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‘How God Becomes Real’

Anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann

I’ve been dazzled these last few days by How God Becomes Real: Kindling The Presence Of Invisible Others, the new book by Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann. You should know up front that Luhrmann doesn’t approach her work as a religious believer — she does not take a position on whether or not there are gods — but rather seeks to discern how those who believe in God, or gods, or spirits, come to do so. I was drawn to this book in part because I’m a reader and fan of her earlier work, but also because I’m thinking of doing my next book on how to re-enchant the world, living as we do in a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) culture.

I learned a lot from this book, and having just finished it ten minutes ago, I want to share its arguments with you, because I hope you’ll buy it and read it too.

TML writes:

This is not a claim that gods are not real or that people who are religious feel doubt. Many people of faith never express doubt; they talk as if it were obvious that their gods are real. Yet they go to great lengths in their worship. They build grand cathedrals at vast cost in labor, time, and money. They spend days, even weeks, preparing for rituals, assembling food, building ritual sites, and gathering participants. They create theatrical effects in sacred spaces—the dim lighting in temples, the elaborate staging in evangelical megachurches—that enhance a sense of otherness but are not commanded in the sacred texts. They fast. They wear special clothes. They chant for hours. They set out to pray without ceasing.

Of course, one might say: they believe, and so they build the cathedrals. I am asking what we might learn if we shift our focus: if, rather than presuming that people worship because they believe, we ask instead whether people believe because they worship.

I suggest that prayer and ritual and worship help people to shift from knowing in the abstract that the invisible other is real to feeling that gods and spirits are present in the moment, aware and willing to respond. I will call this “real-making,” and I think that the satisfactions of its process explain—in part—why faiths endure.

By “real-making,” I mean that the task for a person of faith is to believe not just that gods and spirits are there in some abstract way, like dark energy, but that these gods and spirits matter in the here and now. I mean not just that you know that they are real, the way you know that the floor is real (or would, if you paused to think about it), but that they feel real the way your mother’s love feels real. I mean that people of faith come to feel inwardly and intimately that gods or spirits are involved with them. For humans to sustain their involvement with entities who are invisible and matter in a good way to their lives, I suggest that a god must be made real again and again against the evident features of an obdurate world. Humans must somehow be brought to a point from which the altar becomes more than gilded wood, so that the icon’s eyes look back at them, ablaze.

TML says that people have to “kindle” the awareness of their god, through what she calls “realmaking”:

The basic claim is this: that god or spirit—the invisible other—must be made real for people, and that this real-making changes those who do it. When I look at the social practices that surround what we call religion, I see a set of behaviors that change a practitioner’s felt sense of what is real. These behaviors both enable what is unseen to feel more present and alter the person who performs them.

Through her research, she found a few ways that are key to kindling awareness of God’s presence.

First, you have to have a “faith frame” — that is, a framework that allows you to integrate your religious beliefs into your daily life, and to allow you to navigate the cognitive dissonances. For example, the wafer and the wine at a Catholic communion service look like … a wafer and wine. But the Catholic faith frame tells the Catholic that after consecration, they are the Body and Blood of the slain and risen Lord Jesus Christ — not symbolically, but really and truly, in some mystical way.

Second, “Detailed stories help to make gods and spirits feel real.” They allow believers to bring the invisible world and the god(s) and spirit beings living within it vividly to life in their imaginations. Stories take the abstract and make it concrete.

Third, “Talent and training matter.”  TML writes:

 What people do and what they bring to what they do affect the way they experience gods and spirits. People who are able to become absorbed in what they imagine are more likely to have powerful experiences of an invisible other. Practice also helps. People who practice being absorbed in what they imagine during prayer or ritual are also more likely to have such experiences. This absorption blurs the boundary between the inner world and the outer world, which makes it easier for people to turn to a faith frame to make  sense of the world and to experience invisible others as present in a way they feel with their senses.

Fourth: “The way people think about their minds also matters.” TML:

The intimate evidence for gods and spirits often comes from a domain felt to be in between the mind and the world, from the space betwixt a person’s inner awareness and the sensible world—the thought that does not feel like yours, the voice that feels whispered on the wind, the person who feels there and yet beyond the reach of sight. How people in a particular social world represent the mind itself—how they map the human terrain of thinking, feeling, intending, and desiring into a cultural model— shapes the way they attend to these odd moments so that the moments  feel more or less sensory, more or less external, more or less real, more or less like evidence of gods and spirits.

Some combination of these foundational beliefs and practices of attention “kindle” a sense of the divine presence, no matter what your religion. Remember, Luhrmann is an anthropologist describing a phenomenon. We who hold particular religious commitments, or hold a prior commitment to atheistic materialism, may therefore believe that the god or gods that people Luhrmann studied do not exist, or are evil entities. In the book, Luhrmann writes about a Santeria community, which in my Christian view, worships gods who are really demons. Nevertheless, I found in reading TML that there is a real commonality between the way Christians practice the presence of the true God, and the way Santeria worshipers make their demonic gods real.

TML says that we in the West often misunderstand the experiences of non-Western people because of our post-Enlightenment “faith frame”:

It was the Enlightenment that made nature non-agentic, objective, and thus free of human intention, and changed forever the ontological commitments of the West. Animist worlds imagined human-like intentions throughout the world, so that all objects had agency and were different merely in their appearances. A totemic world understood shared human-like agency only in humans and a limited number of nonhuman animals and objects with which these humans identified. And other worlds made complex mappings by analogy, all different from each other. When the naturalism of the postEnlightenment world in effect strips mind from nature, he argues, humans then feel the right to pillage  the world around them.

These are cultural differences in what is real, in what way, and for whom.  There are, in short, varied ways that people judge the relationship between things of the everyday world and what the faith frame treats as real, even if spirits and everyday things are always differently real. It seems likely that Western culture invites people to make a realness judgment categorically: real or not real. That is Descola’s point. The naturalness of the post-Enlightenment world creates a material world that is real and is fundamentally different from the stuff of the mind. Ultimately, G. E. R. Lloyd (2018) remarks, this is our legacy from the Greeks. Other cultures may be more likely to invite people to make that judgment on a continuum:  more or less real. And so Western cultures likely worry about realness in a different way than many other peoples. The evidence still suggests that invisible beings are understood as differently real from everyday objects everywhere. It is just that gods and spirits are likely differently real from everyday objects in different places in different ways.

Put another way, our Western real/not real dualism prevents us from seeing gradations in reality that people from non-Western cultures are more open to. This is not a perfect simile, because one involves metaphysics, and the other doesn’t, but here goes: the ethnobotanist Wade Davis has written about how despite his extensive training, when he went out into the jungles of South America with natives, they could perceive far more differences among the plant life there than he could. They could discern extremely subtle differences between plants on sight. These differences were real — measurably real — which is why this is not the best simile. Still, from the point of view of a religious believer, the fact that pure materialists have a “faith frame” that rules out any evidence for a spiritual dimension to existence makes it impossible for them to see what’s really there.

So, as TML says, the challenge for religious believers is to stay within their faith frame as much as possible, for the sake of making their God or gods real. Again, by “real,” she means “feel real,” which implies no judgment about the existence or non-existence of the deity or spirits. Even if one believes that God really exists, as I do, the truth is that He does not manifest himself like my wife or my neighbor. So if I am to keep myself attentive to the reality of His existence and presence, I am going to have to work at it.

What am I going to have to do, as a Christian?

I’m going to have to engage deeply with the stories in the Bible, and in the lives of the saints. A Christianity that is only moralistic is not going to work. The life of Christ, the journeys of Paul, and the acts of the men and women of the Old Testament — they all have to live vividly in my imagination. And not just in my imagination, but in the imagination of my religious community.

Yes, I’m going to have to embed myself in a religious community built around these shared sacred stories. That community must have a shared sense of what these stories mean, and how we are to relate to them. The community must have a clear set of rules for what it means to be a part of it. And there has to be established rules for interacting with that “invisible other.” People have to have some way of knowing when the community believes God to be present in a special way (e.g., for Catholics, after the consecration of the bread and wine; for charismatics, when people start speaking in tongues, etc.) And, there have to be shared ways of knowing when God responds. This is how people know that what they’re doing is real, that it’s not just make-believe.

Living out the faith frame in community, with others who share your beliefs, both affirms them and makes them feel more real to you. It jumped out at me that in TML’s research, it matters that these faith communities make demands on their members. You can’t really be “seeker-friendly” in the sense of making minimal demands on people, and expect the members of the community to develop a strong sense of God’s reality.

If I’m going to practice the presence of God, then I can’t just sit around and wait for it to happen. I’m going to have to work at it. TML says that people who have stronger imaginations find it easier to feel the presence of the divine, but that everyone can get better at it through training. She relates this experience that happened to her in the 1980s, when she was in England working on her PhD. She was studying a group of witches. TML reports that as she trained her mind in the same way the witches were doing, inexplicable things began happening to her. For example:

I was sitting in a commuter train to London the first time I felt supernatural power rip through me. I was twenty-three, and I was one year into my graduate training in anthropology. I had decided to do my fieldwork among educated white Britons who practiced what they called magic. I thought of this as a clever twist on more traditional anthropological fieldwork about the strange ways of natives who clearly were not “us.” I was on my way to meet some of them, and I had ridden my bike to the station with trepidation and excitement. Now in my seat, as the sheep-dotted countryside rolled by, I was reading a book written by Gareth Knight, a man they called an “adept,” meaning someone deeply knowledgeable and powerful. (The book was Experience of the Inner Worlds.)

The book’s language was dense and abstract. My mind kept slipping as I struggled to grasp what he was talking about, and I wanted so badly to understand. The text spoke of the Holy Spirit and Tibetan masters and an ancient system of Judaic mysticism called Kabbalah. The author wrote that all these were so many names for forces that flowed from a higher spiritual reality into this one through the vehicle of the trained mind. And as I strained to imagine what it would be like to be that vehicle, I began to feel power in my veins—really to feel it, not to imagine it. I grew hot. I became completely alert, more awake than I usually am, and I felt so alive. It seemed that power coursed through me like water through a chute. I wanted to sing. And then wisps of smoke came out of my backpack, in which I had tossed my bicycle lights. I grabbed the lights and snapped them open. In one of them, the batteries were melting.

TLM goes on:

Yet it was not all about training. Practice did not explain my experience when I took that train into London, even taking into account my determined attempt to imagine my way into that author’s world. In fact, people sometimes went looking for books on magic when they had experienced an out-of-the-blue event—an intense sense of invisible presence, for instance—that they felt they could not explain. At the same time, it was also clear that anomalous experiences were more common among those who practiced: those who did the exercises and rituals again and again. What I saw seemed more like an orientation to inner experience, which someone might have by temperament but could also develop through practice. I learned that in the London world of modern magic, the following was commonsense: If you wanted to do magic, you had to practice magic. If you wanted to feel power flow through you and to direct it toward a source, you had to do it again and again, and you had to train, preferably under a seasoned elder.

Some people were naturally better than others. Magicians spoke as if there were people who were naturally good at being psychic, and people who were naturally good at doing rituals. The psychics (they said) did not feel things in their body. They simply knew things and had insights that others did not. Those who were good at doing magic were able to have the distinct sense that power was present. They could feel it moving through them, and they felt as if they could direct it. Those who practiced would get better. People routinely said that over time they experienced power more intensely. Those who practiced found that their mental images grew sharper, and they were more likely to report unusual phenomena: they felt the power, they heard the gods, they saw the spirits.

As I began to read more intensively, I started to realize that what magicians did in their training could be found in other spiritual practices around the world: in Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, shamanism, even spirit possession. The capacities to visualize and to sink into trance-like states seemed to be learnable skills. I began to think that mastery of those skills was associated with intense spiritual experience and the sense that gods and spirits felt real.

And in many ways what they experienced was similar to what the magicians experienced, and they said remarkably similar things about talent and training. The Christians sometimes said that after they began to pray actively, they not only experienced God more vividly, but their inner world became sharper and felt more real, as if those features were side-effects of training. They knew that practice mattered. They thought that powerful experiences were more common in the lives of those who prayed actively. They also knew that predisposition mattered. They were clear that some people had a hard time hearing God, even when they prayed, and they knew that some people had experiences that came out of the blue.

This resonates with my own experience in Orthodoxy. The times I feel farthest from God are inevitably times when I have stopped praying regularly. It really is true that you get out of Orthodoxy what you put into it. When I was in college, and in my early twenties, I longed for religious experience, but I did not want to work at it. I did not want to sacrifice anything for it. I wanted a mystical version of cheap grace. The laws of the spirit world don’t work like that. God loves you whether you feel it or not, but if you want to be truly changed, to dwell in the Spirit, you are going to have to work. This is not about earning salvation; rather, it is about practicing the presence of God, of deepening your relationship with Him, of dying to self so that Christ can live more completely in you. This doesn’t just happen. It takes prayer, fasting, confession, repentance, communion — the same tools that the Church has always given us.

TML says that real-making requires cultivating our attention to sensual details. We have to get out of our heads. We have to learn to see, really see, the sunset, and see not just the beauty of the dusky light on the clouds, but make the imaginative connection between that and its Maker. We have to train our eyes and our ears to pay attention. Again, moralistic religion can’t help you here. I’m not saying that morals don’t matter — not at all! — but only that making God real requires engagement with the body through its senses. The more abstract our sense of God is, the harder it will be to know Him.

Another interesting point: the degree to which we can feel God’s realness depends on how we regard the mind. She says that Westerners usually believe that the mind is like a “citadel” separate from the world. For people in non-Western cultures, the boundary between Mind and World is far more porous — and that helps them be more perceptive of spiritual realities.

TML writes of a study she did comparing how Evangelicals in California, India, and Ghana experienced God’s presence in worship. What she found was that the Americans were more individualized in their experience of God, but the Evangelicals in India and Africa experienced God much more vividly. She writes:

I don’t think that these different rates simply reflect different ways of talking about God. I think that different ways of attending to experience kindle God in different ways.  In all these churches, God spoke through the Bible and through people and in the mind. In all these churches, God was also represented as speaking out loud to ordinary humans—after all, God spoke out loud to Abraham, Moses, Ezekiel, and John of Patmos, and evangelical prayer manuals are filled with vivid, auditory examples of God communicating in words the ear can hear.

Yet because of the way that congregants thought about their minds, God feels real for them in different ways. In Chennai, He felt more real through people. In Accra, He felt more real in the experience of the body, in the felt power of the Holy Spirit. For the Americans, their experience of God was a little less palpable. For them, God seemed to feel less external and more mental. Or, to use the Macmillan dictionary definition, a little less real.

There’s so much more to the book than I’ve indicated here. I just wanted to share with you what excites me. I’m going to be going more deeply into this on my Daily Dreher newsletter tonight and this week. If you would like to consider subscribing — five dollars a month, or $50 per year, for five newsletters per week — check out how to do that here. It’s not a newsletter about politics or the culture war, but about faith, art, and the things that make life worth living.

If you’d like to know more about Tanya Luhrmann’s thought, here’s a short interview with her from 2019:

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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