Friday, 11 December 2009
Critique of Christianity part III: Purity
For my next issue with Christianity, I wish to cite a few passages from the Gospel:
But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. […] Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew, 28-29 and 48).
Quite harsh, isn’t it? Just looking at a woman and thinking that she’s beautiful already means having sinned (it is also an androcentric passage, which is another problem with Christianity throughout, but because I don’t like to fight moral battles that are not my own, I’ll leave the ladies to dissect that). Any man can tell you that if these are the directives, then we’d all have to be blind by now – it is impossible to see a beautiful woman without some form of a fantasy, however brief, taking shape in our heads.
This goes hand in hand with an argument that Christians often made when trying to convert me. When I enquired as to why God was reluctant to get in touch with me, some of them argued that it was logically impossible for Him to do it – because I was impure, and that which is pure can never come in contact with the pure. It is enough, they would say, for one alien particle to enter a glass containing a liquid of a single element, for that glass no longer to contain that element in its pure form. I was the alien particle, God was the glass, and therefore He could not accept me until I took my ‘leap of faith’ (usually variant in its execution according to the speaker).
I’ll pass on the moral debates around the above argument, but I’ll pick up on something which is expressed in Christianity in its original (textual) and contemporary forms alike. This religion is in love with the notion of purity. Obviously one can see how God would be ‘pure’ (or, to use a more common term, ‘perfect’). But why does Christ tell to His human disciples, ‘Be perfect’?
The issue is not whether it’s a fair request or not (it obviously isn’t). A Christian would respond, quite rightly, that it’s not about asking us things which are fair, but things which are good, regardless of compromises or bartering with our condition as sinners. The point that I’d like to question is whether asking us to be pure really means asking us to be good – or more to the point, whether trying to be pure, as Christianity exhorts us to do, really leads to us being good.
Either way, repression – as in the repression of one’s lustful desires by ripping your eyes out – hardly seems the way to go. If purity means desensitizing oneself to something like the beauty of a woman, how does it differ from chemical castration? And how far does it go? If I’m ‘pure,’ will I no longer feel that lovely, sly, smug sense of satisfaction I experience when my rival sports team loses? Will I no longer take pleasure from violent action films, or laugh at coarse comedies? Will all the ‘lowest’ pleasures of my life be erased?
Yes, answers Christianity. And this is one bit where we disagree. To them, the ‘low’ or ‘base’ or ‘vulgar’ side of humanity is to be looked down upon – it is a side-product of the fall from grace, a special kind of dirt that forms over the windshields of the soul. To me, not only is there nothing wrong with these kind of feelings (as long as they are not allowed to flourish into obsession), they form the necessary and healthy counterbalance to those parts of us that are noble and high and idealistic – we couldn’t take the pressure of the latter without letting out steam through the former. We cannot enjoy the celestial music of Beethoven if we are not allowed to occasionally sit on our sofas eating an absurdly expensive Ben & Jerrys while watching Firefly. We cannot be true and kind and intimate to our friends if we are never also swearing loudly together as we joke about each other’s sexual shortcomings (among men that’s the case – women probably have different expressions of ‘low’ behaviour!).
To me, purity is not human. Christianity does not share in this belief – purity is not only fair but healthy as a standard to pit people against. This religion purports to love humanity (or at least man) by putting him at the centre of creation, but it is actually quite selective in the bits of it that it chooses to love, relegating the ‘low’ parts to the influence of the devil instead of recognising their participation in the tree of our self. This position is incompatible with my feelings because, as a humanist, I acknowledge the human spirit in its entirety – in its potential for achievements as well as its potential for blunders, and in its capacity to pick itself up from them. Not in the sense that I love evil, but in that I understand that having the potential for evil (our condition as sinners) is necessary for us to do good. If purity is not human, I don’t really think it’s healthy for us to pursue it, nor do I believe that it will lead to great good. The best way for a person to be able to do good is to keep her faith in her moral potential (pride) alongside an understanding of her natural moral limits (humility), that is to say, that she cannot reach perfection. Thus, instead of expending energy and becoming unhappy by means of self-castigation when one caves in to the pressure of our natural desires (for instance masturbation, or eating chocolate), we may accept our impurities as an expression of ourselves. This lets us place them in the sphere of our privacy, watching violent movies without feelings of guilt, and letting our energy go towards constructive interaction when in the sphere of the public, rather than repression. This is what it means to become a better person; you cannot be a good person within society if you are not happy, and pursuing purity never leads to happiness. Hence purity does not make you a good person, however much Christianity insists that being pure is the only way of being good.
Besides, even in its evangelical description the idea of reaching morality through repression seems dubious. A guy who rips his eyes out so he won’t have lustful fantasies when a woman passes by is not a good person, he is just blind. I don’t know how others read it, but I can’t help but feel that the Gospel itself ends up suggesting (albeit indirectly) that purity is not a moral quality, and therefore that the teachings of Jesus Christ are not so much moral as they are aesthetic.
I wish to stress the point in the above paragraph because it really is important. As long as something is pure, it is divorced from questions of morality. Morality, in itself, is inherently impure. I do believe that spiritual illumination is possible, in this life; however, I also believe that it is the outcome of a torturous, painful path, often through our own sin and mistakes. Christianity agrees with me so far, but it draws a different conclusion from this premise. To me, a greater moral awareness comes from having experienced both poles in the human spirit, the constructive and the destructive one, and learning how to balance both in our lives, rather than learning how to banish either from our experience. It is a balance between light and darkness rather than an embracing of light – and an intrinsic process of learning and absorbing. That’s why the difference between any two poles in our spirit is not one between ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ because these are meaningless labels attached to two sides which both need to be understood and absorbed in our experience – and this is where Christianity parts way with my thought. As we have seen in the discussion on pride and humility, Christianity is organized according to dialectical structures, assigning one side to the ‘bad’ and the other to the ‘good’ and then proceeding to a condemnation and demonization of whichever side it chose to deem ‘bad.’ I don’t buy this; both sides of any sentiment in the human spirit are legitimate and true to our own selves, even the ones which might risk hurting others, and both sides have the potential to be un/ethical according to a life’s contingency. The faculty of our judgment to select which pole will be the right one is what we call our morality, and it will be the more advanced to the measure that it possesses enough experience of both poles to choose rightly. As such, our morality will never be pure, but it will only be great because – and not despite – the fact that it has come to know the opposite of itself.
This, then, is another important difference between my worldview and the Christian one. I don’t endorse asceticism or purity, and for that matter I don’t endorse anything that negates the lessons we can learn from the raw world of feeling and the underbelly of pain and sin. My suggestion to you is contrary to that of Jesus Christ: don’t go out and try to be perfect. Go out and pluck those damn apples of knowledge, and find out for yourself whether they taste of mud or not.