Friday, January 2, 2009

Conservative Obsessed with Purity. And?

I can't help but feel gratified when Zoroastrianism receives public notice, but Time's latest (The Last of the Zoroastrians) is disappointing. Yes, Zoroastrianism is ancient, and, yes, Zoroastrians are everywhere a marginal minority. They would be interesting even if they were neither.

I wrote a paper long ago explaining why every Christian theologian should familiarize himself with Zoroastrianism, if only because their understanding of purity is so much more interesting than our own. The nutshell of my argument:
It is important to note that impurity is not attributable to immoral action. The expulsion of semen involved in intercourse is considered to be unclean and couples are required to engage in a purification ritual afterward engaging in intercourse, but Zoroastrian scripture is emphatic that fruitful marriage is always preferable to celibacy. Unlike Christianity, Zoroastrianism’s theology includes no skepticism regarding sex; the fact that it carries with the inevitable consequence of impurity could not be said to imply anything about its moral standing as a behavior but rather renders it, at most, inconvenient.

However, while it is true that ritual impurity was not considered to reflect any moral failing, indifference to impurity certainly was. Zoroastrianism understands a separation between matter (getig) and spirit (menog), but the two are inextricably linked. One’s actions in the material world affect the cosmic battle between good and evil. As Zaehner points out, Zoroaster assigned purity and virtue eschatological significance: “Zoroaster seems to have been interested in establishing the Kingdom of Righteousness here on earth.” Purity had to be maintained not simply as a loving tribute to the benevolence of the creator but as a concrete step towards an eschatological golden age.

. . . The rhetorical differences between Zoroastrian and Christian ways of talking about purity should be clear: the former is primarily material and done for the sake of the cosmic battle between good and evil while the latter is primarily spiritual and done for the sake of moral betterment through diminished worldliness. However, there are implicit as well as explicit differences between the two. For instance, Zoroastrian purity was a social phenomenon: disposing of a corpse within the constraints of the purity regulations governing burial requires the cooperation of a large group; conspicuous menstrual protocols reinforced solidarity within the Sasanian Persian elite; many of the purity regulations regarding the disposal of nails and hair required a communal repository on the outskirts of town, which discouraged the solitary living practiced by Christian monks. Christian asceticism, on the other hand, had the opposite effect. Anchoritic monks were obviously solitary, but even coenobitic monks spent the greatest part of their time in solitude.

Where Zoroastrianism used purity to call attention to the importance of the material world, Christianity used it to call attention to the material world’s utter vanity. Where Zoroastrian purity is inclusive, involving every member of the community in order to enlist them in an ultimately eschatological battle, Christian purity is a method for distinguishing between the saintly and the insufficient, those who “can receive it” and those who cannot. The attempt to integrate those Persians not involved in the priestly hierarchy of the fire-temples into Zoroastrian religious life contrasts sharply with Christian asceticism’s belief that Christians who rejected celibacy were categorically less holy than those who took on that burden.
Clearly I use the term "nutshell" not to imply that my argument is short, but to imply that it is completely nutty.

Tristyn, read this one.

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