Human sense perception has long been a fascination for me, though I know I'm not alone in this preoccupation. When I studied modern art in graduate school I got interested in the ways artists work with paints, photographs, and sculptures to "bend" reality and restructure our perceptual apparatuses. And when I investigated religious practices in various parts of the world I kept noticing the ways eyes and ears and tongues were triggered.
Some years ago I set out to write about all this, wanting to chart some of the ways the senses operate in religious traditions, how the senses perceive particular objects, and how the arts help us come to grips with these processes. The result was a book, A History of Religion in 5½ Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses. But as I note therein, something happened along the way: the objects became the subject. The incense became as crucial, even more so, than the olfactory system, and the drums themselves seemed to have powers beyond their rhythms and reverberations.
Nonetheless, it is one thing to simply say this, and another to teach about it. While the standard "read a bunch of words and write a paper" pedagogical procedure is finally beginning to fade, we remain bound by a primarily audio-visual mode of education. Not only is education far too word-based, it is also sensually deficient. The fullness of the sensorium—the perceiving across five or more senses—is generally reduced to two, at least past primary education.
In the small liberal arts college in which I currently hold a visiting position, I have been experimenting with teaching about the fullness of "sensual religion." I can pull off some pedagogical gymnastics because we can jump in a van and head down the road to a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple to smell incense, a Bosnian mosque to hear the adhan, and a Church of God in Christ to hear the sonic percussions of gospel music. I became convinced that there was no other way to teach about the senses than some variation of a brick-and-mortar classroom, supplemented by field trips.
So when the dean of my college contacted me and asked me to contribute a class to the Harvard-MIT non-profit online venture called EdX, I began with a dose of skepticism. Teaching a "regular" class about the senses was tricky enough. Doing it online seemed not only counterintuitive but perhaps even foolhardy.
With the help of an amazing team of ITS staff, we set out to construct one of Hamilton College's first MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course), called "Spirituality and Sensuality: Sacred Objects in Religious Life." My initial concern was to make this unlike almost all other online courses I have seen: a reduction of a limitless potential of creative content into a recorded lecture, identical to one in a classroom lecture hall.
Instead, I asked Forrest, our video production specialist, to work with me and set up cameras in bakeries, cemeteries, churches, museums, forest trails, synagogues, labs, and even a classroom or two. From there we interviewed neuroscientists and pastors, bagel bakers and rabbis, Native American cultural center directors and archeologists, and created artsy poetry readings. And then we borrowed from the treasure trove that is the internet: more interviews, musical performances, artworks, scientists on TED, cooks on NPR's Science Friday, and maps to help keep our geo-bearings. With help from Ted, Bret, and Lisa, who ran the HTML in the background and tweaked and tweaked some more, we got up and running.
There are nearly 5,000 people signed up from over 130 countries (see map below). We are now beginning our third week of the class, and the discussion has been fantastic. Hundreds of people from all over the world have been uploading photos, telling stories, and offering their takes on ways objects have sensually triggered experiences and memories in their own lives. There is disagreement, and differences in language and tradition, but overall a strong sense of doing something as a group. I know not everyone registered feels such a collective effervescence, but it is striking to me how many connections I've felt as a part of this process.
On a concrete level we are only working with two senses in the course materials: hearing and seeing. For all the promises of the interactivity of New Media, it remains sensually impoverished. Yet, the discussion and writing prompts are aimed to get people up off the chair and into their kitchen or out on the sidewalks to re-experience the world around them in fresh forms. Some do, some don't. Enough do. And as we work toward the halfway mark, I can sense the shifts toward an embodied pedagogical practice, seeing and feeling how it's not all about thoughts in the head. I'm still not sure how to articulate all that in words, and suspect it can't fully be done, but it is enough to become part of the stories.
Sensual activity is crucial for doing religion, and for establishing tradition itself, from the bitter herbs of Passover to the sound of the muezzin's call to prayer to the calming smell of incense in the meditation hall. And sensual engagement is necessary to begin to understand the comings and goings of religion, to learn about religion in an academic setting.
Online courses might yet rise to the challenge of getting us out of our heads and bring us to our senses.
S. Brent Plate teaches religious studies at Hamilton College and is cofounder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief. His writings have been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, Christian Century, and Religion Dispatches. His books include A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses, Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World and Blasphemy: Art that Offends.