Spiritual Pollution, Part 8: The problematic logic of purity metaphors in the church

Last post we noted that our cognitive processes, and, thus, our theological thinking, is largely dominated by metaphors. These metaphors provide us with an inferential logic that allows us to reason effectively.

And the same goes for theological discussions. Metaphors structure theological discourse and it is important to pay attention to the metaphor you are working with. Why? Because, as I've just noted, metaphors have a "logic" that structures the inferences we make. Metaphors make certain conclusions appear, from the vantage of the metaphor, "reasonable." This sounds very vague, so let me get right to the point.

As I noted in my last post, an influential sin/salvation metaphor is the purity metaphor. In this metaphor, sin is "pollution," being "unclean," "filth," etc. Thus, salvation is a "cleansing," a "washing," a "purification."

This metaphor runs deep in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The beginnings of the metaphor is seen in Leviticus 16 with the Day of Atonement. On the Day of Atonement the sociomoral "uncleanness of the Israelites" (v. 19) was to be purified: "because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins" (v. 30). Later, the Day of Atonement becomes a significant metaphor in the New Testament as the early Christian church attempted to understand its own salvation. This is most clearly depicted in the Christian salvation ritual of baptism where sins are "washed away." In this metaphor, it is not the water, but the blood of Christ that effects the cleansing. As the Christian hymns testify, Christians are "washed in the blood of the Lamb" and are thus made "white as snow."

As a general metaphor, applied to all humanity, the purity metaphor functions humanely. That is, we can agree that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." If sin is "uncleanness" then we are all unclean; we are all polluted and, thus, offend a Holy God. So far, so good.

But what is problematic is that the disgust/contamination/purity structure is deployed unevenly across the domain of sin behaviors. Most sins appear to be understood via ambulatory or performance metaphors. Sin is understood as a "mistake" or a "stumbling." After committing these sins we "pick ourselves back up" and "try again" to "do better." Thus, these sins tend not to evoke a visceral loathing of self or other.

But some sins are often and uniquely characterized by contamination metaphors and thus carry the psychological freight of disgust: loathing, strong aversion, visceral revulsion. Consequently, although all sins are considered to be theologically equivalent, they are not psychologically equivalent. This is because sins are structured by different metaphors, each with a unique "logic" or way of reasoning about the moral failure. And the psychological and metaphorical logic of "contamination sins" make these sins special stumbling blocks both intrapersonally and interpersonally. We have already observed this in prior posts. Anything that activates sociomoral disgust is morally problematic. And purity metaphors activate sociomoral disgust. Over the next few posts I want to work through a couple of concrete examples where both purity logic and sociomoral disgust trip up the church, but I'd like to give a quick example today:

Christian communities agree that materialism and consumerism are wrong (especially given the way we neglect the poor), but the metaphor for self-indulgence is frequently one of "weakness" or "failure" rather than "pollution." But we do, often, speak of "Sexual Purity." And there are consequences for using that metaphor. Sexual sins generate a sense of loathing (both intrapersonally and interpersonally) that excessive shopping just doesn't seem to evoke in Christians.

And that, to me, is a problem.

So, to sum up, purity metaphors are deeply embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, purity metaphors tap into and activate a psychological force--sociomoral disgust--that we have learned creates interpersonal distance. This means that if the Church truly wants to love people she will need to understand how purity metaphors operate and how they can be dangerous. Given both the ubiquity of purity metaphors and their potential for harm, this analysis seems to be a very important undertaking.

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2 thoughts on “Spiritual Pollution, Part 8: The problematic logic of purity metaphors in the church”

  1. Richard,
    I've been reading your description of spiritual pollution with increasing interest. I'm a grad student in the GST at ACU, and am currently taking an OT preaching course where I'm coming to recognize the problematic nature of our chosen metaphors. The current discussion isn't necessarily geared toward homiletics, but given that preaching traffics so freely in metaphor and does a great deal in shaping people's theology, (i.e. how people think about themselves, God, creation, humanity, etc.), it seems imperative to me that preachers/theologians closely examine the metaphors we employ and some of their logical consequences in behavioral terms. I'm struggling w/ a text from Amos 4 where the metaphor of God as Savior is nowhere present--here God is the Divine Warrior, except he's preparing for battle against Israel rather than her enemies...and I really don't know what to do with that. Your posts are helpful--perhaps I can explore our inclination towards metaphors that seem to affirm us in our current situation and theological inclinations, rather than embracing even those metaphors that call our behavior and identity into question. All of which is to say that I appreciate your writing--you're helping me wrestle with my thinking in ways that I'd not previously considered.
    Best regards,

  2. Arik,
    Thanks for you comment. I agree with you that more reflection needs to be done on our use of metaphors in the church. I've only recently stumbled upon the problems associated with purity metaphors and more work needs to be done. Reading your post I wonder if warfare metaphors might also have troublesome implications.

    I guess all metaphors have limits. What concerns me, however, is not poor theology per se, pushing a single metaphor of the cross, or God, or sin too far. Rather, my worries focus on what you call the "behavioral" implications. That is, linguistically all metaphors seem to have equal status. But psychologically certain metaphors hit human minds in "weak spots" which can lead to pretty nasty outcomes. My hope is that I attract readers like yourself so that we can have exchanges between Theology and Psychology we each find mutually advantageous and illuminating.

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