Perceiving Things Divine
Towards a Constructive Account of Spiritual Perception
- ISBN: 9780198802594
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: April 2022
Communion with God lies at the heart of the Christian tradition. But what does it mean for human beings—enmeshed in the conditions of creatureliness—to “perceive” God if the God whom they confess is not another object in the world but the transcendent source of being? Here, Scripture employs a range of images drawing on the physical senses—seeing (Isa 6:1; Matt 5:8; Jn 14:6; 1 Jn 3:2), hearing (1 Kgs 19:11–12; Isa 55:3; Jn 10:27), smelling (Ps 141:2; 2 Cor 2:15; Rev 5:8), tasting (Ps 34:8; 110:103), and touching (1 Jn 1:1). But what do such images mean? In what way is communing with God like seeing another person, listening to a piece of music, or smelling a fragrant aroma?
Perceiving Things Divine: Towards a Constructive Account of Spiritual Perception is the second volume to result from the Spiritual Senses Project, which began in 2005 and produced a previous volume on the role of the spiritual senses in historical perspective (The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Christianity, co-edited by Paul Gavrilyuk and Sarah Coakley, Cambridge University Press, 2012). The present volume, edited by Paul Gavrilyuk and Frederick Aquino, is more constructive and builds on the earlier volume by correlating traditional Christian reflection on spiritual perception with contemporary approaches in philosophy of religion, phenomenology, aesthetics, epistemology, and systematic theology. In doing so, it argues for the “possibility of spiritual perception” and aims to restore spiritual reception “to its rightful place in philosophy and theology” (xix).
There is a nice blend of contributors from the earlier volume (Gavrilyuk, Aquino, and Coakley, along with Boyd Taylor Coolman, Mark McInroy, and William Abraham), joined now by new philosophers and theologians (John Greco, Mark Spencer, Sameer Yadav, Catherine Pickstock, Douglas Christie, Paul Moser, and John Cottingham). While the philosophers and theologians speak in slightly different idioms, they all speak the same language, and it makes for a coherent and cohesive volume that advances scholarly reflection on the enduring value of the spiritual senses in contemporary philosophy.
In the Introduction, Aquino and Gavrilyuk provide a useful set of conceptualizations for understanding the varieties of spiritual perception (is it analogous with the five senses? a distinct sense? or something else?), a framework for understanding spiritual perception through different philosophical and theological disciplines (metaphysics, epistemology, phenomenology, and theology), and an agenda for future research (expanding the disciplinary focus beyond philosophy into cultural studies, anthropology, neuroscience, and psychology). The remaining essays divide into two sections: Part 1 comprises 6 essays on “facets” of spiritual perception, which includes essays that compare spiritual perception with moral perception (Greco), aesthetic perception (Gavrilyuk), and value perception (Spencer). It also includes essays on “training perception” (Aquino) and on how the doctrines of sin (Abraham) and eschatology (Coolman) relate to spiritual perception.
Broadly speaking, these essays explore what the spiritual senses are and how they operate in conjunction with elements of Christian theology. In part 2 (“Intersections”), we find a range of chapters that address the way in which the spiritual senses relate to other aspects of Christian life—whether certain Christian activities, such as biblical interpretation (Yadav) and the liturgy (Pickstock), or as problematic aspects of contemporary Christian life, such as pornography (Coolman), racism (Coakley), divine hiddenness (Moser), ecology (Christie), and aesthetics (McInroy).
Readers and students interested in what it means to live and think as a Christian in the age after secularism or materialism will find much to appreciate in these pages. We may rightly complain about the various ills produced by an obtuse naturalism, and we may want to recover a more metaphysically rich picture of the world. Books challenging secularism abound. But few volumes sketch a way forward as profoundly and concretely as this one. It provides, as it were, a set of case studies or examples of ways in which Christians can re-learn the practices of seeing that constitute Christian life in the world. The authors take a salutary approach to intertwining doctrinal, biblical, metaphysical, epistemological, phenomenological, and ethical perspectives—recognizing the value of each and the hazards of leaving out any one of them.
As such, the chapters are supremely (if surprisingly) practical. Aquino’s chapter takes a deliberate focus on Cassian’s monastic writing in dialogue with contemporary scientific literature on perceptual learning to sketch a model of training perception as an “attention guided process” (37). Boyd Coolman envisions one of his contributions as “suggesting certain liturgical tools for healing the pornographic gaze” (152). Sarah Coakley turns to the contemplative spiritual exercises of St. John of the Cross to help unsettle the “racist gaze” of contemporary western culture. Mark McInroy corrects Balthasar’s theological aesthetic emphasis on the overwhelming power of divine beauty revealed in the phenomenological perception of Gestalt to suggest a “more subtle form of beauty, in response to which certain forms of spiritual perception develop over time as a result of continued looking” (212).
In other words, the chapters in Perceiving Things Divine are less a set of programmatic declarations and more a set of guided practices in spiritual perception. They present spiritual perception as an activity best suited for what Gregory of Nyssa called “the workshop of the virtues” (On Virginity 23), and not for a monological lecture—though without sacrificing anything in the way of rich analytical reflection. If seeing the world Christianly takes place through practices—by being habituated to certain ways of seeing—then these essays practice what they preach. They are not a definitive set of treatises; they leave plenty of room for future engagement with the spiritual senses and other discourses. But what they accomplish in terms of provoking habits of spiritual perception they do remarkably well.
Alex Fogleman is an assistant research professor of theology at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.Alex FoglemanDate Of Review:February 28, 2023