National Catholic Register

Commentary

Spiritual Pollution, Then and Now

Everybody knows that the Old Testament is full of rules aimed at keeping Israelites from ritual defilement — rules that no longer bind Christians.

BY MARK SHEA

November 26-December 2, 2006 Issue | Posted 11/22/06 at 11:00 AM

 

Everybody knows that the Old Testament is full of rules aimed at keeping Israelites from ritual defilement — rules that no longer bind Christians. We tend to read these regulations through a pair of glasses that has one lens from the ancient Christian tradition and one from a modern, post-Enlightenment perspective.

The ancient Christian tradition recognizes (rightly) that the regulations on ritual purity in the Old Testament are no longer binding on us since the coming of Christ. The modern post-Enlightenment view concurs that they are no longer binding, but instead of looking to Christ as the reason they are outmoded, simply dismisses them as the savage taboos of a bunch of primitives that have been overcome by the “spirit of progress.”

Post-Enlightenment thought basically assumes the Old Testament purity laws were nothing but pre-scientific attempts to avoid disease, as though what dominated the minds of the Old Testament writers was a sort of pre-literate materialism whose main questions were somewhere between, “How do I avoid trichinosis?” and “What’s the safest way to keep the cooties away?”

Such thinking commonly passes from such alleged “scientific explanations” of how these ritual taboos arose to a triumphant and confident conclusion that we are, of course, 4,000 years smarter than the people who shackled themselves with such barbaric nonsense.

Thanks to progress, we don’t fall for such ignorant taboos anymore. We know how to cook pork thoroughly, what causes leprosy, and how to refrigerate shellfish to avoid ptomaine.

“Gleaming scientific progress” has perfected what the barbarians who wrote the Old Testament were groping toward in their ignorance.

I think this “march of progress” scenario is an ill-advised way to approach Old Testament taboos. For one thing, it carries with it the modern aroma of contempt for childhood, as well as the modern hubris that the “recent” is always better than the “old,” and the future is better than all. More than this, it commits the sin of mind-reading in supposing that, despite all insistence to the contrary, the focus of the sacred writers was not Israel’s relationship with God, but was instead a quest for refrigeration, shampoo and germ theory.

In contrast, the faith tells us that grace is not ashamed to build on nature, and that children are often extremely valuable guides to essential truths. For this reason, I think we do well to note that the purity regulations come from the childhood of the world — and that we do well by beginning there, rather than by attempting to press the Old Testament into modern scientific boxes.

And despite our sophistication, we are not far from such childhood ourselves. If you don’t think so, tell me how eager you are to handle someone else’s used underwear, scratch somebody’s scaly skin or touch a corpse. Even in cases where your intellect tells you that the chances of contracting disease are low, you don’t want to do it. Why? The “ick factor,” that’s why. It’s “unclean.” Like a child, you’d just as soon not touch it.

Similarly, before we feel too superior about our coziness with pork and shellfish versus the dietary taboos of ancient Israel, let’s ask ourselves how many insect larvae we’ve eaten lately. Been a while since we’ve had a yen for brains? Or raw blubber?

Once again, the notion that some things are simply too gross to put in your mouth (despite the fact that they are a perfectly good food source for the human body) is a more universal experience than we may have guessed.

Now the interesting thing is that the New Testament has absolutely no interest in what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery”: the notion that everything that preceded us is dumb and that the sole purpose of what went before is to lead up to “us.” Instead, it takes the entire question of “clean and unclean” and says, “You are on to something, but you don’t know what you are on to. That whole intuition of uncleanness and revulsion, of which revulsion to pork or leprosy is a good image, has a proper object, but it’s not the object you think.”

As Jesus put it:

“Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a man that by going into him can defile him; but the things that come out of a man are what defile him.” And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus, he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man” (Mark 7:14-23).

Next week, we’ll talk about why God chose the image of pollution to show us the nature of sin.

Mark Shea is senior content editor for

CatholicExchange.com.