Toward a Theology of Profanity

A few weeks ago I spoke at the ACU Lectureship giving two talks entitled Death, Disgust, Sex, and the Gospel of Judas: Body Ambivalence and the Psychology of the Incarnation. It was preparing for those talks that got me to writing Freud's Ghost. Much of what I covered in the classes is covered in Chapter 4: Body and Chapter 5: Resurrection of Freud's Ghost. But not everything I talked about fit neatly into those chapters. So I have some leftover material I'd like to share.

In Death, Disgust, Sex, and the Gospel of Judas I floated some preliminary ideas regarding the psychology and theology of profanity. To fully grasp what I'm going to say, it might be helpful to read Body from Freud's Ghost. But I'll try to recap briefly.

In Death, Disgust, Sex, and the Gospel of Judas (and Body), I spoke about how psychological research has shown that our bodies are mortality reminders. Thus, as death-reminders, we feel very ambivalent about our bodies. I called this the "gnostic impulse," the tendency to de-emphasize, disregard, or demean the body. That is, we wish not to be reminded that we are animals. We wish to be more than that, angels perhaps. So, much like the gnostics of old, we yearn for an escape.

One particular data point I dwelt on dealt with disgust research. Specifically, disgust researchers have noted that a variety of things disgust us that seemingly have little to do with the adaptive function of disgust: Food aversions. Specifically, it is known that things like bodily fluids, deformity, gore, and corpses elicit disgust. Why? The speculation is that these things are "animal reminders." And, given that animal reminders heighten our existential fears of death, we find these things "disgusting," "profane," and unfit for proper company.

But, interestingly, there is one bodily fluid not associated with disgust: Tears. Why would that be? Because tears are deemed to be quintessentially human. Thus, tears are not an animal-reminder. And, as a consequence, tears don't elicit disgust.

A second stream of research regarding sex also converges on this analysis. Specifically, it has been shown in the lab that dwelling on the physical aspects of sex elicits death awareness. In contrast, dwelling on the spiritual aspects of sex does not elicit death awareness. Again, the animal act of sex is a body/animal/mortality/death reminder. But the spiritual aspects of sex, the transcendent aspects of sex, the quintessentially human aspects do not remind us of our body and, thus, do not remind us of death.

Schematically, what we have is this:

Animal reminder/body reminder/mortality reminder/death reminder = disgust emotions

Spiritual/Transcendent/Quintessentially Human = positive emotions

Generally, if we can overlay the body with some spiritual veneer, to separate the body from the animal domain, we don't see disgust, but a odd mix of positive and negative emotions: Ambivalence. Schematically, it might look like this:

(Spiritual overlay (Animal reminder = disgust emotions)) = Mixed/Ambivalent emotions

The point I'm trying to illustrate is that when the spiritual overlay is removed we are left with the core body dynamic:

(Animal reminder = disgust emotions)

The gnostic impulse would be to remove or deny that core (this is where the Gospel of Judas is a nice illustration), but we generally, unless we are suicidal, cannot do this. Thus, we are left with ambivalence: An animal core with a spiritual overlay.

So how does profanity fit in here?

Well, here are the definitions of "profane," the root of "profanity":

1. Characterized by irreverence or contempt for God or sacred principles or things; irreligious.
2. Not devoted to holy or religious purposes; unconsecrated; secular (opposed to sacred).
3. Unholy; heathen; pagan: profane rites.
4. Not initiated into religious rites or mysteries, as persons.
5. Common or vulgar.
6. To misuse (anything that should be held in reverence or respect); defile; debase; employ basely or unworthily.
7. To treat (anything sacred) with irreverence or contempt; violate the sanctity of: to profane a shrine.

What we have here is the dynamic I've just been describing: Stripping off the spiritually overlay. To strip off the spiritual overlay is to make something "common," "vulgar," "debased." In short, profanity moves against our gnostic strain: It rips away the spiritual clothing to expose, for all to see, the naked animal underneath.

Think of some some profanities:


What do all these have in common? First, they are body or animal reminders. But more than that, many strip the spirituality off the object (e.g., sex, a women) leaving behind something base, something sub-human, something animalistic. And all these are mortality/death reminders. Even religiously-oriented "cursing" is death-centered (e.g., Damn, Hell, Hellhole).

In short, my analysis is this: Verbal profanity is "vulgar" because it goes from this:

Romantic Love = (Spiritual overlay (physical act of sex = animal reminder = disgust)) = Mixed but generally positive feelings

to this:

F**king = (physical act of sex = animal reminder) = disgust/profanity/vulgarity

where the spiritual overlay is ripped away by the vulgar reference, exposing two animals having intercourse. The vision is insulting (for the reasons I've outlined), thus the F-word is profane.

So, my argument is this. The deep psychological template for profanity, the archetypical curse-word is this:


Of course, it could be that Americans are just scatological. So I've done some cross-cultural checking with some missionary friends, one from Africa and the other from Thailand. From their reports in those cultures "profanity" is also a death-reminder via a reference to the body, a body part, non-spiritual sex, a bodily product, or an animal. I'm sure there will be cultural variation, but if this existential analysis holds up then we can expect death to be intimately associated with profanity across most cultures.

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3 thoughts on “Toward a Theology of Profanity”

  1. Richard, I think you're really onto something here, and I think this is a compelling argument. I am interested in something you've only superfically covered: "damn" and "hell."

    While these are indeed death-centered, as you've argued, what I think is interesting is that these are also considered "minor" in comparison to the other vulgarities you've discussed. Why would these be "lesser"? What's interesting is that given the gnostic predilections you describe, these would also be disassociated with bodiliness, the notion being that the flesh would already have been stripped away. So perhaps the reason "hell" and "damn" are more acceptable in common usage is that they specifically DON'T have to do with the animal self, nor even with death itself (and its corresponding anxiety), but only with a perceived spiritual punishment...

  2. I think you're onto something but I think it needs to take in more cultures than English speaking. For example, the link here brings some further evidence to bear
    and my own speculations referenced in that posting need to be factored in, I think. We go awry in our theologising about this if we don't take into account the power/solidarity/resistance dynamics. This is shown to be important when we consider that the 'basest' words in some other cultures/languages can be blasphemies or religiously charged. It's the shock value that's important; and the next question, therefore, is who is shocking whom?

  3. Hi Andii,
    I agree with your point. I guess, as a psychologist, that I think there is a layer underneath the shock that needs explication. That is, the shock bears upon the sociological issues and rhetorical utility of profanity in power discourse (as you say, who is being shocked?). I'm underneath those sociological issues, asking about the nature, origins, and etiology of shock itself. (Of course, once the shock exists--wherever it originates from--it can be used for rhetorical purposes.)

    I think the projects are complementary. If I'm correct (i.e., profanity is a mortality reminder), then profanity can be used as a means to falliblize power, especially if the power uses the symbols of divine edict. To remind the "king" that he takes a shit like everyone else is profane but the commentary is clearly about power-relations, helpfully so.

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