In the Theatre of Existentialism and Body Ambivalence: To blow or not to blow?

For longtime readers of this blog, you know that I've written a great deal about existential anxiety, body ambivalence, and religious faith. These topics were the subject of my ACU Lectureship Talk this year entitled Death, Disgust, Sex, and the Gospel of Judas: Body Ambivalence and the Psychology of the Incarnation. Well, last week I received this great e-mail from Emily, one of my brilliant former students. Here's the note:

I thought you might enjoy hearing about a recent episode in my life, aided by your teachings:

So I've been sick. I am sitting in Books-a-Million trying to read and my nose is running so I am sniffing non-stop. Now the issue is, I need to blow my nose. I have tissues in my purse for this very purpose. However, I am in a public place where other psuedo-intellectuals are quietly reading. I know blowing my nose will be loud and disgusting, people will look at me. Then I remember your lectureship class. Why is blowing my nose gross? Because I have death anxiety. Because I don't want to have a body that works like it does, and I am fearful for other people to be confronted with my bodily-ness. So then I tell myself - Forget that! I'm not afraid to die! I'm an animal!

And I happily blow my nose - loud.

Well, a breakthrough! Only in my classes (or on this blog) will you learn to leverage existentialism into blowing your nose.

Thanks Emily, for your note!

For new readers, these observations might be odd. So, below I'm reposting Chapter 4 from my online book Freud's Ghost. More on this topic can found in the two appendices to Freud's Ghost, Feeling Queasy about the Incarnation and Toward a Theology of Profanity. If you read these three posts (the one below and the two appendices) you'll have in hand the content of my Death, Disgust, Sex, and the Gospel of Judas: Body Ambivalence and the Psychology of the Incarnation Lectureship talk.)

Chapter 4 from Freud's Ghost: Body
At the end of Part 1--Drug--we heard the final verdict of Freud's Ghost. Specifically, it appears that there are good theoretical, observational, and scientific reasons to believe that religious faith is operating as an existential buffer, as a defense-mechanism to repress death anxiety. This will not prove to be the final story about faith. But it is the beginning of all faith. The instinctive and unreflective adoption of the culture we inherit simply by virtue of being born into it.

If this is so, and there is good reason to believe it to be so, then there is also good reason to believe that most religious believers remain in this "defensive stage" of faith. Such believers never fully confront the anxiety that necessarily accompanies an existential sifting of faith. This adventure is, simply, too scary a prospect. Thus, most retreat from this work and remain, keeping with Freud's metaphor, intoxicated.

In Part 2 of this blogbook--Intoxication--we will examine both the pervasiveness and impact of existential defensiveness upon Christian faith. The goal is to make the case that existential defensiveness has consequences, real-world impacts upon faith, morals, worship, doctrine, and the mission of the church. Without this argument the diagnosis of existential defensiveness might be dismissed as interesting and perhaps even true but of little import. I want to demonstrate that some of the consequences of existential defensiveness are not good. Consequently, the church is hampered by her lack of existential insight. More radically, I'll suggest that those whose beliefs are motived by existential defensiveness simply cannot, due to the psychological configuration of their faith, fulfill the mission of Jesus on this earth. I will argue that only with existential awareness comes the capacity for true and authentic love. In short, the analysis we have been working through is not simply to make readers uncomfortable. It is, rather, to act as a midwife to facilitate the transition, if one has not undergone it already, to the kind of believer that can act freely in the name of God. For if existential defensiveness is driving the faith system the Stranger cannot be fully embraced. The Stranger is too much of a threat.

In this beginning chapter of Part 2 we will look for signs of existential defensiveness in the pervasive body ambivalence within Christianity.

First, let us recognize that we, particularly Christians, are deeply ambivalent about our bodies. Not at all times and not in all places. There are, obviously, positive views of the body in both the Bible and throughout the Christian tradition. But it must be admitted that from the very beginning Christians have had mixed feelings about the body. For example, Gnostic christians had a very low view of the body. The Catholic Church has had mixed feelings about sexuality, demanding celibacy of its clergy and frowning upon sex simply for the sake of pleasure (i.e., sex with contraceptives). Protestants do no better, historically frowning up bodily indulgences like alcohol, smoking, or card playing.

Further, many traditions within Christianity have been influenced by a strong Platonism, a strict division between the body (which will die) and the soul (which is immortal and will live forever). In many traditions this Platonic strain, kind of a "weak gnosticism," has lead many faith traditions to demean, deemphasize, or disregard the body. For example, in my religious tradition, the Churches of Christ, this weak gnostic influence has lead many to emphasize "winning souls" over caring for the physical needs of the poor. To offer someone a "cup of cold water" in Jesus' name seems trivial next to getting that person into a Bible study and, hopefully, heaven. Thus, the body and its physical needs are pushed aside. And this tendency, in my faith tradition at least, has simply been tragic.

A final example of pervasive body ambivalence within Christianity is how, despite theological argumentation to the contrary ("All sins are the same!"), bodily sins such as sex or drug use (particularly injection drug use) are still handled qualitatively different in Christian communities. These sins create the most shame and guilt and are the least likely to be publicly confessed. Why this difference compared to other moral shortcomings? Why does the church handle sexual sins so poorly?

In short, where does this body ambivalence come from? A hint can be found in this quote I came across from Cotton Mather, (1663-1728) the famous Puritan leader:

"I was once emptying the Cistern of Nature, and making Water at the Wall. At the same time, there came a Dog, who did so too, before me. Thought I: ‘What mean and vile things are the Children of Men, in this mortal state! How much do our natural necessities abase us and place us in some regard, on the level with the very Dogs!”

We see, in Mather's sentiments, an ambivalence about being reminded that humans, like dogs, need to take a piss every once in a while (or, rather, we need to empty the "Cistern of Nature"). Apparently, Mather finds this similarity with a dog degrading. But why would that be?

To our aid again comes Ernest Becker. Becker contends that "Man’s body is a problem to him that has to be explained." Why? Because our bodies are reminders of our animal nature and, hence, our mortality:

"[We are] food for worms. This is a paradox: man is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body…His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways--the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die.”

To further illustrate this, compare this sentiment from Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), the famous Congregational preacher and theologian,

"The inside of the body of man is full of filthiness, contains his bowels that are full of dung, which represents the corruption and filthiness that the heart of man is naturally full of."

with Ernest Becker's analysis:

"Excreting is the curse that threatens madness because it shows man his abject finitude, his physicalness, the likely unreality of his hopes and dreams. More immediately, it represents man’s utter bafflement at the sheer non-sense of creation: to fashion the sublime miracle of the human face, the mysterium tremendum of radiant feminine beauty…to bring all this out of nothing, out of the void, and make it shine in noonday; to take such a miracle and put miracles deep within it, deep in the mystery of eyes that peer out--the eye that gave even Darwin a chill: to do all this, and to combine it with an anus that shits! It is too much. Nature mocks us…”

But in case you begin to think that body ambivalence (or feces ambivalence) is peculiar to early American preachers, let's review some psychological evidence that suggests that death anxiety does indeed produce body ambivalence. Again, the case to be made here is that our bodies are mortality reminders. Let's line up some psychological data to see what it indicates:

Exhibit A: Disgust
Disgust researchers typically define "core disgust" as the disgust involved with our food aversions. That is, our central feelings of disgust involve food (or any other thing we may orally incorporate). Core disgust, then, is an adaptation that aids us in avoiding questionable foodstuffs.

But, interestingly, many non-food related objects also elicit disgust, some strongly so. In North Americans, the reliable disgust-eliciting domains are:

Body products (e.g., feces, vomit)
Animals (e.g., insects, rats)
Sexual behaviors (e.g., incest, homosexuality)
Contact with the dead or corpses
Violations of the exterior envelope of the body (e.g., gore, deformity)
Poor hygiene
Interpersonal contamination (e.g., contact with unsavory persons)
Moral offenses

Paul Rozin, the leading disgust researcher in the world, and colleagues have noted that two of these domains, the last on the list, involve interpersonal or moral disgust. Collectively, these domains are called "sociomoral disgust." I have written at length about sociomoral disgust in my "Spiritual Pollution" series (see the sidebar). Generally, sociomoral disgust is involved in regulating our ethical commitments.

However, once we remove the sociomoral disgust domains, what about what is left on the disgust list? Here is what we have:

Body products (e.g., feces, vomit)
Animals (e.g., insects, rats)
Sexual behaviors (e.g., incest, homosexuality)
Contact with the dead or corpses
Violations of the exterior envelope of the body (e.g., gore, deformity)
Poor hygiene

Looking over this list what do these disgust domains have in common? Rozin and colleagues suggest that each of these domains remind us of our animal nature and, hence, our mortality. Thus, beyond core disgust and sociomoral disgust we have "Animal-reminder disgust." In short, we defend against death anxiety by pushing away, via disgust and its related behaviors, the facets of life that remind us of our mortality.

This analysis gains support when we examine the case of bodily fluids. Specifically, all boldily fluides (e.g., saliva, urine, vomit, puss) are reliable disgust elicitors. All, that is, except one. Can you guess which bodily fluid does not elicit disgust?


Now why would that be? Well, according to Rozin's theory, tears are quniestennially human. Tears are assocaiated with our loves, joys, and sorrows. Humans are the only animal known to cry in these cases. Thus, given that tears are human-specific, tears are NOT animal reminders. So tears do not elicit disgust.

Exhibit B: Sex
This analysis with tears is supported by research regarding sex and death awareness. Terror management theorists suggest that sex is problematic for humans because, stripped to its essence, sex is just an animal act. Sometimes we revel in this and speak of "animalistic" sex. But, for the most part, we want sex to be MORE than just intercourse. We want sex to be a spiritual activity. A transcendent activity. An activity that we can take away from the animals and make quinessentially human. How do we do this? We do this by seeing sex through the lens of deep, committed, romantic love. We, as humans, want sex to be about love.

Fine, that is a nice idea, but how do we know this dynamic is really in play? Well, in a very interesting study conducted by Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, McCoy, Greenberg, and Solomon entitled Death, Sex, Love, and Neuroticism: Why Is Sex Such a Problem? we find some evidence in support of this notion. What Goldenberg et al. did was to take two groups and move them through an visualization excerise. One group was asked to think about the romantic/spiritual aspects of sex. The other group was asked to think about the physical aspects of sex (the smells, fluids, etc.). After the visualization each group then went through a word-completion task, completing words such as this:

Coff _ _
Sk _ ll

As you can see each word could be filled out in a non-death related manner:


Or a death related manner:


The findings? Well, as predicted by Terror Management Theory, those who reflected on the physical aspects of sex completed more death related words. That is, reflecting on the physical aspects of sex activated death concepts in the mind.

Think about that: What do the physical aspects of sex have to do with death?

Well, as the disgust researchers suggest, the physical aspects of sex are animal-reminders and these heighten our death anxiety. As we observed with tears things that are quintessentially human don't remind us of death (or our animal natures). Thus, romantic sex doesn't heighten death awareness. But stripped of its spiritual overlay, sex becomes a reliable animal reminder which subsequently heightens our death awareness.

This is why sex is such a problem. It is a mortality reminder.

We can conclude, then, that body ambivalence is indeed due to mortality fears. Given that this dynamic is seen broadly in the culture, it is no surprise that we see it at work within the Christian faith as well. We see, then, in the body ambivalence manifested in the Christian churches, clear signs that existential defensiveness is indeed operating within the Christian community. And this body ambivalence affects everything from how Christians practice their faith, structure their moral codes, and conceive of their mission to the world.

And, as noted earlier, not all those effects are positive or healthy.

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6 thoughts on “In the Theatre of Existentialism and Body Ambivalence: To blow or not to blow?”

  1. That Emily. What a spaz.

    BTW Richard, yesterday I ran into another friend who had talked with you a lately about heresies of one sort or another.

    I'm starting to picture you as a central star in a constellation of Church of Christ heretics.

  2. I was explaining your class (and the ideas) to some of my Austin friends this past weekend.

    You're spreading like wild fire Dr. Beck.

    Yo, I'll drop by with the music tomorrow. I got busy before I could drop by at 5.

  3. Richard,

    My experience had been that older children and adolescent boys and, somtimes, girls cope with disgust and body ambivalence through humor (ironically, balanced humors made up the ancient notion of health). Fart jokes, belching contests, zit-picking, snot-flinging and other less savory actitivies are made objects of collective fun. My daughter when she was about ten scotch-taped a big booger to a sheet of paper and mailed it to her favorite cousin. The letter said: "When I saw this, I thought of you." The deed has become part of family lore. Of course, the men in the family laugh every time there is mention of it. It scandalizes my daughter to be reminded of it. And she would kill me if I told her grade school children. Her cousin later converted to Islam and is very ascetic. I wonder if there is any connection.


    George C.

  4. Way to go Emily, blow that freakin nose. Liberation begins in small things. Its like...wouldn't it be cool if everybody climbed out of bed and came to church on Sunday morning without brushing their hair...

  5. I'm a new reader, and that cracked me up about the nose blowing and all. Glad you're dealing with such deep theological and philosophical issues out there on "the Hill". :)

    I also wanted to say that I took a peek at your poetry for Jana blog. Beautiful! You have a gift.

    John and I married on August 10, 1990. Great anniversary date, huh!

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