GROWING UP CONSERVATIVE EVANGELICAL, I learned a deep distrust of the “smells and bells” of the high liturgies of Christian worship traditions such as Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. Their sensual practices, I came to believe, were vestiges of paganism, were dangerous, and could seduce a believer away from right doctrine. I remember attending a Catholic church with my girlfriend in 10th grade, terrified that the incense and holy water dashed in my direction might elicit from me an inadvertent “Hail Mary.” Throughout the service I kept my head low, reading the Bible I had brought with me and praying that I not be led astray.
These days, such a Protestant distrust of Catholicism may seem odd, especially as the two traditions have found common moral ground on the ordination of women, abortion, and gay marriage. Still, put a rosary in a conservative evangelical’s hands and ask him to pray, and see if he doesn’t quickly, if politely, hand it off as though it were unclean.
What projecting high-liturgy types as our sensual other enables us to do is ignore our own strong material attachments: well-worn floppy leather Bibles, WWJD bracelets and cross necklaces, prayer wheels, birthday cakes for Jesus on Christmas, tiny plastic “Our Daily Bread” loaves full of cards with Bible verses to memorize. Not to mention our rules of self-control and abstinence with regard to drinking, drugs, and sex that sometimes manifest in scandalous returns of the repressed.
Whether or not you too inherited such an austere, even paranoid disdain for material religious piety, you are probably familiar with Protestant Christianity’s general dismissal of the sensory aspects of religion, treating them as mostly peripheral or superficial to what religion is really about, namely belief. As heirs of modern Enlightenment thought, the philosophical twin of the theological Reformation, we tend to see religion as a primarily intellectual enterprise concerned with truth claims about divinity, transcendence, spirituality, soul, revelation, and the like. If you accept or believe in such things, you’re religious. If you don’t, you’re not. Even our cultural and personal annexation of “non-Western” religious traditions tends to draw out their ideas and contemplative elements while leaving behind most of their aesthetic accouterments, which we assume to be non-essential. What’s essential about religion, we think, is what we think — and perhaps feel, but only so long as those feelings don’t involve our bodies.
As religion scholar and critically acclaimed author S. Brent Plate puts it in his new book, A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses,
Too often religion is explained as a “set of beliefs,” which primarily exist in the thought processes of the brain. The answers, having been found, are guarded behind the fortress of the forehead. The quest is over, we’re all cleaned up, and life goes on. Religion, on this popular but ultimately misguided account, is about intellectual decisions regarding theism or atheism or polytheism, about correct thinking […] Symbols, rituals, and bodies are believed to be merely secondary expressions of some primary intellectual order. But this is to put the proverbial cart before the horse. There is no thinking without first sensing, no minds without their entanglement in bodies.
Plate’s provocative, contemplative, and beautifully written book aims to do just what its subtitle promises: to bring the spiritual and the religious “to its senses.” Back to its senses, really. Religion, he makes powerfully clear, is first and foremost about things, and how our bodies relate to those things — that is, how we literally incorporate them into our beliefs and practices.
The book is nicely organized into five chapters, each of which focuses on a type of material object that relates primarily to one of the five senses and that is widely attested in religions all over the world: stones (touching), incense (smelling), drums (hearing), crosses (seeing), and bread (tasting). Each thing-sense relationship is explored in a broad, comparative way, offering fascinating examples, incisive analyses, thoughtful interpretations, and personal reflections. Plate’s very sensual, poetic style of writing encourages a kind of sensory mindfulness that, when you stop reading and look around, begins to change how you see things and your relationships with them.
In each case, simple, common things, like a rock that’s just plain “there,” doing nothing on its own, come to be set apart, holy, sacred: the Main Stone in a Japanese garden that requests the other stones to join it, the 12 stones taken from the River Jordan as the 12 tribes of Israel cross over, a pebble throne at the Devil during a pilgrimage to Mecca, a family gravestone, a worry stone. All are originally mundane objects of nature that become religious objects through human interaction. They become, in other words, religious “artifacts,” things made or worked or shaped by the artistic and/or artisan labors of us humans.
Religion, then, is fundamentally technological, and the history of religion is inseparable from the history of technology. The Greek root techne, which we tend to think about these days in terms of tools, refers to any sort of activity that deploys art, skill, and craft to rework things for new purposes. Religion, approached and reworked from this angle, “relies on know-how as much as knowledge. […] Religious people are not believers so much as technologists."
But our religious-technological work with things is never finished, never quite fulfilled. And that’s where the 1/2 of the title’s 5 1/2 comes in. Like the “circle people” cut in half by Zeus in Aristophanes’ story of the birth of desire in Plato’s Symposium, we humans are always partial, incomplete, and this “halfness” is what draws us beyond ourselves to connect, via our senses, to other people and other things. Like the blue Na’vi in James Cameron’s Avatar, whose “neural ponytails that directly jacked into the flora and fauna of their world,” Plate suggests, we humans jack into our world via our sense organs. “This book tells the story of the human half body, such as we are, and some of the objects we connect with in our quest for religiously meaningful, fulfilling lives."
Reading this book is such a pleasure that one can forget, at least for a moment, that Plate, a professor of religion at Hamilton College, is also making a unique and provocative argument about religion. Not the kind of sweeping, all-encompassing, grand unifying theory of religion put forth back in the heyday of modern religious studies by the likes of Émile Durkheim, Rudolf Otto, and Mircea Eliade. Scholars have rightfully grown more cautious and self-reflective about such ambitious, universal claims regarding the nature of all religion everywhere. Indeed, these days, we are more likely to historicize and theorize the limits of such claims, seeing them as symptoms of modern Western academic culture. And that is what Plate is doing here in bringing religion, and academic religious studies, back to its senses. Scholars of religious studies have been as liable as popular culture to disembody and desensitize religion. As in his more academic research and writing (e.g., Walter Benjamin, Religion, and Aesthetics), and in his editorial work with the groundbreaking journal Material Religion, Plate pushes for an understanding of religion that begins not with ideas but with things and bodies — for beginning our theorizing about religion with aesthetics, in the basic sense of the word: the embodied sensation of things, via touching, smelling, hearing, seeing, and tasting. Too often our thinking about religion remains anaesthetic, oblivious to the pervasive evidence — including personal experience — that religion is centrally about bodies doing things with things.
What Nancy Kress says about fiction stories is also true of good nonfiction: every good nonfiction book makes an implicit promise to its readers. It might be that you’ll discover new knowledge. It might be that you’ll be compelled to adopt a new political or philosophical position on an issue. Or it might be that you’ll see something you thought you understood in a new way. This book promises the latter, that you’ll never think about religion the same way again. As I read it, however, I began to realize that it was also doing something else: it was reminding me to be more “in touch” with the odds and ends that bring my half body to life, in and out of church. This is not the book’s promise but its benediction: to go forth into the world with fresh eyes, and ears, and nose, and tongue, and skin.
Timothy Beal writes about the Bible and the fascinating and complicated ways it figures in culture.