Timothy Larsen on Tanya M. Luhrmann
When we get to Constantine the Great, my students often experience a fair amount of frustration. At the forefront of their minds is a question about Constantine’s religious identity: was he a Christian? Or was he a pagan? I tell them that if they want to understand Constantine the thing to keep in mind is that he was a Roman emperor. The more you know about Roman emperors – what they could and couldn’t do, what they did and didn’t do – the better you will grasp the life of Constantine.
In like manner, if you want to understand T. M. Luhrmann’s work the key thing always to keep in mind is that she is an anthropologist. Moreover, not just any anthropologist, in her field of the anthropology of religion, she is one of the greatest of all time, taking her place alongside Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas, Talad Asad, or whomever you would name in that learned pantheon. Luhrmann’s brilliant new book, How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others (2020), is destined to become a classic—as is also the splendidly illuminating book to which it is a kind of sequel, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (2012).
Nevertheless, you might find Luhrmann’s book frustrating if you do not grasp how anthropologists typically go about their work. Like my approach to Constantine the Great, anthropologists often bracket the issue that is foremost in people’s minds. For instance, is this practice moral or immoral? Disgusting or delightful? Fair or unfair? Setting aside such questions, anthropologists use the space that is thereby opened up to observe closely how a practice actually works, what it means to its participants, and how it fits into the wider web of their culture as a whole.
How God Becomes Real is an ethnographically-informed study focused on the development of a person’s relationship with God, including the ways in which they come to hear God speak to them. What is bracketed is the question of whether or not they are really hearing from God—or even whether or not God really exists. Whether or not God exists is an important question, of course, but it is primarily another kind of question – philosophical or theological, perhaps – rather than an anthropological one. How do believers foster a relationship with this divine, invisible other? that is the question addressed here. The research for this project was overwhelmingly done by studying Christians, but in her reflections and analysis Luhrmann supplements this occasionally with work she has done with adherents from other traditions, including Buddhism and Judaism.
Some unbelievers might chafe at the way that Luhrmann sees relating to God as not only widespread and normal, but even as a pathway to human flourishing. Some believers, on the other hand, might become suspicious when she starts referring to the “imagination” and the “play frame” and the like. Everyone, however, might learn something if they are only willing to dial down their apologetic and polemical priorities for just long enough to consider on its own (anthropological) terms the evidence and analysis on display in this thoughtful work.
For believers, they need not be scared away by statements such as: “the capacity to imagine makes religion possible.” After all, the same claim is no less true for the discipline of physics, but that does not mean it is divorced from reality. Moreover, much of Luhrmann’s book is about what Christians usually call “spiritual disciplines.” In fact, the primary research for this project comes from work that Luhrmann and a team of scholars did at Stanford which she dubbed “the Spiritual Disciplines Project.” Throughout the book one runs into influential Christian thinkers ranging from St Augustine to C. S. Lewis. As Luhrmann well knows, a fitting, alternative title for her book could have been that of a seventeenth-century spiritual classic written by a Carmelite friar, Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. And when she emphasizes that learning to relate to God takes training and work, one naturally hears the title of St Ignatius Loyola’s masterpiece of Christian discipleship, Spiritual Exercises. Luhrmann does not include Jonathan Edwards in her parade of such figures, but I think she would find additional, apposite connections in his The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741) and Religious Affections (1746). Moreover, How God Becomes Real frequently and aptly quotes scripture. The only place I think I have caught Luhrmann out is in her depiction of a “young man’s metaphor” in Ghana in which she does not seem to twig that all he was doing was quoting 1 Peter 5:8 at her.
How then does God become real in someone’s life?
To begin: “Detailed stories help to make gods and spirits feel real.” These narratives are found, firstly, in the scriptures: “A would-be Christian learns that she must read the Bible and know its stories.” People learn to find themselves in the landscape of Zion, as Luhrmann observed when attending Bible studies for ordinary, run-of-the-mill believers: “People read a passage about the Israelites fighting the Midianites and talked about it as if it were something that had happened to them that afternoon at work with a colleague.” Secondly, detailed narratives are encountered through the testimonies of believers. The impact of such stories can be powerful. As the Bible itself evocatively declares, people are able to overcome Satan “by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony.” (Revelation 12:11) Such stories are essential because it is hard for something to be truly meaningful to someone that cannot be interpreted within a recognizable framework of meaning that is already familiar to them.
To wit, one can not discern that what has just happened is that you have encountered an angel unless you have already been introduced to the category of angels. Thai Buddhists, for instance, find spiritually meaningful experiences of sleep paralysis – they discern them to be the work of a specific spirit, Phi Am. Almost two-thirds of the Buddhists in Luhrmann’s field research reported that this spiritual experience had happened to them. Delightfully, when asked point blank about this specific phenomenon, some of her charismatic Protestants in the United States owned up to it as well, but because there was no narrative preparation for it, they found it to be literally meaningless: “I think I was just overtired. . . . So it wasn’t anything spiritual. It was kind of trippy though. Cause I couldn’t move.”
Narrative only goes so far, however – the endgame is a personal relationship with God and that can not be had at secondhand, however inspiring someone else’s testimony might be. Firsthand encounters can be cultivated and “kindled” (a word of choice in this study) by attending carefully to one’s own body. Certain experiences are discerned to be meaningful – perhaps starting to cry or having goosebumps or feeling faint – and with a frame of meaning and through a process of training they can become developed pathways to the divine. This too can be powerful, as Luhrmann learned as a participant observer: “What startled me, as a young ethnographer, was that this training worked.”
A proper relationship, however, involves two-way communication and that is the great, mysterious leap of faith that Luhrmann has been gnawing away at, beginning—at least in terms of this research project—with When God Talks Back. Any forthright analysis must confront the vexing category of realness: “I completely disagree that other people do not distinguish between the realness of humans, trees, and rocks and the realness of ghosts, gods, and spirits.” The Almighty might be real, but this realness is not a direct, quotidian equivalency: “People never asked God to write their term papers or to go shopping for them, even though they said that nothing was impossible with God.” This is tricky terrain to navigate because polemical unbelievers assert that if God is not real in the same way as natural objects then he is not real at all (hence all the crass taunts about not being able to find God in a test tube or the soul at an autopsy and so on), while polemical believers are likewise tempted to deny any ontological or existential difference between rocks and the Rock of Ages in order to attempt to thwart any undermining of the realness.
I find a similar dynamic happens with the word “literal.” Believers tend to assert they believe things “literally” even when they don’t actually do so, because they rightly see a binary where the alternative is some kind of metaphorical turn that inaccurately drains away the objective truthfulness. They believe that something is a reality, an actuality – but we are stuck with the word “literal” getting bandied about in an attempt to do that work. In the same way, Luhrmann digs and digs to get at the question of whether people are really claiming that they have heard the audible voice of God. Most of the time, they are just wanting to say that it was truly the voice of God and not just some thought generated by their own head, but there is not a well-developed vocabulary for such a claim, and therefore “audible” becomes a shorthand way of saying that it really did come from God. It is “betwixt and between” being internal or external to the person, “God’s quasi-audible voice.” Audible or not, such experiences can be genuinely vivid. Luhrmann herself, pursuing spiritual practices as an ethnographer, saw a mystical vision that she experienced as indistinguishable from natural eyesight. Drawing on the work of the anthropologist Jon Bialecki, in his A Diagram of Fire, one of the ways that believers become convinced that they are not just making things up in their own minds but truly experiencing God is that the divine words and experiences that come to them sometimes surprise them. It is, after all, rather difficult to surprise oneself – the element of surprise bears witness to a two-way relationship.
A particularly striking chapter is titled, “Why Prayer Works.” Unbelievers misunderstand what is going on because they assume that it is entirely about changing objective circumstances in the world and therefore prayer is often manifestly unsuccessful in these terms and hence presumed to be discredited or pointless. One prays for it to rain or not to rain, but the opposite occurs – this presumably happens somewhere on earth every day of the year and has done so from time immemorial. This is, of course, true, but it is no less true that believers have always known it: “Failure sluices through the Psalms like water.” What is going on then?
Luhrmann’s focus is on the way that prayer changes for the better the person doing the praying. To give thanks to God is a form of memory practice that shapes one’s identity in positive ways: “In expressing gratitude, they alter what they remember of the day.” Confession allows one to come to terms with one’s regrets—and to set goals for living a better life going forward. As for requests, whether granted or not (and sometimes, of course, they are granted), they are a way of naming and thus facing down one’s fears and anxieties. After praying about it, one’s previous despair starts to seem excessive. Or to say the same thing more programmatically: “To pray is to make hope external.” Prayer has a lot of affinities with cognitive behavioral therapy, and, to be clear: “Cognitive behavioral therapy works. . . . there is better empirical support for cognitive behavioral therapy than for any other psychotherapy.”
Furthermore, the relationship with God that has been kindled in these ways is itself demonstrably beneficial: “We know that people feel less lonely when they believe in God (loneliness is nearly as lethal as smoking). . . . It may be, in the end, that this feature—that God is a social relationship in the life of the person who prays—is prayer’s most powerful and consequential feature.” Toward the end, Luhrmann stops speaking for a moment to her presumed, general audience—whether they are suspicious unbelievers or suspicious believers—and turns to address her own guild. This personal relationship with God, she insists, has the power to transform people’s lives: “Understanding this should change the way anthropologists think about religion.”
Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College, and the author of The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith (Oxford University Press, 2014).