Sunday, October 21, 2007

Defilement, part 2

Let me briefly recapitulate part 1:
  • Defilement and sin are discrete, albeit overlapping, constructs.

  • Christians ought to learn what the references to defilement mean, because such references permeate the Bible (including the New Testament).

  • We took the following quote from Paul Ricoeur as a summary statement:  "The repertory of defilement appears to us sometimes too broad, sometimes too narrow, or unbalanced."1

  • It is too broad (from our perspective) insofar as it contains some matters that seem perfectly innocent.

  • Second, it is too narrow insofar as it gives short shrift to misdeeds that we regard as serious offences.

  • Third, it is unbalanced
but that is where we pick up the argument in this post.

3. Unbalanced:

The purity / defilement system is "unbalanced", Ricoeur tells us. By this he means that relatively inconsequential matters (from our perspective) are regarded as grave.

We have already seen this in the saying attributed to Jesus in Mt. 23 (quoted in part one). Jesus mocked the Pharisees for scrupulously observing the tithe (tithing even their herbs and spices) while neglecting the "weightier" matters of the law.

But Ricoeur doesn't discuss tithing. He focuses on a different characteristic of the "repertory" of defilement:  one that has long puzzled me.
One is struck by the importance and the gravity attached to the violation of interdictions of a sexual character in the economy of defilement. The prohibitions against incest, sodomy, abortion, relations at forbidden times — and sometimes places — are so fundamental that the inflation of the sexual is characteristic of the whole system of defilement, so that an indissoluble complicity between sexuality and defilement seems to have been formed from time immemorial. (p. 28)
To illustrate Ricoeur's observation, I would call attention to 1Co. 6:9-10 —
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived:  neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.2
It seems to me that the Church devotes a disproportionate amount of attention — and emotional voltage — to the sexual sins on Paul's list. For example, I have never heard of a believer being confronted with this text because s/he is greedy. In an acquisitive, capitalist society, am I to suppose there are no greedy people in our churches?

I submit that we do not really believe what Paul says here:  that the greedy will not inherit the kingdom of God. On the other hand, we are prepared to believe it with respect to fornicators, adulterers, and homosexuals. Those people are storing up wrath for themselves on the day of God's judgement — we know it in our very bones.

Why are we preoccupied by sexual sins? Because the fear of defilement still determines our responses at a deep, unconscious level. We acknowledge that greed is a sin; but homosexual activity elicits a greater emotional response from us because unconsciously we regard it as a defiling sin.3

Conservative Christians may dispute what I have just said. It is clear in their minds — indeed, it is a core part of their identity — that society is wrong when it winks at fornication, adultery, and homosexuality. But even conservatives must recognize the validity of Ricoeur's point when we shift our attention to other biblical texts:
When you are encamped against your enemies, then you shall keep yourself from every evil thing.

If any man among you becomes unclean because of a nocturnal emission, then he shall go outside the camp. He shall not come inside the camp, but when evening comes, he shall bathe himself in water, and as the sun sets, he may come inside the camp. (Deut. 23:9-11)
Like the law concerning menstrual uncleanness, this law refers to a matter that is entirely involuntary (since the man is asleep at the time). Moreover, we must surely be struck by the fact that an innocuous sexual matter is regarded as a gravely serious source of defilement.

Behind the text is an unstated fear that Israel will lose a battle because of one soldier's defilement. Better to have a mighty man of valour sit out the battle than have him fight in a state of uncleanness due to a nocturnal emission!

  1. Broader, narrower, unbalanced
    The purpose of this post was to demonstrate that defilement and sin are discrete constructs. By comparison to the offences that we usually mean when we speak of "sin", the repertory of defilement is broader at some points, narrower at other points, and unbalanced. In particular, it gives disproportionate significance to sexual matters.

  2. Quasi-material
    Ricoeur suggests that sexual matters receive disproportionate emphasis because of their physicality — the bodily fluids associated with sex. Sexual impurity
    is connected with the presence of a material "something" that transmits itself by contact and contagion. … By many of its traits sexuality supports the ambiguity of a quasi-materiality of defilement. (p. 28)
    Thus the puzzling preoccupation with sexual matters gives us an insight into the nature of defilement:  it is "quasi-material".

    Defilement blurs the distinction between physical contamination and ethical contamination. It is this ambiguity that enables defilement to function as a symbol. Biblical texts can use the language of (physical) defilement to symbolize the stain (on one's soul) which results from sin.

    Likewise, we can take biblical references to defilement and "translate" them, treating them as if they were references to sin. But we should always be conscious of this process when we engage in it. We may be reading something into the text that is actually one step removed from its original scope.

  3. Utility as a symbol for sin
    Finally, I return to Isaiah 6, the text quoted at the beginning of part one. Isaiah cries out (1) "I am a man of unclean lips," and (2) "I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips." Note the second statement. Here we are unmistakably in the realm of defilement (as opposed to sin). Isaiah implies that uncleanness is a kind of contagion, communicated from one contaminated person to the next via physical contact.

    Isaiah is seized with dread, for a defiled person must die when he enters the presence of a God who is rightly described as "Holy, Holy, Holy". But perhaps the text ought to say, "Pure, Pure, Pure"? Here the language is already subtly shifting away from defilement/purity toward sin/holiness.

    One of the seraphim flies to Isaiah. He touches Isaiah's mouth with a burning coal, taken from the altar. And he says, "Behold, … your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for." Here we see the same juxtaposition yet again. The altar exists for the express purpose of removing defilement (through rites carried out by priests). Thus, when the seraph touches a coal from the altar to Isaiah's lips, he is performing a rite of purification.

    But the seraph then speaks of guilt and sin, effectively changing the topic from the physical (defilement) to the ethical (sin).
I hope that this (long!) post has clarified the distinction between defilement and sin, and shed light on at least one biblical text.

But it is only an introduction to a topic that warrants a series of posts. More to come in due course!

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
1The Symbolism of Evil, transl. Emerson Buchanan, Beacon Press, 1967, p. 26.

2Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

3Cf. Walter Brueggemann's remarks on this topic. It is Brueggemann's impression "that the enormous hostility to homosexual persons … does not concern issues of justice and injustice, but rather concerns the more elemental issues of purity — cleanness and uncleanness. This more elemental concern is evidenced in the widespread notion that homosexuals must be disqualified from access to wherever society has its important stakes and that physical contact with them is contaminating."Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, dispute, advocacy, Fortress Press, 1997, p. 194.


nebcanuck said...

Excellent point about the passage by Paul. I certainly have heard the verse quoted to convict sexual sins, but never to condemn something as commonplace as capitalist behaviour.

I think that's part of the key, too. I agree -- Sexual defilement's overt nature tends to evoke a reaction that places it higher on the "sins" list. But I also think that part of the reason for it is its foreignness. I don't think it's (always) a conscious effort, but when people encounter something that is against their natural inclination, they rebel against it. Something like greed is so universal that only the most overtly greedy of men fall under the lens for their actions; Sexually immoral behaviour is immediately picked up on by the general norm, however, because there is a definable "normal" and "different" in general.

I think that's part of the "skew" in the defilement idea. Blood tends to be another source of overt defilement; Once again, there tends to be a major physical manifestation, as well as a clear divide between people who have recently touched/consumed/whatever blood and those who haven't. The easier it is to distance oneself from a dirty situation, the easier it is to associate it as negative.

Jamie said...

Several comments:

1. Probably one of the reasons sexual sins get more attention is that they are easier to identify. With something like greed, which has everything to do with motivation, it's hard to identify exactly when someone has crossed the line, but with sexual sins, it's easier (in some ways) to clarify when the person is guilty and when not. (It is also true, as the above commenter pointed out, that greed is a universal sin, where as the more explicit sexual sins are not as universal.)

2. Regarding the issue of why certain involuntary states (such as menstruation) were considered impure, one of my professors says it is because the states in question are all somehow associated with mortality (flow of blood = mortality, apparently).

Those states are not sinful, per se, but the point is that we need redemption not just from sin, but also from mortality. This is why sacrifices were required for ritual impurities.

Personally, I don't know how much I agree with that argument (I mean, why is menstruation associated with mortality?), but I bring it up because it relates to your post.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• nebcanuck:
You make a good point. Maybe I could express it by saying that the "Yuck!" factor is greater in those sins that are most alien and unthinkable to us.

• Jamie:
I'm glad you commented on this post. I figure you might have more direct experience of wrestling with the rules of defilement than some of the rest of us.

You're quite right about sex having a relatively clear demarcation. Of course, unmarried people get up to a lot of stuff short of actual penetration and persuade themselves that they haven't crossed that magic line; and of course it's at best a half truth. But still … it is possible to draw a clear line where sex is at issue, whereas it's hard to say where the accumulation of wealth passes over from acceptable to greediness.

I agree with you that menstruation is unlikely to symbolize death. Even ancient people would have been able to make a connection between menstruation and reproduction (for example, because menopause marks the end of a woman's reproductive years).

Ricoeur would point out that many of the ideas about defilement are common to all ancient religions, and presumably predated the religion of Israel. Human reproduction has been demystified for us because it has been explained scientifically. But it's clear that ancient people were greatly preoccupied by fertility and infertility. Reproduction presumably appeared to them as an event in which the god(s) manifested themselves on the mundane plane.

I think that's the significant element here: the notion that reproduction constituted a point of human/divine intersection: an event in which human beings directly encountered the god(s). It made anything associated with reproduction awe-inspiring, sacred, and even frightening. Ricoeur suggests that fear was the primal human response whenever the gods drew near.

I don't claim to understand it all, but I see this line of thinking as plausible. However, it suggests that the system of defilement is shared with paganism, and that perhaps makes it suspect as an element of biblical religion. It is arguably nothing more than ignorant superstition.

That explanation obviously isn't going to be an acceptable to conservative Christians, so I'm not sure what you'll make of it!

Jamie said...

[R]eproduction constituted a point of human/divine intersection: an event in which human beings directly encountered the god(s). It made anything associated with reproduction awe-inspiring, sacred, and even frightening. Ricoeur suggests that fear was the primal human response whenever the gods drew near.

To me, that doesn't really explain why these divine-human intersections would have made the human impure. Seems like it would be more natural for them to be super pure.

Also, I don't see why one would need to offer a sacrifice (in the Israelite system) after such an intersection.

I should go and pick my prof's brain about ritual impurity laws. He's studied these laws at length, and he might be able to give a full explanation if I went and talked to him about it.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I don't really understand, either. That's exactly why I'm exploring the topic: because it is so counterintuitive to a modern, Western person.

But in fact encounters with God certainly brought on feelings of defilement. The Isaiah 6 text is testament to that.

And here's another example, even more pertinent, which has always fascinated and baffled me. The Jewish rabbis refer to the canonical texts as those "which defile the hands", whereas non-canonical texts do not. Relevant quotes:

"m. Yadaim 4.6 The Sadducees say: We complain against you, Pharisees, because you say that the Holy Scriptures defile the hands, but the books of hamirim (=Homer?) do not defile the hands. …

"t. Yadaim 2.13 The margins [in] the books of the minim (or, "the gospels [and] the books of the minim") do not defile the hands. The books of ben Sira and all the books which were written from that time and onwards do not defile the hands."

I don't understand that mindset, but there you have it.

Jamie said...

Wow, never heard that before. That perspective is definitely not intuitive!