You may know about Jonathan Haidt’s work attempting to explain the differences between liberals and conservatives and why they seem unable to talk to each other. His proposal is that there are five foundational values which account for most of human behavior: Care vs. Harm, Fairness vs. Cheating, Loyalty vs. Betrayal, Authority vs. Subversion, and Sanctity vs. Degradation. His finding (he’s a researcher/college professor) is that liberals are most sensitive to the first two (care & fairness), while conservatives are sensitive to all five. Hence the disconnect.
Since coming across Haidt’s work I’ve thought off and on about his last category, which he sometimes describes as “purity,” from the Latin purus, meaning also “unmixed” and “undefiled.” Purity is a word that begs the question, “compared to what?” For us, the answer to that is God himself, who is holy, and the law of God which speaks of his holiness in terms of the kind of thought, speech, and action required of his people. Purity is integrity, in which actions correspond to intention (God’s and ours).
My son says I take too long to develop ideas, so I’ll just say this now: purity is a haven from anxiety, it is rest for the soul, it is peace, stability and quiet calm in the midst of this present chaos. Purity is its own blessing: “the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:25).
Of course, everyone avoids the book of James—by far the New Testament letter most concerned with purity. Luther wanted to get rid of it entirely, seeing it as opposed to Paul’s doctrine of grace. But that’s a misread: the problem with James is not in the book, it’s in us. We are impure. And we don’t know how to reconcile ourselves to such a high calling. But, as Paul says, thanks be to God in Christ who reconciles the world “…to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18).
One last comment, then I’ll connect this back to Haidt. First, it’s probably a wise first step to admit that a lot of your own angst and perhaps irritability come from your lack of purity. It may be time to make purity a daily prayer request. In three weeks, Lord willing, that daily prayer will have become a habit of prayer, thought, and action. For myself, an impure person, I pray Matt. 6:22 as a metaphor for engaging the world.
Finally, while Haidt hopes to foster understanding (not a bad idea), Jesus takes matters further, commanding us to love. For anyone with whom you disagree, up to and including real enemies, you must address them in genuine (not feigned) love: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44). The genius of Christ is that he lives in the real world. He never pretends people are going to agree and understand. It doesn’t matter—love is mandatory. Love must be, for us, more powerful than our disagreements. If you’re worried about justice and judgment, remember Rom 12:19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary,’if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”