All things sticky and squelchy
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
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
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.