“Never underestimate the power of smell!” I never gave the comment much thought until a few of my students and colleagues started to respond to the smell of my aftershave. My colleagues even wondered if this (the smell) was one of the reasons why I had a high take up on the two modules I enjoyed teaching. Of course, in both modules, I deployed opportunities to use as many of the ‘senses’ in the teaching and learning. Maybe it was the culinary delights as part of the sessions and the smell of incense rising like morning-time prayers that drew them. But seriously, can smell really play a part in teaching and learning and the shaping of our theological discourse – at least the mood and the content of our conversations?
Now while my lingering aftershave was a good conversation point, it was only later that I gave more thought on how smells do shape our moods, behaviour and decisions – though in reality we take the sense of smell for granted. This taking for granted is certainly the case for members of the Reformed family, given that we largely dumped the smells and bells of medieval Christianity from our ecclesial life. At least within the Reformed/Protestant family, I would suspect that the sense of smell had no chance at all! One may safely deduce that anything to do with “senses” would have been too transgressing.
I wonder what a “theology of smell” would look like or more correctly smell like! Perhaps, I need to pay closer attention to our Border terrier (Lucky) with his renowned ability and sensitivity to smells. Besides squirrels, cats and pee, he can smell our every move – especially when it comes to food!
Maybe I am not giving my uniquely shaped nose the credit it deserves. According to a number of recent researches (The New Scientist) our noses are exquisitely sensitive instruments that guide us (more than we think) in surprising ways. And I am not referring here to all you “nosey ones”! It may be that one of the reasons we have not given enough attention to smell (our noses and the olfactory stimuli) is because we have invested too much in the other senses – especially vision and hearing.
Christmas just gone, while making Guyanese Pepper-pot and Ackee and Saltfish for my family, I suddenly felt very homesick, drawn to all sorts of nostalgic Christmas time experiences in Guyana, Jamaica and the Caribbean. And the mood lingered on with me into the New Year. Can it be that the familiar scent of cassareep, ackee and salt-fish with some distinctive Caribbean herbs aroused memories and created my nostalgia? I am certainly a convert to the view that smells (subtle and overt) can change my mood, behaviour and the choices that I make – without me even realising it.
Our noses are more sensitive and sharper than we think with an amazing ability to distinguish smells. Besides, the way we are wired means that there is link between smell and how/what we think – how we process things. No wonder all those eager to sell us some product or service know fully well the power of smell – from brewing coffee to a hint of some familiar wafting aroma – to both increase sales and encourage positive responses to a variety a situations.
But back to the matter of a theology of smell with a plea for us to invest in resourcing our noses to develop our smell capacity: our noses and our sense of smell will continue to work overtime to make us who we are. As good memory evokers, perhaps our noses may help us to smell or sniff our way through and transcend some of the theological impasse and polarised positions we find ourselves in.
Certainly, I am going to now re-read that story of the woman’s anointing of Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume that probably lingered on for weeks! And I shall be giving some more consideration around the smell of the middle-eastern kitchen, given Jesus’ proclivity towards meal and people’s kitchens, and the influence this had on Jesus’ mood and conversations. Can it be that his insight about “unless you become like a child…” was actually a plea about paying closer attention to our sense of smell as these would often transport us back to the past and into a future?
Can you smell the subtexts and subversion?
© jagessar january 2015