The Hygiene Hypothesis: How fear and anxiety are creating a toxic faith

Every March I’m reminded of the reality that allergies are a big deal in our culture.  This is the season when people are carrying around inhalers, getting shots, taking drugs, and drinking all kinds of juices in order to combat their body’s own overreaction to harmless substances.  This time of year it’s pollen, but for some it’s not just pollen; nuts, animal hair, dust, milk, wheat, year around.  Yuk.

This article explains the theory that allergies are on the rise because of our obsession with cleanliness.  In short, the more sterile our environment, the less opportunity our immune system has to develop along healthy lines.  The result, ironically, is that the sanitized developed world is filled with people whose immune systems are dysfunctional, unable to distinguish between real threats and harmless pollen.  As a result, when pollen dances through the spring air, some of us, raised with Lysol and antibiotics, start sneezing and wheezing, running for our favorite remedy.

The answer according to an increasing number of health professionals, is to lose our fear of dirt.  In other words, to the extent that our body lives in the real world, rather than the sanitized halls of endless sanitizers, our immune system will learn how to distinguish between the good and bad.  Try to expose your body only to that which is ‘safe’, and you’ll end up with an immune system paranoia that jumps on pollen and dog hairs like it’s some life threatening disease.  The result is exhausting, as your body works hard to isolate and expel these items that keep coming at you, because you have a dog, or because its April, or because eggs exist.

This is only a metaphor, and I don’t want to carry it too far, but I’d suggest that once again, the realities of nature of something vital to say about the realities of faith.

1. A faith that isolates is a faith that over-reacts.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some pastor say that the world is going to end “this year” or “this month”.  The results, over and over again, have been ugly and disillusioning.  People would withdraw from the real world, quit their jobs, arm themselves, and hide in a cave, literal or figurative while they wait for the apocalypse.  In some sick fashion, the worse the world gets, the happier and more at home they feel in confirmation of their presumptions about history’s final act.

“The gays” “The liberals” “The big bankers” “The Capitalists” – Everyone has an enemy.  The result?  We withdraw; become spiritual Luddites, convinced that everything, and eventually nearly everyone, is out to get us, or out to get God.  Then we start tweeting about the president being the antiChrist, or the tea-party being an instrument of Satan.  It gets so bad that some people even get offended when when a blogger critiques both the right and the left, saying “balance betrays your Satanic and misguided alliances”.  I just read today, that some people accused the makers of “The Bible” movie on the history channel of making Satan look like Obama.  Doesn’t everyone have better things to do?

We’re sneezing and wheezing, trying to get pure, and in our obsessions, we’re objectifying and villifying people who are made in the image of God.  The biggest trouble with all this, is that none of it has do with our primary calling, which is to bless, serve, love, and generously impart justice and mercy in the name of Christ.  No time for that when we’re busy shooting each other.  (remember “Farewell Rob Bell”?)

2. All the saints in the Bible ate a little dirt.  Abraham lies about his wife.  Isaac is unabashed in his favoritism for the elder twin among his sons.  Jacob, the younger twin, unabashedly lies to his dad in order steal a blessing.  He eventually marries two wives and had some concubines as well, and fathers twelve sons.  One of them, Reuben, sleeps with one of his dad’s concubines, and another son sleeps with his daughter in law, impregnating her with twins, one of which becomes a forerunner in Jesus’ geneology. I’d continue, but all this is still in just the first book of the Bible.  Apparently, God chooses, and uses, people with dirt on their hands.

It’s sad that we don’t know or believe this, because there are a lot of people who’d like to be involved in God’s story in this world, but have pulled themselves out of the game because they’re convinced they don’t fit the job description of the faithful.  Their notion of “the faithful” though, is really some sort of sanitized saint, and as we’ve already seen in point #1 above, such saints have over active immune systems.  They judge their neighbors, and burn other religion’s holy books, and verbally spit on people who, in their sanitized view of the world, are “sinners”.  Make no mistake about it, those aren’t the people God is looking for.  His list of chosen ones include not many wise, or mighty, or squeaky clean, which is good news for the likes of me, and probably you too.

3. A healthy immune system has discernment.  Lest you think I’m advocating that you hang out in strip clubs or something, let me be clear.  A mature immune system, according to Hebrews 6, has the capacity to discern between good and evil.  Unfortunately, our fundamentalist friends have latched on to the “good and evil” part of that, and bypassed the discernment part.  They’ve taken it upon themselves to become the moral police who know, with certitude, that Obama isn’t a believer (as if they know without a doubt); or that bar tenders can’t share Christ.

They’ve often forgotten though about the “having had their senses trained to discern” part of that passage.  They think that discernment means listening to spiritual authorities and obeying them without question.  That’s not real faith; blind obedience is called a cult.

Faith in the real world of the early church had Greeks feeling left out, Jews insisting on circumcision as a condition for salvation, stern arguments between the faithful that resulted in people going their separate ways, and o so much more dirt that led to a maturing of the immune system, a growth in discernment for both church and individuals.  Where people are still willing to engage in healthy questioning and bathe the whole conversation in a search for truth and an atmosphere of grace, all happening under the umbrella of faith that is wholly committed to the person of Christ, faith becomes robust and life giving.

Are you afraid of the dirt?  Get over it.  When you face the tensions and doubts and failures that are everywhere within and around you, you’ll find Christ and an ever increasing capacity for truth and grace to thrive, even when the pollen is exploding.

I welcome your thoughts.

Just getting on with it…
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Taking Light Seriously… Living Light Loudly
About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.


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