The word sensual typically has negative connotations for Christians. We associate it with the word carnality, without reflecting that carne was essential to the Incarnation. Sensual can refer to the use of the senses and need not have erotic connotations. Sensuality actually has many connections to spirituality. Gary Thomas identifies this as one pathways in his book Spiritual Pathways when he describes the Sensate Christian. People who are sensates, or sensual Christians as I am calling them, draw closer to God through their senses: the use of sight, touch, taste, smell, hearing, and motion.
Sense is powerful, even for those who are not sensates. Everyone probably remembers the experience of eating a certain food which made him or her sick. Almost no amount of verbal assurance could get you to try it again. But how does this apply to us spirituality?
Taste plans an important role in Christianity, whether we recognize it or not. The Lord’s Supper is a spiritual lesson received through our tongues and stomachs. It reminds us that as the daily eating of food is essential to our bodily nourishment, so a daily intake of Jesus is essential to the nourishment of are entire selves. What about smell?
Some traditions use incense, but I am not familiar enough with them to say much about it. However, incenses is a very physical representation of our call to be the pleasant aroma of Christ in the world. Smell is one of our most powerful senses. The smell of vomit can make us sick, while the smell of a perfume or cologne can recall all the emotions associated with a person we once care for. What about the smell of baking chocolate chip cookies?
Though the senses are not a primary spiritual pathway for every Christian, the senses as a pathway exist in every Christian. Recognizing the importance of senses in the church is then not just important for our sensual brothers and sisters (of which I am one), but for all Christians. How well do we do in this area?
Think of a typical worship service at an Evangelical church. We meet in big box buildings. People either sit on comfortable chairs or stand during the service. A band plays music on a stage in the front and the audience sings along. Then a pastor comes on the stage and gives a speech on a portion of Scripture. When he is done there is either another song or people leave right away. A few churches have added special lighting to their worship service, put candles on the stages, and added artsy design around the sanctuary. Even in these churches, there is little that appeals to the sensate.
In many ways, the Roman Catholics and certain liturgical traditions are far ahead of us in appealing to our sensuality. The first thing one notices when entering a Gothic cathedral, after passing through the narthex, is the inside space. It is narrow and the ceiling arcs high over head. Your eyes are immediately drawn upward to where light is streaming through high windows. The entire building is often shaped light a cross. In the front is the altar, a kind of sacred space, separated from more common areas for special use. The entire building itself is a holy space, separated from the world, while incorporating the best of secular architecture. In short, the building has communicated spiritual truths spacial and visually, without the use of words.
One criticism of sensual Christian is that they practice empty rituals. However, rituals only become empty when we forget their original meaning and practice them for their own sake, not for what they teach us about God. Every Christian tradition has rituals, whether they are called by that name or not. Big-box churches, coffee bars, visitor parking, and greeters at the doors are just as much rituals as genuflecting, icons, the common book of prayer, and lighting of candles. Genuflecting can be just as hollow a picture of submission to Christ as greeters at the door can be of hospitality. (Actually the popularity of greeters came not from an interest in hospitality but as part of the seeker sensitive/church growth movement. Many modern rituals find their roots in pragmatism, getting people through the doors, rather than concern for spiritual growth.) Really it is the misuse of rituals by certain Christian traditions that has given rituals a bad reputation. Since we cannot escape rituals we must learn how to incorporate and create rituals with an eye to what truths they teach us and how they form us spiritually.