Having grown up in the Bible Belt in the United States, I was deluged with a lot of very conservative views about sex during my middle school and high school years. Here I am male having gone through puberty, working through the feelings that our God-ordained biology has all people to work through, and I am inundated with two very different messages. On the one hand, was the purity sexual ethic in events like “True Love Waits” (although I never attended anything like that) that was focused on prevented kids from having premarital sex. On the other hand were the sexual exploits of many of my fellow classmates being openly discussed. Being the rather traditional, “good Christian” I obviously thought what they were doing was wrong. And to this day, I share the same opinion that what I was hearing was not a good and healthy thing for teenagers to do, but my whole rationale over the years has radically changed.
Sex is a powerful thing. It can make emperors totally lose themselves and their focus, such as Julius Caesar’ seduction by Cleopatra. It can unite two people together in a strong, intimate union. It is something people can try to enjoy for recreation. It is something that people can fear. It can make people buy products based on advertisements. And, unfortunately, it is something that people will harm others for. And we, in the West, have witnessed the outpouring and opening up of this great power within our society over the past century. As the Victorian-style sexual ethics have given away to a powerful sexual liberation movement, traditional Christianity has found its increasingly on the margins. To be sure, there was never a pristine society where sexual behavior was principally and only enjoyed in the confines of marriage, but at the very least, such a traditional sexual ethic has public, social power, even if sexual desire was more powerful than it and people’s private lives. And therein lies the origins of the problem of the traditional sexual ethic of Anglophone world; it was primarily premised on social power rather than personal motivation. And the moral base that the traditional sexual worked from? The concept of cleanliness and purity.
According to Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, purity is one of at least six moral foundations that inform our sense of ethical judgments. At the core of purity is the emotion of disgust. Mick Power defines disgust in Cognition and Emotion as follows:
1 There is an object or event which may be external, as in the reaction to particular foodstuffs or to faeces, or internal, as in the reaction to particular thoughts or images.
2 The object or event is interpreted to be noxious in either a literal sense or a symbolic sense.
3 The interpretation leads to an appraisal that the object or event should be eliminated or excluded from the organism, because it violates a goal of maintaining a state of non-contamination.
4 The appraisal leads to a propensity for action to distance oneself, either literally or symbolically, from the object or event.
5 Characteristic physiological reactions include a feeling of nausea together with a characteristic facial expression that is universally recognisable (Ekman et al., 1987).
6 There is a characteristic conscious feeling of “revulsion” together with an awareness of other reactions.
7 The reaction of disgust may be accompanied by characteristic behavioural reactions such as removing oneself from the object of disgust.
So, when the emotion of disgust gets directed towards sex, hearkening back to Augustine’s view of sexual desire as degrading, it leads to some very painful social outcomes, such as elimination and exclusion of sexual deviants, distancing from those people, etc. This can be very painful to people, who can be judged either based on exterior behavior or interior desires. These behaviors and desires are impure and unclean, and thus motivate strong emotional reactions of disgust towards others or even oneself. As a result, many emotional disorders have disgust at their root. Furthermore, since disgust at its core is a survival emotion, keeping us away from risky and offensive things or people, it forms a sense of vigilance the more disgust becomes part of a person’s emotional habit. Such vigilance can lead people to forming false-positive judgments about others, where they are suspicious of behavior where there is in fact none. Furthermore, evaluations of disgust tend to linger long-term; it is harder for a person who has become disgusted with someone or something to reverse the judgments they make than it is to change judgments they make based upon simple anger.
At one level, the emotion of disgust is unavoidable, precisely because it is a universal and power moral emotion. Disgust is not a monopoly of sexual purity focused traditional Christians. Any perusal of social media on a wide range of issues will reveal a whole lot of disgust, and the very power disgust can have in shaming and ostracizing others, which often amounts to social mobbing/bullying. However, where a purity-center traditional sexual ethic has made a mess of things is how they pit two very powerful forces against each other, sexual desire and disgust.
The tension between the power of sexual desire and moral disgust creates an emotional condition known as ambivalence, where people either feel two opposing feelings at the same time, if they do not experience such feelings with intensity, or they rapidly switch back and forth between both poles if the two feelings are rather intense. While mild cases of ambivalence can be a source of insight and useful creativity, cases of rapid switching has a tendency to destructiveness and harm of self or others. But in the cases where purity and sexual ethics have come from a social power, where people are judged repeatedly by many people, the feelings of disgust, and the corresponding feelings of shame when one is the recipient of disgust, becomes particuarly pronounced and intense. The way the traditional sexual ethic has been pedagogically taught and enforced through purity in what is often referred to as the “purity culture” has had the effect of essentially making people extremely ambivalent about sex.
Beyond the harm that this does on a psychological level, it is also deeply problematic on a theological level. In Matthew 15:1-20, Jesus engages in a sharp rebuke of the way of the purity code of the Pharisees and scribes. While the moral topoi is about dietary customs on the surface, Jesus addresses the deeper issue of how purity is to be understood. Jesus criticizes the way the concerns of purity by the Pharisees and scribes have made them overlook God’s word and set their hearts far from the true worship of God. Jesus’ rebuke of the purity system starts at the heart. Then, in taking a teaching moment to the crowds and his disciples, Jesus goes on to define purity based upon what resides in the heart. Far from just simply opening up all food for eating, as the Markan version of this story states, Jesus hits right at the heart of purity, pun intended, in a way that is distinctly discontinuous with the way the Torah handle purity.
For the Torah, purity was principally a matter of biological function, consumption, and physical contact, whether it be certain bodily secretions, eating the wrong food, or engaging in the wrong type of sexual behavior. However, as the prophet Jeremiah prophesied in Jeremiah 31, there would come a day where God’s Instruction/Torah would reside in the people’s hearts. Then Jesus arrives on the scene and everything shifts. In Mark 1:40-45, Jesus physically touches a leper. For the Torah, uncleanliness was contagious, therefore Jesus should have been the unclean one. However, instead, with Jesus’ touch the leper becomes cleansed; in Christ, cleanliness was contagious. So Jesus own action along with is teachings on purity throws the very reality of purity, upside down on its head. Jesus defines purity as an inward reality of the heart because, in the end, we might say that the power of Christ overpowers the impurities that operate in the world. Now, this doesn’t mean overturning every part of the Torah that was connected to notions of purity, particularly sexuality. The rationale for the sexual regulations in Leviticus 18 and 20 extend beyond some imposition of some code of purity. However, what it does mean is that the moral foundations of sexual behavior for the followers of Christ is not to be grounded upon some sense of behavioral purity. It is grounded upon an internal purity.
However, even that internal purity needs to be clarified carefully. When Jesus speaks of what comes from the heart, he does not talk about emotions and desires. This wouldn’t even have made too much sense in the context of dietary customs because while diet can activate deeply held views, it is rarely an issue of emotional desire except when it comes to survival. Rather, Jesus uses principally behavior language; the only psychological language Jesus used is the cognitive language of διαλογισμοὶ πονηροί, which probably refers to evil rationalizations that justify wrong behavior, as Jesus had just criticized the Pharisees and scribes for in rationalizing away the commandment to honor one’s parents. In suggesting certain behavioral and cognitive language as being impurities of the heart, Jesus is saying behavioral intentions and the rationalizations for those behaviors as impure.
Now, certainly impurity relates to the emotions and desires, but the concern for Jesus is how one’s heart leads one to rationalize actions that are against the will of God. The experience of emotions and desires may motivate such a process, but nowhere do we see Jesus engaging in an ethical judgment of emotional experience; his criticism his sharply directed towards the way the Torah, its regulations, and the traditions stemming from it were used in a way far from God’s will and heart. Similarly, when the Apostle Paul makes his most explicit statements about impurity as it pertains to sexual behavior in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8, Paul places a sharp emphasis on receiving God’s instruction as coming from the Holy Spirit. Without going into a thorough exegesis, Paul resembles Jesus’ own statements about purity: it is about an acceptance of God’s will rather that corresponds to acting in a particular fashion. Impurity resides in a heart that actively resists God’s will by justifying one’s actions; impurity is not about desire but reasoning out our intentions.
Therefore, what we should be disgusted when it comes to sexuality isn’t the wrong type of sexual behavior. While the New Testament clearly rules out much of what the recent trend of sexual liberation has celebrated, it doesn’t typically view such behavior and desires with disgust. Rather, what is more the target of disgust for Jesus is how people rationalize their behaviors, including sexual behaviors, in ways that actively resist the will of God they claim to hold to (thus, this disgust is not directed towards people who never claimed to follow Christ) and rationalize and cloak harm that they do to others. A rightly direct concern about purity as it pertains impure and evil rationalizations wouldn’t leave people traumatized by the judgment that come from their own sexual desires, nor discarding people for actual or merely suspected sexual deviance, but rather targetting those who actively harm and then justify that harm. Furthermore, while such a rightly directed focus will not automatically solve all the gaps and conflicts that exists between the Church that affirms the traditional sexuality of the Scriptures with people who order their sexuality differently, it will go a long way towards bringing peace and healing that has been caused by a damaging form of purity that takes sexual behavior and desire as the focus of disgust and so harming countless people.