Understanding Religious Experience: Tanya Luhrmann on Evangelicals

Joan Acocella’s review of Tanya M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Luhrmann is an anthropologist who has written extensively and insightfully on religion in the contemporary world. In this book, she writes about her experiences in two evangelical churches associated with the Vineyard Fellowship. It’s on my reading list.

Acocella’s review highlights the religious experiences stressed in these communities and their members’ understanding and experience of God:

This casualness carries over to conversations with God. The Vineyarders asked him “for admission to specific colleges, for the healing of specific illness—even, it is true, for specific red convertible cars.” Some Vineyard women had a regular “date night” with Jesus. They would serve a special dinner, set a place for him at the table, chat with him. He guided the Vineyarders every minute of the day. Sarah told Luhrmann how, one day, after a lunch at a restaurant with fellow-parishioners, she was feeling good about herself, whereupon, as she was crossing the parking lot, a bird shat on her blouse. God, she explained to Luhrmann, was giving her a little slap on the wrist for her self-satisfaction.

We may find the religion described here odd; but the appeal is obvious and apparently Luhrmann also entered into the experience more than as a researcher:

Indeed, she tells us at the end of the book that she cannot call herself a Christian, and that she doesn’t believe in “a God who sits out there, as real as a door post.” At the same time, she repeatedly says, with no qualification, that she prayed with the Vineyarders and by herself under the guidance of a “spiritual director.” Like them, she kept a prayer journal, recording “what I said to God followed by what he said to me.” If she didn’t believe in a God who sat out there, whom did she think she was saying things to? And who was saying things back to her?

A deeper look at Luhrmann’s perspective. She is interested in the social construction of sensory experience, in particular, how people make sense of their experiences. She assumes of course that hallucinations begin with sensory experience in the brain, and that we make sense of that experience through culture and training:

It is also true that spiritual training may make sensory overrides more likely. Inner sense cultivation — and mental imagery cultivation, in particular — is at the heart of shamanism and is central to many spiritual traditions….[T]wo dominant forms of mental techniques in effect train the human mind to experience the supernatural: techniques that focus attention on the inner senses and those that train attention away from thought and sensation. Examples of the former include shamanism, Tibetan vision meditation, and the Ignatian spiritual exercises; examples of the latter are Zen meditation and Centering Prayer.

Both train the attention, and they probably train the capacity for absorption. Although the psychological literature is largely silent about whether these training techniques generate sensory overrides, the ethnographic and historical literature strongly suggest that inner sense cultivation produces sensory experiences that are interpreted as signs of the supernatural.

The full “primer” to Luhrmann’s perspective is here.

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One thought on “Understanding Religious Experience: Tanya Luhrmann on Evangelicals

  1. Pingback: When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God by T. M. Luhrmann | The Book of Doctrines and Opinions:

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