Interesting stuff from an interview with Tanya Marie Luhrmann, a Stanford psychological anthropologist who investigates prayer and theory of mind. Excerpt:
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.
Luhrmann said she downplayed the politics in the Evangelicals she studied because there’s such a prejudice among academics that because Evangelicals had their politics wrong (from an academic point of view), then they must be stupid people — which the people Luhrmann studied were not.