Spiritual Pollution, Part 9: Purity Logic Case #1, Sexual Sins

Last post I discussed three things about purity metaphors that have implications for the church:

1. They have a logic.
2. They activate sociomoral disgust.
3. They are deployed unevenly across the domain of sin behaviors.

If this is correct we have some problems on our hands. Why? First, as I think I've amply illustrated in my early posts in this series, anything that activates sociomoral disgust is morally problematic. Second, as we will see in this and coming posts, the logic of purity also has features that make it morally problematic.

What is the logic of purity and contamination? In Part 3 of this series I discussed four aspects of the logic of contamination:

1. Contact or proximity with the offending object leads to contamination.
2. Contamination is permanent.
3. Contamination generates a strong, negative response (Negativity dominance).
4. It doesn't take much to render something contaminated (remember our drop of urine...).

I would also like to make explicit a final aspect of contamination logic. Namely, contamination/purity appraisals are binary. That is, contamination is an either/or attribution. Things are not appraised as "kind of" contaminated or a "little bit" contaminated. It is either contaminated or it is not.

Okay, with this review out of the way, I want to start working through cases where this purity logic (with its associated sociomoral disgust) causes the church problems:

CASE #1: Sexual Sins.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked a class of mine at ACU "Raise your hand if you feel like you spend too much money on yourself?" Every hand goes up. I then asked, "How many of you aren't virgins anymore?" No hands go up. But there were a lot of nervous faces in the room...

Why the reticence? We all know sexual sins are qualitatively different from other kinds of sins, but why are they? As I hinted at in my last post, the reason has to do with the metaphorical structure of the sin and its associated psychology. Most sins are understood via ambulatory or performance metaphors. Sins structured this way are "mistakes" or "failures." We "stumble" and "fall." But note that there is nothing particularly noxious about falling down. It hurts, but there is no stigma attached to it. Thus, we willingly admit to committing these "ambulatory sins."

But a sin structured by purity logic is particularly noxious. Feeling "polluted" or "defiled" brings strong revulsion, which, when centered on the self, creates self-loathing and shame. Worse, recall that above we noted that the logic of contamination implies permanence. You don't just "get back on your feet" after a contamination sin. You simply experience a self-loathing that is associated with a permanent "taint."

So, now we know the answer to the question, "Why are sexual sins so different?" Answer: Their metaphorical structure and associated psychology.

There is a lot more to say about all this. Two lingering issues come to mind. First, the strong anticipatory shame associated with sexual sins, due to the purity metaphor, might be effective as a regulatory mechanism to reduce sexual activity, particularly in adolescent populations. Second, rather than limit the purity metaphor to sexual sins, isn't it more theologically valid to apply the purity metaphor to all sins, to make all sins generate the same kind of shame as the sexual sins? There is much to talk about here. But for now, I simply point out that, as we currently experience sins, the metaphorical structure of sexual sins makes these sins qualitatively different. And this difference is problematic in two ways: It creates intense and potentially permanent shame and puts this burden uniquely on a particular kind of "sinner." Given that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, this unique and heavy burden seems particularly onerous.

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One thought on “Spiritual Pollution, Part 9: Purity Logic Case #1, Sexual Sins”

  1. I have a question at this point. Granted that sexual sins are among those treated with purity/defilement logic, and that they tend to generate shame and revulsion. But how do we determine which way the cause went? How much confidence do we place in the assessment that these sins are assessed differently because they were given different metaphors, and how much possibility is there that they were given different metaphors because they were assessed differently? Paul, for example, argues that sexual sins are in a special category because of how directly they are tied to your own body. Also, from a contamination standpoint, the stigma of sexual sins seems to be higher if it involves other parties, or seduction/contamination of other parties, or (high on the repugnant scale in our culture) if it involves unwilling parties.

    I've read enough to have some idea where you're going; I'm certainly not arguing for treating sexual sinners like cockroaches. But I think the cause and effect may go the other way; that there's at least a logical possibility that the nature of our feelings chose the metaphor rather than solely the other way around; that the purity/contamination metaphor may be fairly natural for sexuality given its bodily nature and the fact that one person's weakness can cause the other person to solicit responsive sin from other people where it does, in fact, spread.

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