God Made Dirt, And Dirt Don’t Hurt

This post is part of a series reflecting on Groundedthe new book by Diana Butler Bass. Read the other posts in the series here.

There’s a question in this book nagging at me. It stems from Butler Bass’s description of a baptism liturgy she experienced during an Easter Vigil. “For the first time I realized,” she writes, “That at the center of the liturgy was a confusing, confounding spiritual metaphor: that salvation meant washing away dirt.

“The metaphors of church [strike] with an angular force against the metaphors of the garden.”

Is our easy acceptance of “dirt” as a metaphor for sin and its attendant descriptors like “soiled” keeping people like me from finding God in the dirt?

When my brother Robby and I were kids he used to drive me to frustration with his ready declaration, after eating something he’d dropped on the floor, “God made dirt, and dirt don’t hurt.” It made me want to scream. Even as a kid such an attitude struck me as wrong-headed, even gross.

But what is this disgust with dirt about? More importantly, what is it doing? Here’s a critical observation from Grounded.

If ‘unclean’ and ‘being soiled’ become the dominant metaphors for sin, it is just a small step to the demonization of real dirt. If being dirty means we are an unclean people on an unclean land, dirt stands in the way of both holiness and dinner. Theologically, it can be difficult to experience soil as anything but a problem.”

What then? Do we purge our liturgies of dirt language? Um, no. “Dirty” and “clean” are metaphors, and metaphorical language has power for good and ill. If our loathing of dirt leads us to yawn at increasing soil erosion, we’re in serious long-term trouble. It would be a tragedy if our religious language contributed to such a calamity.

On the other hand, cleanliness may not actually be close to Godliness, but it does correlate, for one thing, to less disease.



2 thoughts on “God Made Dirt, And Dirt Don’t Hurt

  1. actually, i think research shows that our overzealous ‘need to be
    clean’ anti-bacterial soaps use with kids leads to less-than-strong immune systems. I like your brother’s mantra. Dirt’s ok with me.

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