In his book Unclean, Richard Beck has done the church a great favor. By viewing current ecclesial crises through the prisms of experimental and social psychology, he provides Christians with a thoughtful examination of the psychological contours of social evil as it exists in ecclesial communities. Thus, Beck offers a unique, incisive perspective into the psychological dynamics of the church and illuminates often hidden factors that contribute to the church’s failed missiology.  In this interview, Beck shares insight from his book Unclean and discusses the ways in which disgust psychology provides confessing Christians with a sobering and instructive reality about the nature of evil.

The Other Journal (TOJ): P. J. Watson recently argued that Christianity and psychology, though not incompatible, are incommensurable; that is, they operate from “essentially different systems of rationality.”[1] Your book, Unclean, is a remarkable piece of integrative work between experimental psychology and theology that I enjoyed in part because you seemed mindful to possible interdisciplinary problems yet relatively unencumbered in navigating between disciplines. Do you share Watson’s sentiment, and if so, how do you navigate these potentially competing rationalities in your work as a Christian experimental psychologist?

Richard Beck (RB): That’s an interesting question because it highlights the different texture of my work in comparison to a lot of what you find in the literature integrating psychology and Christianity. Historically, and still today, most of the work in the integration of psychology and Christianity has focused on psychotherapy and has been done by clinical and counseling psychologists. This focus on the therapeutic moment has created a host of interesting problems. Embedded in psychological theories of behavior change and human flourishing are a number of Enlightenment and humanistic assumptions, and many of these assumptions don’t sit well with certain Christian anthropologies and epistemologies, particularly those from Reformed or Calvinistic traditions.

Here is where I’m a bit different: I’m an experimental psychologist whose research focuses less on clinical or counseling psychology than on topics from social and personality psychology, the “psychology of everyday life” as I describe it to my students. Thus, I’ve published on such topics as humor, gossip, profanity, death, and anxiety. I’ve studied people’s beliefs about Satan and their attitudes about the incarnation—for example, did Jesus experience nocturnal emissions or diarrhea? Opinions differ. And I’ve examined the matter of bad Christian bookstore art, or what I call the Thomas Kinkade Effect. In my research I’m not thinking about the therapy room but about the everyday experience of Christians in the world. There’s not a lot of research on subjects like this, so it feels different and fresh. Moreover, it rarely gets tangled up in issues related to epistemology and anthropology. For the curious, a lot of my research is summarized in Unclean and in my just-released book, The Authenticity of Faith.

TOJ: The biblical text that inspired this book is in Matthew 9 and Matthew 12 where Jesus tells the Pharisees, “I require mercy, not sacrifice.”[2] Could you briefly sketch for us how you understand these two constructs, and in doing so, could you explain the radical nature of Jesus’s statement, particularly the psychological aspects?

RB: In Unclean, I’m building on the work of Walter Brueggemann and Fernando Belo. As they argue it, within the life of Israel there were two competing visions of uprightness before God—the Levitical or priestly vision and the prophetic or justice vision. The Levitical tradition focused on the experience of cultic purity before God whereas the prophetic tradition focused on rehabilitative activity to care for the poor and marginalized. However, as Brueggemann notes, these impulses live in “profound tension” with each other. They are, in fact, often at an impasse. So when we reach Jesus in Matthew 9, we see him stepping into a conflict that isn’t fully resolved in the Old Testament. Which tradition should be privileged in the life of Israel? What does God demand? To use the words of Miroslav Volf, should the church function through “exclusion or embrace”?[3] Thus, when we see Jesus quote Hosea in Matthew 9:13—“I desire mercy, not sacrifice”—we can read this as Jesus decisively privileging the prophetic tradition in the life of Israel. Eating with “tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 9:11) is the proper understanding of what it means to be upright before God as opposed to standing with the Pharisees who were excluding such people in the pursuit of Levitical purity.

Here’s how all this plays out psychologically: My sense is that a lot of churches think they can have it both ways. You often see this in the common refrain “love the sinner but hate the sin.” The psychological research I review in Unclean suggests that this maxim is almost impossible to put into practice. Psychologically speaking, mercy and purity pull us in opposite directions. And behaviorally, as we see in Matthew 9, we have to make a choice: follow Jesus as he crosses the purity boundary or stand with the Pharisees who have opted for quarantine.

TOJ: Scapegoating, the communal expulsion or punishing of an individual for the cohesion of the overall community, is important in your book. With the presidential elections ramping up and the perpetuation of a depressed economy still bearing down on many in this country, how do you see both the tendency to scapegoat and infrahumanize in popular discourse? More specific to your book, are there tendencies in North American Christian communities that you find particularly alarming?

RB: Infrahumanization is a psychological term that refers to seeing out-group members as less than fully human. It is the psychological process that drives the experience and discourse of Otherness. This is usually accomplished by denying the out-group member some key characteristic that is possessed by the in-group. Generally, the Other is seen as less intelligent or morally inferior. For example, Others are dishonest, depraved, lazy, or lacking in self-discipline. In extreme cases, Others are seen as hostile and malevolent agents intent on doing members of the in-group harm. This is the nadir of infrahumanization, the creation of the monster.

Moving to the current political discourse this election year, I was struck recently by something Newt Gingrich said at the Republican primary debate in South Carolina. In talking about how to deal with terrorists, Gingrich said that Americans should adopt the view of Andrew Jackson in dealing with our enemies: kill them. Just-war theology aside, the category of enemy can be pretty slippery. Who gets to define enemy? Moreover, enemies are infrahumans. Thus, once the enemy card is played, our moral responsibilities and the care we take in moral self-criticism are attenuated. All of this should be worrisome to Christians, who are taught that our enemies are not “flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12).

Beyond the War on Terror, I worry about the discourse of Otherness as it’s currently playing out in regard to legal and illegal immigrants, Iran, socioeconomic class, same-sex marriage, and the unemployed. But really, our entire political discourse has been reduced to a discourse of Otherness. There isn’t an issue today that doesn’t involve the American public choosing sides and dehumanizing those who disagree.

TOJ: Disgust and purity psychologies are boundary monitoring psychologies that define who is in and who is out. As you’ve discussed, these kinds of psychologies realize purity through expulsion of the impure, and this psychological dynamic makes it difficult to be a missional people. As I read Unclean, I found myself thinking about trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder and the church, about how trauma or previous violation of boundaries ossifies communities against hospitality. How do trauma and disgust psychology interface, and do your think Christian communities need to understand trauma more robustly to be missional communities?

RB: At root, disgust is a protective mechanism. Disgust monitors the orifices of the body, mainly oral incorporation, to protect and preserve the integrity of the body. Consequently, if we’ve been traumatized—personally or communally—we will seek to establish boundaries and become hypervigilant in monitoring them. Sometimes boundaries are forcibly violated and sometimes we embrace others (allowing them inside our bodies or communities) only to have our trust violated. These are wounds that can go beyond all words, leaving deep scars in our hearts and memories. Consequently, it is only natural that these individuals and communities will move forward cautiously, even suspiciously. To protect ourselves we turn inward rather than outward.

In Unclean I don’t question the establishment of boundaries in these sorts of cases. Again, these times of inwardness and self-protection are important. The main thing I try to point out in Unclean is simply that we should recognize what is going on in all this. If a church community has been burned in some way, there will be a season of healing inwardness. This is a therapeutic choice. But a therapeutic community will struggle to be a missional community.

I think this might be one reason why some post-Christian and emergent churches struggle to become missional. Many of the people who are attracted to these communities have been deeply hurt by churches. Thus, they seek communities of therapy and healing. But when should that season end? When should the church stop becoming a spiritual hospital, a place where my emotional needs are met versus a place where I’m equipped for mission? I think a lot of churches are trying to figure this out, and they are getting a lot of push back when they try to make the transition: “Why are you pushing me and making me feel guilty? That’s the stuff I grew up with!”

It’s hard to be therapeutic and prophetic at the same time.

TOJ: Metaphors are central to human cognition, and you spend quite a bit of time analyzing the metaphors that are used in Scripture to illuminate sin and redemption.[4] You also note that the very popular (in some theological circles) penal substitutionary atonement theory combines a crime and punishment metaphor with a purity metaphor. And you propose that there is an overreliance on this metaphor—that it is a sort of theological sweet tooth which activates an emotional system and that this emotional resonance makes it “sticky,” or highly memorable and salient, because associations between purity and salvation are innate. I don’t want to repeat your whole argument here, but could you talk a bit about this metaphor privileging and about how Christians might keep themselves open and perceptive to theological nuance rather than collapsing salivation into one metaphor?

RB: I’m building on the work of George Lakoff who has done extensive work on how metaphors help us ground and reason through abstractions. For example, we often reason about good versus bad through an orientational up-versus-down metaphor. Good is up (e.g., “You’ve lifted my spirits”), and bad is down (e.g., “Don’t sink to their level”). As discussed in Unclean, cleanliness appears to be an innate and intuitive metaphor for understanding good versus bad, with clean indicative of good and unclean indicative of bad. This metaphor fills the Old and New Testaments and saturates the Christian experience. Sin is defilement, uncleanliness, and contamination. Grace is being made clean and pure, “washed as white as snow” (Ps. 51:7).

The issue here isn’t about the poetry. As Lakoff shows, we use these metaphors as cognitive aids. The metaphors give us a logic that can help us reason through airy abstractions. For example, if a relationship is broken, the logic is that it can be fixed. In some ways this metaphorical logic is helpful. It promotes hope. But the metaphor can be just as unhelpful. Can a relationship get fixed like, say, we fix a broken car? The broken–fixed metaphor, while hopeful, isn’t equipped to capture the full drama of relational reconciliation. Consequently, we prefer metaphors like healing rather than fixing when we talk about relationships. Healing better captures the slow and difficult process of reconciliation. It also lets us know that setbacks are anticipated and natural.

The point for our purposes is that the clean–unclean and pure–impure metaphors so ubiquitous within Christianity, while natural and helpful, can be problematic as well. For example, once we are “clean,” we have to beware of what Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist have dubbed the Macbeth Effect, where the experience of being clean can come to replace moral effort.[5] This is the psychology underneath a classic spiritual formation problem: the privileging of justification over sanctification. Once made clean there seems little left to do, spiritually speaking, for the new Christian. It doesn’t make much sense, metaphorically speaking, to be more clean.

Thus, if used unreflectively or too frequently, purity metaphors can activate psychological processes that de-energize and demotivate faith communities. So when the question is asked, why is it so hard to create missional communities? Or why do Christians privilege justification over sanctification? I’d answer that we need to pay attention to the metaphors we’re using and the associated psychology we’re activating. When people already feel clean, any change, particularly changes involving an engagement with outsiders, is seen as too risky. All you’ll do, following the logic of the metaphor, is make a mess of things. It’s safer to maintain purity with acts of quarantine. Just think about how you feel when you buy a new white shirt or dress—that cautiousness, that desire to protect the shirt, is the same cautiousness we import into the life of the church through purity metaphors. Missional communities just can’t be that jittery.

TOJ: One of my favorite parts of Unclean was the discussion of the different disgust psychologies found in the typical psychological makeups of conservatives and liberals, as well as the ways in which the dialogue between these different psychological modes leads to dumbfounding, or a sense of utter confusion on both sides. I’m making a jump here, but I found myself thinking about where positive psychology or virtue psychology might participate in this conversation. What types of character strengths or virtues do you view as important for Christians to cultivate in order to remain in dialogue with people of different psychological constitutions? Can the cultivation of virtues lead to less dumbfounding and a more faithful witness, and how might it specifically be effective vis-à-vis the different ways people are offended?

RB: Here I’m using the work of Jonathan Haidt regarding the ways in which conservatives and liberals differ in how they use various moral grammars in making judgments of right versus wrong.[6] Liberals tend to restrict their moral judgments to issues related to harm and justice. Conservatives, by contrast, also appeal to moral criteria related to purity/sanctity. The classic example is how conservatives and liberals view the issue of same-sex marriage. Where liberals will see the issue as one of basic fairness and equality, conservatives, while not immune to those arguments, will tend to privilege a concern for the sanctity of marriage. Here the moral grammar of purity–sanctity trumps the criteria of justice and harm.

Beyond this basic disagreement between liberals and conservatives regarding which moral criterion should trump another in any given situation, I go on in Unclean to discuss Haidt’s work on moral dumbfounding. Simply put, no one agrees on what exactly constitutes a purity–sanctity violation. Here’s a simple example: What is the proper attire for a worship service? Opinions differ. Moreover, there is no publicly available criteria that can be marshaled to bring about consensus. People just have different sensibilities about this and so conflict is inevitable.

Here’s the connection with positive and virtue psychology: The moral dumbfounding research suggests that moral judgments are largely affective and unconscious. This research sides with the moral tradition of David Hume over Immanuel Kant; as Hume said, “Reason . . . is the slave of the passions.”[7] Our moral judgments tend to be quick and instinctive rather than well reasoned and reflective. Moreover, our reasoned explanations are often found to be ad hoc rationalizations for what we feel to be true in our guts.

The implication here for churches is that most churches privilege cognition over emotion in their spiritual formation efforts. Educational models dominate. We focus on teaching, catechesis, and doctrine. In contrast, advances in positive and virtue psychology, which have paralleled similar trends in the spiritual formation literature, are focusing less on cognition than upon virtue formation in envisioning the moral agent. What is needed in our churches is not more education but more embodied practices that can shape our affections and behavior along with our attitudes. The virtues I focus on in Unclean involve the practices of welcome and hospitality, what Miroslav Volf calls “the will to embrace.”[8]

TOJ: What specific virtues do you find necessary in cultivating Volf’s “will to embrace?” And furthermore, what particular embodied practices do you see contributing to the nurturing of these virtues?

RB: I would argue that the will to embrace primarily involves the virtues of perspective taking, empathy, and kindness. In Unclean, I talk about Peter Singer’s notion of the moral circle. Inside the moral circle my “kin” are treated with “kindness” and those on the outside are treated as “strangers.” So I’d argue that the will to embrace is, following Singer, an expansion of the moral circle to include others, extending familial warmth and affection to those not formally of my “tribe.”[9] It is to live in the world as if there were no strangers. And the key virtues in making this happen are cognitive (perspective taking), affective (empathy), and behavioral (kindness).

As far as embodied practices go, I’d argue for the practices of friendship. One problem with a lot of outreach ministries and mission efforts is that the interactions between the church and, say, the poor are hierarchical. These ministries are service- or outcome-oriented rather than relational. We come in, do some goods deeds, and then exit the scene until our next mission trip or outreach effort. Although these activities are generally good things in and of themselves, I don’t think these sorts of hierarchical interactions create the virtues of hospitality. Friendships, given their mutuality and egalitarian nature, are better positioned to do this. So that’s where I would start. If you want to practice the virtues associated with the will to embrace, start expanding your friendship circle to include those who look a bit different than yourself. Eat, as Jesus did, with the tax collectors and sinners of the world.

TOJ: Depending on who you talk to, narcissism is at least a common if not a full-blown epidemic in the United States, and here I’m thinking of trends in the Narcissistic Personality Inventory rising over the last thirty years according the work of Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell.[10] In regards to narcissistic character formation, disgust psychology, and the church, it seems that a humanized approach to others requires a Christian anthropology that can ground selfhood outside of our current cultural narcissistic configurations. Do you think narcissism is a key cultural psychological issue in our day, and in regards to hospitality, where do you see it perhaps interacting with or overlaying some of the issues you bring up in Unclean?

RB: I’ve not followed narcissism research very closely (though I do work in academia so I’m familiar with some examples), so I don’t know if I can say anything authoritative on the subject. But the place where I think this comes up in Unclean is in the relationship between disgust and contempt. Charles Darwin was one of the first to note the similarity between facial expressions of disgust and contempt, namely the wrinkling of the nose. Contempt is a bit different than disgust, however, in that it has a hierarchical component. We look down our noses at those we hold in contempt.

You see contempt on display in 1 Corinthians where it appears that the wealthier patrons of the church were showing contempt for the poorer, lower-class members of the church. Pushing against this, Paul speaks of, in his famous body metaphor, showing “special honor” to the parts of the body that are deemed “dishonorable” (1 Cor. 12:21–26).

This is relevant to the issue of narcissism as contempt, pride, scorn, and disdain are common emotions among individuals with inflated egos. And we can assume, as you note, that these emotions are triggered by judgments that certain individuals aren’t burnishing or enhancing my reputation, so I distance and disassociate myself from these people. Something like this seems to have been going on in the church at Corinth. So yes, via the emotion of contempt, the close cousin of disgust, we see in narcissism another route to exclusion and social quarantine.

TOJ: You’ve described Unclean as a study of the psychology of missional failure, which is the failure of churches to be communities of love and hospitality, communities that fail to realize Volf’s “will to embrace.” The model you propose at the conclusion of your book sees the Eucharist as central to resisting or regulating three types of disgust—social, moral, and animal-reminder disgust. I thought this was a pretty compelling, though inchoate, model. Will your work continue in this direction by testing this model more robustly? Will your follow-up work to this book provide a more elaborated Eucharist-as-regulator model? And how do you hope the Christian psychology community engages, and even participates, in furthering the good work of Unclean?

RB: I had to look up the word inchoate. Apparently it means “just begun and so not fully formed or developed,” and I totally agree with that assessment. In many ways Unclean is more descriptive than prospective. I can describe the problems of purity psychology very well and in great detail. And such a description begs the question: What should be done about it all?

To be honest, I’ve struggled with that question. In the book I suggest that the Eucharist might be a resource for pushing back upon some of the worst aspects of purity psychology. But what I don’t work out fully in the book is how, exactly, the Eucharist should be practiced to function in this manner. For example, in the book I talk about how the Eucharist can be an enactment of Jesus’s practice of welcoming and eating with tax collectors and sinners. Well, that idea works for faith traditions who practice open communion. For communities practicing closed communion the exact opposite is going on—the Eucharist is a location of exclusion, a place where a boundary is drawn between insiders and outsiders. I don’t describe in any concrete detail how the Eucharist should be practiced or offer alternatives for communities who practice closed communion. If I were to point to a detailed treatment of the Eucharist that approximates what I’m envisioning in Unclean, I’d point to Jürgen Moltmann’s analysis in The Church in the Power of the Spirit.[11]

I do think there is a book to be written about all this, a book describing how various faith communities practice inclusion and welcome through the Eucharist and how those practices shape the missional imagination and activities of those communities. I’m not sure if I’m the one to write that book, but I think it would be extraordinarily useful for church communities wanting to explore and experiment with practices of inclusion and welcome in relation to the Eucharist.

TOJ: This issue of The Other Journal is on evil. Given the trajectory of Unclean, how does disgust psychology shape your hamartiology and inform your understanding of evil?

RB: One could argue that our discussion here might be the most important discussion in the entire issue. Evil doesn’t come out of nowhere. Moreover, the people committing atrocities (or even small acts of exclusion and meanness) don’t describe themselves as evil; most of the evil done in the world is done by people who think they are doing the right thing. And until we understand that dynamic, we aren’t going to be very effective in combating the darkness in the world. More than anything else, evil is a psychological problem. For example, most perpetrators feel like they are the real victims and that their actions are very much justified. Furthermore, to commit the worst atrocities (e.g., genocide, rape, torture, slavery), you need the psychology of infrahumanization—you need to see the Other as less than fully human.

Socio-moral disgust, the psychology I discuss in Unclean, sits at the center of all this. As Martha Nussbaum has observed, “Throughout history, certain disgust properties—sliminess, bad smell, stickiness, decay, foulness—have repeatedly and monotonously been associated with, indeed projected onto, groups by reference to whom privileged groups seek to define their superior human status.”[12] Once that psychology is in play nothing stands between us and the demonic.

[1] See Watson, “Whose Psychology? Which Rationality? Christian Psychology within an Ideological Surround after Postmodernism,” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 4 (2011): 307; and Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).

[2] This Scripture reference and all subsequent Scripture references are from the New International Version.

[3] For more on the two competing visions of uprightness see Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997), 192–95; and Belo, A Materialist Reading of the Gospel of Mark (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1981). Also, see Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996).

[4] See Beck, Unclean, 35, which lists 19 of these metaphors for sin and evil.

[5] Zhong and Liljenquist, “Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing,” Science 313 (2006): 1451–52.

[6] See Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York, NY: Pantheon, forthcoming).

[7] Hume and L. A. Selby-Bigge, A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1896), 685.

[8] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 216.

[9] See Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[10] Twenge and Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York, NY: Free Press, 2009).

[11] See Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1977)—and a hat tip to Tony Jones for pointing me in this direction.

[12] Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 347.