On sensory metaphors for revelation

An interesting, but inconclusive, dialogue is sporadically happening between two of America’s most interesting theologians, Robert W. Jenson and Katherine Sonderegger. As is well known, Jenson proposes that theology has been too focused on visual metaphors, which (he claims) allow a detachment from the object observed. He proposes instead that ‘faith comes by hearing’ and so we should describe our engagement with the divine in auditory, not visual, terms. Sonderegger, particularly in the recent first volume of her systematics, pushes back at this, arguing that visual metaphors are appropriate, and need not be about detachment, instead creating space for an appropriately affective knowledge.

At root this debate is about the primary sensory metaphor for revelation: is it visual or auditory, and how does that decision shape our account of knowing God, and so our developed accounts of all things? This is clearly an absolutely fundamental question for theology.

I have followed the Jenson-Sonderegger debate with great interest, but I find it ultimately inconclusive: neither visual nor auditory metaphors seem adequate to do the necessary work here, of giving a convincing account of theological knowledge in a profoundly sceptical late-modern context. I have come to suspect, however, that this is one of those places where recent advances in human knowledge help us to hear themes from the Scriptures that we have previously missed or neglected. Some readers will know of the pioneering work of the French neuroscientist P. D’Avril, who has demonstrated beyond doubt that our sense of smell is extraordinarily powerfully linked to our emotions. If our theological quest is for an appropriately affective epistemology, we might wonder whether there is any way of moving away from both sight and hearing, and instead moving toward smell?

As soon as we ask this, of course, a welter of Biblical images come to mind. Prayers ascending ‘like incense’; the redeemed as ‘the aroma of Christ’; … Olfactory metaphors for knowing are remarkably common in the Psalms, but are also peculiarly Pauline. More, when we consider the reconceptualisations of the logic of Pauline theology proposed by the new apocalyptic readings, we see, again and again, that appeals to the sense of smell occur at almost every decisive moment in Paul’s various arguments (the repetition of ‘fragrance’ three times over in 2Cor. 2:14-16 is only the most obvious example of this, but see a recent paper by Dr Rick Rolling for a much fuller demonstration).

Of course, this collision of recent science and Biblical emphasis may be merely coincidental, but it surely deserves investigation. What doctrinal insights might we uncover if we moved fundamental theology away from visual or auditory metaphors into a new olfactory mode? I am convinced that we will find here an exciting new departure for fundamental theology. Only when we learn to savour the beautiful fragrance of Jesus will our intellectual and emotional responses find proper unity and balance!

I am pleased to say that I have received some modest funding to investigate this further, and can announce some available research grants into olfactory theology. Details are available here.


  1. Steve Walton
    Apr 1, 2016

    I love it! More seriously, there’s a very interesting newish book by Luke T. Johnson, The Revelatory Body, on which I’ve love to hear a systematic/historical theologian’s view. As a biblical scholar, I think he’s onto something, but find myself regularly thinking ‘Yes, but…’ Have you come across it?

    • steve
      Apr 1, 2016

      Not seen the Johnson book, no; I’ll try to look it out.

  2. Doug Chaplin
    Apr 1, 2016

    I haven’t yet got down to reading it in the book pile, but I would suggest a look at Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination

    • Doug Chaplin
      Apr 1, 2016

      Just so you know there’s always someone who’s done seriously what you thought was a joke!

  3. Andrew Picard
    Apr 1, 2016

    Fascinating. Another book that might be worth looking at would be Louise Lawrence’s “Sense and Stigma in the Gospels: Depictions of Sensory-Disabled Characters”. I think it is an excellent work which shows the fruitfulness of biblical and theological scholars coming to their senses (her words).

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