Many believe that the mantra “cleanliness is next to godliness” comes from the Bible, but that isn’t true. The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, does have a lot to say about being clean, but it does not compare cleanliness to a god-like state as Kondo’s book seems to. Kondo’s extreme de-cluttering (or “life-changing magic”) that promises to give you “your best life now” isn’t all that different from your grandmother’s admonition about cleanliness.
Count me as a half-hearted believer in Kondo’s magic. I read her first book, then applied her method to two piles of clothes, a drawer full of CDs and three bookcases — a mere fraction of my belongings. Apparently, when it comes to joy, I’m an easy one to please. Everything gives me joy. (In defense of myself, however, given my occupation as a professor, ridding myself of books that don’t “spark joy” is chopping off a little toe.)
As interesting and helpful as Kondo’s method is to those of us who want to cut down clutter, even more fascinating is her new book’s explanation that her minimalist ethic is informed by her background in Shintoism, the traditional, ritualistic Japanese religion that emphasizes ritual and the spiritual essence of everything. Each religion has its own complicated relationship with the tangible world.
Even so, tidying up doesn’t hold a candle to the more nuanced Judeo-Christian connection between cleanliness and holiness.
Technically, the Bible says nothing like “cleanliness is next to godliness,” unless, of course, you take into account the ceremonial laws in the Old Testament regulating food preparation, menstruation, bodily waste and disease. In both Jewish and Christian traditions, the cleansing of bodies symbolizes spiritual purity, but it’s not as transactional a relationship as Kondo’s magical formula.
The saying, or something close to it, has been traced to second century rabbi Phinehas ben Yair, whose famous “ladder” describes a series of intricate steps that begins with study of the Torah, leads to purity and culminates in, you guessed it, holiness.
Many historians locate the first English appearance of “cleanliness is next to godliness” in Sir Francis Bacon’s 1605 “The Advancement of Learning,” where he writes, “Cleanness of body was ever deemed to proceed from a due reverence to God.”
However, most of us today probably associate the aphorism with dour Puritans who, while quite fond of tidiness, would have frowned upon any hint of magic. The Protestant connection between the tidiness of body and spirit goes back to the early Reformers who denounced anything that smacked of Catholicism, especially asceticism — which was likely in those days to result in heavily soiled bodies and clothing, according to Keith Thomas’s “Religion, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain.”
Puritan divines made explicit links between the washing of the physical body in water and that of the spirit in baptism. Emphasis on purity led also to the rejection of the excesses represented by perfumes, powders and even long hair or wigs (for men, anyway), Thomas explains.
It was John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and the forerunner to today’s evangelicalism, who preached explicitly in his sermon “On Dress” that “Slovenliness is no part of religion.” Then Wesley paraphrased the poet George Herbert by adding, “Cleanliness is indeed next to godliness.”
Wesley was, of course, as the title of his sermon suggests, talking about cleanliness of the body and clothing, not the home, where Kondo focuses. The same is largely true of the Reformers, Puritans, Methodists and your grandmother.
Yet in an age of ubiquitous laundry detergents, anti-bacterial soap and deodorants galore, the visible signs of our personal impurities have shifted to a different locus. Modern hygiene has tidied our bodies beyond what nature intended, so we’ve simply expanded our tidying efforts to adjacent spaces.
But the natural state of the world always moves toward increasing clutter, dirt and decay. You need only look in my garden, never mind my kitchen counter, to see the sin of untidiness.
Decluttering, like cleanliness, has become almost its own religion. But its real magic is in the joy of recognizing that the desire to create order amid chaos, to resist the dirt of decay, reflects the order and purity of the one who created us.
Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. She is the author of “Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More.”
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