At an early age, we are taught that human beings process environmental stimuli through sensory organs. Barring a disability or accident, each person is equipped with the following five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. While this list may suggest that all senses are valued equally, the history of Christianity and Western philosophy demonstrates otherwise. There is a ‘hierarchy of senses’ whereby sight is highly regarded and touch is systematically devalued.
There are two crucial differences between sight and touch. First, sight provides perceptual information about distance and contrast – while touch indicates warmth and proximity. Second, vision and tactility manifest themselves through different dynamics of power. Sight is often divided into powerful groups that see and powerless groups that are seen. Consider the following examples: the Holy Bible declares that God sees everyone, but no one can see His body; and the police watch our actions through surveillance cameras, but we cannot see their bodies. The powerful see all, and their bodies are invisible; while the powerless are simply seen, but their bodies are visible. Therefore, sight does not require contact or physical presence; it is often at a distance. Conversely, touch is a ‘contact sense’ which is grounded in the body at all times.
When sight is privileged over touch, humanity is divided over arbitrary issues. Of all the senses, sight is the most susceptible to trickery and deceit. Our worldview is, and has been, structured upon an over-reliance on sight that exaggerates the differences and distances between people. Racism and sexism are, in many ways, caused by a visual bias that denigrates actual contact with human beings.
This argument will unfold over two separate posts. The first gives a history of the hierarchy of senses in the Holy Bible and key philosophical texts. The second details the shortcomings of America’s visual bias and no-touch culture; and makes the case for a re-centralization of the contact sense.
The Old Testament: Denigration of Touch
Christianity is the world’s most popular religion with 2.2 billion adherents; and is the most observed belief system in the United States. The worldview imposed via the Holy Bible is widespread and has structured the earth for thousands of years. It is important to investigate how the tactile sense is framed in the scriptures.
Interestingly, the word “touch” is systematically denigrated in the Old Testament. This term is explicitly referenced 30+ times, but in the interest of space, I will quote a few examples from the New King James translation:
- “But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die” – (Genesis 3:3)
- “Or if a soul touch any unclean thing, whether it be a carcass of an unclean beast, or a carcass of unclean cattle, and if it be hidden from him; he also shall be unclean, and guilty” – (Leviticus 5:2)
- “And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing; nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled” – (Leviticus 12:4)
When “touch” is directly referenced in the Old Testament, it is typically associated with death, filth, and/or guilt. Since Adam and Eve touched the forbidden fruit and ate it, all human beings were banished from paradise, and became vulnerable to death. This pairing of touch with negative phenomena shows that the authors of the Old Testament had a phobia/hatred of the body.
Jesus Christ & the Transcendence of the Body
Whereas the Old Testament has a message of justice, the Gospel (i.e. the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) has a message of mercy. These first four books of the New Testament describe the teachings and resurrection of Christ. The word ‘touch’ is paired with redemption and wholeness. Consider the following scriptures:
- “For she said within herself, if I may but touch His garment, I shall be whole” – (Matthew 9:21)
- “And the whole multitude sought to touch Him: for there went virtue out of Him, and healed them all” – (Luke 6:19)
- “Jesus said unto her, touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” – (John 20:17)
When ‘touch’ is directly referenced in the Gospel, it is paired with wholeness, healing, and resurrection. This is imagined through the body of Jesus Christ. However, the relationship between Christ and touch becomes contradictory when His biography is taken into account. The sacred story of Jesus undermines the positive associations of touch in at least two ways. First, the scriptures contend that Jesus was the product of a virgin birth. This means that Jesus was not conceived through the touching of sexual intercourse like ordinary beings, but through supernatural insemination. Like the Old Testament, it is evident that the Gospel has a phobic relationship to the body. Second, Jesus transcends death and nature via resurrection. Touch requires a body – and all bodies are mortal. Rising from the dead is not only a denial of mortality, but a denial of touch. In the Gospel, “belief” gets the last word on death (“… whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life”) – thus devaluing the importance of touch once again.
The Visual Bias of Religion and Philosophy
The Genesis of the Holy Bible, written by Moses, explains the creation of the universe. According to scripture, God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. It is noteworthy that on the first day, God said “Let there be light” and “saw that it was good”. The final act of God on the sixth day was the creation of the body of man. In other words, the sense of sight (and arguably, hearing) was given divine primacy over touch.
The ancient philosopher Aristotle, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuated this sight/touch dynamic of the Old Testament. In the introductory sentences of Metaphysics, he argued:
“All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.”
For Aristotle, sight was the ‘highest’ sense, which worked in relation to our capacity for rationality. Touch was dismissed as a ‘low’ sense; which operated in the realm of animality and emotion. Additionally, the father of modern philosophy – Rene Descartes – argued that sight was the “noblest of the senses”. From the works of Aristotle and Descartes, the Western world developed a scientific method prefaced on the principle of “objectivity” – meaning real information is gathered from a distance. The sciences have a clear visual bias, which may explain why the etymology of ‘science’ is scire – which means to divide or cut.
It is time we put more emphasis on touch.
(click here to read part 2!)