A certain mindset which postmodernity finds very appealing identifies “purity” with sterility. To be “pure” is, in this view, to be uncontaminated, germ-free, barren, scrubbed, metallic.
This mindset (which is actually very ancient) tends to think of “pure” spirituality as a spirituality unsoiled by contact with grosser elements such as matter and, most especially, with biological matter such as the human body with its wide variety of fluids, sticky viscous substances, mucus, feces, urine, blood, sperm, spit and sweat. Such a mindset found the Incarnation incredible and denied that a Holy God would take upon Himself the “sack of dung” that is the human body, much less submit to the indignity of undergoing all that slimy gynecology, living a life punctuated by visits to the latrine, manhandled by a lot of monobrowed goobers in armor, beaten until the flesh flew and the blood spattered the walls, spiked naked to the scandal of the cross, and bled dry by a stab to the heart. Better, such folk thought, to say that the Incarnation was an illusion, that the Holy God would surely have nothing to do with all this squishy organic goo, that the proposition “This is my Body” must be some spiritual metaphor for something, you know, disembodied rather than a bare statement of fact.
Something analogous obtains in our postmodern understanding of the life of the mind too. The postmodern attitude is that “Skepticism is the purity of the intellect”. The idea is that the only sure thing is doubt. Fear of commitment characterizes not only our relationships with each other, but our relationship with reality. But, of course, put into practice this notion leads to imbecility, not wisdom or understanding. For to see through everything is the same as not seeing.
In contrast, ancient Christians identified purity, not with sterility, but with fruitfulness. Taking their cues from the testimony of both the Old Testament and from Jesus and his apostles themselves, they reckoned that the body was a good thing like the rest of creation, and that things like sex, marriage and babies, so far from being a snare and a temptation, were good and even sacramental. In their view, the central way by which God communicated His pure and Holy Spirit to the world was not through abstractions, Platonic forms, ideas and concepts, but through the Word made flesh and through such media as water, blood, bread, wine, oil, human hands and human voices. Such a view sees our humanity, with all its attendant animal gooiness, messiness, fangs, claws, hair, snot and dandruff, not as “impure,” but as profoundly sacred.
Indeed, for Jesus, the source of impurity has nothing whatever to do with the organic side of human existence. Oh, to be sure, we can do wicked things with our reproductive organs (in lust), just as we can do wicked things with our digestive organs (in gluttony) or our mouths and hands (in bearing false witness or acting in anger). But the source of these evils is not the body but the soul. As Jesus puts it:
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, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” (Mark 7:18-23)
So the gnostic notion of spiritual purity attained by mere disembodiment is exactly wrong. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “There’s nothing specially fine about being a spirit. The Devil is a spirit.” Likewise, there’s not a thing wrong with being a hairless biped full of blood, bile, piss and poop. Lots of great saints (not to mention God the Son of God) have been exactly that. Purity–and impurity–originate in the heart and soul. They are only expressed in the body.
In the same way, when applied to the life of the mind, the Christian insight identifies purity with the union of mind and truth, not with a mind too full of fear of commitment to have contact with any truth at all. To be sure, the Christian intellect is called to “keep an open mind” until the facts are ascertained. But as Chesterton observes, the point of an open mind, like an open mouth, is to bite down on something solid. That means that the exercise of reason ultimately depends on an act of faith. Indeed, the very possibility of any mental act going forward rests, ultimately, on an unprovable article of faith: the faith that our acts of intellect will actually correspond to the structure of the world. All the sciences rest on this faith. We believe that we may understand. And in believing, we discover against that purity of intellect, like purity of body, results in fruitfulness, not sterility.
One of the principle effects of purity (and impurity) is that it determines not only what we see, but the way we see it. Scripture tells us “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted” (Titus 1:15). This does not mean that the pure of heart are Pollyannas who wander through life blind to the evil in people around them and whistling happy tunes to their adorable forest friends like Snow White. It means that, like Jesus, their confidence in God means they have no fear of “contamination” by contact with evil. They are even capable of seeing the good that still remains in lives corrupted by sin. In contrast, the impure cannot see even the good that is there and his cynicism drives him to name even white as black.
What lies at the back of this conflict is the same thing that lay at the back of Christ’s conflict with the Pharisees. Dominated by pride and therefore closed to grace, the enemies of Jesus had only one way of dealing with impurity, whether ritual or moral: quarantine. Indeed, the very name “Pharisee” means “separated one”. It was the only way they knew of preserving their “purity”: by remaining sterile and untouched by contact with the sinners and defiled people they saw all around them.
But Jesus proposed a new way. You can see it in the signs he works in Matthew 8-9. This is no grab bag of miracle tales thrown together at random by the Evangelist. A common thread connects them all. In each story, Jesus encounters somebody who, under the law of Moses, would render him “impure”. But now, in Matthew 5-7, Jesus has gone up on the Mountain like a new Moses and offered us a new law: the law of the Spirit in the Sermon on the Mount (beginning with the Beatitudes, including the Beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”)
Now Matthew is going to show us the power of that law and the One who gives it. So, in a series of encounters, Jesus is shown meeting a leper, a gentile Centurion, demoniacs, the vile and despised tax collector Matthew, a bleeding woman and a dead girl. What do they all have in common? The fact that contact with them, according to the Pharisees, made you impure. But instead, Jesus remains pure and they are rendered, in various ways, clean and whole. For the same reason, Jesus had power to mix and mingle with tax collectors and whores and it was they, not he, who changed. He offers us this power as well by his Holy Spirit. It is the power to see differently–and to live differently: “free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight, all the days of our lives” (Luke 1:74-75).
Jesus gets at this need for a change in the heart–in the way we see as well as in what we see–when he tells us:
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:21-23).
We are born looking for something. We think that we are looking for Mommy and Daddy, or a mate, or food, or money, or sex, or drugs, or rock’n’roll, or power, or fame, or comfort, or knowledge, or wisdom, or success or the beauty of nature, or any one of a million other things. But the surest proof this is not true is given us, not by those who never find these things, but by those who do. It is Ecclesiastes, who wins the lottery, not Job, who suffers in this world, who comes as close as any biblical author ever does to ice-cold despair and weeps over the vanity of the world.
Some people who achieve their earthly goals find they are miserable and blame the thing they sought. These despair and often die by their own hand. Others foolishly decide that if money or sex or food did not satisfy them, then more money or sex or food will. Meanwhile, those who are wise realize that whatever was good in what they achieved failed to satisfy, not because it was bad, nor because it was theirs in insufficient quantity, but because it merely reminded them of what they really wanted. These last, being wise, set about looking what they really want. And they find, in the end, that what they want is to see the face of God. When they discover this truth, they let nothing stand in their way. The Beatific Vision is the Pearl of Great Price. Those who purify themselves from all that stands in the way by the power of the Spirit, who love all earthly things in the fierce awareness that they are entirely secondary to the love of God, these shall see God and be satisfied.
(For more on the Beatitudes, go here to order Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes and a Joyful Life.)