It Smells, Silly!

In his letter to the Ephesians quoted in the epistle for today, Paul writes:

 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Paul lived in a world in which spiritual energy was experienced as intricately interwoven into the dimension of time and space. This was a world in which the signs of transcendence were to be seen everywhere and in everything. For Paul and the countless generations who shared a prescientific imagination – the divine presence was experienced as deep, and broad, long and high.

We live in the world of the post-scientific imagination. We are people reshaped by a post scientific imagination in which the spiritual life is easily dismissed as at best poetic, and at worst, supernatural. How are we to find in Paul’s words an experience that takes us beyond poetic imagination into a lived experience of the divine within the post-scientific imagination bounded by dimensions of time and space?

It comes down to a matter of perception – or the way we see the world.

For me, this goes to the heart of the struggle to live the spiritual life. Whether we feel we achieve it or not most of us know how to live a good life, a productive and useful life. A good life is encouraged by religious faith. We speak a lot at St Martin’s about collaborating with God in the healing of the world. But the spiritual life is more than sound ethics and social-ecological justice. What about the kind of vivid experience of the spiritual life that Paul is directing attention to? Of course, we love Paul’s enchanted imagination- we feel the inspiration in his words Paul – but do they have an application for us beyond the merely poetic?

Walking Charlie Girl in the early mornings I notice how busy she is following her nose. Cocker Spaniels are irresistible sniffers. They were bred to flush game out of the undergrowth and then to retrieve the downed birds – dutifully, bringing them to their master. On our walks, CG is always sticking her nose under bushes and into hedgerows – and it can get very tiresome indeed.

I often wonder what the world looks like for Charlie Girl. On our early morning walks, the world is primarily a visual experience for me as I keep my eyes peeled to spot in advance anything lying in our path that I know Charlie will want to disgust me by trying to eat. I see the world not only in images, but complex gradients of color and texture. My senses of sound and smell support what is for me a primarily visual experience of the world.

On the other hand, Charlie Girl’s map of reality is made up from a world of smells and sounds. With around 300 million olfactory receptors – most herding breeds average around 225 – her world is alive to dimensions of reality hidden from my measly 6 million receptors.

She also hears better. Young humans can hear up to around 23,000Hz. At 66, I’m probably confined to a range of sound no greater than 12,000Hz. Charlie’s hearing on the other hand, detects sound up to 45,000Hz.

I can only wonder at how different the world must seem to Charlie Girl – a world impregnated with smells and sounds.

All creatures perceive the world through the hard evidence of their five senses. Yet through a rebalance between the senses – our experience of the world can take on very different shape.

Through the physical sciences the post-scientific mind has been able to develop and deepen understanding of the world that in one way takes us beyond the limitations of our five senses. Technology greatly enhances our ability to see into the structures of the material universe in ways that were hidden from Paul. Yet, in our world transcendence -that sense of the more-ness of above and around has been supplanted by immanence – the sense of what lies immediately in front of us. Staying with Paul’s spatial metaphors, the post-scientific mind may see more and more into the depths of the material universe, but it has lost the pre-scientific mind’s sense of the height, breadth, and length of the cosmos.

The problem -at least as I experience it – in the living of the spiritual life we no longer expect to experience the full panorama of cosmic wonderment. Shaped by the materialist philosophy of scientific naturalism religion is shorn of spirituality and spirituality no longer anchored in religious practice becomes the domain of the weird and fanciful. As G.K. Chesterton once remarked: when people stop believing in God, they will believe anything. A sentiment echoed by the Belgian playwright and poet Emile Cammaert who likewise wrote: The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything.

For the prescientific mind, limited to the natural operations of the five senses without technological enhancement, a universe defined by the limitations of touch, taste, smell, and sight needed an additional dimension of perception to do justice to the complexity of human experience. The roles of intuition and imagination supplemented – filling the gaps in natural knowledge and experience.

Intuition – that ability to know without knowing how you know – provided a powerful extra element on top of sense experience. Intuition and the enchanted imagination were faculties – more finely tuned in the pre-scientific mind.

In our post-scientific minds intuition and enchanted imagination have atrophied. Today we seek to escape this self-imposed imaginative poverty through magical realism in film and books. We don’t necessarily believe in the superheroes and special effect miracles – but our delight in them points to what we’ve lost in our sense of the height, breadth, length, and depth of the spiritual life.

When it comes to religion, which for most of us is now a matter of ethics and doing good, we reject the supernatural as fantasy. Yet we still crave for it in literatur, art and film. The human imagination needs more than the material universe can provide. So, what are we to do?

What we can know, and in what form we can know it, depends upon the scope and functioning of our own cognitive equipment (John Hick, The Fifth Dimension 1999).

Hick is alerting us to the task at hand concerning reclaiming what he calls the fifth dimension of experience. In terms of Paul’s spatial metaphor, the task for us requires an expansion of our sense of height, length, and breadth to accompany our much-enhanced experience of depth. This is something the practices and exploration of the spiritual life must offer us.The spiritual life opens us to experience the signs of cosmic transcendence within the experience of the imminent universe. It’s simply a matter of recalibrating reception.

Extrapolating on my speculation of how the world looks to Charlie Girl – maybe the transcendent is a matter more of smell and sound than of sight. Smell the cosmos!

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