Sensorium, Amusement, and You

Hard drives are serviced; automobiles are repaired; houses are cleaned; iPhones are fixed. But what of our souls? How does our mental and sensorial equipment work? Do we need a tune-up or a complete overhaul? Might we relate better to reality if our minds and senses were better attuned to the good, the true, and the beautiful?

Our relationship to the world is mediated by our sensorium, a rare term which illuminates areas often left in darkness. A sensorium is the inner place where we sense and try to understand the world. One man’s sensorium is very aware of logical arguments; another man’s sensorium is weak on logic, but highly attuned to nuances in painting. One woman’s sensorium is drawn to human suffering; another woman’s sensorium is more drawn to female fashion. My sensorium, through years of listening to and reading about jazz, can hear a John Coltrane saxophone solo even when it plays softly in the background in a restaurant or bar. Another soul can quickly discern the difference between Celtic and Gaelic music. About this I know nothing.

Our sensoria naturally vary given our eyesight, hearing, and other faculties. However, they are also malleable–subject to corruption and subject to reform. Those aspiring to virtue will desire to know the world in the ways it ought to be known. Thus, certain habits of the heart should be cultivated; others should be refused. If I want to deeply enjoy well-cooked food, I need to develop a taste beyond McDonald’s fare. If I want to keenly appreciate music, I need to expand beyond popular tunes. And so it goes. Taste ought to be educated; there is more to reality than what you prefer.

The enemy of the well-tempered sensorium is an overdose of amusement. Cultural critic, Neil Postman warned of this in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). When every areas of life must be amusing (on the order of television programs), then serious discourse fades from the scene. (A-muse means not to think.) Glibness replaces sober assessment and being clever becomes more important than being intelligent. Our sensoria are sullied by the saturation of amusement until we only accept what is entertaining or stimulating. What is dry or abstract has no place in us or for us. This mentality, Postman warned, debases discourse in every area of life. We have been amused to death.

Those with a taste for reality should manage their sensorium carefully. In a fallen world, we can attune ourselves to accepting error and to rejecting truth. However, the sanctified sensorium is a sanctuary for knowledge and goodness. Amusement has its place, but not every place. Step one in reforming the sensorium is putting amusement in its place. Habits of clear thinking flow from un-amused moments of reading, thinking, conversations, and prayer. Perpetual amusement leads to cognitive laziness and stupefaction. Let us rather heed Scripture’s advice and be “transformed through the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2).

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

2 thoughts

  1. It is no accident that leprosy is presented in Scripture as a type of sin. Leprosy removes feeling. It kills the nerve’s ability to feel pain or pleasure, rendering a person anesthetized to both, and to reality. Like leprosy, too much amusement paralyzes our natural response to both pain and pleasure as well, numbing our brains and our hearts, and desensitizing us to God’s still small voice. If sin is a violation of God’s purpose, then an overdose of amusement would definitely be an example. It is high time to wake out of sleep. Romans 13:11 Thanks for faithful words.

  2. I was wondering if you would agree with the assessment that your thoughts in this post are grounded on the idea of virtue ethics. Also, do you think that the notion of virtue ethics is completely the same as Biblical ethics or does it differ on some points? An interesting study to me would be to gather various verses in the Bible that speak of ethical transformation and compare and contrast them to virtue ethics. One complementary idea to your post (which you allude to) is what could be called the gospel reality of ethics, meaning that we obey out of the existential reality of the gospel, such as praise, thanksgiving, humility, service, and love. It seems to me that that would give us other powerful reasons to avoid overstimulating our sensoria and an addiction to a-musement. Thanks again for the great ideas.

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