In Against the Pagans, St. Athanasius of Alexandria’s earliest work, the famed fourth-century theologian argues that the Roman religion’s worship of statues as if they were gods indicates its folly: creation worshipping creation, rather than the proper object of its veneration, the divine creator. Describing the various ways in which human beings misused their natural faculties when they turned away from God and towards creation, Athanasius writes that they turned “their sense of smell to varieties of erotic perfumes.” But while the bishop of Alexandria makes clear what he considers the proper use of other faculties—for instance, genitalia are for procreation, tongues for kind words—he never specifies what he considers to be the proper use of the sense of smell.
This is not a question to which ordinary believers or theologians and spiritual writers seem to have devoted much time. In St. Bonaventure’s Life of St Francis, for example, in which each of Francis’ senses is transformed by grace to receive some kind of spiritual perception, smell is the only sense that does not get its own special miracle story. I do vaguely recall some Orthodox apologist describing how Orthodox worship involves all of the senses, including smell via the frequent censing of the Church with incense during our services. But while many Christians speak as if humanity in its perfected state (in the age to come—or, if you prefer, in “heaven”) will be engaged in some sort of endless church service, the logical conclusion of this train of thought—that the proper purpose of our noses is to smell incense—demonstrates the oddity of this way of framing things. It seems to put the cart before the theological horse; properly, liturgical services should surely orient us to something other than themselves or their epiphenomena—to God, or the world as God’s creation, or something along these lines.
A similar absence attends scholastic discussions of smell, such as St. Bonaventure’s. The lack of a smelling-miracle in his Life of St. Francisis, at least according to some commentators, not an indication of a theological devaluation of the nose, but of its preeminent value, though not as a mere sense. Rather, since the object of smell is never one thing, but always whatever happens to be in one’s vicinity, medieval writers associate smell with discernment, an analogy from the necessary distinguishing between good and bad smells that all smelling involves. As such, smell is not merely a sense, but representative of the principles governing the operation of all senses: the act of distinguishing (and thus, at some level, choosing) between good and evil.
Thus, in St. Bonaventure’s account of St. Francis, smell does not get its own individual miracle, but rather represents the sanctification of his entire person, via the sweet scent of his body after his death. The problem here should be obvious; the sense is only sanctified in its expiration (at least in the sanctified one themselves). In the sweet smell of Christian saints and martyrs who have left this earthly life, the supposedly exalted value of smell is in fact only found in its negation. While some might argue that, following the Cross, negation is the proper mode of Christian sanctification, there is at least a tension in that every other sense receives some positive expression. Smell alone is assigned only to death.
Although this account is unsatisfactory, it does push us further toward a fuller theology of noses. Whatever their failings, these medieval associations do acknowledge that smell is, for the most part, a basically passive sense. While we often do deliberately sniff things, smell is something the body does, almost does for us, just as a matter of course, with very little agency. To be precise about it, I suppose one might say that while one might choose to smell something in particular deliberately, one cannot choose not to smell at all.
This lack of agency is perhaps common to all the sense organs, but it is more prominent in the nose due to the boundlessness of smell. Or, as Louis puts it in Tony Kushner’s play, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes:
The nose is really a sexual organ. Smelling. Is desiring. We have five senses, but only two that go beyond the boundaries… of ourselves. When you look at someone, it’s just bouncing light, or when you hear them, it’s just sound waves, vibrating air, or touch is just nerve endings tingling. Know what a smell is? […] It’s made of the molecules of what you’re smelling. Some part of you, where you meet the air, is airborne.
Whereas the medievals associated the “combined object of scent” with the capacity for rational discernment—which implies a kind of restraint—Kushner links it to a sense of excess via sexuality.
However, this is not a distinction between theological and secular approaches to the nose. After all, it would be difficult to watch Angels in America—or even just to read the title—without picking up on at least some of the theological tropes and narratives at play. The titular angels appear to Walter Prior, a gay man dying of AIDS, who has been abandoned by his lover, Louis. The purpose of this visitation is to appoint Prior a prophet. The world was created by God—via, the angel implies, copulation with the angels: “Angelic orgasm makes protomatter, which fuels the Engine of Creation” (“the sexual politics of this are very confusing,” Prior admits)—in the pursuit of something new, some kind of change. Unfortunately this change proved too seductive, and God abandoned heaven, as the angel says, “In Mortifying Imitation of You [humanity], his least creation.” The angels hope that if Prior can get humanity to “stop moving,” God may grow bored of them and return to the angels once more.
The plot of the play does not, however, follow quite so neat a route from angelic exhortation to faithful execution of their commands. For one thing, Walter is hospitalized, not really in a position to make any kind of prophetic proclamations. He and the various characters are more interested in the complex entanglements of desire and the realities it creates, from Roy Cohn’s ideological heterosexuality (“Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men… Homosexuals are men… Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me, Henry?”) to Joe, the young Mormon who finds himself taking long walks through prime cruising territory in Central Park, and Harper, his mentally ill wife who dreams of (or embarks into, or somewhere in between) a more exciting world beyond their dissatisfactory heterosexual household. All of them are driven by desire, not only in their day-to-day decisions, but across the apocalyptic landscape created by the angelic proclamation and the sense of catastrophe surrounding the AIDS crisis. As Prior ascends to the heavens to confront the angelic council, desire translates into demand: “Bless me anyway. I want more life. I can’t help myself.”
So where does this leave our interpretation of St. Athanasius? In both St. Bonaventure and Angels in America, the sense of smell is associated with the subjectivity of human action, whether that be the rational discernment essential to virtue or eroticism. But whereas in many classical Christian accounts, the fulfillment of smell is only found in the blessed corpse, Kushner presents it as ultimately a propellent toward life, more life. Yet while Kushner’s account is certainly removed from historic Christian theologies of the nose, it is not by so many removes as one might expect. In writers such as St. Gregory of Nyssa and the pseudonymous Dionysios the Areopagite, there is a strain of Christian tradition in which desire is seen as the key to the spiritual life—the endless chasing of longing after that which it longs for, the boundless satisfaction of union with the beloved. Athanasius warns against the dangers of “erotic perfumes”; is the danger the scent itself, or stopping at the scent, remaining with the temporal, not taking up the eschatological quest? Kushner is very explicit that smelling cannot end in itself:
LOUIS (Quietly): Ssssshhhh.
Smelling. And tasting. First the nose, then the tongue.
Theologians have often debated whether there was sex in Eden. Setting aside questions of biblical literality, the function of accounts of paradise has always been to ask the question, what ways of living are possible for human beings that are currently unlived? Rather than noses or sex as we know them, what ways of smelling, desiring, might be possible in a world to come?
Jonathan Murden writes a monthly column of cultural theology. Murden is an Orthodox Christian and undergrad currently based in the north of England.