Purity & Pollution

Glib Liberals are pretty condescending toward the language of “unclean” or “untouchable”. We associate that terminology with “primitive” cultures, and with discrimination against people labeled or associated with offensive physical or spiritual phenomena. We have a more respectful relationship with the diction of purity of food and consumer goods, and pollution of the environment.

Part of our problem is a peculiar commitment to what Canadian philosopher George Grant called the “fact/value distinction”. We speak as if empirical “facts” can be named and measured in a value-free way. “Values,” we imagine, can be abstracted from our actual construing of context. Many academics in theoretical sciences, social sciences, and exploring phenomenology and hermeneutics in liberal arts disciplines, recognize his concern. Popular discourse does not, yet.

A distinguishable part of our problem is our secular faith, our civil religion, which asserts a particular doctrine of “human rights” which serves a late capitalist consumer society well. Liberal discourse asserts as a fundamental element of its anthropology the “rights-bearing individual”, an atomized imaginary being who enters the world free to choose its identifications with others. We then simply multiply the categories of which choices are defended as human rights.

We live at the end of a “modern” age, associated with science and technology, replacing earlier ages of magic, mystery, and enlightenment. Empirical data, quantifiable, measured and recorded, facts without values, are sacred to that age of reason. Political and industrial revolutions, scientific and technological expansions reshaped the world – and our own Protestant religious movements. We are already living in a “post-modern” age, digitalized and globalized and at the same time defying the secular theses of the end of history and religion.

A technological worldview focuses on instrumental reason, the ‘how’ question that assumes that creation is an objective, separate from us, and ours to use (or abuse!) to serve our ends and appetites. Post-modern discourse stirs the pot of formal reason, classic ‘why’ questions. What is human nature and destiny, our meaning and purpose in the cosmos? These are religious questions!

Over a century ago, both the Catholic Church in Vatican I, and the Protestant movement in creationist fundamentalism, reacted to modernity. Catholics got papal infallibility, and we got an infallible bible. Later in the last century, Vatican II and liberation theology, and Pentecostal and prosperity gospel movements, corrected those narrow reactions. Our glib liberal movements, ‘mainline denominations’ of the first world, are in dramatic decline and collapse, but the Christian and Islamic movements are neither reactionary nor dead.

Leviticus presents a ‘holiness code’, paralleled in other ancient near eastern societies. This is the language of ‘clean and unclean’, of boundaries and order. What can you eat, and what is taboo? Who is set apart, and how to we restore relationships and reconcile to each other? Glib Liberals dismiss and deride a phrase at a time, but rarely engage the code as a whole.

Holiness was more than the anthropological curiosity from Mircea Eliade’s accounts of ritual and magic. It’s also more than the scientifically crude public health measures supposed by earlier liberal readers. It’s also far more than primitive misogyny and homophobia. Holiness denies the distinction of fact and value. That false separation underlies most modern discourse since Nietzsche, blurring the boundaries of subjectivity and objectivity, even as it draws other lines. We’re about to spend two weeks engaging with this strange world!

The theme of modern ‘dis-enchantment’ of the world is a commonplace among glib liberals, with a vague sentimental regret. We relegate enchantment to Tolkien, Rowling, Disney, or Marvel. Hans-Georg Gadamer was the first guy to convince me of my duty to ‘re-enchant’ my universe, and not leave it to magic realist novelists in Latin America. In this century, I find Slavoj Zizek and Terry Eagleton more accessible as interpreters between popular culture and big ideas.

I’m inviting you to join me in simply surrendering to Leviticus as ‘our’ book, and imagine ‘purity and pollution’ in ways that are not about puritanical repression of sexuality, or liberal fine-tuning of our blithe ecological destruction. This ‘holiness code’ is ours, not automatically the property of ‘extremist fanatics’!