Theologian Examines Objects in Religion
Published: Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 17:03
Hamilton College professor of religion S. Brent Plate explained the role of objects and human senses in religion in his talk, “Five and a Half Objects,” Monday evening.
The event, sponsored by the theology department, was part of the Robert S. Mason lecture series, established in 2000 by Mason, a public affairs executive who studied world religions at Georgetown during his retirement.
Plate, a leading expert on religion and visual culture, studies concrete ways in which humans in the everyday world experience religion. He is also the co-founder and managing editor of “Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief.” The lecture was inspired by his newest book, which will be released next year.
“The crux of religion itself is our engagement of physical objects with the world,” Plate said.
Plate structured his talk around objects that humans have historically associated with religion: stones, crosses, incense, drums and bread.
“These objects are common, basic and profane,” Plate said.
Plate explained why crosses are so prevalent in religion.
“Crosses are one of the first recognizable visual forms that children are able to make,” Plate said.
Plate, however, said that the highly underrated sense of smell is most essential to human society, as shown through incense.
“There is an olfactory code that helps structure our society,” Plate said. “[Scents] are, really, social media. While it is the sense most removed from language, it is the closest to human memory and experience.”
Next, Plate said that the drum represented community, holding society together.
“In many religious cosmogonies, drums hold and sustain the universe,” Plate said. “They are sonic percussions that draw people together in space.”
In the explanation for his final object, bread, Plate cited the experience of watching his infant daughter attempt to eat everything around her as a primal means of engaging with the world.
“How do we come to know something? We taste it,” Plate said. “The proof really is in the pudding.”
Though Plate primarily focused on these objects, also emphasized the incompleteness of humans, or the “half object.”. Plate discussed Federico Fellini’s film “8 1/2,” an Italian comedic drama about a man’s attempt to deal with life’s difficulties by delving into memories and fantasies. In addition, he spoke about Aristotle’s conception of the individual as a half of a greater being. According to Aristotle, men and women were originally combined, but the gods, who were jealous of humans’ happiness, split them apart and spread them throughout the world. As a result, humans were forced to search for their “other halves.”
“Is the half something extra like a baker’s dozen?” Plate said. “The half stands as a symbol for our incomplete natures — our need for the human body to be made whole with something outside itself.”
Plate said that these five and a half religious objects — stones, crosses, incense, drums, bread and humans’ incompleteness — create the soul.
“Religion, in its deepest form, rebinds the half body to the world, thus crafting soul,” Plate said. “Soul craft is not some immutable substance, but a human production that comes and goes, ebbs and flows.”
Plate concluded by encouraging students to use all of their senses to experience the world.
“To understand soul, we would do well to listen to soul music, to eat soul food,” Plate said. “Soul comes forth when head and heart meet the world.”
Maddie Estey (COL ’16) said that she enjoyed the various connections Plate drew between religion, literature and film.
“I really liked what he said about Aristotle and the idea of the half-bodies and how he connected that to his theory of the soul,” Estey said.