Spiritual Pollution, Part 5: Love and disgust at the boundaries

Welcome back! Or, I guess, I should welcome myself back. Hope you had a happy Easter weekend. The psychological conference in Austin went well. Some students and I presented four papers in a symposium entitled "Sin: The psychology of moral failure in religious populations." The content of those talks will eventually find its way into this blog.

Returning to the topic of spiritual pollution...

In the last post we observed that sociomoral disgust puts interpersonal distance between us and people we find loathsome or sources of defilement. In this we noted that sociomoral disgust is inherently dehumanizing and, thus, a significant impediment to love. In this post I want to make this dynamic much clearer.

First, we note that disgust is fundamentally a boundary psychology. Core disgust attempts to monitor the boundaries of the body, preventing invasion and/or contact with physical sources of contamination. Sociomoral disgust, as a secondary more symbolic mechanism, monitors an abstract space, my sociomoral or "spiritual" space. My sociomoral space is the locus of my emotional and spiritual investments: Family, home, friends, neighborhood, country, church, work. I invest myself heavily in these "spaces" and sociomoral disgust monitors their boundaries attempting to locate potential interpersonal contaminants and preventing them from entering. In his book "A Materialist Reading of the Gospel of Mark" the theologian Fernando Belo illustrates the sociomoral spaces that existed in the time of Jesus (p. 38):

"In Israel the symbolic field was organized around three centers, each of which corresponds to one of the three instances of social formation. All three were centers or foci of consumption: the "table," the “house” (in the sense of a group of kinspeople), and the "sanctuary"..."

Thus, in first-century Israel those deemed to be "unclean" were excluded, via the mechanism of sociomoral disgust, from the sociomoral "spaces" of hospitality, family, and worship. Today, we still see people excluded from these very same spaces via the very same psychological mechanisms.

If sociomoral disgust establishes boundaries of purity and monitors for potential contamination, what does love do? Many researchers suggest that love is, at root, the dismantling of contamination sensitivity. To sharpen this, what researches are suggesting is that DISGUST IS THE PREREQUISITE FOR LOVE. That is, disgust, as the primary mechanism, marks a boundary between Self and Other. Love, then, as a secondary mechanism, dismantles the boundary and allows Other to be identified as Self. For example, psychologically I don't recognize my two boys as Other. They're really Me. An extension of me, a part of me, as much a part of me as my arm is a part of me. Only more so. I'd willingly sacrifice my arm to save one of my children. Or wife. Or brother. Or mother. Or friend.

You get the point. Love blurs the distinction between Self and Other. To use the words of Jesus: I begin to love the Other as I love Myself. Or, in the language of Genesis, the Two shall become One.

In sum, love is the flip side of disgust, the psychological antithesis of disgust. William Miller, in his excellent book, "The Anatomy of Disgust" illustrates this dynamic playing out across parental, sexual, and romantic love:

"One way of describing intimacy (and/or love) is as that state in which various disgust rules are relaxed or suspended…Changing diapers, overcoming the disgust inherent in contaminating substances, is emblematic of the unconditional quality of nurturing parental love. Without such overcoming, the act would have no emblematic significance. Love means a kind of self-overcoming in this context, the overcoming of powerful aversions, and the suspension of purity rules that hold you in their grip. It means that your fastidiousness, your own purity of being, must be subordinated to the well-being of the next generation." (pp. 133-134)

"A person’s tongue in your mouth could be experienced as a pleasure or as the most repulsive and nauseating intrusion depending on the state of relations that exist or are being negotiated between you and the person. But someone else’s tongue in your mouth can be a sign of intimacy because it can also be a disgusting assault. The marks of intimacy depend upon the violability of Goffman’s “territories of the self.” Without such territory over which you vigilantly patrol the borders there can be nothing special in allowing or gaining access to it…Consensual sex means the mutual transgression of the disgust-defending boundaries." (p. 137)

"One might hazard the idea that in their early stages relations of intimacy and love seem more governed by the regime of rights and grants, but with the passage of time and the routinization of permitted boundary transgressions, the loved one passes eventually from an intimate autonomous other to something more akin to one’s own vital organ…So in the end two fleshes are made one." (pp. 141-142)

What then do we learn from all this? Namely this: You cannot both loath the sin and love the sinner. Why? Because LOVE AND DISGUST ARE NOT SEPARATE PSYCHOLOGICAL MECHANISMS: THEY ARE THE SAME MECHANISM. This is key. You cannot have BOTH love and disgust, as some would have us believe. No, you can only have more of one and less of the other.

And this means, if I'm right, you cannot both hate the sin and love the sinner. Psychologically, from where I stand, it's just not possible.

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2 thoughts on “Spiritual Pollution, Part 5: Love and disgust at the boundaries”

  1. You cannot both loathe the sin and love the sinner. But I love my children, I change their diapers, clean up their vomit, and I still find their excrement and vomit disgusting. I thnk you cannot identify the sinner with the sin, and love the sinner (as in John Smith is a pedophile therefore he is loathesome) but if you keep them separate (as in John Smith sexually molested many children, but he writes fine poetry) you may be able to love the sinner. I guess I'm talking about moving sins from a purity metaphor to a performance metaphor. Is that what you're saying Jesus was doing? It is as far as I know the way in which aboriginal people usualy understand wrongdoing. see Rupert Ross: Returning to the Teachings

  2. I think to hate sin means to keep distance.... and to love the sinner means never give up on them. to sum it up....

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