On the Neglected and Underprivileged Metaphors of the Western Tradition

Jesus Heals the LeperAs Alfred North Whitehead famously said, the history of Western philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”  The more I study the Western philosophical tradition, the more convinced I am that this is the case.  At the center of Plato’s philosophy is his doctrine of the Forms or Ideas.  In Greek there are two words, which we translate into English as “idea”:  εἶδος (eidos) and ἰδέα (idea).  Interestingly, in Greek these works mean something that is seen; however, Plato uses the terms to mean that which is not seen physically, but mentally.  Nonetheless, seeing is still the root metaphor pervading his philosophy.  Consider some of his most famous images-the cave, the sun, and so on.  In the cave, there is no light, no knowledge.  When one emerges from the cave into the light, one comes to know (or potentially comes to know) reality by first seeing the things of the sense world and then ascending to the Forms or Ideas in which the sense objects participate and imitate.  As is well-known these days, postmoderns have challenged this privileging of the visual metaphor and have attempted to imagine what it might mean for some of the other senses to serve as a central metaphors.  For example, postmodern philosophers and theologians such as Jean-Luc Marion and Catherine Pickstock have written with great effect on the more “neglected” senses such as taste and hearing.

Personally, I think that touch offers particularly fertile ground that ought be explored and put to use in philosophy.  To be touched is, I submit, something that all humans need.  Unfortunately, it is something that has been lost in our interactions with one another-perhaps in part due to our technological mode of being-in-the-world and perhaps also because of a fear of communicating the wrong idea or of a negative response from the other to whom we wish to encourage. Yet, an embrace and a simple clasping of hands can often communicate more than anything we might say.  Two examples come to mind:  one personal and the other Scriptural.

My husband and I lived in Moscow, Russia for about three years.  During our time in Russia, we had the opportunity to visit various cities, small towns and villages. One winter we traveled by train to Kirov, staying approximately two weeks. While there we were invited to spend a day at one of the orphanages just outside the city. The memories of that visit are quite vivid, and the time with the children, though brief, was a life- changing experience. When we first arrived, the children, who ranged in age from 4-16 years old, were extremely shy and stand-off-ish. I noticed immediately a small, very cute little boy, Sasha, who was about 5 years old and very withdrawn. I walked up to Sasha and said, “Привет Саша,” (“hello, Sasha”).  But Sasha said nothing – no smile, no handshake, no eye contact – nothing. As the day progressed, we played games, performed skits, ate lunch and attempted to get to know the children better. While playing one of the more active games (something like dodge-ball), Sasha and I began slowly to “bond.”  When it was time to eat, I noticed that he wanted to sit with me (which made me of course extremely happy), so I tried to take his hand; however, he did not want me to touch him and quickly pulled his hand away.  Nonetheless, he still wanted to sit with me. So we sat and ate borsch together and then went off to play more games. As the day was drawing to a close, I was sitting on a bench resting and Sasha walked up to me, sat next to me, and to my surprise (and joy) he let me hold his hand. After that connection, he would not leave my side and even let me hold him. He actually wanted very much to be held and touched, but he of course was simply “one among many” in the orphanage and had been for most of his short life deprived of physical touch. When it was time to leave, he did not want to let go of my hand (nor did I want to let go of his). Then the dreaded time came and we were told that the bus was leaving and we’d better pack up and board the bus. As we drove off, the kids ran behind the bus as long as they could keep up, and we of course cried our eyes out. I often think about Sasha, and hope that he remembers me-more than that, I hope that he finds a home and a family that will give him the love and affection for which he longs, needs, and deserves.

Not long after our short trip to Kirov, I began studying the book of Leviticus, which among other things describes the law of the leper’s cleansing (chapter 13).[1] For example in Lev. 13:45-46, we read,

The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.

Why must the leper wear torn clothes?  In the Old Testament, the rending of a person’s clothes was a symbolic expression of mourning over death. Here the leper is to wear torn garments to represent his/her absolutely hopeless condition-after all, the disease was incurable.  Prior to aids, leprosy was perhaps the most dreadful disease a person might contract.  For example, the body becomes covered with ulcers, the person loses his/her hair, s/he experiences extremely slow bodily decay even to the point of losing limbs, and the mental and psychological anguish endured is excruciating.  The person with leprosy is alienated from his/her own family and from societal life; s/he experiences death daily, moment by moment over period of many years and, worse of all, isolated, alienated.   Although we are not exactly certain of the kind of leprosy that existed in the time of the OT, we can, however, grasp how this disease illustrates well the nature of sin in the spiritual sphere.

In addition to wearing torn clothes, the leper must cry, “Unclean, unclean.” Here “unclean” is not so much a reference to the physical disease itself, but speaks of the ceremonial status of the person according to Levitical law. That is, the individual remains unclean ceremonially until s/he is pronounced “clean” by the priest – that is, when and if healing comes. As mentioned above, “He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” The leper experiences a separation, s/he has no koinonia with the people of God, and is considered ceremonially under judgment.

Though we do read in the OT of some lepers who were healed, there are very few illustrations of healing the disease until Jesus came on the scene. In other words, as to the “tonal center” of the OT, it was extremely unusual for anyone to be healed of leprosy. Yet, in Mark’s Gospel account, we read:

A leper came to him [Jesus] begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’  Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’  Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

Jesus, who was well-acquainted with the Torah and the intricacies of Levitical law, did not rebuke the leper, explaining that lepers are social outcasts who belong outside the camp.  Nor did He worry about being socially stigmatized or becoming ceremonially unclean through contact with the leper.  Rather, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the leper.  Then the Incarnate Word said, “be made clean,” and it was so.  Jesus, who would soon know exile, alienation, condemnation and ultimately death, stretched out his hand of flesh and touched this diseased, dying leprous man.  Jesus, whose body was rent and broken for us – we, who in Adam are spiritual lepers – acted with compassion towards the leper, touching him and thereby affirming his humanity, and I assure you the leper knew love as he had never known it before.

If philosophy can’t find a use for these kinds of images, then theology certain should, indeed, it must.

Notes


[1] Many of the observations given here were first brought to my attention about a decade ago through a lecture series on Leviticus by Dr. S. Lewis Johnson.

4 thoughts on “On the Neglected and Underprivileged Metaphors of the Western Tradition”

  1. Indeed touch is a central element of the Gospels from the story of the woman with bleeding to the St. Thomas’s need to touch the risen Christ. There is an interesting concordance study in that somewhere.

    Also, I *really* like the new site design.

  2. Thanks Chris and Jim for your encouraging comments! (Thanks also, Chris, for your comment on the new site design–I was hoping that someone would provide feedback–especially positive feedback : )

  3. Yes touch is the primary sense.

    Light touches the eyes and the entire body. Sound touches the ears and the entire body.

    Ashley Montague wrote a classic book (Touching) on the primacy and necessity of touch for our health.Meanwhile we live in a touch starved culture, and a culture that has in recent times become completely paranoid about adults touching children—especially male adults who are teachers and mentors.

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