The first post in this series, Life Without Backgrounds or Frames: “Time’s Arrow,” by Hiroshi Sugimoto (8/25/2023), described the insight I received after several months of contemplating an arresting photomontage by artist Hiroshi Sugitomo. I had set the image as the lock screen for my laptop, so that it was the first image I saw whenever I booted up.
One day, I noticed that the real image was within the small central circle, but that I had been giving all of my attention to the black background and antique bronze frame around this porthole to the sea and sky. As I wrote that day:
I began to realize that what I perceive of my true life is usually confined and constrained by the backgrounds and frames that I have learned to impose upon it over seven decades.
What if I could look at my true life without those artificial definitions and barriers, some imposed by others, some created by my own hurting soul in a reflex against what I can’t bear or understand.
“Caribbean Sea, Jamaica”
I learned that Sugitomo had created this background and frame around an earlier photograph, and I wrote Stepping through the porthole: “Caribbean Sea, Jamaica,” by Hiroshi Sugimoto (8/28/2023). That photo became the new lock screen image that I now ponder whenever I boot up my laptop.
A few days after I made this change, I wrote to a young friend who was stuck in a local homeless shelter:
The challenge I am facing is this: to leave behind the background and the frame by stepping through the porthole into the groundlessness of the real world, where there is only the sea and the sky, with no certain place to stand.
Friend, you are presently in the groundless place where I have feared to go for my entire 73 years.
I’m not pretending that this is an unmixed blessing for you. Just by knowing how terrified I have always been of being without home or material and social resources, I have a faint hint of what you are probably feeling most of the time now.
Six weeks later, my friend is now living temporarily with a member of our Quaker Meeting, and my ponderings have taken me beyond those original thoughts. I now ponder what it means that we all always live in the groundless place between sea and sky.
“Caribbean Sea, Jamaica” (1980), Hiroshi Sugitomo
Art Institute Chicago, Gift of James N. Wood.
The human illusion of boundaries
My human eye looks at “Caribbean Sea, Jamaica” and sees two things, the sea and the sky, with a sharp boundary between them.
But science reminds us that there is only a qualitative difference between the upper and lower spaces portrayed here. In the upper space, the water molecules are scattered much further apart and move much more quickly. Yet those molecules also move freely between the imagined boundary, as water falls from the sky into the sea or evaporates into the air.
What I call the “surface” of the sea is not a surface one can stand on; it is merely an everchanging margin between the more dense and less dense areas of water molecules. Think about great waves, constantly forming and moving and breaking, tossing their spume into the air, where some of the molecules remain (for a while) as evaporated water.
Nonetheless, my human awareness craves illusory boundaries. I want to know where I can safely stand, where I can be certain of what can or cannot happen to me, who I can share life with and who—so I imagine—needs to be kept at a distance.
How frightening it is that the boundaries we all rely upon daily are not real, but are only things we imagine in our heads. How painful it is to realize that we divide and privilege or persecute each other, solely for the false safety of these imagined boundaries.
The psychology of disgust
I am currently reading Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Cascade Books, 2011), by experimental psychologist and theological scholar and teacher Richard Beck.1 The entire book pivots on one verse from one story in the gospel of Matthew (9:10-13, New International Version).
10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ 2 For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” [my emphasis].
Beck offers a deeply thoughtful, carefully crafted investigation of the “mercy, not sacrifice” distinction. He anchors this discussion in the contemporary psychology of disgust, the study of the instinctual reactions that humans and other animals have to food that as youngsters they were taught they shouldn’t eat.
While the basic disgust reaction is a physiological one associated with food safely, Beck demonstrates that human beings also subconsciously expand the uses of disgust to induce visceral reactions against culturally forbidden behaviors, beliefs—and categories of people.
Social-moral disgust is the emotional driving force behind every sort of cultural boundary-drawing. More importantly, it drives every form of separation and exclusion, from the mildest to the most violent, of people whom the “in-group” views as “out.”
Purity codes vs. table fellowship
Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees over his table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners speaks directly to the violence of social-moral disgust. Hebrew culture in Jesus’ time was dominated by deeply ingrained Pharisaic purity codes.
Some cultures and in-groups become obsessed with protecting their own assumed righteousness against heresy, corruption, or pollution. They define imagined boundaries between themselves and the categories of people whom they perceive as engaging in dangerous behaviors or beliefs.3 The full force of social-moral disgust is then directed toward anyone thought to be in the outcast category—regardless of the actual qualities of the individual people.
Purity codes are ritualistically sustained or, when broken, restored through sacrifice. This can be the priestly sacrifice of food at an altar. Or it can be the shunning and driving out of those seen to be unclean, or of innocent scapegoats upon whom the community has ritualistically placed its collective uncleanness.
Table fellowship, on the other hand, suspends social boundaries for those one chooses to include as family, friends, or welcome guests. Even if there are people at table whom one doesn’t like, even those who one finds disgusting, at table all are embraced as people one cares about.
Becker writes that, in revisiting Matthew 9, “it seems clear that contempt was implicated in the attitudes of the Pharisees.” Contempt is an expression of hierarchical superiority, one which dehumanizes those lower on the social scale. “Disgust and contempt monitor the boundaries of intimacy and otherness in everyday interactions” (110).
We can imagine the expressions of disdain on the faces of those criticizing Jesus’ association with unsavory people.
Jesus’ ministry of table fellowship challenged these judgments of superiority by proclaiming a radical egalitarianism within the Kingdom of God.
In this, Jesus’ ministry not only dismantled barriers of socio-moral disgust (by removing the distinctions between the clean and unclean) but also challenged the social hierarchies and power structures that fuel the emotion of disgust. (111)
Unmasking my own disgust
When I wrote to my young homeless shelter friend, I was thinking primarily about expressing encouragement and empathy.
Looking back, though, I can see that writing “Just by knowing how terrified I have always been of being without home or material and social resources” doesn’t go deep enough into my private motives. It doesn’t unmask the deeper levels of my fear.
I don’t really want to mix socially with the “down and out” people I have helped professionally for most of my life. I want the barrier of class and privilege to stay between us.
When I’m approached by a panhandler, even one I’ve known for years, part of me wants to hide or evade—or at least to cut the interaction short. It’s so much easier just to hand over money and pass on by.
Only a few times in my life has inward light broken through, so that I actually invited a beggar to share a meal with me. When this happens, though, something dissolves that was in our way. The mere act of eating together forces us to deal with each other as actual human beings—whether or not we do that very well.
How can we live in the groundless place?
This is so difficult.
None of us actually owns security or comfort or prosperity. Those of us who have these gifts temporarily take them for granted. They are the “real world” of the backgrounds and frames that we keep our attention on.
Of course, those on the “outside,” those who live without security or comfort or prosperity, have their own backgrounds and frames to mask from themselves the groundlessness of their lives. But they are so much more vulnerable to the real real world, whether or not they want to acknowledge that.
It is a natural animal thing to cling to any vestige of illusory safety. We are hard-wired to seek those bits and pieces and even to fight over them.
What made it possible for Jesus to step through the porthole and make himself vulnerable? Not only to the “impurity” of those he ate with, but also to their humanity. And, finally, to fatal intervention by those with authority, who feared his radical embrace of all comers?
It does not help me to say to me, “Well, he was the Son of God.”
How do I do what he asks me to do?
I am convinced that every human being is innately capable of breaking through, of sharing table fellowship without limits. It’s simply not something we can do all at once.
We first have to be open to the possibility of doing so. And then we have to be attentive, in order to discern those moments when way opens with a specific person or group of people. And then we have to step through.
Disgust and love
Beck gives us another clue.
Disgust is the primary process erecting boundaries between the self and the world. Love is a secondary process that allows others access to the ‘territory of the self.’ (120)
He writes that this access is physical, social, behavioral, and emotional.
In other words, to step through the porthole into the groundlessness that all beings share means to make oneself vulnerable to others in every possible way.
The key is this: as we learn to let down these self-protective boundaries, we also learn that we are able to do. And more. We learn that some of the beings with whom we let ourselves be vulnerable are drawn to reciprocate. We actually begin to touch and interact fully as living beings.
The path is not the goal. It is each step, one at a time.
And so it is.
Michael Bright Crow
- Richard Beck (PhD) is Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Abilene Christian University. Richard also teaches classes in the Fuller Theological and ACU Doctor of Ministry programs. In addition to his numerous books, he writes the blog Experimental Theology on Substack, exploring the intersections of Christian faith and psychology.
- In Matthew 9:13, Jesus is citing Hosea 6:6 (NIV): “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
- Beck explains that in purity code cultures, the danger is imagined as a threat to the entire community. The boundaries enforced by social-moral disgust are meant to protect the community from divine punishment (whatever the metaphor of “divine” authority points to in that community’s mindset). Anyone who is perceived has having violated purity thus endangers the whole people and must be persecuted and cast out.