Cross-posted at Reverberations, a digital forum produced by the Social Science Research Council in conjunction with New Directions in the Study of Prayer.—ed.
It is a distinct honor when someone as lettered as Leon Wieseltier takes one on in public, as he does in “Dumbing Religion Down in the New York Times,” published October 24 in The New Republic. He does seem to have written this essay in one of his grumpier moods. He accused me of proselytizing for religion (or, to capture the tenor of the critique, of turning The New York Times into a Pentecostal tent revival, as one of my own readers, Jon Bialecki, pointed out). That’s not my understanding of the intent of my columns or of my work. I see myself as pointing out that an activity which makes many readers of The New York Times spit nails—or at least shake their heads in bafflement—has something to recommend it. I mostly ignore the politics because, while there is much to say about the political swing of many evangelicals, sharp writers like those who appear in The New Republic and The New York Times already say it well. But there is nothing inherently right-wing about evangelical religion and there are a lot of left-wing evangelicals to prove it. My goal, instead, is to follow the lead of one of the great founders of anthropology, Emile Durkheim, who said that we could not understand religion if we began with the premise that religion was founded on a lie. He did not mean that God was real (he was a devout atheist). He meant that if we wanted to understand why religion is so palpably important to so many people, we need not to begin with the assumption that they are idiots.
And the awkward thing—from the point of view of those embracing the “they are all idiots” explanation of faith—is that the evidence is pretty clear that many, many of those of faith are not idiots, and that something about what they are doing is good for them. Going to church every week adds almost as many years to your life as a daily workout on the treadmill. Being an evangelical gives you a happiness boost equivalent to moving from the bottom economic quartile to the top one (yes, happiness increases as you move up). Of course, these studies have their limits (the ones I am citing here appear in John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s God is Back, but there are plenty of others). But if they were about the value of, say, eating bananas, most readers would add bananas to the weekly grocery list while further work was being done. Surely it is worth trying to understand why faith might be helpful for the faithful.
The charming thing about Wieseltier’s incensed outrage—his essay opens by identifying the title of the column, “Why we talk in tongues,” and then asking “We?”—is that after I published that column on tongues, a number of Jews wrote to me, with thanks, to say that the column taught them that when they recited prayers in Hebrew without knowing the meaning of the words, they were, in effect, speaking in tongues and the column helped them to understand why this manner of prayer was powerful. One man wrote to his friends:
Like many of you with a Conservative or Reformed upbringing, I was taught to read and pronounce the Hebrew letters along with the various chants, but never understood what we were memorizing and repeating. Today, 67 years after my Bar Mitzvah, I can chant and recite from memory a litany of words that have absolutely no meaning. Today, when I hear these chants, it engenders a warm recollection of part of my youth and a verbal connection to a peoplehood with whom I feel a very close connection. From the article, that, for me, is talking in tongues.
Wieseltier himself writes chidingly that “God cannot accurately be captured in language.” That is the point. When those who use a sacred language whose words they do not understand—speaking in tongues, but also chanting or reciting prayers in Hebrew, Arabic or Avestan—those words connect them to a God beyond understanding, a God for whom their words fall short. Many of those who pray in tongues prefer to say that they are “praying in the spirit.” One woman in the American evangelical church I studied told me that when she prayed in the spirit, she felt that she joined an angelic chorus that, most of the time, she could not hear. A woman in Ghana explained that she preferred to pray in tongues because those words had not been sullied by ordinary humans. “I am not communicating with any man.” Praying in this way reminds people that the God they reach for is sacred.
Now, to be honest, did I—raised Unitarian in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood—once think that speaking in tongues was pretty odd? Of course. I grew up moved by the sound of ancient language, but when I first encountered tongues, it seemed like babble. Yet I also think that some of the things I do for my own well-being—running hamster-like on a treadmill while watching figure skating reruns—look pretty peculiar to others, too. That’s the anthropological point. We’re all pretty odd to each other, and at its heart, life is mystery.
I consider myself a fan of Tanya Luhrmann’s work. Who isn’t a fan of well-written, well-researched, interesting anthropology? But I do find myself sympathetic to Mr. Leon Weiseltier’s critique. While I do not think her work is a “dumbing down,” nor an apologetic, I do think that Weiseltier’s point about the need for truth is not incidental to these discussions.
As one who is both an anthropologist of Christianity, and a Christian, I can assure you that the question of truth matters in these discussions, as an ethnographic detail and as a matter of faith. As Tanya noted in one of her NYT columns (Oct. 14, 2013), believing in God appears to take a lot of work, just as believing in a talking fox seems to take work. (What does the fox say? I guess we can figure it out.) If my faith is likely to go away if I stop trying so hard, it seems like I might want to believe something a little easier.
While I also agree with Tanya’s point that “belief” is not the central factor in understanding Christianity (something I also argued, though in a far-less-widely-read venue), this does not minimize the importance of holding to a notion that there is something true, something real, and something wholly Other involved in experiences of God. If it just in the mind, well, that changes things.
I would say that Tanya’s excellent work notwithstanding, there is little there to bolster the faith of the faithful, and this is certainly not her purpose. Being explained to the skeptical NYT reader is worth something, but for the faithful it poses more challenge than encouragement. Personally, it has become an engaging effort to consider how I participate in both of anthropology and Christianity without sacrificing one for the other. For me, and perhaps for other believers reading her work, it opens up some questions about God’s relationship to our bodies and brains, as well as provocatively engaging questions of the relationship of mystery to conviction (or, if you prefer, doubt and belief), but it is not an unqualified (or really even a qualified) encouragement to faith. I don’t think Mr. Wieseltier needs to worry that mid-town will break into revival on the basis of these articles (which is not, I know, his concern), though ironically, the faith that is there may be challenged to get smarter.
The fact that Luhrmann cited John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s God is Back is telling. The authors are not social scientists—they are editors at The Economist. They are preaching the gospel of free market capitalism, including a rather uninformed spin on research that fits their thesis. How accurate are they? Well, their 2004 book The Right Nation predicting the victory of the Right in American politics, based on that invincible evangelical base, should give one pause before citing them when it comes to social science. I doubt Luhrmann shares their politics but it makes me question her judgment. Did she just search for pro-religion research to make a quick point or was she actually impressed by the book in question? I hope it is the former…
It doesn’t take a lot of work to believe what is true. Indeed, once you understand the proof or evidence for the claim–what it is that makes it true–it would take considerable psychological effort to ignore that.
Believing without that is what takes work.
I’ve witnessed the practical application of speaking in tongues in its grassroots environment in my own Pentecostal Holiness Church and I’ll try to be thoughtful about it. We had a prolific speaker in tongues in our congregation and we had many visiting lay ministers who also employed the practice. The children of my church were so used to hearing our “tongue lady” speak, most of us got to where we could mimic her and it was easy to learn to do so because she said exactly the same thing every time.
What were we to believe about this; that this illiterate woman, homely, plain, with an astonishingly bad lack of every day common sense and judgement had a direct line to Almighty God when no one else in the congregation did? This woman had a disturbing number of wild fires on her remote, rural property and she would call into the small community to report them and at some point we figured out that the town countable was having an affair with her. He was married and it truly seemed they had concocted the wild fire problem so he would have a legitimate excuse to come to her home. That’s the kind of judgement I’m talking about. She was simply a very lonely woman and she learned scraps of the “tongue” by attending tent revivals at our church which was immediately across the road from her farm. We all came to the same conclusion–she was trying to draw positive attention to herself.
It’s more than that, however. It is a significant social status within the Pentecostal Holiness Church to be able to speak in tongues. And the remarkable thing is, practically no one with the exception of ministers does it. The way that translates to congregants is that the minister has some kind of special relationship with God that no one else can possibly achieve, that because of their special relationship they command our respect.
I believed that was the case for many years but hindsight hit me just like it did most of the children I attended church with. We look back and notice that visiting ministers came, spoke in tongues, took a collection, and went their merry way to the next revival meeting. None of us then “received the gift” of tongues and not a small number of people came to the conclusion that speaking in tongues was just showmanship and a kind of grift to perpetrate on small communities. We felt taken and we also felt it drove a wedge between individuals and their maker in the sense that it was so remarkable what a high rate of ministers there were who could speak in tongues and what a near absence there was of the practice in the average congregant. Were we so distant from the Lord after all of our sincere faith and prayerfulness that no one we ever met could speak in tongues except a traveling evangelist? All we had was a strange, lonely lady who spoke the same phrases in that mysterious language and who had a higher annual rate of wild fires in her pasture than the entire state of Oklahoma. Was she an idiot? I don’t think so. She probably needed companionship and loving attention but her way of getting it was an off-putting strategy and it just made things worse for her. I think the traveling ministers wanted something else.