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All things sticky and squelchy



Jesus wipes away a morality of revulsion, says Giles Fraser

EXTOLLING the virtues of Roquefort cheese to my daughter, I meet with complete intransigence: "It’s disgusting."

Damien Hurst’s sliced-up cow, broccoli, bogies, flatulence and earthworms have all merited the same description. But she is just eight. Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, with whom I am in regular correspondence, has no such excuse. Still less do those who hold important public office.

The bio-ethicist Leon Kass, who heads President Bush’s commission on the moral issues of stem-cell research, has called on society to trust "the wisdom of repugnance". Disgust, he argues, "may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity".

For many, Christians included, disgust has come to be the primary basis for moral decision-making. Often we are not aware of what we are doing. All too commonly, morality is about policing the boundaries of transgression — which is absurd. Earthworms and flatulence are not immoral; corporate fraud is immoral, though not viscerally disgusting.

There is a great deal of psychoanalysis about why we are so repelled by the squashy, sticky, smelly reality that is human life. For some, it has to do with potty training; for others, it relates to an all-too-human fear of recognising ourselves as animals.

In Martha Nussbaum’s brilliant new book Hiding from Humanity, she argues that "the products that are disgusting are those that we connect with our vulnerability to decay and to becoming waste products ourselves."

Disgust has something deep to do with the horror of contamination, perhaps explicable in Darwinian terms as a warning against the danger of infection from faeces, semen, blood, dead bodies, and the like. Thus the connection develops between washing, cleanliness and civilisation.

Jesus sought to undermine the link between morality and disgust. Touching lepers, women during their periods, and dead bodies: these were powerful gestures that challenged those who would construct morality on the basis of repugnance.

For educated Greeks, the idea of God being born in a filthy stable was the most disgusting idea of all. The incarnation, however, wipes away a morality of disgust. The prohibitions of Leviticus are trumped by a humanity celebrated, joined together in a vision of the new kingdom, and affirmed by God as glorious. The resurrected body will continue to smell. Hallelujah!

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.

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