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Do Ideas Create Realities?

Over the weekend I had an exchange of e-mails with a friend who mentioned Stanford University anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann’s well-reviewed book from last year about the prayer culture of the Vineyard Fellowship. I blogged about it here. Luhrmann studied the Vineyard for years, and concluded that when people pray in the way Vineyard does, they are […]

Over the weekend I had an exchange of e-mails with a friend who mentioned Stanford University anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann’s well-reviewed book from last year about the prayer culture of the Vineyard Fellowship. I blogged about it here. Luhrmann studied the Vineyard for years, and concluded that when people pray in the way Vineyard does, they are conditioning their minds. She’s not saying whether or not God really exists, or really talks to people, but rather points out that to practice prayerfulness in the way that the Vineyard people do (and people from other religious traditions) is a form of training that really does change the way one experiences spirituality. Luhrmann explains it better in this Fresh Air interview. 

Over 20 years ago, Luhrmann wrote her thesis on the psychology of UK witchcraft practitioners, who turned out not to be a bunch of marginal misfits, but middle-class, educated people — including a disproportionate number of computer industry people. In a New York Times review of the book that came out of that experience, Philip Zaleski wrote:

How, Ms. Luhrmann ponders in her most penetrating meditation, do such tenets take hold? What leads a businessman to abandon conventional beliefs, strip naked and implore the goddess Hecate for a better secretary? Most magicians, it seems, really do believe that magic works. She found that as the fledgling magician develops proficiency, he or she begins to see new patterns and accept new assumptions – as does a specialist in any field. The magician, like anyone else, tends to remember the successful rituals and forget the flops. Events others ascribe to chance become proof of a ritual’s effectiveness; if the magician performs a ritual involving water and next day sees someone crying, the tears validate the ritual. Magicians see causality where others see coincidence.

The pull of any new ideology can be intense. Even Ms. Luhrmann, the dispassionate observer, found herself seduced. Beginning her fieldwork as a skeptical scientist, she began to think in magical terms. Her fantasy life deepened, as did her dreams, which exploded with mythological imagery. While she refuses to endorse magical power, she describes herself as ”hooked.” After rituals, she feels ”vital and electric.” She is ”astonished” by the ”pertinence” of tarot cards. If she finally rejects a magical view of the world, it is in large measure because ”I stood to lose credibility and career by adherence.”

Ms. Luhrmann concludes that people are too ”fuzzy” to live by rational ideology. Rather, they stumble upon new ways of living and then compose an ideology to justify their actions. She calls this process ”interpretive drift” – a disturbing proposition, especially since the transformation is often ”accidental, unintended,” even ”unacknowledged.” We are, as it were, bewitched by life, and our ideas follow suit. This, in turn, thrusts upon us a formidable challenge that T. R. Luhrmann’s book implicitly poses – a rigorous examination of the tenets of our own faith, ideas, dearest intellectual castles, to find out just where the foundations lie.

I found especially interesting the Luhrmann quote in which she says she rejected a “magical view” of the world not because she found it untrue, but because she stood to lose social and professional status by accepting it.

The reason I bring all this up at all is because my friend, an academically-oriented researcher who is interested in these questions of spirituality and practice, wrote to say she was troubled in one respect by Luhrmann’s When God Speaks, the one about the prayer lives of Evangelicals. I haven’t read the book, by the way. My friend said it was an incredibly well done book, and a profound accomplishment, but it left her with the sense that Luhrmann, while far more accepting of the validity of these experiences than most, still leaves herself an “out” — a way of distancing herself from the possibility that these experiences of the supernatural are exactly what people claim them to be, and not merely a function of subjective imagination.

In her book about witchcraft, Luhrmann says that after immersing herself within an English witchcraft community, she once saw six Druids standing outside her London window. Here she is elsewhere describing what happened, and the context in which it happened. She begins by talking about how, when she was studying the London witchcraft group and participating in its life and rituals, she underwent a form of mental conditioning, doing guided meditations and other spiritual-mental exercises. Luhrmann writes:

What startled me, as a young ethnographer, was that this training worked. At least, it seemed to shift something in the way I used my senses and my internal sensory awareness. After about a year of this kind of training, spending thirty minutes a day in an inner world structured in part by external instructions, my mental imagery did seem to become clearer. I thought that my images had sharper borders, greater solidity and more endurance. They had more detail. I felt that my senses were more alive, more alert. I began to feel that my states of concentration were deeper and more sharply different from those of my everyday experience. One morning, I woke early after an evening in which I had read a book by a magician. The book was about Arthurian Britain and the early Celtic isles. Reading late into the night, I had allowed myself to get deeply involved with the story, reading not the way I read a textbook but the way I read books like The Secret Garden as a child. I gave way to the story and allowed it to grip my feelings and to fill my mind. As I woke that next morning I saw six druids standing against the window, above the stirring London street below my window. I saw them and they beckoned to me.

I stared for a moment of stunned astonishment, and then I shot up out of bed. Before I could capture the moment again, they were gone. Had they been there in the flesh? I thought not. But my memory of the experience is still very clear. I do not remember that I had imagined them, or that I had wanted to see them, or that I had pretended to see them. I remember that I saw them as clearly and distinctly and as external to me as I saw the notebook in which I recorded the moment, my sentences underlined and marked by exclamation points. I remember it so clearly because it was so singular. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before.

But other people in the magical world had experiences like that. They practiced the exercises and read the books and participated in the rituals and then, out of the blue, they had seen something. They saw the Goddess, or a flash of light, or a shining vision of another world. They saw these as things in the world, not phantoms in the mind, although because the image vanished almost immediately, they knew that what they had seen was not ordinary. They said that their mental imagery had become sharper. They thought that their inner sense had become more alive.

That’s what the training does. It shifts attention from the external to the internal, and blurs the line we draw between the mind and the world. And, as I have argued in my scholarship and teaching, this shift alters the lines we draw. The mind bleeds into the world. Not predictably, and not on demand, and for some more than others, but when it happens, the senses experience what is not materially present.

I’ve read neither her book about witchcraft, nor When God Talks Back, her book about the Vineyard church, though I certainly want to read the latter, and soon (if it were available on Kindle, I would have bought it today). My friend has read the Vineyard book, and, to repeat, says that in the end, Luhrmann falls back on her secular materialist convictions to a degree that strikes my friend, Luhrmann’s sympathetic reader, as not entirely honest, or at least not entirely persuasive.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Glenn Hinson, in the appendix to his 2000 ethnography Fire In My Bones: Transcendence and the Holy Spirit in African American Gospel, argues that ethnographers discount the validity of subjective experience in the groups they study. He says that whatever they tell themselves they’re trying to do, ethnographers approach their subject with a bias that frames the experiences reported by their subjects as illusory, as products of their own culture constructing and imposing meaning.

If I’m reading him accurately — and his prose is fairly academic — Hinson says that there are three ways to look at a “testimony” of an individual experience: 1) what actually happened; 2) what the person who experienced it believes happened; and 3) what the person hearing the testimony believes happened. There’s no way to be sure about the first in the list, of course, and Hinson believes (and I think this is inarguable) that the person who witnesses an event can only approximate what happened. That experience is mediated through the witness’s own finitude; he will interpret his experience in large part based on how it resonates with what he knows, or thinks he knows, already. But that doesn’t mean something objectively real didn’t happen to him — that is, this doesn’t mean he had a hallucination.

Similarly, the person who hears the testimony brings his own biases to the hearing — and this is what concerns Hinson in the appendix to his book. He praises ethnographers for trying to overcome their own observational biases by living with the people they’re studying. But:

…the experience-based extrapolations of ethnography tend to break down when recounted experience draws the ethnographer toward the supernatural. Shared experience is fine, it seems, until that sharing challenges the ethnographer’s reality. Then it’s time to step away, to affirm the relativity of belief, to invoke the “explanatory” mechanisms of psychology and cultural pattern. Suddenly reports of experience that in other areas of life are accepted at face value lose their credibility; suddenly they no longer reference the real, or at least not a “real” that isn’t sharply circumscribed by the consciousness-shaping forces of culture. It’s as if the very association with belief somehow taints told experience, drawing it out of the realm of the objective and authentic and into that of the subjective and imaginary. Supernatural experience is thus consigned to a reality apart, a realm where the “real” is defined only within the narrow parameters of belief. “That’s what they believe,” most ethnographers seem to say, “and thus it’s real for them.”  What remains unsaid — but certainly not misunderstood — is the concluding codicil “but not for us, for we can see beyond the boundaries of their belief.” Thus slips away any guise of ethnographic objectivity, only to be replaced by implicit claims to a fuller knowledge and a more real reality. Accounts of supernatural experience, in turn, get treated as artifacts of belief, interesting for the light they shed on culture, but meaningless as testaments to authentic encounter.

Hinson goes on to say that some ethnographers who themselves have supernatural experiences while doing fieldwork get back to the familiar territory of “a shared (and disbelieving) worldview,” causes them to believe that they had been deceived by their own minds. Hinson writes, “In essence, most experiencing ethnographers, like Ebenezer Scrooge in his encounter with the ghost of Marley, attribute supernatural experience to that ‘undigested bit of beef,’ never considering that on this one occasion their minds might not be playing tricks with them.”

It sounds like this might have been what happened with Luhrmann and the witches, though if the Times review from 1989 is correct, she recognized that she stepped back from that experience, and the witches’ worldview, because it would cost her too much professionally to accept it. That, to put it mildly, is hardly a case against the witches, any more than it’s a case against an academic becoming, say, a Pentecostal Christian, though I imagine an academic today would find it more costly to their professional standing to become a Pentecostal than a Wiccan.

Anyway, there are a couple of questions in all this that interest me. First is the matter of how we can know what’s real. If we are marked by finitude and fallibility, how can we know whether what we saw is real, a half-truth, or a hallucination? How can we know whether someone who claims to have witnessed something supernatural can be believed? How can we be really sure that the only acceptable explanation is a materialist one? If we do so, aren’t we loading the analytical dice? For that matter, a believing Jew hearing an African-American preacher talk about a vision of Jesus Christ is going to interpret that testimony differently from a believing Catholic … just as that African-American preacher is likely to interpret a vision of St. Francis of Assisi different from an Italian Catholic. How can we know whose vision is true, and whose interpretation is trustworthy?

One of my longtime readers, Franklin Evans, is a practicing Pagan. He shared with me a series of supernatural experiences he once had. I, an Orthodox Christian, believe these things happened to him — that they really did happen, not that they were imagined. Franklin and I have different interpretations of the meaning. We could both be wrong … but we can’t both be right, except in that we agree that something external to Franklin’s consciousness happened. You meet Franklin, and you know instantly that this guy is on the level. He’s not the kind of person who strikes one as fanciful or lightly grounded. I think you would have a hard time denying that something extremely unusual and significant happened to him, unless you had a strong bias against admitting anything supernatural as a possibility.

But how do you know? I think it’s impossible to have an interpretation without a prior commitment, or set of commitments. I know what mine are, and I believe them to be true, not just “true for me.” Yet I can’t prove them. When I posted the other day about cultural relativism, and the value of considering the perspective of the Other, I did not mean that by opening oneself to the Other’s perspective, that one must necessarily affirm it. One can examine the Other’s point of view, and decide that the Other has it all wrong. There is value, though, in the exercise, honestly done. I don’t expect a convinced materialist to become a Christian because he has seriously thought about how the world looks through my eyes, but with luck he will have come to see my conclusions as reasonable, if ultimately wrong.

The second question is a more complicated one. Luhrmann wrote in her 1989 book on witchcraft, and in her 2012 book about the Vineyard’s Pentecostal-ish prayers, that they both “work” insofar as “working” means they attune the mind to alternative realities. I hesitate to say much about that because I don’t want to misstate Luhrmann’s view, not having read her books, only about them. Nevertheless, it seems to me that one objection could be that these mental techniques don’t open the mind, but rather obscure it.

Still, I think it is important to consider that the normative modern Western mindset may be deficient in important ways. I mean, maybe we really cannot see things that are actually there, because we have accepted a priori that they cannot be there. The anthropologist Wade Davis has written that Tibetan Buddhists consider their tradition to be a science of mind. Their prayer and meditation is not simply a therapeutic or a devotional practice, but offers objective insights into reality and human personality, or so they claim. I have read very similar claims by Orthodox Christian monks from Mount Athos. The Orthodox tradition says that in order to experience greater union with God, one has to pray, and to purify one’s nous — the soul’s perceptive faculties. They are not surprised when an unbeliever, or a Christian who doesn’t pray much, fails to understand what they’re talking about, or to take it with the seriousness it deserves. Of course you don’t get it, they would say. Pray and fast, pray and fast, and the doors of perception may be opened to you.

I say all these things in the spirit of opening a discussion. Let’s go.