Taste and see that the Lord is good.” For Joel Clarkson, a composer and Berklee College of Music graduate, words like these (from Psalm 34:8) offer much more than a metaphor. In Sensing God: Experiencing the Divine in Nature, Food, Music, and Beauty, Clarkson, now pursuing a theology PhD at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, shows how our physical senses can point the way to a larger understanding of our Creator and his workmanship. Recording artist and record producer Charlie Peacock spoke with Clarkson about the many touch points between Christian faith and everyday life.
What does it look like to cultivate a theology of the senses?
We live in a world of experience, and this is a core aspect of our faith. It’s not that faith is on one side, with everyday experiences on the other. These actually go together. Within our daily lives, there are many touch points: the food we eat, the music we listen to, the people we meet, and the nature we encounter.
I hope my book conveys the idea that the world, and our lives within it, are crammed with heaven. Heavenly activity doesn’t just occur during transcendent moments, like seeing the northern lights or hearing a beautiful concert. Even amid the mundane, we can encounter God’s presence. And this isn’t a matter of doing something new so much as changing our perspective within the space we already occupy.
Enjoying God through our senses opens up a larger experience of the world and life in Christ. Scripture is full of the language of desire, and we are called to worship the Lord in the beauty of his holiness. Our intellect and senses work together toward the end of loving God with our whole hearts.
In the book, I argue that we love and desire beauty because beauty begins and ends in God, as manifested through the whole of creation. Ephesians 2 says that we are God’s “masterpiece” (v. 10, NLT). The Greek term, poiema, is associated with making, with creating. God is a creator, and to deny the value of creativity, of beautiful things, is actually to limit our vision of who God is and the works he might call us to do.
Your book focuses on the importance of the Incarnation. How should it shape our perspective on our physical senses?
We often live out a philosophy of dualism between mind and body, believing that ultimately it’s our minds that lead us into a proper understanding of reality. How we think and what we believe are very important, of course, but our beliefs are rooted in a deeper reality. At the heart of Christianity is not an idea but a person, the person of Christ. We can’t get around it, because it happened in our time and space. God entered into the dimensions that we exist in day to day. The Incarnation changes the way that we think about the fabric of the universe and creation itself.
I have this memory of coming home from Berklee one semester, feeling lost and distant and experiencing spiritual dryness. Of course, one’s college years are often the setting for crises of faith, especially in the West—and especially for those who grew up in the church.
I talked to my mother about this, and she was very gentle with me. There I was in Colorado, where my family lives, on this beautiful spring afternoon with the pines blowing in the wind and the sun beginning to set. We had a cup of coffee, and she just began pointing out these elements of creation and saying, “Don’t worry about feeling close to God. He’s reaching out to you at this very moment in these elements. It’s his gift to you, to the whole world.” Before anything else is true, before we receive anything else, existence comes to us as a gift of God’s grace.
We’re both musicians, so let’s talk about music. How has your background shaped your thinking on the relationship between faith and art?
I started out in the film industry doing composing, orchestrating, and conducting. In recent years, I’ve turned my focus to church settings, leading choirs and doing some choral conducting.
Working in a sacred-music setting has helped spark questions about the purpose of artistry and music and how we encounter God through them. My doctoral thesis looks at contemporary musical theology. I’m looking to understand how music leads us into deeper participation in corporate worship, and how that draws us into the work of what Christ does within it.
Music can be a glorious, transcendent thing. Before the digital age, all music had to be created by some movement of the body: by drawing a bow across a string, say, or drawing air out of lungs and over vocal cords. There’s this embodied aspect to music that makes us aware of ourselves, all while drawing us into the experience of a transcendent space beyond.
The more we enter into the cosmos of faith and the work of Christ in us, growing in sanctification and letting ourselves be shaped by the rhythms of liturgy, the greater our openness to this sense of improvisation in all of life. We gain the capacity to be awed by something as simple as sunlight through a window and to let that change us for the good.
In your book, you mention Robert Farrar Capon’s book The Supper of the Lamb. How would you describe the importance of food and table fellowship to the Christian life?
At the heart of a Christian theology of the senses is a meal. The narrative of Scripture begins in a garden and ends in a wedding feast. And right in the middle is this beautiful gift that Jesus gives to his disciples: his body and blood, the bread and wine of life. This isn’t just the story of the Upper Room; it continues with Luke 24, on the road to Emmaus. The followers Jesus meets are talking through ideas and theology, and they don’t recognize Christ until he takes bread into his hand and breaks it (vv. 30–32). Ultimately, it’s a visible, tangible sign that makes them aware of who Christ is.
Knowing God through sensory experience, you argue, ultimately points to Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. Can you elaborate?
We never want to lose the fullness of what reconciliation makes possible. Reconciliation to God in Christ is central, but so is sharing in God’s life as participants in the new heavens and the new earth, where we will meet for a feast at the table of God, celebrating the supper of the Lamb.
John 1 is one of my favorite Bible passages. It begins not with Christ as Redeemer but Christ as Creator. In the beginning was the Word, and through him all things were made. It reads like a recapitulation of Genesis 1. John is revealing that Christ, the author of salvation, is the author of all creation, and that the glory of the creative act includes the acts of redemption—Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. All are inextricably bodily things.
God doesn’t intend to abandon creation. He intends to redeem it. We look forward to the moment when all things are made right. That’s our hope in Christ. Our senses testify to the hope within us, not by communicating the mere idea of Christ but by pointing to actual things in his world as tangible signs of the glory we anticipate.
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