A Spirituality of the Senses
by David Geelan | 29 March 2022 |
I spent a few days at the beginning of the year deprived of sight, and it started me thinking about the role of our senses in life and in religious faith. I’ve been fortunate enough not to be infected with COVID-19 (yet), but many people around the world have been deprived of their senses of taste and smell, so the experience of being reminded how much we rely on our senses by losing access for a period is not unique to me.
I had agreed to do the Adventist Today Sabbath Seminar on New Year’s Day, but had to withdraw: an ulcer on the cornea of my right eye meant that any movement of the lid against the eye led to debilitating agony. That meant the eye couldn’t be opened, because blinking was unthinkable. Even when closed, just turning my eye at all was painful. I couldn’t even use my other eye, because they move together.
The only bearable thing to do was sit perfectly still with my eyes closed and unmoving. I listened to a lot of podcasts and a lot of music, because that was about all I could do. And I spent a lot of time thinking. People who are blind for longer periods build skills and adapt and learn strategies, but a brief and temporary loss of a sense made it challenging to learn to navigate by touch if I did need to move around.
This text in Matthew 6 is about spiritual blindness, but I felt it in a very physical way: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” When I finally got treatment and relief, I had a renewed wonder and appreciation for the taken-for-granted sense of sight. I’m the guy who exclaims “What a stunning day!” almost every day anyway, but just being able to read a menu or play a computer game or watch pelicans soar overhead felt new.
I think sometimes in faith contexts there is a tendency to downplay our senses: to trust revelation over direct experience. And certainly there can be a puritanical distrust of actually enjoying the experiences that our senses provide. But Scripture is replete with appeals to our senses: “Taste and see that the Lord is good”, “He who has ears, let him hear”. Believers are enjoined to be ‘salt and light’: to be a flavor in the world, and something that enables others to see. “If salt hath lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?”
On the road to Damascus, after his conversion experience, Paul (nee Saul) was struck blind, and had to be led into the city. Perhaps this was an occasion – like the one I had with a much more mundane cause – for reflection, for taking stock of the direction of his life and re-examining his assumptions in the light (heh!) of new assumptions. He also fasted during this time, taking a pause from the senses of taste and smell and the feeling of satiation, again likely to focus his mind.
We typically think we have five senses – touch, taste, smell, hearing and vision – but we have more. The feelings of hunger, thirst and the satiation of both are related to the five senses but have different cues in our bodies. In the absence of sight I was reliant on the sense of ‘proprioception’: the sense we have of our bodies in space and their position and relationship to other things. And the word is being used differently, but a sense of humor is indispensable.
The pleasures of Eden and the promised pleasures of the New Earth are sensual pleasures – beautiful things to see and hear, delicious things to taste and smell, enjoyable things to touch.
The distrust of our senses has partly arisen from the real problem of excess, and of using our senses in ways that harm others. Sensual pleasures that are good for us in moderation and mutuality are bad for us and others in excess and exploitation… and I’m not only talking about sexual pleasures, but about over-eating, over-viewing and excesses in relation to all our senses.
The story of ‘doubting’ Thomas is instructive: he wanted the direct, tangible evidence of his sense of touch, to accept that Jesus was really back and this was really Jesus. And while he is often represented as somehow inferior, Jesus didn’t rebuff him. He gave him that direct evidence he needed, and then said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” I don’t think Jesus was rebuking Thomas; rather, he was extending the opportunity to believe to those who are not in a position to be able to gain the direct evidence of their eyes and hands.
The appeal for validation of the teachings in 1 John is to the senses of the apostles: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…”
The sciences are essentially extensions of our senses: we can see some quite tiny things, but an optical microscope allows us to see much smaller things, not directly accessible to our eyes, and a scanning tunnelling electron microscope (STM) allows us to see all the way down to the level of atoms. Similarly with optical telescopes for things at very large scales… and then we can use radiotelescopes with computers to create images of radio wave patterns that are not directly accessible to our eyes at all. We similarly extend our other senses in various ways to extend our access to and understanding of the natural world around us.
Our senses are powerful, but also vulnerable to illusions and mistakes. Optical illusions can be incredibly convincing to our senses – so much so that it’s impossible to see through the illusion to the underlying reality. Our senses are not perfectly reliable, and it’s necessary to test and check our conclusions, with others and with different forms of evidence, to ensure that the picture we build up of the world based on our sensations is as accurate as it can be.
The “bodies evil, spirits good” dichotomy that sometimes leads believers to distrust the use of their senses arises in the Greek philosophers, much more than in the teachings of Jesus and the Old Testament, where a much more holistic understanding of the relationship of body and spirit is taught. We are not portrayed as eternal perfect spirits living in awful carnal bodies, but as a unity. In that framing, the appeal to our senses, and to enjoying the sensual pleasures of a simple life devoted to service, is something to be embraced rather than shunned or feared.
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Dr. David Geelan is Sue’s husband and Cassie and Alexandra’s dad. He started out at Avondale College, and is currently Professor and National Head of the School of Education, within the faculty of Education, Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney, Australia.