NEWS: The Significance of Fleshly Encounters

The_Creation_of_Adam-1In “Touch and American Religions” historian Candy Gunther Brown explores the importance of human touch in practice, whether defined by traditional religion or alternative therapeutic movements. She points to the rather lengthy history of the Western tendency to create a hierarchy of senses – how they are valued and perceived. She suggests that the Christian tradition has been “bolstered by Cartesian mind-body dualism” which “devalued the body and its senses as dangerous to the soul.” Brown demonstrates the lineage inherited by the West; Plato thought all senses, “especially touch,” were deceiving. Aristotle “…hierarchically arranges the senses, positioning vision at the top and touch at the bottom.” Despite the devaluing of touch (and experience/emotion) throughout history, various practices — whether traditional, non-traditional, religious, or secular — all tend to value touch in some significant manner. Ritual, pain and the “alleviation [of pain] through divine and alternative healing” can be found in Christianity, Buddhism, and other traditions. Furthermore, Brown points out that scholars have found compelling evidence linking touch to ethics, empathy, and compassion, thus promoting “the good and alleviat[ing] the suffering of others….” There is thus an association, says Brown of “women and people of color with touch and emotion” which can be used “to subvert gender and racial hierarchies by linking tactility with ethical behavior.” She goes on to remind us that religious ritual has often involved “tactile practices,” whether through hand-signs, blessings, prayers postures, etc. Moreover, religious practice has equally focused on signs of divine favor, judgment, or personal satisfaction: these moments are measured by expressions of touch – sexuality, pain, and healing. These may be divinely orchestrated, the product of Eastern methods of transcendence, or natural cures involving self-help. Despite the history of pain and mind-body dualism which seem to pepper multiple religious landscapes, Brown emphasizes the growing significance of healing as a moral imperative: “Two cultural movements that have gained significant popular followings over the past 150 years, divine healing and Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), are founded upon the assumptions that feeling is believing and that which is effective in relieving pain is morally good.” While touch specifically, and human emotion generally, has often been relegated to a position structured by the Western hierarchical mind-body split, Brown concludes with this challenge: “…religion is as much about what people experience through their bodies as what they believe…” Read here.

Related articles:

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$1.99 - small Mesopotamian Medicine and Religion: Current Debates, New Perspectives By Eleanor Robson, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge (June 2008) Religion Compass

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