The theology of cleansing

Interesting essay from The New Republic:

I wondered, too. What draws sophisticated and healthy people like Aharoni’s friends to commercial quasi-fasts? Cleanses, whether they last a day, a weekend, or three weeks, and whether they consist exclusively of fruit and vegetable juices or just a severe restriction of solids, are quickly becoming a part of what you might call the cosmopolitan diet, consumed in the more urbane sectors of New York and Los Angeles and Austin or wherever you find Whole Foods–levels of gastronomic consciousness and sufficient disposable income. (A three-week supply of Clean Program products costs $425.) Ask around, and you’ll probably find you know someone who knows someone who’s done a cleanse of one kind or another:BlueprintLife JuiceMaster Cleanse,Organic Avenue.


But none of this matters, really, because people don’t afflict themselves for their health, or not only for that. I won’t be the first to point out that cleanses look a lot like religious fasts or that people crave the transcendence that comes from self-deprivation. “If you look at the history of humanity,” as Junger put it, “every spiritual giant or teacher or enlightened being has included some sort of fasting” as a form of discipline. Moses fasted for 40 days on Mount Sinai while writing down the Torah; Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert; Muhammad also retreated to the desert to fast and received his first revelations from the Angel Jibril while fasting during Ramadan. “They didn’t call it detox at that time,” Junger added.

Aharoni and others made it clear that they fast for more than the mere improvement of their psycho-physiological wellbeing. Aharoni described his cleanses as “journeys” or “traveling while staying at home,” phrases that echoed (to me, at least) the visionary transports achieved by fourth-century Christian desert ascetics and medieval holy women. As it happens, these saints starved themselves only partly out of piety; rejecting food, they also rejected a church committed more to institutional growth than the extremes of religious experience. Another explanation I heard was that people cleanse out of a sense of shame: Their eating and sometimes their lives feel out of control. In the past, this same feeling might have provoked atonement, particularly for the deadly sins of greed and gluttony.

These new cleanses are “religion without theology,” my friend Ruby quipped. But now that I’ve read Junger’s Clean, the best-selling text of the cleansing movement, I’ve decided I don’t agree. Clean is theology all the way down. As in many a devotional text, fasting is presented as a way to embody a purer social order.

We live in an age of what William James called “medical materialism,” so instead of fretting about a fallen world, we speak of a poisoned one. In a modern version of original sin, the corruption of our environment is so thorough that it defies individual efforts to transcend it: “Even those making good lifestyle choices still shower with city water, eat meals at restaurants, and live, work, and shop in buildings that have been cleaned and fumigated with toxic chemicals,” writes Junger. We might add to his list other features of daily life that we suspect may be dangerous but haven’t been banned by the authorities: cell-phone signals that may lead to brain cancer, endocrine disruptors that drive our hormones crazy, probably leading, again, to cancer. Distrustful of our surroundings, we try to close ourselves off to malign influences and to purge them. It is no accident that Clean dwells obsessively on defecation and elimination. Junger wants us to flush out shit, “toxic waste,” even mucus, which he says has “a dense and sticky quality; it resonates with and attracts dense, toxic thoughts and emotions.”