I don’t believe in being clean

woman-alone-in-churchI don’t believe in being clean.  I believe in being changed.

The Old Testament goes into great detail about the many things that can make a person unclean, and of the rituals needed to restore purity (Leviticus Chapters 5, 11, 12, 13, 15 and Deuteronomy 15 in particular).  Managing ritual purity seems onerous to my modern mind, especially for women; not only is uncleanness unavoidable as the regular function of the female body, it’s also long lasting.  Male “issues” also generated uncleanness, but after his “seed of copulation” goes out of him, the man (and woman, if there was one involved) is unclean only until the sun goes down.  A woman was unclean during her period and 7 days afterward (Leviticus 15: 16 and 19).  This amounts to half the month, and maybe a married woman is having sex a couple times a week and getting unclean from other things like swearing or touching the carcass of an unclean bug.  She must have spent most of her adult life unclean.  Which makes uncleanness kind of meaningless?  But I digress.

When Jesus came on the scene the religious authorities were super vigilant about purity, and Jesus swept that aside again and again (Matthew 8:1-4, Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 1: 40-42, Mark 7:25-30, Luke 8:43-48).  And though it seems he still cared about sin (Luke 5:18-26), he wasn’t concerned about becoming tainted by the uncleanness of others (Luke 8:43-48), or with obedience checklists (Matthew 19:16-22).

If Jesus wasn’t focused on cleanness, what did he teach instead?  He taught matters of the heart (Matthew 5), and when he said his disciples should be perfect, I don’t think he meant perfectly clean, he meant something deeper–a fundamental change in human nature to become like him.  The puzzling command to lose our lives for his sake, thereby saving them (Luke 9), demands a very different approach to life than Old Testament-style attention to purity.

I imagine Jesus’ most proximal disciples would have had a hard time making the switch from salvation as purity to salvation as a changed heart, though Paul made the transition fully (Romans 14, Galations 6).  LDS scripture has Alma 5 to teach us about being changed, but also uses  cleanliness metaphors, sometimes even in the same verse: Alma 5:19 “I say unto you, can ye look up to God at that day with a pure heart and clean hands? I say unto you, can you look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances?”  I suppose both metaphors have merit, though I note that women disproportionately bear the cultural weight of cleanliness as the idea of purity spills over into modesty and personal comportment.  I notice that LDS sermons from pulpits large and small are more often about cleanliness than about a changed heart.  Our leaders equate worthiness with being clean.  The trouble is, how clean is clean enough?  And clean enough for what?  Clean from what?

Because salvation is an abstraction, it’s impossible to think about it without using metaphor.  The problem with the cleanliness metaphor is that it focuses our attention on rules, obedience, and compliance rather than on moral development and connection between each other and God.  To become a new creation, to have a change of heart, these are better metaphors.  What I most like about them is that change can take place on the smallest of scales, in the shortest of time frames, and are therefore possible, and real.

I believe in redemption.  I believe Christ is the Redeemer.  But whenever I hear or read about cleanliness and worthiness, whether in scripture, in sermon, or in song, the words bounce off my heart with a thud.  There is no resonance.  I think that’s because I am already worthy.  There’s nothing I can do to enhance my worth, or dissolve it.  Though by giving up my story over and over again each day [1] I believe I will find myself changed.


[1] See the chapter on sin from Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon.

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10 Responses

  1. Liz says:

    I love this, EmilyU. This reminds me of how the Savior was resurrected with his wounds still there – people were able to see and feel the wounds in his hands, feet, and side. He wasn’t “cleansed” or “made perfect” in the way that I imagine many expected him to be, and I love the idea that having a change in heart allows us to hold our messiness in tension with our desire to do better.

    • Kalliope says:

      Very interesting (and a new thought to me!). We’re told (or at least I was) that our resurrected bodies would be perfected – rid of disease, “imperfect” form, etc. But Christ’s resurrected body still bore the marks of his death. I hadn’t thought of it that way, and now my mind is churning… 🙂 Thanks!

  2. Ziff says:

    Wow, Emily U, this is great! I especially love your next-to-last paragraph, where you hit the point about cleanliness metaphors leading to over-focus on compliance and obedience.

  3. spunky says:

    This is beautiful, Emily. I often wonder what scars and memories for good or ill we remain on my body and mind post resurrection. Sometimes the most painful things created a compassion in me that I love about myself, and think makes me a better person. Sometimes, not. I’m struck by the oddness of such metaphors on something so very complicated as the atonement.

    Thank you so much for this beautiful post.

  4. I hadn’t thought about how much more Levitical purity rituals demanded of women than men. And yes, I think you are right that purity standards continue to disproportionately affect women.

  5. Andrew R. says:

    “The trouble is, how clean is clean enough? And clean enough for what? Clean from what?”

    Clean from the Blood and Sins of this generation. Being unspotted by the world. Or, moving from the world, and having a change of heart.

  6. Emily U says:

    No post is complete without a mansplain from you, Andrew R. I am loathe to explain what I think my post is already clear about, but just in case you’re sincere in your obvious, yet superficial, answer to my questions, I will do so.

    The idea that being clean from sin makes us worthy is problematic because we are never clean from sin, nor can we be by our own merit (Helaman 14:13, for instance). We repent, but the breach in our relationship to God that is wrought by sin is only mended through the atonement. How it is mended is the subject of volumes of commentary, but in my view it’s not mended by erasing bad deeds, but by changing hearts so that our natures get better. The trouble with the clean metaphor is that it leaves the cleansed object fundamentally unchanged, temporarily purified but likely to suffer the same dirtying again. How is that progress? If the main point is to be clean and unspotted (rather than matured/perfected) wouldn’t it be better to die as babies, never having sinned? It’s impossible to live in the world clean and unspotted, but it is possible to grow, develop, and experience the miracle of a changed heart that makes us less prone to bring alienation from God upon ourselves, because our natures are more aligned with God’s character and attributes (which is one definition of salvation).

    • Andrew R. says:

      And there was me thinking I agreed with you. My point being that it is the change of heart that matters more than absolute cleanliness.
      The level of cleanliness can not be defined because we are all different, and we all need different things out of this life. What God expects of me is different from everyone else, because I am different.
      So what living the Word of Wisdom is for me is different than others (though I appreciate many will be the same. We all have to adhere to the no alcohol, no tobaco, and no tea and coffee in order to qualify for a TR. However, the extent to which we put into action the rest of the counsel given in Section 89 will surely determine the outcome of the promised blessings. And for each the ability and capacity to do that will depend on circumstances. But God fully knows those, and can communicate it to us. So some live meat free, and others avoid caffeine in drinks and chocolate. They are not wrong if that is what God expects of them, though He may not require it of others.
      But bending our will to the will of the Father is where our salvation comes from, and the Atonement makes up the difference.

      We do the same with our children. Some children from a very early age are aware of appropriate clothing for the weather. Others are not. So the extent to which one child may choose their own clothing is dependent on their specific ability. I believe God is the same for each of His children.

    • Andrew R. says:

      And I am not trying to “mansplain” anything. I am trying to look at the views and opinions of others and see if they can help in my own understanding.

      And I don’t believe the Atonement works any differently for Men that it does for Women. I have grown up, as I suspect others here have, with the myth that Women are somehow more righteous than men. And that has even been used to justify plural marriage – because 7 times more women will be exalted than men the men will need to have multiple wives.

      Of course, to what extent that may be true I have no idea. But I do know that the Plan of Salvation for Andrew R. is very specific and requires me to do certain things, and work harder of certain commandments than Emily U. Not because of our gender differences, but because we are different.

  7. MargaretOH says:

    Your posts are always so well thought out, Emily U. This is excellent.

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