Culture At Large

Anosmia and God’s mysterious gift of smell

John Van Sloten

Too often we lose track of our senses.

God has gifted us a spectacular array of capacities to engage, receive, interpret, enjoy and respond to both Him and His world and, for the most part, we forget that they’re even there!  

Sight to perceive light, shape and color; touch to enable us to make contact and affirm our sense of place; hearing so that we might take in His words from multiple and varied directions and distances, all at the same time; taste so that we can savor and safely ingest the sweetness of life; and smell so that we can … so that we can what?

Even Plato had trouble with that question, notes Susan Ashbrook Harvey in Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination. When he ranked the human senses, sight and hearing scored high, touch and taste low, and smell… well, he was unsure about smell. Of all the senses, smell seemed the most mysterious, subjective and non-definitive to him.

So where’s God’s truth in the gift of smell then? Ask someone who has anosmia. The New York Times recently published a fascinating video sharing first-person stories from those who’d lost their sense of smell.

So where is God’s truth in the gift of smell? Ask someone who has anosmia.

An anosmic man from the video says, “I’d really love to know what my wife smells like, or my son smells like. I think he smells sweet and um, you know, like a kid… I just … I wish I knew.”

Perhaps smell is best discerned in absentia.

Theophrastus, a third-century Greek philosopher, “asserted that everything that had a smell had its own, distinctive smell,” writes Harvey in Scenting Salvation. “Further he argued that every smell belonging to a living thing conveyed not only identity, but also condition and circumstance.”

The nature of the sense of smell is so mysterious, elusive and non-definitive. It needs to be free and diverse enough to allow for the engagement of a world full of uniquely scented living beings. Perhaps this unnamable olfactory mystery is a pointer to a God who uniquely creates, senses, inhales and recognizes each of us.

Smell is also a hugely relational sense. Years ago a neurologist told me that both taste and smell are processed in the same part of the brain that handles memory. Of course, we all know that truth already. We experience it every time a scent mystically transports us back to a place - the smell of a pencil eraser taking us back to second grade, a certain meal putting us right back in our parent’s kitchen.

How in the world does that happen? In my experience the reconnection is often so vivid that it seems almost timeless. Perhaps God means for us to recall and experience his ever-remembering, timeless presence in moments like these. Smells remind us that we have a past.

And a future. Experts think that, because smell is their primary sense organ, a dog’s sense of time and place is different than ours. At any given moment and place, it’s believed that a dog is able to sense (time-wise) what was there 20 minutes earlier and (space-wise) what lies just around the corner up ahead. Perhaps smell not only gives us a sense of God’s timelessness, but also of his omnipresence.

Smell also changes you. Tasty smells cause you to salivate. Familiar smells bring comfort. Bad smells repel and protect. And the scent of God lets you know He’s there. Harvey notes that in the ancient church, perfumes were often a “marker of divine presence, signifying the condition of blessing or grace.”

Smell can also demarcate a space (for good or evil).  In Old Testament times, God’s Spirit filled the temple. Right now, God is in your space. Can you smell His presence? The disciples must have. What was Jesus’ unique scent, I wonder?

Yes, our sense of smell is a bit of a mystery. So many different molecules, combined in so many different ways, evoking so many different responses. What a vastly diverse and ubiquitous sense you’ve given us God. Ideal, perhaps, if Christ really does play in 10,000 places and through 10,000 faces - and smells.

What Do You Think?

  • How much do you value God’s gift of smell?
  • What does our sense of smell reveal about Him? About us?
  • What would you miss most if you lost your sense of smell?


Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science