The Psychology of Disgust and Why Hospitality is so Difficult

Love the sinner; hate the sin.

You’ve certainly heard this phrase thrown around in the Christian community. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. It’s an odd phrase, really, and I’m not certain that it’s actually possible. It’s very difficult for me to extend genuine love to someone while simultaneously holding moral outrage at their actions (unless I already love that person deeply, like a family member).

But we repeat this phrase I think out of hope. We don’t want to dehumanize people by reducing them to act or an orientation. Yet we hope to still treat them in love even when at odds with the way they live. But if we’re honest, it is extremely difficult.

As we continue to talk about hospitality this week, we want to acknowledge that Christians live in this tension between 2 ideals — purity and justice. On the one hand we desire to live lives of purity & righteousness because God is pure and right. On the other we want to reach out to others and set right the evils of the world. But how to we remain pure while entering impure places? How do we engage a dark and poisonous world without being infected ourselves?

This is why hospitality is so difficult.

What we need to acknowledge is that this is a very human problem. There are innate reasons why hospitality does not always come naturally. It’s an issue that is dealt with wonderfully in a book by Richard Beck called Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and Mortality. Dr. Beck is a Professor of Psychology at Abilene Christian University and also writes theological thoughts on his blog Experimental Theology.

In Unclean, Dr. Beck lays out how how our human nature is often at odds with our Christian desire to be hospitable. It’s something he calls the “psychology of disgust.” Let’s take a look at this psychology and see how when applied socially, hospitality becomes troublesome. A few principles of the psychology of disgust:

1. Boundary Monitoring: Imagine swallowing your own saliva. Not bad, right? We do this throughout the day. Now imagine spitting in a cup and drinking it. A little different, no? Spittle is fine until it crosses our lips. Similarly, hair is fine until it moves from our heads to our food. This is because psychologically, purity works by monitoring boundaries. Once something crosses a threshold — in this case our own bodies — it becomes contaminated. And our response is expulsion. We get rid of the “contamination” as a way to keep ourselves “pure.”

2. Contamination Appraisals: Remember playing on the playground when you were a kid? Did you ever talk about girls or boys having “cooties”? Kids play contamination games because this is a basic human psychology. The “other” is contaminated. One of the big ways we deal with this is proximity. When a contagion comes into close proximity with our food, we see the food as contaminated. It doesn’t even matter if contact or mixture occurs, proximity is enough for us to consider something “contaminated.”

Another way we deal with this is similarity. Would you drink lemonade from a bedpan? Would you eat a brownie that looked like something your dog left on your yard? Most people would decline. Not because they believe these are real, but the similarity is enough to disgust them. We can say “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but the reality is that we usually do.

3. Negativity dominance: Beck talks about how in his courses he will take an apple and (what appears to be but is not) dog feces. He touches the 2 together and asks his students if anyone will eat the apple. Of course no on will because we feel the apple is now disgusting. But if the feces contaminates the apple, why doesn’t the apple make the feces delicious? Because of negativity dominance. We believe that when the polluted & pure come into contact, the polluted corrupts the pure, not the other way around. Negativity wins.

disgustIn reality, these principles of disgust keep our bodies safe. They are innate reasoning that serves to keep us healthy. The problem is not that this psychology is bad or wrong. The problem is that when these instincts are applied socially, we begin to mess things up.

It happens when we believe that anyone outside our boundaries is “other” or “dirty”. It happens when we believe that simply being in proximity with others will somehow contaminate ourselves. Or when we believe that the evil in the world will surely overcome the good.

What we see in the life of Jesus is that his radical inclusion goes against the psychology of disgust being applied in social contexts. So while the Jews treated the Samaritans as dirty and worthless, Jesus stopped and talked with a Samaritan woman at a well. He ate at the houses of tax collectors and sinners even when the Pharisees were afraid that the mere proximity would make you unclean. And Jesus touched lepers and women with continuous bleeding because he knew his mission was greater than any disease or social stigma.

Hospitality requires us to be honest with ourselves and admit that it does not come easily to us. It’s more than just personality or preference. It often is in conflict with even our human instinct.

The good news is that hospitality can be cultivated. If we are aware and honest with ourselves, we have the ability to overcome. But we have to be intentional. We have to be diligent. And we have to follow Jesus.

Later this week Trevor will show us how Jesus shows us the path toward real, tangible hospitality. But for today let’s be aware of our inclinations that lead us away from hospitality and justice. Let’s do our best to see others the way Jesus would see them. And let’s all thank God that there is a different way to live.

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