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Purity and ends

6 March 2013

I hope my readers less interested in theology will excuse this second consecutive foray into contemporary divinity, brought on by that odd clarity of mind that often follows a good yoga session and that leads to small, ill-formed insights of the sort that clutter a thousand blogs. I promise to make my next post about topic-modelling or bibliographies or something.

One of the most pervasive themes of moral discourse is the category of purity. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt famously posited in his rather controversial TED talk that purity is one of the fundamental categories of human moral imagining and that while contemporary Western liberals do share not the traditional emphasis on sexual purity they (we, if I’m being honest) have not abandoned purity but merely moved some other thing into its realm, namely food. While I won’t speak to that particular minefield, beyond, perhaps, to acknowledge that I’m far more likely to take issue with what other people put into their bodies than with what they do in their bedrooms, I will say that while I do think that purity can be a valid and helpful category of moral thinking, it is more often than not a misued one.

Purity is loaded term but I think that as a moral category is generally refers either, more commonly, I would think, to a state total goodness or sinlessness, oftentimes with reference to a single category of ‘sin,’ such as sexual immorality, or, less commonly but certainly frequently, particularly, in my experience, in liberal Christian circles, to a state of unmixededness of motivations (particularly, in those circles, of what one might call sacred and profane motivations, of being motivated wholly by one’s Christian faith). In both cases it is an inherently negative category, describing the absense of bad. It is absolute, rather than aspirational: a single slip-up makes one impure, puts one in the position of having to atone, to make up for one’s falling short.

This, I think, misuses purity as a moral category. This negative conception of purity leads to a constant cycle of falling short and atoning, since few if any of us can live up to the absolute demands of sinlessness or unmixedness of motivation. We are constantly failing and striving to atone. While this certainly feeds into the now popular Christian anthropology of total human depravity remedied only, but perfectly, by Christ’s salvific grace, it is completely non-conducive to moral growth. A teleological ethical thinker and radically world-affirming Christian, I am of the view that this modern conception of grace obscures the division of justifying and sanctifying grace and obviates the need for personal moral development in this world, which is, after all, the one God intended for us.

In a teleological ethical framework purity is a telos, an ill-defined end goal which we struggle to understand as much as we struggle to achieve. The ‘practices’ of purity, the categories which normally define it, such as sexual purity or, dare I say it (?), ‘food purity,’ are just that, practices: disciplines we have developed over time in pursuit of that unseen, unreached, but no less desired, no less worthy goal. As we continue to practise, to theorise and to excercise, some of those practices will fall away as the slow march of time deems them insufficient, and new, possibly no less insufficient ones will grow up in their place, all in the hopes of coming that little bit closer to that end. It is not an absolute state of sinlessness or an impossible motivational hygiene. What does that mean in our lives? That we should rethink the actions we do or do not perform out of concerns for those limited categories of purity in light of their relations to our human telos: rather than being riggedly confined by our limited categories of practice, we should be engaging with them critically in order to understand not only how they stand to help us live our lives but where they themselves fall short and how we can improve on them. That is, after all, what our moral lives are all about.

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