Tanya Marie Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and a Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her work explores how people come to experience nonmaterial objects such as God as present and real, and how different understandings of the mind affect mental experience. She is the author, most recently, of When God Talks Back (Knopf, 2012), which The New York Times Book Review called “the most insightful study of evangelical religion in many years,” and of other books including Of Two Minds (Knopf, 2000), The Good Parsi (Harvard, 1996), and Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (Harvard, 1989). Her latest project, supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, builds on and extends her research for When God Talks Back, taking her to India and Africa. On a recent rainy afternoon in Palo Alto, I spoke with Luhrmann about her work and its new directions.
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Steven Barrie-Anthony: In the final chapter of When God Talks Back, you argue that God for evangelicals is not a rejection of modernity but rather an expression of what it is to be modern. How is this the case?
Tanya Marie Luhrmann: I think that the two big characteristics of modernity are the availability of science, and pluralism. And these make the uncertainty of your own cognitive position much more available to you. So using the imagination to make God real helps to make God real. Doing this also has characteristics that we associate with postmodernity—the playfulness, the uncertainty, the sense that there is a there there but maybe we don’t really get to it directly. From what I know of early Christianity, the idea of seeing through a glass darkly was extremely salient in the first and second centuries, was less salient to a faith that was very confident, and is highly salient to modern people. It allows you to imagine God walking by your side. Are you just making that up or is it real in the world? C.S. Lewis is sure that God is real, but then, he’s also writing a novel about it. The availability of disbelief is a condition of modernity. You cannot but be aware that other people think differently—that they may disbelieve your belief. And the evangelical walking with God is a sort of suspension of disbelief, which is not really relevant unless disbelief is relevant.
SBA: And yet the evangelicals you study do not often turn away from their disbelief or doubt or skepticism; they are constantly returning to it.
TML: They don’t think of themselves as doubting God, but they are extremely articulate about how God is present through the human. They know that there are Catholics, Hindus, and Muslims, and it’s very difficult for a smart, university-educated person to say, “Hindus have culture, but we don’t, we have truth.” So you are committed to having truth, but you also have culture. You also know that if God is talking to you in your mind, first of all you have God. But at the same time, you are aware that you are mistaken some of the time. Holding both of these simultaneously is the modern predicament—the awareness of the uncertainty of your knowledge.
SBA: That’s fascinating. And it runs up against the typical critique of evangelicals, especially by Dawkins and the new atheists, that evangelicals are turning away from the modern predicament, away from ambiguity and rational discernment.
TML: Yes. And the new atheists are not exceptionally articulate about the limitations of human knowledge. These guys are just seeing a different beyond, a different more, whatever it is. It took me a while to recognize how sophisticated people were about belief. My own preconception was that belief was a proposition rather than an attitude. And I remember doing research for When God Talks Back and being in this prayer group with a bunch of women, and they were all so clear about their awareness of the possibility that they were wrong—not about whether God exists, but about whether God is present right here. So in fact as you bring God closer you become more aware that He might not be present. You allow yourself to tolerate the uncertainty, because the uncertainty is very clear. You give yourself the real literal text, but you interpret it in a way that makes it flexibly fictional even though it’s nonfiction. You are saying things like, “this is a love letter written to me,” but you’re sitting in a room with ten people, all of whom cognitively see the same text, but also believe that it is God’s specific, unique love letter written to each individual self.
SBA: I’m reminded here of how for Robert Orsi belief is less important than relationships. And for you as well, equating religion with belief seems inadequate.
TML: That’s right. It’s about attitude. Wilfred Cantwell Smith is my lens here. We think of belief as propositional, and of faith as an attitude, an orientation, a way of committing to a sense that the world is good despite all evidence to the contrary. So from that perspective, I resonate with faith. Belief is tough for me. Adopting the idea that the world is good despite evidence is almost an emotional attitude, a way of being in the world. The evangelicals are certainly strong on belief—but their practice is about changing faith.
SBA: A major form of the evangelical practice is kataphatic or “imagination rich” prayer. How does this prayer work in terms of altering the mind and helping evangelicals achieve an interactional relationship with God?
TML: It makes what is imagined in the mind more real. In kataphatic prayer you are saying that certain of your mental images are significant, and you are making these images more sensorially rich, you are allowing yourself to imagine them more vividly. The demand of religion is to teach you that the world as you know it is not the world as it is—and to teach you the capacity to see the world as it is, as something good. So you’ve got to make what is imagined real, and you’ve got to make it good. Kataphatic prayer helps you to do this. You are allowing yourself to live in a daydream, to walk with God, talk with God, hang out with Mary. And by treating the daydream not as ephemera but as something real in the world, it becomes a skill on which you can improve.
SBA: Thinking about religious experience in the language of daydreams and the like, how do you walk the line in your research between psychological reductionism where there is no such thing as God, and the reverse?
TML: Well, I think that if there is a God, then God speaks to us through our minds. So you need to accept and understand the psychology to understand the process. You can read When God Talks Back from different perspectives. From the purely secular angle, you might say that these people are just making it up, which demonstrates that it is all imagination. But from a religious angle, you might see the puzzle as: If God is always speaking, why doesn’t everybody hear? It’s really helpful to walk that line. I genuinely don’t think I have the right to pass judgment. And I don’t think that passing judgment is the point. Given that the question of ultimate reality is fundamentally undecideable, it’s more interesting to ask what we can know if we treat that seriously.
SBA: Readers persistently try to gauge your relationship to your evangelical subjects. Joan Acocella in her The New Yorker review of When God Talks Back observed that your attitude toward your subjects is “wavering,” difficult to pin down. Is this intentional?
TML: It is intentional. And I also probably do not have control over all of it. I think that the question of whether God is real is undecidable—but I still have a decision about it. I have a view. I struggle with the idea that there is this external ontology, but I have a lot of sympathy for the idea of faith. People do say things that are sort of ridiculous, and I cannot not hear those stories. I don’t tell a lot of those stories because I want readers to pay attention to these amazing experiences. But I also think that Joan Acocella struggled with the ambiguity of the anthropologist’s role. My duty as an anthropologist is first to understand. And as a journalist you are also trying first to understand—but judgment is much more part of the story that you’re telling. The Boston Globe called this “a curiously polite book.” And I mean, I do have a lot more to say about politics, but I didn’t want the book to be about politics because in my world it is such a powerful idea that their politics are wrong and therefore that these people are foolish. Of course, now I’m thinking that perhaps I should have included more on politics—but the book was so long already.
SBA: Non-evangelicals may view evangelical religion as weird, but politics often seem the bigger sticking point. Does introducing readers to evangelical religion absent politics allow outsiders to then begin approaching the politics in a way that is less divided?
TML: That is my hope. Since spending time in this world, I have come to understand how one could become so agitated about government programs.One of the things that is so striking about this world is that people imagine themselves in a relationship with God in which they are both changing.God is interacting with you, and you are becoming a better person, and your understanding of God is changing over time. There is a real aspirational quality to evangelical Republican politics. For many but not all evangelicals, this translates into the idea that government programs that encourage dependency are wrong: “We aren’t going to need entitlements. I’m not going to be an entitled person. It’s weak to want entitlements.” And now I have a much richer sense of how you could take that position. I still get driven up the wall; I find that my own political convictions are still as they were when I began. But I am less angry. When somebody says that we should cut welfare, at least I can appreciate more of where they are coming from.
SBA: Your project for the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative seems to emerge from and extend the research you did for When God Talks Back. You are looking at similar prayer practices, but comparatively across cultures that you view as having different “theories of mind”?
TML: Yes. I noticed two things from this book. First of all, the way people paid attention to their mental events changed their mental events. Giving significance fundamentally changed those experiences; the mental images felt sharper. And at the same time, there’s also something about the way people think about their minds. Americans think of thoughts as basically ephemeral, flighty, contradictory, and chaotic. And so in the American context what kataphatic prayer practice does is to teach people to take certain kinds of those thoughts very seriously. Now, when you look across the world, there are different conceptions of mind, different theories about the way that thoughts act on the world. And so I began to wonder: How would this affect the experience of God, the experience of prayer? I worked together with one of my postdocs looking at unusual spiritual experiences. One of these experiences was sleep paralysis or “night terrors,” a physiological experience where you are sort of awake but your body is sort of asleep, paralyzed. I talked to evangelicals in America, and something like 30 percent reported experiencing this, but it wasn’t a very rich category for them. Then my postdoc went to Thailand to research these experiences. Everybody in Thailand knew what sleep paralysis was, and they gave it a name. Two thirds had experienced it. And so it seemed to me that there was a story to tell. My hypothesis is that the way you pay attention to your mind and body probably shapes the experience of the mind and body.
SBA: You chose to extend your research on evangelical prayer in two places where you have also conducted research on schizophrenia—Accra, Ghana, and Chennai, India. What have you gathered so far about the operative theory of mind in each of these places?
TML: Very quickly and naïvely—part of the project is to become more confident about this—in West Africa, there is a sense that thought affects the world independent of the thinker. And so there seems to be this really powerful concern to scrub the mind clean. Negative thoughts are bad, and consequential. People are clear that prayer is about organizing the mind into the right position, about having the right thoughts and getting rid of negative thoughts. If you talk to Americans about talking to God, they’re hanging out with God, jumping with God, cuddling with God. And they have this idea that the mind is private, walled-off. Thoughts come and go. Their presumption, which even many psychologists share, is that it’s bad to ruminate about thoughts; that you make thoughts real by thinking about them. In Accra, evil is real, and it matters. And it is in part generated by the mind, so you have to clean out the mind. Thought is substantial; it’s not mere thought, it is more important than mere thought.
SBA: And in Chennai?
TML: In Chennai, thought is much more transactional. You are in some ways made as a person through interactions with other people. I haven’t yet figured out how this works religiously. But it’s clear from talking with people with schizophrenia that other people show up in your mind. Your relatives tell you what to do, they give you all these commands, good commands—You should do this, or don’t do this, or clean up, do chores, and so forth. There’s an interactive quality. It’s as if other people have the right to know what’s in your mind, or they do know what’s in your mind. So that’s very different.
SBA: What is the central hypothesis that you’re testing?
TML: That different local theories of mind change the experience of spiritual experiences, of God. I anticipate that people in these different locales will report differently their audible experiences of God, the presence of God, mystical experiences, out of body experiences. That people will talk very differently about prayer, about this daydream-like conversation with God. That there will be a shift in the topography of mental experience.
SBA: I wonder how your own spiritual or magical experiences have shifted your perspective or your desire to do a particular kind of work? You wrote an essay for Frequencies about an experience you had while doing your dissertation research on practitioners of magic in Britain—
TML: I had what I would call a hallucination. I was reading a book about a priestess of Avalon, and there was a lot about druids. And I woke up early in the morning and looked out the window—on the second story—and there were six druids standing there. I saw them. Then I did a double take, and they vanished. But the perceptual experience was a kind of veridical sensory experience. And that really impressed me. It wasn’t the only unusual experience I had while hanging out in that world, but it was the most vivid one. And it persuaded me that this was not about acquiring discourse. I was coming of age in the linguistic turn in anthropology, which focused on the way people used language, how they used and acquired words, the narratives they used, rather than talking about the psychological experiences that their words might represent. There was a shift against psychological experiences. And this was also at the dawning of cognitive science. If I were to describe what I went in looking for, back then—although I didn’t have the words then to describe it—I would say that I went into the world of magic looking for prototypes and schemas and heuristics and narratives and ways in which people cognitively organize their ways of understanding themselves so that they come to experience magic as working. But as it turned out, this was not about heuristics. This was something quite different. And that has altered the course of my intellectual life. I became really interested in training, and the way that spiritual and prayer practices change mental experience.
SBA: How do you think that coming from this position affects your ability—or whatever word you want to use—to yourself have experience while you do this research, and how do you think it colors your interpretation of that experience? Is it less real for you?
TML: I’ve sort of allowed my imaginative experience to become more real. I feel like I have given myself a little bit more freedom as a result of doing this research. But I am not right up there in the high absorption world. I am certainly not somebody through whom words march of their own accord. Really good novelists feel the story move through them, they don’t feel that they are in control of the story—the story happens to them. So, I’m impressed by the capacity to change mental habits, but I am also impressed by how difficult it is. I was part of a prayer group for a couple of years, and I enjoyed the prayer experience a great deal. I would not say that I am now an active pray-er. But I do give myself more freedom to pause and engage in the garden. It’s not as if I have created my own spiritual discipline. When I was doing the experimental work for When God Talks Back, I created a couple of these spiritual discipline tracks that I would use for myself and try to get caught up in the experience. I’m not doing that currently. I probably should.
SBA: You have written that walking and talking with God is “a process through which the loneliest of conscious creatures can come to experience themselves as awash with love.” Does this translate into addressing or beginning to heal late modern or postmodern alienation and anomie, or all the rifts and impoverishments that somebody like Robert Putnam talks about?
TML: I think so. There’s a lot of pushback against Putnam’s data, but I think that there is enough support to feel confident about it. God works as a social relationship in people’s emotional worlds; they hold God as what you might call a “self-object.” We know that when you pop people into a brain scanner and ask them to talk to God, the part of the brain that lights up is the same part of the brain that lights up when you have them talk to their friends or when you engage them in social activity. And I have done quantitative work that shows that the more strongly people affirm the statement, “I feel God’s love for me directly,” the more their loneliness and their stress decrease. So, does this God arise because of increased loneliness? That’s a stronger question. But I’m certainly persuaded that intimacy with God decreases loneliness.
SBA: I wonder if there are any social effects? If all of us were to begin walking and talking with God, would we enter a world that is just as disconnected socially but is experienced as far less lonely, or would that somehow translate into concrete person-to-person connectedness?
TML: In the church it certainly translates. If you go to one of these evangelical churches, one of the things happening is that you are creating very strong social bonds. A third to half of the church, depending of course on the church, meets together in small house groups. And those groups are powerful social engines. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece arguing that membership in the small group was the most powerful predictor of whether people donated money to a church. We at least know that people who are able to imagine God and to have a relationship with God also show up as more empathic, and my guess is that the more able you are to represent God, the more able you are to represent other people. That’s probably socially conscribed—you are probably imagining people in your group rather than other people around the world. This is one way of thinking about different kinds of political stories. People are often struck by the fact that I’m arguing that you can increase your empathy as you increase your relationship with God—but it doesn’t necessarily increase your commitment to social justice politics. What happens if somebody is by themselves and does these prayer practices, do they become more connected to other people? I don’t know. The kind of Dalai Lama-driven, Richard Davidson, Zen Buddhism-is-good-for-you approach would say “yes.” But we do not have that kind of data on kataphatic prayer practices.
SBA: Perhaps this falls under a lack of data, but what do you think about a connection between kataphatic prayer and ethics? I’m thinking of Jeffrey Kripal’s argument that there is no necessary connection between monistic mystical experience and ethics. Do you see ethical frameworks emerging from kataphatic prayer?
TML: I think that the more you feel loved, the more loving you become. We know this from human psychology. There is probably a certain amount of variation in what counts as the person to whom you become more loving. Being able to use your imagination is a content-free activity; you can use your imagination in various ways. If you are using your imagination in a Christian setting, and you’re doing Christian kataphatic prayer, you do more strongly connect to the Jesus of the gospels. Of course, there’s a lot of ethical variation in what that means to people. There probably is a story of increasing your empathy and compassion and concern, and again that’s the Richard Davidson story. But I think it is up for grabs toward whom you increase your compassion. It’s not obvious to me that just because you engage in spiritual practices, that you feel more compassion toward somebody who is not like you.