Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Five Senses

Religion is usually studied from a doctrinal viewpoint. There is often some mention of historical development in this, but the approach almost always is to discuss ideas and how these ideas are transmitted in words printed on a page or presented on a screen. The default attitude to religion is intellectual. You read about and think about the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism, or the Bhagavad Gita in Hinduism; the Bible; the Qur'an, etc. You might also place these words in the context of a place and a time. You discuss secularization in the United States as compared to western Europe since the mid 20th century; you discuss Henry VIII and his Act of Supremacy; you discuss Luther and Calvin in early modern Europe; you investigate the Rashidun.

Two disparate sources of information got me thinking about this approach to understanding religion.

The first is a reading I have students encounter in a course I teach on Religion and Society in the western world. The reading is Chapter XI in Peter Ackroyd's biography of Thomas More, 'Holy, Holy, Holy'. Here the author describes the religious experience of Thomas More prior to the reforms initiated by King Henry VIII. This very short chapter (5 and a bit pages) brings the sensual experience of religion in London, ca. 1500 to readers. It hints at beliefs, but the beliefs of both ordinary, illiterate Londoners and literate alike, but concentrates on what it smells like, sounds like, tastes like, feels like, looks like for a person living faith in that day. My intent is to entice students away from the standard 'religion as doctrine' view, to do what the historian/archaeologist/philosopher R.G. Collingwood called 'rethinking the thoughts of the past'. Only I want to go one step further and have 21st century students 're-sense the sensuality of the past'.

The second source is very different. I subscribed recently to an online magazine called Aeon Magazine. Today there was a quirky article - very few words introducing a  21 minutes video. The video, by Berlin based Spanish artist Ignacio Uriarte is called  History of the Typewriter as Recited by Michael Winslow.  Michael Winslow, you might recall, is the guy in the Police Academy movies who could make all those sounds - I thought it was movies magic, but apparently he actually does make those sounds with his own mouth. This film uses Ken Burns style titles saying which typewriter model and its year, white on black, followed by a a clip of Michael Winslow making typing noises with mouth, microphone and some metal instrument he sometimes uses to manipulate his lips, (I think). This obviously has nothing to do with religion, except it does. We don't just live inside our heads. We live in a world where the keys I am tapping right now feel a certain way and do make a certain, soft sound. The chair under my bum feels, the floor under my socked and slippered feet has a feeling. The air moves or doesn't move; there are house smells. If the window is open there are outdoor sounds and smells. I hear my dog moving about, panting. I can hear the background noise of a TV downstairs. As I type this I am muttering the words (I have a writing technique that says I must say the words out loud as a kind of copy edit). In  a church there might be the smell of wax from candles and at Easter from a Beeswax Easter candle, the faint hint of incense perhaps, the feel of hard wood pews, floors either carpeted or not, and the air - don't forget the air - it might be still, or air conditioned, or smell of an aged building. Lighting might be bright and harsh, it might be old and soft. I attended a Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy once where the only lighting was from hundreds of tall, thin candles stuck in sand in chest high containers, providing a kind of flickering mystery that took the eye a while to adjust and allow a degree of normal vision. The typewriter film reminded me of this. The sound of a typewriter was something experienced as background for many from the 1880s into the 1980s, whether mechanical or electric. You did not notice it especially, but this video reminded me it is gone now, replaced by the soft, plastic tapping of fingers on computer keys on my laptop, and no sound at all when using a phone or tablet (except for the occasional swear word or strangled laugh when you hit the wrong letter or autocorrect 'dis-corrects'). There is some blending of old to new because I learned to touch type in High School and laptop and desk top keyboards are laid out the same way for the standard letters.

Anyway, all this reminded me that when studying religion - it does not matter which religion - ideas, words, texts are for those who are not religious professionals, merely the tip of a very large iceberg.