back. Again, this illustrates my point: As disgust attenuates, love can increase proportionately.

    And so on.

    Note that I said that love and disgust are reciprocally related. You can have both, but both are lessened by the presence of the other. If disgust is extreme love is absent. If disgust is slight love is greater, but still a wee bit tainted. That is, you still feel a twinge of emotional distance. If disgust is absent then love flows easily.

    Basically, all I can ask you to do is watch the psychological dynamics as people watch Brokeback. Quantify the following ratio: (disgust during sex scenes) / (empathy for plight of characters). My prediction is that these emotional reactions will be reciprocally related: As the top increases the bottom decreases and so on. You seem to be arguing that there is no relationship. That the top and bottom of the emotional equations are independent. That may be true, but I think my model is the better descriptor of human behavior.

  7. Thank you for elaborating. You have truly explained your argument more fully, and your claims are quite persuasive, though they seem to proceed almost entirely from the school of behaviorism, as I understand those theories (if people act in this way, then this certain equation/causation/paradigm must apply). I think there are other ways to explain the behavior you have described.

    However: I agree totally that people are poor reporters of their inner thoughts and biases, and I will further agree that merely a person claiming to be an exception to a rule voids that rule. I could not agree more, in fact.

    I think my epiphany is coming in the difference between your dilenation between "sociomoral disgust" and what I would call "psychophysial" disgust. I find homosexual behavior "disgusting" mostly in the physical way--the way I would find a stranger putting his/her tongue in my mouth--and less the "moral offense" way.

    So, perhaps you have made me understand the precise nature of my "disgust" reaction as you have clarifed your argument.

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