Can the Presence of God be an Object of Joint Attention?

Joshua Cockayne and Gideon Salter
Saturday 5 June 2021
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

This puzzle explores how liturgical participants might jointly attend to God’s presence in acts of corporate worship. The notion that our experience of the world is shared in some important way is not a new insight by any means. Consider a recent example from the philosophy of mind:

You and I are in the gallery in Tokyo that houses Turner’s Helvoetsluys. We read in the catalog that Turner painted a buoy into his painting to spite Constable, which inspires us to search for the buoy in the painting. ‘This,’ I say, pointing at a particular location in the seascape, “is the buoy.”You initially disagree: ‘This,’ you say and point accordingly, ‘is just a blob of paint.’ But then you look more closely and come to see that I am right and the object I indicated really is a buoy. (Seeman 2019, 74)

While we experience the world from a particular first-personal perspective, our activity in the world depends on being able to understand that our environments are shared. As the Turner example shows, others’ perspectives on the world can point us to features of our environment we may otherwise have missed. There is an interplay between the perspectival and shared nature of our experiences.

When it comes to religious experiences, Christian theology typically places emphasis on the role of community for the life of faith. One of the primary places of religious engagement, for most religious adherents, is in the worshipping life of a community. If we experience God most often in community, we might wonder what role these communities can play in the shaping and directing of our attention. However, there are aspects of spiritual life that may intuitively seem to be individual experiences. One such aspect is that of a sense of God’s presence. It is uncontroversial to claim that individuals can experience God as being with them or present to them. But can this experience be shared with others? By shared, we mean something more than multiple individuals simultaneously having an experience of God’s presence. Can there be communal experiences in which multiple persons experience as sense of God’s presence together?

There are numerous instances in which liturgies point and direct us, as a gathered community, to God’s presence. Take the opening liturgy from the Church of England’s Common Worship, for example. The leader uses the bidding: “The Lord is here”, to which the congregation reply: “His Spirit is with us”. The language of “here” is spatial—the worship leader reminds the congregation that God’s presence is with them in the room they worship in. We suggest that the purpose of such liturgies is to bring the community’s attention to God’s presence, so that it is common knowledge that God was present in that gathering.

But here is where things get more problematic. The anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, in observing the Vineyard movement in the U.S.A puts the point vividly:

Human interaction—real human interaction, with two people together in a room—is remarkably dense. We move, touch, gesture, mimic . . . we scan people’s faces intently as we talk, and what we see in their faces affects what we say. . . But God has no face. You cannot look him in the eye and judge that he hears you speak. He does not make the little phatic grunts we make to each other on the phone, to show we’re still listening. (Luhrmann 2007, 72-73)

If corporate worship provides the opportunity to jointly attend to God’s presence, it is not altogether clear how this is possible. God is not a physical object in our environment and God’s presence is not obviously physically located. More pressingly, it is also not altogether clear how a sense of God’s presence could be experienced by more than one person, in the sense of a genuinely shared (rather than simultaneous) experience. It is here that our theological puzzle emerges: Can the presence of God be an object of joint attention? While hearing lines of liturgy and seeing preaching pastors might obviously be mutual objects of attention for a gathered congregation, we seek to ask how it might be possible for multiple persons to jointly attend to the immaterial presence of God.

The discussion proceeds as follows: First, we summarise the discussion of joint attention in recent developmental psychology and philosophy of mind. This literature has explored how we come to have shared experiences of the world with others. Secondly, we consider recent work in analytic theology and philosophy of religion which seeks to explain: (i) the corporate nature of liturgy in Christian traditions, and, (ii) what it means to think of God as present. Thirdly, drawing these two literatures together, we provide some examples of attention “pointing” in the context of liturgical worship and offer two accounts which seek to make sense of jointly attending to God’s presence. The first account thinks of God’s presence as fundamentally located in, say, the eucharistic elements such that jointly attending to bread and wine counts as jointly attending to God’s presence. The second account thinks of God’s presence in derivative, mediated terms, arguing that God can jointly attend to individuals in acts of liturgy. On this second, derivative account, God’s presence is synonymous with God’s attention. We show how this joint attention with God might be the object of joint attention for two or more liturgical participants and highlight the difficulties of such an approach.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Shared Attention and Shared Worlds in Psychology and Philosophy of Mind

In the introduction, we highlighted a tension. On the one hand, our mental life is intrinsically subjective and perspectival. Our view of the world is ours and does not belong to anybody else. On the other hand, we act in shared environments with a shared awareness of the features of these environments. Without this understanding, it would be impossible to communicate or cooperate with others. But how do we come to understand the world as shared, and to understand that we are attending with others to some feature of the world?

Philosophers have traditionally investigated this question by attempting to characterise what has been labelled “mutual knowledge” or “common knowledge”. Classic accounts such as those of Lewis (1969) and Schiffer (1975) identified the “fingerprint” of common knowledge as its iterative structure: “I know that you know that I know…” (Battich and Geurts 2020). This structure is thought to generate the characteristic sense of openness that comes with common knowledge; we not only know what each other know (and so on) but we have awareness of our common knowledge. Despite this influential work, a variety of issues have been raised. Most notably, the concept of common knowledge that had been created seemed to involve implausible forms of reasoning, or at least sophisticated cognitive capacities. This is particularly noteworthy given the findings of developmental psychologists, who have found that infants in their first year are capable of sharing experiences about the world with others, through what has been called “joint attention” (Scaife and Bruner 1975).

Joint attention is defined as the ability to attend to some feature of the world with another with awareness that this attention is shared (Tomasello 1995). The concept of joint attention has shifted the focus of discussions of common knowledge away from idealised reasoning processes and complex states of awareness towards joint activity in time and space (Reddy 2008). For example, an infant might smile towards an object, then look to her caregiver who smiles back and comments on the object, before both turn to attend to the object (Carpenter and Liebal 2011). Through such simple sequences of behaviours, infants are able to share their interest in the object and have this interest recognised and shared by a caregiver. Infants can share attention through gaze, facial expressions, vocalisations, touch and gestures (Siposova and Carpenter 2019). As they get older, infants across different cultures start to use their index finger to point out features of the world (Liszkowski et al. 2012). The process of building a shared world starts with acting with others, not through individual, cognitive-level reasoning about knowledge or beliefs.

The study of joint attention also requires a rethinking of the relationship between individual and shared experience. Bruner’s psychology, presaged in the theories of the influential developmentalist Vygotsky, posits that mental life is dependent on shared experiences. On a Brunerian or Vygotskian account, our knowledge of the world relies on interacting with others; it is “through others we become ourselves” (Vygotsky 1978). When it comes to shared experience, we cannot build it out of combinations of individual perspectives. The shared experience is primary; perspective-taking itself relies on establishing a shared world (Moll and Meltzoff 2011; Seemann 2019a).

So far, we have highlighted the significance of joint attention for accounts of common knowledge and shared experience. But to sharpen our focus, we need to specify how the concept of joint attention can be fruitfully applied to our theological puzzle. There are two key issues. First, is it plausible to talk about the effects of the attention of an agent that is not physically present? Second, is it plausible to talk about attending to an agent that is not visible or perceptible?

The first concern can be addressed by a number of inventive studies that demonstrate that human behaviour is guided by cues to others’ attention. Risko and Kingstone (2011) found that participants behaved differently when wearing an eye-tracking headset that they thought was inactive, versus an eye-tracking headset that they thought was active. They were less likely to attend to a potentially embarrassing stimulus (a swimwear calendar hanging nearby) when they believed the headset was active. Another study by Bateson and colleagues (2006) found that people paid nearly three times as much into an honesty box for drinks in a coffee room when images of eyes were displayed near the box, rather than when control images were used. Further studies have found effects using minimal cues such as viewing livestreamed versus pre-recorded videos (Shteynberg et al. 2016). In each case, we see that mere cues to attention (even when, as in the second case, one knows the cues are not live cues to attention) induce a sense of being the target of attention, in ways that have meaningful effects on behaviour. It is plausible that in many such cases, individuals experience a sense not only of being a target of attention, but a sense of shared attention with a non-present agent (for more detailed arguments, see Cockayne and Salter 2019; Shteynberg et al. 2020).

Secondly, it may appear that joint attention is only ever to perceptible features of the environment. However, targets of joint attention can also be mental contents (O’Madagain and Tomasello 2019) or amodal properties of objects, such as weight (Battich et al. 2020). In each of these cases, perceptible properties are a means to sharing attention to imperceptible properties. For example, uttered words can provide perceptible vehicles which represent mental contents, enabling joint attention to those mental contents. A couple sharing attention to an engagement ring may not only be sharing attention to the ring itself, but rather the array of meanings that come with the object; their relationship, their future marriage, and so on.  Such an account can be expanded to other abstract or imperceptible targets, such as memories (Seemann 2019b), and as we will argue, God’s presence to us.

To summarise, we have seen that the concept of joint attention, while originating in simple interactions between an infant and a caregiver, has fruitfully contributed to a range of thorny philosophical issues, in particular regarding common knowledge and the establishment of a shared world. In the context of religious practice, joint attention can contribute both to practitioners’ sense of shared experience with God, as well as a sense of shared experience about God.

2.2 Presence and Liturgy in Analytic Theology and the Philosophy of Religion

Drawing from the psychological literature above, this puzzle aims to ask whether God’s presence might be an object of joint attention, paying particular attention to acts of corporate worship. To do so, we draw on two recent discussions in analytic theology and philosophy of religion: first, the nature of divine presence, and, secondly, liturgy.

First, on the matter of God’s presence and omnipresence, there have been two approaches for thinking about presence that will guide our own discussion. Consider Ross Inman’s distinction between fundamental and derivative presence:

Fundamental Presence: x is present at p fundamentally=df x is present at p in its own right, i.e., not in virtue of standing in a relation(s), R(s), to some distinct entity, y, that is present at p in its own right.

Derivative Presence: x is present at p derivatively =df x is present at p in virtue of standing in some relation(s), R(s), to some distinct entity, y, where y is present at p fundamentally. (Inman forthcoming, 7)

As Inman explains, “Material objects, for example, are plausibly construed as being present at their respective places in the fundamental sense. Trees, tables, and tigers are present at a place in their own right, i.e., not simply in virtue of being related to something that is itself present at a place in its own right. However, something maybe present to a place by way of standing in some causal or epistemic relation to something that is itself present at a place in its own right, e.g., my being cognitively aware of or in causal contact with things and events at a place that are present in their own right” (Inman forthcoming, 7). There are those that think God’s omnipresence can be explained in these terms (see Hud Hudson (2009, 2014), Robert Oakes, (2006) and Alexander Pruss (2013)). As we will see in the next section, there is some application of fundamental presence which can inform the puzzle we seek to address.

Secondly, there are those who think that God’s presence is not best thought of in a fundamental way, at least not in all cases.  Rather, if God is present in the environment, then it is only derivatively – that is, in virtue of standing in some relation to an object of the environment. One way of parsing this relation out is in terms of being present to. Eleonore Stump, in her discussion of omnipresence, draws from much of the psychological literature above to explain the kind of second-personal presence that exists between persons. For instance, we might say, “‘She read the paper all through dinner and was never present to any of the rest of us’” (Stump 2013, 30). Stump argues,

In these examples, there is presence at a time and in a place; but some kind of presence, characterized by one or another kind of second-personal psychological connection, is missing. Typically, this kind of presence is characterized as presence with or presence to another person. I will call this kind of presence ‘personal presence’. (2013, 30)

What it means to think of God as present in this way has received some attention in philosophy of religion. Extending the discussion of joint attention in the psychological literature, Adam Green argues that the objects of our environment might be used as mediums by which we come to be aware of God’s presence. On this account, God is derivatively present to a person in a second-personal way if God and that person are aware of one another’s awareness of an object, such as, say, a beautiful sunset. In other words, at least on the derivative account, presence and attention can be used synonymously.

Another relevant discussion in the analytic literature focuses on the philosophy of the liturgy. In James K.A. Smith’s words, there has been a “liturgical turn” (2018, 118) in the philosophy of religion in recent years. Nicholas Wolterstorff (2015, 2018) and Terence Cuneo (2016) have both addressed a range of issues related to Christian liturgy through the lens of analytic philosophy (some of this work is summarized in Cockayne 2018a, Cockayne 2018b).  This work spans a range of issues in the philosophy of action, epistemology, ethics and the philosophy of language.

Some attention has been paid in this literature to the notion that liturgy is a means of knowing God personally. Cuneo, for instance, thinks that liturgy provides the context of knowing how to engage God by participating in practices which allow one to bless, petition and thank God (Cockayne (2019) argues that such knowledge can be acquired by communities and not just individuals). In his article, “Knowing God Liturgically”, Wolterstorff argues that liturgy allows a person to know what God is like through the repetition of certain descriptive phrases. And Eleonore Stump (2015) argues that the eucharistic liturgy provides a narrative by which we can come to know what God is like. All of these accounts think of corporate worship as playing some important role in a person’s coming to know God.

Moreover, there has been some attempt to bring together work on the nature of God’s presence and work on liturgy.  Take two recent examples: According to Green and Quan, “the Scriptures [might], direct one’s attention to one’s pride. …God might elect for the contents of Scripture to shape a dyadic experience of the divine. Shared attention requires that the agent one is sharing attention with be experienced as present, even if implicitly. Thus, the constitutive reading draws a tight link between the role that the text plays in facilitating shared attention and God’s being present” (2012, 426). Similarly, according to Cockayne et al., a person and Christ might “share attention by focusing on the Eucharistic meal, which is able to bring about reconciliation between them…[for] participation in the Eucharist to count as an experience of Christ as present…[one] must be aware that Christ is present and that Christ is attending to [them]….In partaking in the bread and wine, [one] is aware that Christ too is present and focusing on this meal and the things that stand in the way of their reconciliation. The elements occasion both a dyadic and triadic shared attention of Christ and Christ is derivatively present in the Eucharistic elements” (Cockayne et al. 2017, 187-188).

These examples focus primarily on an individual’s experience of God in liturgy. But there are discussions which seek to broaden the focus to think about the role of community. Cockayne and Efird (2018) think that jointly attending to God in liturgy can broaden one’s own knowledge and experience of God in important ways. And in Derek S. King’s (2020) recent article, it is argued that the revelation of Christ’s presence is tied in important ways to the community of the Church, meaning that we cannot think of individuals as the recipients of relationship with God, thereby providing a novel response to the problem of divine hiddenness (Blanchard (2016) advocates for a similar thesis in the context of Judaism).

Thus, much of this work thinks of God as known in the context of corporate worship and as God’s presence as revealed in important ways. In the remaining sections of the puzzle we consider how this discussion of liturgy and presence can address the question of whether God’s presence can be an object of joint attention.

3. Discussion

3.1 Fundamental Presence as an object of Shared Attention

In the context of liturgy, it seems that there are instances in which God’s presence (understood in fundamental terms) might be a shared object of attention. In using the words of the Agnus Dei, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”, the priest lifts the consecrated elements, and, using verbal cues, invites the congregants to attend to the bread and wine.

Now, if one holds to a corporeal view of the eucharist (transubstantiation or impanation, for example), then at a certain time, it is true that in attending to the consecrated elements, one is attending to the body of Christ. For instance, defending a metaphysics of transubstantiation, Alexander Pruss writes, “The Catholic view is that Christ’s body and blood is wholly present in the location of the Eucharistic species…this implies that every intrinsic feature of Christ’s body and blood is present there as well” (Pruss 2013, 70). Different models have been used to explain the metaphysics of transubstantiation — including an account drawing from the metaphysics of time travel (Pickup 2015) and multilocation (Pruss 2013).

Take another recent discussion of the metaphysics of the eucharist—James Arcadi’s (2018) defence of impanation. Arcadi’s account draws on the recent philosophical thesis of the “Extended Mind” (Clark & Chalmers 1998) but applies this to think about extended bodies. The extended approach to mind argues that any process that we would label cognitive if it took place in the brain should be labelled cognitive, and the components of that process (for the time they feature in the process) ought to be considered part of the cognitive process. This view offers a radical rethinking of the limits of bodies and minds; minds are not constituted solely by the activity of brains, but depend on processes occurring beyond the skull. Bodies bear constitutive rather than merely coupled relations to any prosthetics or tools that expand their range of activity. Drawing upon this philosophical approach, Arcadi writes, “the bread of the Eucharist is Christ’s body in virtue of being an extended part of his body, the wine of the Eucharist is Christ’s blood in virtue of being an extended part of his blood” (2018, 245). Thus, he writes,

Because of the private instrumental union that is formed between the natural human body in Christ and say, the bread—to focus for convenience on just one of the elements—the body and the bread form one subsisting thing, they form a relation of identity. Clearly then if the bread is identical with the body, the predication, ‘This is the body of Christ’, is apt. The liturgical utterance has been underwritten by the metaphysics of a body extending itself to include a private instrument…The bread belongs to, and is owned by, the Word as it becomes his body. (2018, 244)

On both views (transubstantiation and impanation), the priest’s use of the Agnus Dei in liturgy is literally true. Thus, it seems straightforward to think that if Christ is fundamentally located, then co-attending to the eucharistic elements gets to count as an instance of co-attending to the presence of God. Put simply, if God is fundamentally present at a location, then jointly attending to God’s presence draws upon the same sociocognitive processes and behaviours that are involved in jointly attending to any other physical object or stimulus.

Moreover, this conclusion follows even if the liturgical participant is not aware that the consecrated elements are the body and blood of Christ. Suppose Paul disguises himself as Barry and shows up to their mother’s birthday party. Mother, fooled by the disguise, points to Paul and says, “That’s Barry”. While Mother’s statement, “That’s Barry” is false, the object she attends to is Paul, regardless of her beliefs. Recall Hilary Putnam’s (1982) much discussed “Twin Earth” thought experiment. Suppose we were transported to a planet identical to our own, except for the fact that the watery substance used for drinking and bathing was not the compound H2O, but instead, was the compound XYZ. A person who knew nothing about chemical compounds might point to XYZ and say, “that’s water”, even though they knew nothing about the difference between XYZ and H2O. The reason such a person would be false in stating “that’s water”, according to Putnam is because there is something external to the subject which renders the sentence false. This thesis is dubbed “semantic externalism”, the thesis that “the meaning and reference of some of the words we use is not solely determined by the ideas we associate with them or by our internal physical state” (Lau and Deutsch 2019). If semantic externalism is true, then even for a person who says, “That’s merely ordinary bread and wine”, the presence of God is an object of their attention, regardless of their own beliefs and ascriptions.

This view is straightforward, but its application is fairly narrow. While the majority of Christian traditions defend some version of the corporeal account of Christ’s presence in the eucharist, there are reasons to seek an alternative approach. Even if one embraces a corporeal account, there are many more cases in which God’s presence seems to function in a non-fundamental way, even in these traditions. These generate a more complex discussion of shared attention and presence.

3.2 The Derivative presence of God as an object of Shared Attention

Consider two further examples of co-attending to God’s presence that don’t straightforwardly fit the fundamental model:

When alone, we might have the tendency to focus on certain aspects of God’s character, and thereby build up a biased picture of God, in worship, it is possible to be guided by the focus of another’s attention. This change in our focus might simply be by means of the emphasis another person places on certain words, the shape and posture of their body, or even the focus of their gaze (on, say, the altar, or the cross, for example). All these ways might serve as pointers to redirect our own attention and thereby to experience some different aspect of God, thereby removing our biases in important ways. (Cockayne and Efird 2018, 320)

We believe in a God who is alive and who speaks. I feel that the Spirit is already revealing new truths to some of us here today. Sometimes God gives us a message that is not only for ourselves but is for someone else or for all of us….We can discern this together. You never know, that message might really touch someone – so don’t be shy. (Leidenhag 2020, 67)

These contexts seem to fit more readily with the discussion of derivative presence outlined in Stump’s and Green’s discussion of joint attention. We’ve already seen that liturgical objects can facilitate joint attention with God, but this doesn’t get to the nub of the puzzle. For the puzzle asks how God’s presence can be the object of joint attention, not how participants might attend jointly with God. In other words, what we need to see is not only how an individual can attend to God’s awareness, but how two (or more) individuals can be aware of one another’s awareness of God’s awareness. Here is where the puzzle gets especially puzzling. To see how we might provide such an account, consider a parallel case from George Orwell’s novel 1984,

there seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The blackmoustachio’d face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own. …. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the police patrol, snooping into people’s windows. The patrols did not matter, however. Only the Thought Police mattered. (1961, 3-4)

If we grant that Winston can be aware that Big Brother is aware of him, and that Winston can be aware that Julia is aware that Big Brother is aware of her, we might ask: How is it that Big Brother’s awareness can be an object of joint attention between Winston and Julia?

Here, we can draw upon the psychological research regarding joint attention to imperceptible properties. We saw previously that agents can use words or objects as representational vehicles for joint attention to amodal features or immaterial concepts. We gave the example of the engagement ring, which enables sharing of attention to abstract concepts (e.g. a relationship). The complexity in our case is that the immaterial target of attention is itself God’s attention. However, we would argue that if any other immaterial concept can be a target of joint attention, there is no reason that this cannot be the case for attention itself. Thus, our argument is that, on the derivative account, the culturally-mediated symbols of liturgical practice serve to draw our joint attention to God’s attention to us.

To return to the Big Brother example, we can see many culturally salient cues to Big Brother’s attention. From the more on-the-nose “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU” to the more subtle sight of a snooping helicopter, these cues serve to activate beliefs about attention, which, as the aforementioned psychological research has shown, have tangible effects on behaviour. Winston and Julia can use these cues as means to share attention to Big Brother’s attention. The comparison between God and Big Brother may be unpalatable to some. Our comparison is not to suggest that God’s character ought to be viewed in similar terms to Big Brother’s, but solely to make the point that material objects can be used as cues to the attention of an immaterial other. These cues can subsequently be used by physically co-present agents to share attention to the attention of the immaterial other. In the context of liturgical practice, many of the symbols and actions that we share with others allow us to jointly attend to God’s presence, by serving as representational vehicles that remind us that God is attending to us.

A further complexity is that this approach allows that God is both the target of attention as well as a co-attender. As we saw in the philosophical discussions of common knowledge, there is something about the openness of shared experience which means we experience not only attentional targets themselves as shared, but our joint attention to these targets as shared. On this approach, when liturgical participants attend jointly with God, there is joint awareness (with God as co-subject) of attention to God’s attention (the object of our joint attention).

4. Conclusion

Drawing upon the psychology and philosophy of joint attention and common knowledge, we have presented two possible approaches to understanding how God’s presence can be a shared experience amongst multiple persons in the context of liturgical practices. The first argues that God is fundamentally present in the Eucharistic elements, meaning jointly attending to the elements constitutes jointly attending to God’s presence. On the second account, God’s presence is the target of joint attention through the mediation of symbols that represent God’s attention. On this account, one is attending to God’s attention not only with other liturgical participants, but also with God. The strategy one prefers will inevitably be informed by other theological and philosophical commitments.

There are a number of further relevant issues that are beyond the scope of this discussion. In light of the view that interpersonal experiences lay the foundation for individual experiences (e.g. Bruner 1986; Vygotsky 1978), one interesting move could be to argue that shared experiences of God’s presence are in fact the basis of individual experiences of God’s presence. In the context of religious development or conversion, could personal experiences of God’s presence in fact depend on prior shared experiences of God’s presence with others? Another set of issues relates to the role of space: do the spatial properties of environments play a role in joint attention? One might argue that there are meaningful differences in shared experience when worshipping in a space that places the pulpit at the front of the church, rather than the altar.


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Cite this article

Cockayne, Joshua and Gideon Salter. 2021. “Can the Presence of God be an Object of Joint Attention?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 2).

Contact the authors

Joshua Cockayne
[email protected]

Gideon Salter
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