Stefanie Knauss – Sensing the Other and the Divine

Stefanie Knauss – « Sensing the Other and the Divine in Embodied Experiences »

This text is a part of the issue:
English: Asian Christianities
Deutsch: Asiatischen Christentümer
Italiano: Cristianesimi asiatici
Português: Cristiandades asiáticas
Français: Christianismes asiatiques
Español: Cristianismos asiáticos
中國人: 亞洲基督教

1. Introduction

We encounter the world and each other through our senses; we reach out into the world and let the world reach us; we are involved in the world and with all its beings as we smell, see, touch, taste, hear; we simply are as sensory beings. Sensory experiences are thus the space of our encounters and relationships with others, where we are affected by each other’s presence, experience difference and proximity. Aesthetic experiences are thus important elements of theological reflection as a means to make meaning, find orientation, and establish relationships in our world.[1] As the reflection of our sensory encounters with the world, aesthetic theology is a mode of doing theology that includes the whole person in her material existence and relationships, and that broadens the notion of theological knowing beyond the rational to include ways of knowing that emerge in embodied, sensory, and affective experiences. In this sense, it is more properly an aisthetictheology in that it draws on the sensory experience of the material world, including my own body, artworks, or natural forms.[2]

In the following, I will develop further these thoughts on the theological appreciation of sensory experience and the aisthetic as a space of encounter, especially in the Asian context, connecting aesthetic theology with liberation, feminist, postcolonial and comparative theologies with their turn towards embodiment, practice and creativity as sources of a ‘living theology’. As I am thinking about aisthetic theology as a space of sensory encounter in relation to Asian cultures and theologies, I realize that I am myself experiencing the aesthetic as an encounter with a world that I know little about, that is sometimes bewildering when I cannot understand specific symbolic references in a work of art, but also deeply fascinating when I loose myself in the colors or forms of a painting or a dance performance. What follows is thus in a way the outcome of such a moment of encounter, inspired by what resonated somehow with my research questions and aesthetic sensibilities, what sparked my interest, and what left me bewildered.

2. Aesthetic Theology as Aisthetic Theology

Traditionally, the theological reflection on the aesthetic has been an intellectual exercise abstracted from the actual sensory experience it aimed to elucidate: aisthesis, the concrete sensory, embodied experience, has been lost in speculative philosophizing about beauty, the sublime, form, etc. Conceptually, aesthetic theology has been rooted in the European tradition of the philosophical discipline of aesthetics, dominated by male academics, and mostly concerned with what one might call ‘high culture’. Recent shifts towards other creative forms, popular culture, and popular religion in feminist and liberation theological aesthetics,[3] are thus very welcome, but they, too, often remain situated on a philosophical level of disembodied abstraction that contradicts their claims of wanting to pay attention to the theological meaning of concrete, embodied experience. To theologically understand the aisthetic as a space of encounter and relationship, a shift is necessary that includes the (re-)turn to the senses and the inclusion of a broader range of material.[4]

Art historian David Freedberg points out that sensual reactions to art works, in particular sexual excitement, have been excluded systematically from (secular and theological) aesthetic theories as if they were proof that a work that arouses such reactions cannot be art but has to be defined as pornographic. However, Freedberg underlines the necessity to integrate bodily reactions in the analysis of reception in order to be able to understand the intense impact of art works and their significance.[5] This awareness for how we make sense through our senses is grounded in the phenomenological insight that our bodies are the necessary means for our relation to the world and knowledge of it. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s description of the human body as a ‘being of two leaves’ that exists both as the subject of perception and as its object is fundamental in this regard.[6] Knowledge does not emerge from disembodied, purely rational processes, but is grounded in the bodily constitution of human beings and in their sensory enfoldedness in the world. This embodied knowledge is both inward and outward oriented: in the sensory experience, I feel myself feeling, and thus am centered in myself, and at the same time, I am moved outside of myself into the relationship with my environment and other human beings towards which I am oriented as a sentient being.[7] Thus, I think, it is not a stretch to consider aisthetic experiences as incarnational and sacramental in that they root us in the goodness of creation, our created bodies, and at the same time allow us unfold into right relationships with others and the divine.

While the experience of art is particular in its intentional evocation of sensory and affective reactions, the theological shift to the aisthetic will by necessity encourage the consideration of other sensory experiences that are a part of our day-to-day life and relationships. Thus aisthetic theology has to expand its horizon with regard to the material on which it reflects: not just the high culture of Europe and North-America, reserved for an elite that can afford the museum and opera tickets, and not just the aesthetics of seeing (in particular) and hearing (to a degree). But also the elegance of dance and the exertions of sports, the taste of mangoes and the smell of rain, the texture of tree bark or soft cotton – experiences of both the natural and created world that we normally do not pay much attention to and that are, nevertheless, a daily attunement to the environment we live in and the bodies as which we are created and experience. The sacramental value of the material world as created by God for the good of all human beings, the goodness of our bodies themselves as part of our being image of God is our daily experience, and not an exception limited to the museum space – something to consider more deeply through aisthetic theology.

I want to briefly touch on three consequences of such a further development of aesthetic theology. First, it will be situated and thus aware of its limitations; it is non-universalistic and communal. It is a theology that emerges from concrete embodied experiences in a concrete space, a theology, thus, that concerns individuals and communities immediately. Alejandro García-Rivera underlines that the process of interpretation is a communal one, and this includes the sharing and interpretation of sensory experiences – a communal process that shapes and affirms community.[8] Second, aisthetic theology is also a theology that is committed, engaged and empowering: if the everyday experiences of the people are given central theological importance, that means they are the subject of theological reflection, their experiences are themselves theological meaning-making. That also means that experiences of suffering have to be tackled as ones that are not meant to be, and that experiences of joy are not dismissed as escapism, but seen as a source of empowerment and creativity: the measure of beauty is human flourishing.[9] And third, aisthetic theology opens up the space for encounter and relationship that allows to come together in shared experiences without denying the uniqueness of the other, and thus encourages openness, diversity, and inclusivity in our theologial conversations.

3. Aesthetics and Aisthetic Theology in Asia

The encounter with Asian theologies and aesthetics can further this development towards the theological appreciation of the aisthetic in various ways. The most fundamental contribution is the fact that a holistic worldview seems to be more mainstream in Asia than in Europe. Of course, there are more holistic currents in western culture, too, especially in the mystic tradition, and also more dualistic currents in Asian cultures, such as Indian philosophy. But especially at the level of Asian popular traditions, the unity of feeling and knowing, body and mind, the natural and supernatural seems to be more pronounced than in western traditions. These more synthetic than analytical forms of experience and reflection offer a rich foundation for a theology of the encounter with the divine in the scents or tastes of daily life.

A closer look at Asian aesthetic theories provides other interesting connections worth pursuing further – I will just briefly mention a few. For example, I am thinking of the emphasis on the now and the everydayness of aesthetic experience in Japanese aesthetics, and the idea that a viewer establishes a relation of sympathy with what is represented.[10] Or, the close connection between the aesthetic and the ethical, between cognition and intuition, feeling and reasoning in Chinese aesthetics.[11] Or, the non-dualism and nothingness expressed in white, the central color of Korean aesthetics, which transcends all representation.[12] Or, the religious respect for matter and the natural world that results from indigenous influences on South-East Asian aesthetics.[13] Or, more broadly, the hybridity noticeable in several Asian aesthetic traditions which define their particularity precisely through their capacity to integrate various cultural impulses, as in Korean, Japanese or South-East Asian aesthetics. All of these, it seems to me, are inspirations that have not yet been fully explored for their theological potential.

Many Asian theological approaches already are a form of aisthetic theology in that poems, songs, images or popular practices are considered to be theologically productive.[14] One can find, I think, in these theological approaches the ‘living aesthetics’, that García-Rivera described for the Latin American context, in which arts and crafts, art and nature, artworks and their experience, and I would add, experience and reflection, are seen as a continuum rather than strictly separated and provide the basis of a ‘living theology’.[15] Maybe the need to inculturate Christianity in the very different cultural context of Asia calls particularly urgently for the turn towards sensory experience, creativity and the imagination in Asian theologies, which can thus become a model for a more consciously aisthetic theology.[16]

As an example for what is possible in the aisthetic theological encounter between cultures and religions, Michelle Voss Roberts’s Tastes of the Divine uses the Indian theory of rasa, the solicitation of emotional states in the arts, the relationship among emotions, and their overall role in human existence, to help Christian theology to think about the embodied experience of the transcendent.[17] In a movement analogous to religious experiences, the blissful experiences even of ambivalent emotions draws us out of ourselves even as we remain grounded in the material, the concrete gestures, movements, or tones that solicit a specific emotional state.[18] This unified experience of immanence-transcendence is not, however, a kind of aesthetic escapism into an imaginary world of bliss. Instead, from a Hindu-Christian perspective, rasa is able to combine an inward directed movement (the blissful experience of the transcendent) with an outward directed movement in the commitment to others and the world: “aesthetics need not be aestheticizing […] Art can attend to the reality of suffering.”[19]

Rasa theory also offers a way for Voss Roberts to imagine an aesthetic approach to dialogue among religions in which wonder – the eighth rasa – is the emotion that allows the appreciative encounter with the other without colonizing them, never losing a sense of amazement and surprise.[20] Emotional states are relatively stable across cultures, and thus offer a common base for mutual understanding, yet they also attune us to attend to their particular realizations in different contexts. An aesthetic approach to dialogue based in rasa theory thus is characterized by attention to the particular and concrete, yet not in a movement of closure, but openness to relationship and new experiences.[21]

4. Conclusion: Tasting, Smelling, Touching Theological Meaning

So let me conclude with some thoughts on the aisthetic as a moment of theological meaning-making, encounter, critique and empowerment. First, I would like to underline the importance of theological attention to sensory experiences. We are not just hearers of the word, as Karl Rahner famously said, but seers of the empty tomb. We touch the side wound; we annoint Jesus’ hair; we taste his body. Our encounters with the divine are embodied and sensory, and thus theological reflection has to attend to these experiences, both in their focused evocation in the reception of art, and their everyday occurrances. Theology is thus, quite fundamentally, an aisthetic theology that emerges in and reflects upon the embodied experience of the transcendent.

Second, this attention to concrete experiences will help to draw out the ethic implications of the aisthetic: experiences of sensory pleasure do not have to shut us off from the suffering of others but rather make us attentive to it, empowering us to imagine a different world of shared beauty and flourishing, and work towards realizing it.

Third, I believe that aisthetic theology is a theology not only of theologians but of all those who feel, taste, smell God, reflect on their experiences, and wish to share them with others. This means that it is not a theology of the academia only but includes many voices from many walks of life – especially those marginalized in theological discourses so far. If aisthetic experience is central to this theology, it will also be done in other forms than scholarly articles – it may be danced, or painted, or cooked.

And fourth, it will be a theology of encounter through shared experiences of beauty, pain, and wonder. Like emotional states, there is something universal to sensory experiences that does not deny the cultural formation of the senses and of how we understand what we sense. Creative imagination that emerges out of sensory experiences allows to cross the space to the other without glossing over our respective particularities. The individual and cultural specificity of sensory experiences, their focus on the concrete, does not lend itself to grand universalizing schemes, but to careful, situated, modest proposals. And yet, in the encounter with new tastes, strange scents, unusual textures, we imaginatively open up to new experiences and ideas, and are touched by other worlds.However, in order to become a space of sensory encounter, aisthetic theology has to develop strategies to do justice to the experience of particularity and to avoid exoticism, superficiality, and exploitation, trying to find a balance between shared sensory experiences and surprised bewilderment. Simply using poems or images from different cultural contexts or walks of life does not make for better theology if we try to make them fit our own agendas and are not open to sense their strange wisdom. Aisthetic experiences thus are at the same time a gift of beauty and meaning, and a responsibility to be attentive to their fragility.

[1]   H. Peckruhn, Meaning in Our Bodies. Sensory Experience as Constructive Theological Imagination, New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

[2]   For a similar stance see A. García-Rivera, A Wounded Innocence. Sketches for a Theology of Art, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2003, p. x.

[3]   L. Cassidy and M.H. O’Connell (eds), She Who Imagines. Feminist Theological Aesthetics, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2012; R. Goizueta, Christ Our Companion. Toward a Theological Aesthetics of Liberation, Maryknoll: Orbis, 2009; García-Rivera, A Wounded Innocence; A. García-Rivera, The Community of the Beautiful. A Theological Aesthetics, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999.

[4]   For earlier reflections on these questions see S. Knauss, ‘The Language of the Senses. An Aisthetic Theology’, in A. Esser A, Ch. Gasser-Schuchter, S Grevel, A. Jasper and U. Rapp (eds), Feminist Theology and Visual Arts (Jahrbuch der European Society for Women in Theological Research 19), Leuven: Peeters, 2011, 53–65.

[5]   D. Freedberg, The Power of Images, Chicago University Press: Chicago, 1989, p. 316.

[6]   Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible. Followed by Working Notes, Evanston: Northwestern University, 1968, p. 137.

[7]   M. Voss Roberts, Tastes of the Divine. Hindu and Christian Theologies of Emotion, New York: Fordham University Press, 2014, p. 50.

[8]   García-Rivera, The Community of the Beautiful, p. 130.

[9]   L. Cassidy and M.H. O’Connell, ‘Introduction’, in L. Cassidy and M.H. O’Connell (eds), She Who Imagines. Feminist Theological Aesthetics, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2012, p. xi.

[10] K. Sasaki, ‘Introduction’, in K. Sasaki (ed.), Asian Aesthetics, Singapore: NUS Press/Kyoto: Kyoto University Press, 2010, 3–12.

[11] P. Feng, ‘On the Modernisation of Chinese Aesthetics’, in: K. Sasaki (ed.), Asian Aesthetics, Singapore: NUS Press/Kyoto: Kyoto University Press, 2010, pp. 143–144.

[12] I. Lee, ‘On the Debate of the Colour White’, K. Sasaki (ed.), Asian Aesthetics, Singapore: NUS Press/Kyoto: Kyoto University Press, 2010, p. 73.

[13] D. Chou-Shulin, ‘Introduction to the Aesthetics of Southeast Asia’, in: K. Sasaki (ed.), Asian Aesthetics, Singapore: NUS Press/Kyoto: Kyoto University Press, 2010, p. 250.

[14] Ch. Hyun Kyung, Struggle to Be the Sun Again. Introducing Asian Women’s Theology, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1990; Ch. Song, Third-eye Theology. Theology in Formation in Asian Settings, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1979.

[15] García-Rivera, A Wounded Innocence, pp. viii–ix.

[16] S. Clarke, ‘The Task, Method and Content of Asian Theologies’, in P.J.R. Rajkumar (ed.), Asian Theology on the Way. Christianity, Culture, and Context, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015, p. 6.

[17] Cf. Voss Roberts, Tastes of the Divine, p. xviii.

[18] Cf. Voss Roberts, Tastes of the Divine, p. 50.

[19] Voss Roberts, Tastes of the Divine, p. 54.

[20] Cf. Voss Roberts, Tastes of the Divine.

[21] Cf. M. Voss Roberts, ‘Aesthetics in Hindu-Christian Studies: A Theological Framework’, Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies28 (2015), 3–10.


Stefanie Knauss is an Associate Professor of Theology at Villanova University. In her research she focuses on gender studies and queer theory in theology, theology and culture, and body and religion. She recently published More than a Provocation: Sexuality, Media and Theology (2014) and edited the special issue of the Journal of Religion, Film and Media “From Social Criticism to Hope: The Cinema of the Dardenne Brothers” (2016).

Address: Theology & Religious Studies, Villanova University, 800 Lancaster Avenue, Villanova, PA 19085, USA

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