The overvaluing of purity and the undervaluation of redemption (or, when did forgiveness become a toxic asset?)

Today I made a rather brash statement in a seminary class I was teaching that deserves some further explication.  In discussing the question of sin (always a fun topic whether undergrad or graduate school to be sure) I made the following comment:

“purity is over-rated… and redemption is woefully undervalued.”

Needless to say, I took a bit of a brow beating for that one… but I stand on this statement, not as a closed and self-defined comment mind you, but as a hyperlinked doorway to a larger notion that what is contrived as ‘purity’ by many Christians today is merely a trumped up version of soft-serve Pelagianism at best and as a grim idolatry for the mallrat generation at its worst.

Granted, the notion of purity is deep within the Judeo-Christian tradition – one thinks of Psalm 51 where King David laments his sin  and cries out to God “Create in me a clean heart, O God and renew a righteous spirit within me.”  Note that the operative word here is “create in me” – as in the work of God that surpasses our understanding.   Additionally, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously stated that “the purity of heart is to will one thing” underscoring  the fact that our lack of purity stems in large part to a fractured heart that is unwilling to completely embrace a singularity of concern and therefore is constantly left compromised.  In his reflections found in chapter 3 of “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing” he states that:

Each one who in truth would will one thing must be led to will the Good, even though now and then it happens that a man begins by willing one thing that is not in its deepest sense the Good although it may be something quite innocent; and then, little by little, he is changed really in truth to will one thing by willing the Good. Love, from time to time, has in this way helped a man along the right path. Faithfully he only willed one thing, his love. For it, he would live and die. For it, he would sacrifice all and in it alone he would have his eternal reward. Yet the act of being in love is still not in the deepest sense the Good. But it may possibly become for him a helpful educator, who will finally lead him by the possession of his beloved one or perhaps by her loss, in truth to will one thing and to will the Good. In this fashion a man is educated by many means; and true love is also an education toward the Good. (emphasis mine)

What both the Psalms and Kierkegaard touch on that is vital to this pursuit of ‘purity’ is that the end is ultimately not purity for purity sake.  Rather, purity is a vehicle by which we are reminded that ultimately purity is impossible with the Divine.   To achieve purity requires a ‘re-creation of heart’ (poiete= the divine remaking that goes beyond our imagination if you will – see Ephesians 2:10 and Luke 22:19)  that is beyond ourselves (King David) and a will that is singular in a pursuit will ultimately lead us through love, beyond life and into a death of sorts (Kierkegaard).  It is this point – that what people are really searching for is not purity per sebut redemption – that I frame my earlier rather brash statement upon.  It is the seeking of purity that ultimatley leads us to the impossiblity of it if we are true in our quest- that which searches for purity is the very thing that taints the purity in the end.  Therefore it is only with the end of the search for purity – a dead end – that purity is found in the form of redemption, which is the difference between achieving a goal and finding a deep relationship.  Purity in and of itself is an idealized goal that can be merely a selfish, isolated search for self-divination.  Redemption is an act of love– a giving away of ourselves, a ‘selfless-ing’ rather than selfish-ing , that is remade in the context of relationship.  That said, there is an entire industry that would lead us to believe that purity is indeed what is the end.  To achieve the longing of purity has been sold to many folks as an ideal to be achieved through sheer will power.  Think of the “Kiss Dating Goodbye” movement spawned by Josh Harris or (for my generation) “Passion and Purity” by Elizabeth Eliot.  Thesetexts and many others strike a chord with many people searching to plumb the depths of their brokenness and sin with the challenge of framing our life as attempting to achieve ppurity as opposed to righteousness found in the humble repose of confession and seeking forgiveness.  In this, generations have agonized and grieved their lack of will-power, wallowed in their shortcomings, and continued to cast their eyes upon the idealized conference speakers of the day who sell their books and videos promising works righteousness as ‘purity’ in 10 easy steps followed by 5 advanced steps and gowned in yet 1 more attempt followed by 1 more followed by 1 more to achieve this ever-elusive idol of purity.  This ‘purity’ is surely overvalued… since its all-consuming obsession is nothing more than that.

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  1. Jeff,

    I agree that purity is overrated. In my personal terminology I refer to this as “the myth of personal holiness.” The quest for internal purity often causes us to looks so inward, that we no longer see the people Jesus asked us to notice — the poor, the widowed, the outliers, and those who are being treated with injustice. Thus, the trend in American Evangelicalism is to focus on purity/personal holiness at the expense of the work of the kingdom, IMHO.

    Cheers for taking risks in your teaching! Good on you!

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