Gospel Synesthesia

Garrett Soucy
Saturday, February 28th 2015
Mar/Apr 2015

Can you hear color? Can you taste sound? The neurological phenomenon known as “synesthesia” refers to the connection between the stimulation of one sensory organ and the experience of that stimulation by another organ. Even though most of us usually think of our senses as operating independently of one another, we have also all had the experience of one sense being dulled by problems or defects with another sense. We could not experience taste, for instance, without the help of our sense of smell, and yet we often don’t speak of them as a compound sense.

I am reminded of a Taiwanese film that portrayed an older chef who stopped cooking because he had lost his sense of smell from years of drinking, rendering his sense of taste useless. None of our senses are processed at the sensory gates. Instead, they are processed in our brains. What this tells us is that our empirical knowledge is more a combination of senses than the collection of information from separate sensory organs.

Scripture assumes the reality of what we today call synesthesia, a compound relationship of senses that gives us greater knowledge or experience of reality: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt'” (Exod. 10:21). How is darkness, traditionally processed through the gate of the eye, in this historic case, to be processed primarily through touch?

This combination of senses or even replacement of senses is common in Scripture. For example, in Revelation 5:8 we read of how God receives and processes the auditory prayers of the saints: “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” The prayers of the saints, which are offered in the form of sound vibrations, are received by God as an olfactory transmission. Why is it that Scripture would describe something transmitted with sound as being received by smell? Is the writer just offering up a symbolic description? Is the crossing of sensory wires arbitrary? After all, the characters in Revelation are performing a priestly function in the presence of the Holy One. Maybe there is no need to push the metaphor.

If that’s true, though, how should we understand other passages such as Exodus 10 that describe historical experiences? Or how should we understand a passage such as Genesis 4:10? “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.'” Why cross metaphors, if that is all they are? Why not say, because blood does have a smell, that the smell of his brother’s blood is a stench in his nostrils? If it is the accusative sense that is being reached for, why not say that the blood is a stain on the ground that accuses him?

It is easy to suggest that the language employed is merely symbolic or exaggerated for effect, but that seems to be an inadequate response. The Bible advocates a singularity of knowledge that enables us to perceive things through lenses that otherwise would be inapplicable. In fact, much of the Holy Spirit’s work in us produces a knowledge that supersedes the concept of sense. We are to behold Christ not by sight but by faith. Our present pilgrimage is navigated by trust and specifically not by sight. At some point, though, we are told that our knowledge will be complete, just as our sight will be fulfilled: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:11). This is a clear claim that our present sight is severely lacking, based on our lack of knowledge. In The Glory of Christ (Banner of Truth, 1994), John Owen captures the necessity of the Spirit’s work of synesthesia when he says, “No man shall ever behold the glory of Christ by sight in heaven who does not, in some measure, behold it by faith in this world. Grace is a necessary preparation for glory and faith for sight.”

The Bible teaches us that true self-control is the result of someone else controlling you (Gal. 5:23), that we must navigate our way on this pilgrimage without eyes (2 Cor. 5:7), that we see Christ by faith (2 Cor. 3:18), and that we will know God is truly good by tasting him (Ps. 34:8). It is as if God, in the new creation, is allowing us to process all our knowledge through the lens of Pentecost, which is a reversal of Babel. It is as though our senses in their fallen state speak in a confounded tongue to one another. But through the Spirit, they will all hear and feel and smell the same message in their own language. This is the gospel synesthesia to which we should aspire.

We must aspire to it because society is busy offering us a cheap copy of the beautiful original that God designed and is bringing us toward. While some of the initial offerings are as clandestine as the “odorifics” of Harold and Maude, or the fun art installation of Amy Radcliffe called Madeleine, technology is rapidly moving beyond cognitive computing chips for phones and Google glasses. The greatest danger we face is being satisfied with the copy rather than the original.

The gospel is the original for which the religious affections of the culture will perpetually offer a cheap facsimile. To proclaim the gospel in a whole-hearted fashion, we must remember that while we cannot view our God, we can behold him’and in a glory that far exceeds what can be viewed. He loves us and compels in us a love that must be reciprocated, not only with our heart but with all of our soul, and all of our thinking, and with all of the senses with which we are endowed.

Saturday, February 28th 2015

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology