The Spiritual Perception Project

The main goal of Christian life is communion with God. This communion is analogous to our communication with human persons. Human communication can be direct, as when we can see, hear, touch, or talk to another human being. Such a communication can also be less direct, as when we send each other text messages or learn about each other from the reports of others. Notice, however, that both forms of communication are to different degrees based on our own ability to perceive. There is simply no communication and, therefore, no communion without some form of perception.

Similar to the communication with human persons, our communion with God crucially involves an experiential dimension, which presupposes a form of perception. Recall the biblical prophets receiving the “word of the Lord.” Think of the invitation of the Psalm to “taste and see how good the Lord is.” (Ps. 34:8) Call to mind a promise of the Beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” (Mt. 5:8) Think of the words of Christ to the Apostle Philip in the Gospel of John: “Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father.” (Jn. 14:9) Is the language of perception purely figurative in these passages, or does this language point to a form of perception? What sort of hearing, tasting, and seeing is at stake in these experiences? What does it take to perceive God? In other words, what cognitive equipment makes the perception of God possible?

This question has been at the heart of the Spiritual Perception Project since 2005. “Spiritual Perception” is an umbrella term that covers a range of perceptual powers that make divine-human communication possible. The first phase of the project explored the phenomenon and language of spiritual perception in the history of western Christian thought from Origen of Alexandria in the third century to Hans Urs von Balthasar in the twentieth century. This work resulted in a volume, The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Christianity jointly edited by Paul L. Gavrilyuk and Sarah Coakley and published by Cambridge University Press in 2012. Diachronically arranged, the study was largely descriptive and highly selective and thus focused primarily on the Christian authors who gave a theoretical articulation of the notion of spiritual perception. One such articulation was made by Karl Rahner, who wrote: ‘It seems prudent to speak of a doctrine of the spiritual senses only when these partly figurative, partly literal expressions (to touch God, the eyes of the heart, etc.) are found integrated in a complete system of the five instruments of the spiritual perception of suprasensible religious realities.’ While acknowledging the pioneering importance of Rahner’s theoretical work on the subject of the spiritual senses, already in our first volume we considered not only fivefold, but also unitary and other possible configurations of spiritual perception, since the evidence from the Christian tradition corroborated such a broadening of our topic.

Building on this historical work, beginning in 2015, Paul L. Gavrilyuk and Frederick D. Aquino have been engaged in the second phase of the Spiritual Perception Project. The purpose of the second phase is to offer a constructive account of spiritual perception for our time. When completed, the project will be published under the title Sensing Things Divine: Towards a Contemporary Account of Spiritual Perception by Oxford University Press. Sensing Things Divine expands the topic of the ‘spiritual senses’ by systematically correlating spiritual perception with other types of perception such as ordinary, moral, and aesthetic perception.

Methodologically, the interdisciplinary scope of the volume draws on the resources of analytic philosophy, phenomenology, philosophy of perception, epistemology, philosophy of art, psychology, systematic theology, and theological aesthetics. In order to venture in these new directions, the editors assembled a group of distinguished philosophers of religion and theologians with a considerable experience of mutual cooperation and with a publication record reflecting their scholarly engagement of the topic under consideration. For more, read here.

Future venues of investigation will include work in biblical studies, comparative religion, and cognitive science. Spiritual perception is a universal feature of religious experience. What is even more important, spiritual perception is an indispensable aspect of everyday human experience. Thus, the topic has implications not only for our understanding of religious life, but for our understanding of human life in general.