Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Spiritual Pollution: The Dilemma of Sociomoral Disgust and the Ethic of Love

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Spiritual Pollution: The Dilemma of Sociomoral Disgust and the Ethic of Love

Article excerpt

Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, holiness and purity traditions explicitly and extensively employ contamination metaphors to understand both sin and salvation. Thus, certain sins, or populations engaging in sins, can be experienced via disgust psychology. The use of contamination metaphors within Christianity is problematic in that disgust and love are, it is argued, opposed psychological processes. Thus, the deployment of contamination metaphors within Christianity may, unintentionally, undermine the Christian ethic of love. However, the New Testament offers illustrative episodes where contamination metaphors were suspended to allow love the victory over disgust psychology. In the end, religious communities are asked to monitor contamination metaphors so they may intentionally manage the social and ethical implications of erecting sociomoral boundaries.


Growing up in my small church I was told, when dealing with people engaged in sinful practices, to "hate the sin, but love the sinner." I expect many of us raised in religious communities have heard this formulation. As a catchy aphorism, it is not bad. It nicely captures two treasured Christian commitments: holiness and love. As I was often told in Sunday School class, we love all people but don't necessarily accept their behavior. We are to strongly reject vice, but to embrace the sinner's personhood in the loving arms of the faith community.

Would that this were so easy. All around, particularly in today's politically and morally charged "culture wars," we see the spiritual and psychological difficulties of hating the sins but loving the sinners. It appears to be very difficult to balance a fierce commitment to holiness with a warm, loving acceptance of populations engaging in loathsome activities. Why is this balance so hard to achieve?

To be concrete, here is an example. I have a friend who finds cigarette smoking to be, in her words, "a disgusting habit." Consequently, she confesses, that whenever she sees a smoker she struggles with making negative characterizations of that person, such as seeing a total stranger as foolish, unintelligent, or lazy. She recognizes these thoughts as incompatible with her Christian commitment to love others and she resists these thoughts. It is just very, very hard to loathe smoking and not make automatic, largely involuntary, negative characterizations of those who smoke.

In this essay, I attempt to dissect the psychology of the "hate the sin, but love the sinner" formulation to identify why this seemingly simple formulation has failed so frequently in certain Christian communities. Why it may be, psychologically, extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to deeply and viscerally loathe a behavior while simultaneously loving the person engaging in that behavior. This analysis is needed as a form of self-knowledge for religious populations attempting to elevate moral standards while embracing a wounded and sinful world. This balancing act is delicate and often goes astray: either leaning toward a mushy tolerance or tipping over into a harsh judgmentalism.

My analysis begins with an overview of the psychology of core disgust and proceeds to discuss how disgust expands outward to regulate the sociomoral domain. After this analysis of disgust psychology, theological issues are then considered. The theological discussion centers on purity and contamination issues in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Specifically, I will consider how, in certain theological traditions, behaviors and populations are understood via contamination metaphors linking the behavior/population to disgust psychology. The climax of the paper centers on the argument that, when behaviors or populations are metaphorically understood as contaminants, love is psychologically undermined. That is, love and disgust are incompatible psychological responses. If this argument is valid, it provides insight as to why the "hate the sin, but love the sinner" formulation is self-defeating. …

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