Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College


Religion 398. Experimental Courses

Smells and Bells: The Sensual Dimension of Religion

This course is devoted to acquiring both “book knowledge” and experiential knowledge about the meaning of the sensual dimension of religion. Thus we will study the religious use of smell in rabbinic Judaism, sight in Hindu devotion, taste in medieval Christian and Jewish piety, sound in Muslim music and Qur’an recitation, and touch across different religious traditions. And we will also engage in performance related activities both inside and outside of class to gain “experiential knowledge” about what goes into a ritual.

The rituals we study, perform, and design are intended to integrate these two types of knowledge in a single activity, so that we will not only know in our heads what the activities we perform mean, but we can also feel, see, taste, and act it out. Rituals get us to know things not only in our minds but also in our limbs and sense organs. They are not just things that are handed down to us, or imposed by others upon us as passive recipients. We have the power to shape old and create new rituals that say exactly what we know and mean to say about our relations with other people and with nature. That’s what we’ll be doing when we design collaboratively the end of semester “interfaith banquet” ritual for our class. In this and activities, including guest specialists who will present some aspect of each of the five senses, we will explore the role of embodied, symbolic behavior that rituals and dramatic performances share. And we’ll gather and prepare local food as part of our celebratory end of semester feast, and invite all our guest speakers and presenters to join us.