Religion and Touch - Equinox
Exploring acts of touch in religions of all descriptions (including Christianity)
Religion and Touch
Edited by Christina Welch & Amy R Whitehead
ISBN: 978 1 80050 032 7
Reviewed by Alec Gilmore
A classic piece of academic research covering a wide range of territory well outside the comfort zone of most Christians. So be prepared. First, in this study Christianity is one of a panoply of religions, neither the ‘only’ nor the oldest. Second, Religion is essentially sensual and tactile, what people do rather than what they believe.
Third, suppress any innate antagonism to rituals and focus on Religion as ‘seeing and hearing’. The objective is ‘to complement and expand traditional approaches to religion’, with ‘fresh and innovative ideas for utilising the sense of ‘touch’ to advance debates about sensually engaged religion’.
For a Christian clientele the easy entry is the last chapter (‘Tactile Aspects of the Christian Faith’), covering much that is familiar (Baptism, Communion, Confirmation, Membership), while adding less familiar detail and variations, with a few surprises (Talismans and Amulets alongside Bread and Wine), and gently pushing out the frontiers of Touch (Digital and Liturgical) with a penultimate chapter on ‘Immersive Hugging’. Rich and reliable food for thought, all worthy of our attention even if more ‘taste and see’ than ‘come and buy’.
Ten other chapters remind us that religion worldwide is as varied as the food we eat. In some places, a basic diet seems to be little more than traditional fare (custom). Bali, for example, in common with most of the old religions prior to the rise of the ‘great world religions’, had no word for religion or structured system either for belief or specific rituals. When Religion cropped up, the usual translation was the sanskrit agama, which became popular in Bali in the latter half of the 20th century, but prior to that the more common word was the Arabic adat, usually translated ‘custom’.
Turning the Menu over, however, we come to a veritable cornucopia of fresh tastes and flavours with tempting and intriguing titles such as Tattooing Ritual and Touch, Music and Touch, Touching Deities, Coffin Clubs (Touch and the End of Life) and Basket Divination, all surely an acquired taste though some not nearly as outlandish as their titles suggest, and a modicum of patience and persistence are unlikely to go unrewarded. For those who need a spoonful of sugar to help it go down a case study of Ancestral Pilgrimage might be easier on the palate.
An Ancestral Pilgrimage is an attempt to reconnect with (touch) one’s past, filling in gaps, finding names, identifying records, visiting places heard about but never seen. For example, two sisters from New Zealand, wanting ‘to walk where their great-grandmother had walked, and see some of what she had seen’, travelled to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) where their great-grandparents were married in the Anglican Cathedral in 1869.
Visiting the Cathedral, standing on the very spot where their great-grandparents had stood at their wedding, viewing the marriage records and touching the paper bearing their signatures was, a highly emotional and truly religious experience.
Alec Gilmore is a Baptist minister