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The rediscovery of beauty

01 November 2013

In the first of a four-part series, John M. Hull considers touch

"We see with our fingers more regularly": Professor John M. Hull

"We see with our fingers more regularly": Professor John M. Hull

THE beauties of touch are, I suppose, largely hidden from many sighted people. For those who go blind in adult life, the loss of beauty must be one of the most perplexing problems. Those in the blind state who do not wish to remain as sighted people who cannot see, but to become authentic blind people, will find that discovering the beauty of touch is one of their most important tasks.

In my own experience - perhaps I am not alone in this - one passes through three stages in the learning of tactile beauty. First, there is the stage when, with our hands, we learn again to do. There is the second stage when, with our hands, we learn to know. Finally, there is that stage when, with our hands, we learn to appreciate beauty.

The first stage, the doing stage, is in itself sufficiently perplexing. It takes time to realise that, as a blind person trying to unlock a door, you have to remember what it was like coming home late at night drunk. You need one hand to locate the keyhole, and the other hand to shove the key in. This is an example of blind doing.

To move on to blind knowing is so much more complex. Of course, sighted people do use their hands for knowing. One touches something to discover whether or not it is hot, and one says "Ouch." These experiences are relatively isolated for the sighted. In the case of the blind, we see with our fingers more regularly. For us, tactile knowing is our standard form of knowledge.

When we arrive at the third stage, the stage of discovering tactile beauty, we reach realms that are yet more subtle. It is foolish for blind people to sit around bemoaning the loss of the moon and the mountain. For us, beauty is more intimate, more concrete, more immediate, more particular. Gradually, the blind rediscover the beauty of ordinary things. In the world of blind beauty, we rediscover the loveliness of cups and saucers, of milk bottles and teaspoons, of rocks and bricks, of the bark of trees and the feel of human hair.

Now I would like to move on to the tactile heart, because, although we know with our brains, we feel with our hearts. Let us think how the tactile heart is used in religious imagination to express our response to God.

In tactile doing, knowing, and appreciating beauty, we find metaphors of our human condition before God. Do you remember how the Lord God made us human beings in the first place? Did God not kneel down in the dust of the earth, and use fingers to mould us? Did God not hold us, warm against God's own body, and breathe into us the breath of life? So we became living men and women. We are close to the heart of this tactile God.

Do we not remember those stories about Jesus Christ? His contemporaries were amazed because he touched people. He touched the untouchable, the unlovely, the poor, and the sick. He laid his hands upon little children. Moreover, he made himself available to be touched, for to touch is to be touched.

So it was that Thomas was invited to touch his hands and his side, and when the first Christians looked back and described the experience they had had of God in Christ, they spoke of that which they had touched with their hands (1 John 1.1).

This is an edited extract from The Tactile Heart: Blindness and faith by John M. Hull (SCM Press, £25 (CT Bookshop £22.50); 978-0-334-04933-3) (Back Page Interview,  17 May).

Forthcoming Events

18 May 2021
Lift Up Your Voices, Lift Up Your Hearts
Speakers include John Bell, Noel Tredinnick and Helen Bent.

27 May 2021
Book launch: God is not a White Man
Chine McDonald in conversation with Sanjee Perera.

More events

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