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.

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.

  • sean adams

    Your comment about the Bible series on History Channel and folks thinking the producer made the devil look like Obama on purpose……hysterical!. Thanks for sharing that.
    On a more serious note; if it wasn’t for my addictions (drugs specifically) I never would of seen the gap between what my life was and what it could be with JC, hence I was reborn in Christ 3 years ago. In times of crisis (which is what I was facing 4 years back; lost, complacent in sin, discussions of divorce after being married for only 6 months, ect.), we have an opportunity to bring about the most change in our lives. It makes me wonder how people who aren’t in times of crisis or who can’t see their brokenness are ever able to be close to God. I guess that’s your point though. It also makes me wonder why I’m so damn hard-headed. I needed a complete disaster in my life to make a lasting change, admittedly I wish it was easier sometimes. Maybe God could just send me an IM…… “hey bro, you’re being a self sabotaging bone head, straighten up”. Now that I think about it he sent that IM several times but my status was “out to lunch”

  • Sean Adams

    Your comment about the Bible series on History Channel and folks thinking the producer made the devil look like Obama on purpose……hysterical!. Thanks for sharing that.
    On a more serious note; if it wasn’t for my addictions (drugs specifically) I never would of seen the gap between what my life was and what it could be with JC, hence I was reborn in Christ 3 years ago. In times of crisis (which is what I was facing 4 years back; lost, complacent in sin, discussions of divorce after being married for only 6 months, ect.), we have an opportunity to bring about the most change in our lives. It makes me wonder how people who aren’t in times of crisis or who can’t see their brokenness are ever able to be close to God. I guess that’s your point though. It also makes me wonder why I’m so damn hard-headed. I needed a complete disaster in my life to make a lasting change, admittedly I wish it was easier. Maybe God could just send me an IM…… “hey bro, you’re being a self sabotaging bone head, straighten up”. Now that I think about it he sent that IM several times but my status was “out to lunch”

  • david

    Obama supports abortion and gay marriage, so is there anything wrong to say that he is not a believer ?

    • Rick

      And everyone who opposes the legal right to abortion and the right of gays to marry is a believer. It’s simple here in The Land of Only Two Issues.

  • Mat

    David,

    Your comment strikes me as a bit wrong-headed. I hold both those political positions and I believe; I’m sure that’s true of other readers here. What a government should be able to forbid doesn’t always sync up with what morality forbids (take commercialism as evidence). Paul Ryan supports policy that would further disadvantage the least among us, should I doubt his professed belief? I think that the only delineation between believer and non-believer is between those that try to follow Jesus and those who don’t.

  • rvs

    Thanks for writing with such gusto. “Spiritual Luddites”–I enjoyed that phrase, and I also like the fact that you are calling attention to the demonry behind the process of objectifying people, which is a common practice in evangelical culture, I believe.

  • http://OneFamilyManyFaiths.blogspot.com Y

    I do understand, from a parent’s perspective, wanting to keep our children within our boundaries where we feel we have some semblance of comfort. We leave them weakened, however, when we hold them in isolation. I have always viewed life with children as a PG or PG-13 movie; heavy on the PG.


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