In the Pentateuch, we find two ways of doing wrong. There is the more familiar sequence where a person sins by violating divine law and must atone for the guilt, but also the sequence where a person becomes unclean through contact with a tabooed person or object and must be ritually cleansed. A concept of ritual impurity (that is not merely a synonym for sinfulness, but a distinct concept in itself) is found in many religions, but perhaps more strongly in our own than in most Christian churches.
For Mormons, a sense of ritual purity first develops in response to the prohibitions found in the Word of Wisdom. Downing a six-pack of Coors would be a sin, of course, a transgression against commandment for which the emotional consequences include guilt, or a sense of having suffered a moral failure in ourselves. But uncleanness is different. Rather than a consequence of our actions, ritual impurity is an inherent property of the tabooed thing itself, and its uncleanness can contaminate any person who comes into contact with it. Regarding coffee as inherently unclean sounds silly, pre-rational. Theoretically, we could bathe in coffee or tea, and as long as we don’t drink it we’ve committed no sin.
But would we? Would you wash your hair with green tea shampoo? Do you avoid the coffee section at the grocery store? Do you feel holy dread in the liquor aisle? Would you eat food in which wine was an ingredient, although the alcohol had cooked out? Would you prepare such food yourself? Would you feel comfortable going out to a bar with colleagues if you drank only apple juice? Would you set foot in a liquor store to buy a news magazine?
I find myself all over the place in my responses. I buy a news magazine from a liquor store every week, but I avoid the coffee and liquor aisles in the grocery store. Call me irrational and inconsistent. I don’t care. I have a residual sense that liquor and tobacco are not just sinful in their use, but unclean in their substance, and I see no reason to entirely eliminate that feeling, because a sense for ritual impurity is an asset. Old Testament dietary laws make little sense unless we can make the analogy of boiling goat meat in milk to drinking something 80-proof and transparent. Have you ever heard someone express wonderment over Muslims who drink themselves silly, but refuse to touch pork at all? Itâ€™s quite understandable, really, if you have an innate understanding of ritual impurity: for those Muslims, drinking alcohol is like a quick sip of water on Fast Sunday (who cares?), while pork is as unclean as a pack of cigarettes would be for us (uh-oh, time to talk to the bishop). (The chemical interpretation of the Word of Wisdom is not all that far removed from the Levitical proscription against pork: what else are caffeine and tannic acid except scientific names for inherent impurities that can be transferred to Mountain Dew, or to ourselves, and which let us hang a medical name on the same process of becoming ritually impure?)
It’s true that the Levitical concept of impurity is drastically modified in the New Testament. Call not unclean, and so on. And Christ himself said that it is not what we ingest that makes us unclean. But those verses don’t stop there. What makes us unclean, Christ says, is what goes out of our mouths. That’s a much different proposition from saying that human beings can become guilty through transgression but never unclean. We should not regard any other person as unclean, but apparently a sense of ritual uncleanness is still supposed to be a part of the human experience, even if the impurity lies in the observer’s perspective rather than in the thing itself. Can we develop a sense of guilt for committing sin without first having a concept of ritual purity? Rather than a defective response to wrong acts, a sense of ritual impurity might be a precursor to an adult sense of guilt and a mature understanding that the fault lies not in the Maxwell House, but in ourselves.
Even if you reject ritual impurity as a necessary step in developing a full understanding of sin and guilt, it seems to me that a concept of ritual uncleanness is still essential to the Mormon concept of sacredness. For us, the sacredness of the temple is the mirror image of ritual impurity: in the temple, a very few objects and behaviors are appropriate, while the rest are out of place. With ritual impurity, all things are acceptable except those that are not proscribed. Although most questions in the temple recommend interview are phrased in terms of sin and repentance, the final question asks whether we consider ourselves worthy to enter the temple. To what extent is “temple worthy” synonymous with ritual purity? How is it different?
It will no doubt have already occurred to you that the language of ritual impurity is also frequently found in the context of sexual morality (pure thoughts, dirty jokes, morally clean). Is this language purely metaphorical? Does pornography make you unclean? Leviticus has a lot to say about the uncleanness of bodily emissions associated with reproductive function, but modern scripture does not single out sexual sin as the source of uncleanness above other sins, as far as I can tell. That is, some sins are clearly more grievous than others, but on what basis are some more unclean? Despite this, sexual sins are the ones most commonly referred to in terms of dirtiness, filthiness, impurity.
There are two problems with the concept of ritual uncleanness, one specifically with respect to sex and one more general. First, to our understanding, sex itself is not taboo, but rather its untimely or misplaced expression. It causes no confusion to say that eating an apple when you should be fasting is sinful, because we never describe apples as inherently impure, but only as inappropriately consumed during a certain time period. With sex, however, the discourse of ritual impurity leads to the dissonance of telling newly married couples to view as sacred, or to knock themselves out in the wanton enjoyment, of that which was previously referred to as dirty or filthy, which is something like being handed a pack of Marlboros and a box of matches in the celestial room. It seems to me that weâ€™re better served by the language of commandment, sin and repentance for describing the Mormon understanding of sex. (I’m not saying at all that this is only a Mormon phenomenon, or that the Mormon discourse of sex is exclusively about ritual uncleanness. But it’s easy to fall into that habit of speech, unconsciously, especially when talking to teenagers.)
Second, we don’t currently have an elaborated process for expiating ritual impurity after the singular ritual of baptism. We know how repentance and forgiveness work to deal with the consequences of sin and guilt, but what do we do when we feel unclean after lingering in the liquor aisle? (Your bishop will not understand if you tell him you need to sacrifice a turtledove as a sin offering and another as a burnt offering.) Does the discourse of ritual impurity leave people feeling impure, forgiven but forever unclean? Can the sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit effectively exteriorize the sense of uncleanness in the transgressor, or do we still need a scapegoat?