The Filthy and Excessive Gospel
In a world where deep reading is becoming the exception to the rule of skimming and grazing our way through the endless media that comes at us every day and from every angle, headlines are becoming increasingly important. If the headline doesn’t grab us, we won’t read on. There are just too many words out there and not enough time or attention to bother with them all. Poor headlines! They have to do a disproportionate amount of the work for a piece to even get a hearing! This is more of a confession than an indictment (although I suppose it could be both). I am the chief of sinners on this score.
At any rate, a headline (ahem) caught my attention a few days ago. It was a piece written by philosopher Thomas White for Aeon and it was called “Philosophy should care about the filthy, excessive and unclean.” I did read beyond the headline, you’ll be relieved to know, and came across an interesting discussion of the challenge of the “unclean” to Plato’s world of ideal forms and Slavoj Žižek’s use of this category in analyzing the degradation of political discourse. But my thoughts kept returning to the headline. Actually, narrower still, to a single word from the headline: should. “Philosophy should care about the filthy…” The implication being that it normally doesn’t, that it has more important matters to ponder.
I thought about that headline as I made my way to the jail on Monday morning. I thought about it as I considered those from our church who would be making their way to the soup kitchen yesterday morning. I thought about it as I watched people making preparations for the MCC Relief sale that our town will host this weekend, which funds relief and development in some of the neediest parts of the world. I thought about it as I considered the many people connected to our one small church who are invested in communities like L’Arche and other organizations that walk alongside people with disabilities. I thought about it as I pondered recent visits to people in pretty desperate (and sometimes disgusting) situations whether due to age, illness, or catastrophes of their own making.
I thought about how the headline would sound if we substituted “Christianity” for “philosophy.” “Christianity should care for the filthy, excessive and unclean.” Perhaps the headline still pops a bit—our attention is always grabbed by words like “filthy” and “excessive,” after all, or at the very least, by anything presuming to be a moral imperative. But I’m guessing the headline also seems a bit redundant with this substitution. The idea that Christianity should have something to say in and for the ugly and the easily ignored parts of the world, the parts that don’t fit neatly into ethical systems or metaphysical schematics seems obvious. These are the very places that people assume Christianity should be present. Even people who know almost nothing about Christianity often have a dim awareness that Christians are the ones who are supposed to follow Jesus to the bottom.
For Christianity, the imperative to care about the filthy and unclean and excessive is sort of built into the package. Anyone who has even a nodding acquaintance with the gospels, knows that Jesus called “blessed” those who mourn, those who are poor, those who suffer and are persecuted. We know that Jesus flouted social and religious norms by touching lepers, the lame, the dead, the dying. We know that Jesus frequently found himself in “excessive” company, that he was labeled a “friend of sinners,” a drunkard and a glutton. Jesus lived among and for the filthy, the unclean and the excessive. Jesus believed, evidently, that there was inherent worth, dignity, and value in each human life, no matter how outwardly unimpressive.
And so have his followers down through the ages. Not perfectly, of course. Not consistently or always admirably. But across the Christian spectrum, from the hyper-conservative fundamentalist to the hyper-liberal social justice warrior, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t at least pay lip service to the truth that Christianity should care for the filthy, excessive and unclean. Even when we’re failing miserably at it, we know that we shouldn’t be. We know that Jesus didn’t come for the healthy, but the sick. Sometimes we even remember that this includes us.
And Christians, at our best, don’t just do all of this because Jesus told us to. That’s perhaps a decent place to start, but it goes much deeper than that. Christians believe that the nature of God is most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ, who not only deigned to minister to the filthy and unclean from time to time, but who entered into this experience himself. Christians have sanitized and abstracted the idea of Jesus hanging on a godforsaken cross, turning it into a “doctrine” or a soteriological mechanism or whatever else. But at the time, God-on-a-cross would have been unthinkable, offensive, filthy, unclean, and excessive… pick your unsavoury adjective. Cursed is anyone who hangs upon a tree, and all that. Jesus goes straight to the bottom and says, “This, this is what God is like and this is where God is to be found. This is where love is grown, where forgiveness is extended, and where the kingdom of God takes root. This is the good news.”
I listened to part of an episode of the Liturgists podcast the other day. I used to listen to it more regularly, but the genre of ex-evangelicals frolicking in the pastures of enlightenment and heaping scorn upon their benighted conservative brethren gets old after a while. At any rate, in this episode William Matthews was trying to convince one of the hosts, Mark Gungor, who has evidently left Christianity behind, to become a Christian again. Matthews presented the gospel as liberation and good news for the oppressed. Gungor mostly liked that but couldn’t get past the problem of evil and God’s rather poor performance in world-supervision. Round and round they went.
Part way through the discussion, Gungor left metaphysics behind and took a more pragmatic turn. Christianity just doesn’t work very well, he said. It doesn’t produce “enlightened” people who can live freely in the present like Hinduism or other forms of Eastern mysticism do. I think I laughed out loud. Is that what you think Christianity is supposed to do? I said (again, probably audibly, and probably louder than I ought to have). Produce “enlightened” people? That’s the metric you’re using to evaluate things? I turned the podcast off.
Christianity may produce “enlightened” people, or it may not. As always, so much depends on how we define our terms. But I honestly couldn’t care much less about enlightenment; I’m far more interested in whether or not Christianity produces people (including me!) who are being grown in love, who are being conformed to the image of Christ, and who are willing to follow him to the bottom, where God is waiting.
The image above is a creation of Charles McCollough and is taken from the 2009-10 Christian Seasons Calendar. It’s called “The Return of the Prodigal” and beautifully portrays a father embracing his filthy, unclean, excessive son and welcoming him home.