In the late 1990’s, a physician by the name of Karl Menninger wrote a book called Whatever Became of Sin? His book focused on the way the modern world took the concept of evil and human wickedness and packed it away in the attic along with all the other religious notions we’d grown out of. What we once explained in spiritual terms, we now could understand through psychology or sociology. This is why when you turn on the evening news, the talking heads on the screen strain to find some explanation behind some recent act of violence—usually attributed to the perpetrator’s childhood trauma or the collective weight of social forces. Even recent terrorist activity in the Middle East has been blamed on poor economic and social conditions. Perhaps all of this is an attempt to deny the radical wickedness that rots and stinks at the core of each of us. “There’s no evil inside of me, no sir.”
But even human psychology reveals that “sin” hasn’t been packed away as tightly as we might have assumed. The field of “moral psychology” deals with what are often called “moral emotions.” While some of these emotions can be quite positive (gratitude, for example, would be called a moral emotion), others are much more negative: guilt, shame, anger, disgust. While Sigmund Freud had identified “moral anxiety” in the late nineteenth century, it really wasn’t until the 1980’s and 90’s that psychologists really started examining these emotions with greater interest.
If you follow Jesus, their findings shouldn’t really shock you. Because while yes, cultures and people vary widely when it comes to ethics and moral questions, there are some things about us that are the same. No culture is neutral on issues such as the perseveration of life, sexual ethics, and respect for the dead. Could this be that yes, we do have some remnant of God’s image still alive within us?
But one of the most fascinating “moral emotions” is disgust. Essentially all cultures have some clear boundary line between what is “clean” and “unclean.” Cross that line and it grosses us out. Psychologist Paul Rozin calls this “core disgust.” It’s what we feel when we imagine ourselves handling a live cockroach, or eating something off the floor of the men’s room.
Now, we might attribute some of our disgust to biological preservation against germs. But we also seem to have a strong reaction of disgust when we think about moral contamination. Rozin’s most famous experiment illustrates this well. He asked a group of participants about their willingness to wear a sweater once owned and worn by Adolf Hitler. And of course the participants said “no.” Even if no one would ever know who it belonged to. Rozin kept changing the parameters: what if the sweater was thoroughly laundered? What if it were sent to Mother Theresa to be worn and sent back? What if the sweater were completely unraveled, re-dyed, and re-knit? The answer was still “no.”
Disgust and morality are closely linked. Hitler’s sweater is only the tip of the iceburg. Paul Bloom summarizes:
“Experimental research shows that feelings of disgust make us judge others more harshly. In the first experiment along these lines, the psychologists Thalia Wheatley and Jonathan Haidt hypnotized participants to feel a flash of disgust whenever they saw an arbitrary word. When the participants later read stories of a mild moral transgression, those who saw the word rated the behavior as more immoral than those who didn’t. In other experiments, participants were asked to make judgments at a messy, disgusting desk, or in a room that had been blasted with [an offensive odor]; or after being shown a [disgusting scene from a movie]. All of these situations made the participants more morally disapproving about the acts of other people. Even eating a bitter food, which evokes a sensation akin to physical disgust, makes people harsher toward moral transgressions…The consensus from the world and from the lab is clear: disgust makes us meaner.” (Paul Bloom, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, p. 140-41)
All this to say that when the writers of the Bible used the language of “clean” and “unclean,” they weren’t merely appealing to cultural standards; they were identifying that “core disgust” within each one of us.
In the book of Proverbs, for example, we read:
There is a kind who is pure in his own eyes, Yet is not washed from his filthiness. (Proverbs 30:12)
King David, after his affair with Bathsheeba, cried out to God:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me. ( Psalm 51:1-3)
None of us are clean.
There are two great temptations to avoid here. The first is the temptation to become defensive—“I’m not really as bad as all that.” The second is to take too lightly the promise of God’s grace—“God will forgive me anyway.” By that I don’t mean that God’s grace can ever be insufficient, only that sometimes we skip over the sheer awful gravity of our sin to “get to the good stuff.” In either case, there’s a sickness in each of us, a filthiness, a stain. Even in a culture of social media and digital transparency, there are things you and I would never say to family or share with our friends. We are ashamed.
So there is value, I think, in not moving on just yet to the “good news” of the gospel, but taking time to really reflect on—nay, mourn—the appalling truth about who we really are. It’s not for nothing that the Biblical writers spoke of tearing their garments or sitting in sackcloth—or the way Job encounters God and can only “repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Learn from this. Take some time, this day, to truly sit and consider the dreadful sickness that runs rampant through our hearts and through our towns and, yes, through our sanctuaries. For only in our glorious cringe can we truly find renewed appreciation for the wonderful cure.