Last week Tanya Luhrmann, the psychological anthropologist from Stanford, gave back-to-back lectures at Harvard and Boston University. Luhrmann’s latest book, When God Talks Back, is getting a ton of publicity, so this was a bit of a rockstar tour. Except academics are always a bit more tame than rockstars. But it may be unfair to call Luhrmann tame when her past work has tackled modern witches and her current work tries to figure out how evangelical Christians come to perceive God as imminently real and close. In American culture, where taking God seriously is either a taboo or private matter, this sort of research is pretty edgy- maybe not St. Vincent edgy, but edgy nevertheless.
The entry point for Luhrmann’s research is prayer. Like any good academic, she starts by breaking her subject into different types. For Luhrmann there are four different types of prayer: adoration, supplication, thanksgiving, and confession. The writer Anne Lamott captured these categories a little more succinctly: Help, Thanks, Wow. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it captures some of the most typical ways in which people pray.
Luhrmann compares these different types of prayer to elements of psychotherapy. For example, she compares supplication (prayers in which people ask the divine for something) to the ways cognitive behavioral therapy helps people learn to feel hope. Through supplication, people learn to set positive expectations and thereby externalize their hope in a very specific form. This is similar to cognitive behavioral techniques that encourage giving a precise and clear voice to hopes. Luhrmann makes similar comparisons with prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of confession. Through these comparisons Luhrmann argues that the personal health benefits of prayer, which are fairly well founded, may be because prayer taps into similar mechanisms of mental health as psycho-therapy’s techniques. It’s worth asking whether this is a fair comparison, but that’s a question for another post.
For now it’s worth understanding her take on the main question: how do evangelicals come to perceive God as real and in relationship with them?
Each type of prayer depends on the individuals taking God to be close and present. This is most apparent in prayers of adoration where people cultivate a close and loving relationship with God. But this is a cognitively difficult task because of what Luhrmann calls the problem of presence. We live in a world where minds are hidden, people are real, and love is conditional. Yet these people are training themselves to interact in a relationship with God in which their mind is no longer hidden, the person (in this case the personalized God) is not physically present, and the love is taken to be unconditional. How? How do people learn to override these three primary assumptions about relationships and the world?
As an anthropologist, Luhrmann went about answering this question by working with two congregations from the Vineyard Church– a branch of the neo-charismatic movement within the evangelical church. Unlike the typical Methodist church you might be imagining, this movement emphasizes “gifts of the spirit” like prophecy, speaking in tongues, or healing. The two congregations Luhrmann worked with were primarily white middle-class Christians, but the neo-charismatic movement is a global phenomenon.
Learning to perceive God as real is work that’s done primarily in community. Once people become involved in the church, they’re encouraged to cultivate a specific type of prayer that takes God to be speaking directly to them. They’re encouraged to imagine God as speaking to them, to imagine what He* might sound like. People are encouraged to go on dates with God where they might have a picnic by themselves and just chat with Him. The type of conversation that’s encouraged is casual and highly personal- they say God wants to be treated like a friend. From the outside we might think of this as a personal practice, but it’s highly communal in the sense that it’s actively taught and nurtured by the church. People check in on each other’s relationship with God in the same way that you might ask about a friend’s marriage or relationship.
And Luhrmann found that the group’s support or pressure (depending on how you look at it) worked. For the most part people came to feel God’s presence and hear God’s voice in a way that felt real. By feeling I’m talking about tingly-skin, shivers, warmth throughout the body, or just a general sense of support and comfort. In some cases people would even report that God gave them advice or messages for friends.
But the community influence wasn’t all that’s needed for people to cultivate these types of experiences. Luhrmann also measured individual’s level of absorption– a psychological measure of how easily a person is absorbed in mental imagery. Do you ever lose yourself in a day dream or reverie? That’s what they’re talking about when they talking about absorption and not everyone is equally likely to get lost in such experiences. As you might expect, Luhrmann found that folks who were highly prone to absorption were also more likely to report these types of experiences of God. People learning to perceive God as close and real seems to depend on both communal training and personality.
That’s all well and good, but it may tell too simple a story. The most recent version of Religion, Brain, and Behavior (which is offering free access until the end of March!) ran a great series of responses to Luhrmann’s book. One of the clearer questions comes from the psychologist Steven J. Sandage, who has done a large amount of research with evangelical communities in the US. Since Luhrmann’s discussing how people learn to cultivate a relationship with God, it’s worth asking what type of relationship is being cultivated.
Attachment theory is a psychological theory for understanding people’s relationships. In brief, some people are securely attached, which means they’re likely to seek comfort when they’re upset and then recover pretty quickly. But others, for a variety of reasons, may be anxious, avoidant, or disorganized in their attachment. These show up as clinginess or aloofness or downright ambivalence about how to relate. This psychological theory is way more complex then I just made it seem, but the relevant point is that for some people, close relationships can actually heighten anxiety and discomfort.
So if Luhrmann’s studying how people learn to cultivate a close relationship with God, we should also pay attention to what type of relationship is being cultivated. If you tend toward an insecure, anxious type of attachment, then cultivating this sort of relationship with God may not be as supportive and nurturing as assumed. It may make people more anxious. This is especially important if Luhrmann is attempting to talk about the health impact of these practices since attachment bears one of the strongest relationships to health.
Nevertheless, Luhrmann offers a compelling view into the practices and experiences of the Vineyard community. The type of imaginative prayer she describes may seem bizarre, but given the global presence of the neo-charismatic movement, it’s worth understanding part of what they’re up to.
*I normally don’t talk about the Sacred as a person, but the Vineyard church is dominated by male-imagery of the Divine- that’s why I’m saying “He.”**
**This is the sort of over-self-consciousness that comes from studying religion and theology.