Cleanliness and Godliness: Are They Related?

Winner Lauren F. Winner, in the July-August issue of Books & Culture, writes of “the evolving standards of cleanliness” in our culture. If you have ever heard that “cleanliness” and “godliness” are related then her review of three interesting books on the subject will show you how the two became related. Such was clearly not always the case.

Did you know, for example, that in the first millennium of Christianity that believers castigated people who were preoccupied with cleanness and that Hindus and Muslims considered Christians indifferent to bodily hygiene? Christians had then, even as we do today, a “vexed relationship with the body.” Add to this the licentiousness of the Roman baths and early Christians had more than enough reason to not buy into the cleanliness notion. The stress of much theology, in the first thousand years or so, was on baptism being a true cleansing of the spirit while the cleansing of the body was superficial in contrast. One saint, St. Melania the younger, stopped bathing to encourage her husband to keep a vow of chastity. I am not making this stuff up. Christians really did have a hard time getting the body and sex right for a long time.

Winner asks, given the great desire to recover so much of ancient practice, how do we determine what practice to recover and what to leave alone? Should, she asks, “the spiritual practice of being dirty” be encouraged? Personally, I hope not! Whew, I like our Western values myself, godly or not.

Christians began to embrace change about cleanliness in the Middle Ages but it wasn’t until the early modern era that real change caught on. One 16th century polemicist suggested that our bodies should be cleansed with water as the soul is cleansed by the precious blood of Christ. Over time some Christians considered bathing an opportunity to reflect on their baptism!

The real innovators were those dreaded Puritans. They pursued the ideal of bodily cleanness and in America these preachers actually railed against bodily uncleanness, one saying that dirt “transformed the human body from the temple of the Holy Ghost to the Hog-sties of the Devil.” For this reason people were encouraged to wash, especially before going to church.

By the 19th century Christians expressed zealous concern for bodily cleanness. Cleanliness became virtually synonymous with “godliness and moral virtue in northern religious reform circles.” Protestant piety and middle-class standards were merged and the result is the modern emphasis. Our present standards of cleanliness and bathing are unlike those of any culture or any other time in history. Our homes, in which 2.5 people live, have 2-plus bathrooms per home. A 2008 survey says the average American spends at least 30 minutes in the bathroom each day. Daily showers or baths are considered normal now.

All of this practice grew out of a connection between a clean body and a clean soul. Out of this we began to think that people that were not as clean were not as sanctified. Middle class virtue became connected to middle class economics in a powerful way.

Katherine Ashenburg, in her book The Dirt on Water, concludes: “A century from now, people will look back in amusement if not amazement at what passed for normal cleanliness at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” Winner appeals for cutting out some of our excess baths as a way to express better stewardship. I wonder how that counsel would go over in suburban, middle-class, white congregations. It all sounds smelly to me.

Seriously, I wonder if members of some of our churches could adjust to having folks in the midst who do not smell quite right? Perhaps it is time missional churches raise the question if they are serious about ministering to the truly poor.

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