Culture At Large

Spiritual perception and the science of color

John Van Sloten

During a recent episode of "Radiolab" exploring the science of color, the hosts hooked me with this early question: “Is the light without or is the light within?” A scientist on the show figured it was both (and surely the Kingdom of God is both within us and around us).

The program was all about color perception and how it varies for different species (and people). Dogs are bi-chromates, meaning their eyes have two cones enabling them to see blue/yellow and black/white, while most humans are tri-chromates, enabling us to see many more colors. Some butterflies have five cones and can see an even broader range. The mantis shrimp, amazingly, has sixteen cones! If all these different species might be looking at the same thing, some would see more colors than others, who, “though seeing, they do not see.”

This past Sunday I began my sermon by asking, “Do you ever wonder how much of God’s presence in your life you miss?” (I used Duccio’s Jesus Healing the Man Born Blind as my background image.) We looked at the stories of Mary Magdalene in the garden, the disciples on the road to Emmaus and Peter and John in the boat post-resurrection. In each narrative a person had Jesus standing right in front of them and for a time had no idea who they were looking at. Spiritual spectrum disorder (SSD).

If we really believe in an omnipresent, sovereign, providentially moving, holding-the-universe-together-by-His-Holy-Spirit God, one who wants us to know and experience His presence (to see), then surely we must be missing a lot. In fact, we must be missing most of what’s really going on. Because of sin, we’re a few cones short of full perceptive capacity.

One scientist worked with monkeys, who cannot see red, and did experiments in which he injected red cones into the monkey’s eyes. The monkeys saw red for the first time! Imagine that. Noting their simian delight, the researcher said, “I did get some sense that they felt like their life had improved.” I felt the same when God first touched my eyes. Perhaps God felt it too?

Do you ever wonder how much of God’s presence in your life you miss?

Apparently there are some women who have extra-sensory perception when it comes to color. Because the ability to see color is carried in the X chromosome - and women get two - there are rare cases where the ability to see color is enhanced. They’re tetra-chromates, with an extra yellow cone. (Like the new Sanyo TV!) I’ve met these women before. They perceive reality far more vividly than I do. Women like Dorothy Sayers, Ann Voskamp, Rachel Held Evans and my wife. Jesus’ eyes, in full submission to his Father, must have seen with such brilliance - the full spiritual spectrum.

The real tetra-chromates, however, even though they were genetically capable of seeing more colors, were tested and didn’t seem to be able to perceive to their inherent visual capacity. One scientist theorized that perhaps they needed to learn how to wield their perceptive gifts. Would artists or florists – people who work with many different tones, colors and shades on a more frequent basis – be best equipped to develop their color perception? And would people who pray, read the Bible, meditate on the presence of God be best equipped to see the richness and multi-chromatic glory of the kingdom?

On "Radiolab," they also spoke about the possibility of people in ancient civilizations not having color-perception capacities like we have today, considering none of these ancient peoples mention the color blue. Blue was the last color to be perceived as languages developed (red was first). Perhaps it was because you don’t need a word for a color until you made things of that color (only the Egyptians had the word). Scientists think some African tribes can’t see blue (versus green) because they don’t have a word for blue. Things got abstract at that point. Does having the word for blue enable the capacity to perceive blue? How does language affect perception? Does the fact of Jesus Christ (the word incarnate) enable us to better and more frequently perceive God?

Or maybe the color blue was so ubiquitous to those ancient worlds - filling the sky and the sea - that it didn’t need a word. God is everywhere. Maybe that’s another reason why the ancient Hebrews never said His name.

What Do You Think?

  • What's your favorite color?
  • What role does color play in your life?
  • How can we increase our perception of God?


Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science