What if I don’t want Gods and spirits to be real anymore? by Laura Montoya.

The first thing that struck me from T.M. Luhrmann’s work in How God Becomes Real was the psychology-anthropology approach. She develops concepts and categories of analysis focused on how our individual decisions determine if Gods and spirits are real so one develops a relationship with the invisible other. While this claim regarding the individual qualities of her work might seem obvious when contrasted with the work of Geertz, Carteaux, and Bourdieu, whose thesis take a broader, almost abstract cultural and collective approach, Luhrmann’s endeavor stands out for its unintended emphasis on the concept of agency: the unpredictability and multiple shifts of individual behavior. Her focus on intentions, predispositions like absorption, desires, choosing what to believe – as a cognitive process – and what experiences one engages, expects, feels, or becomes attentive to -Faith Frames, Paracosms, training in specific skills or practices like praying- prove how individuals establish a relationship with an invisible other and it’s not solely a matter of culture or external influences. Gods and Spirits become not only real but play a significant role in people’s lives due to individual decisions. 

Two reflections resulted from my encounter with her emphasis on individual agency: First, Luhrmann’s work led me to reflect on the importance of studying psychological processes in order to shed light on the recent changes in the religious landscape. For instance, it can contribute to conversations about religious markets and economies, where people choose religious goods based on their functionality. How is it related to defining “how” people experience God? Also might be helpful to explore how psychological studies in general and Luhrmann’s categories on how people experience God, help explain the decline of the institutional church in the West and the growing participation in other faith traditions around the globe. What has been the change in “how” people experience God? Finally, it can guide us to understand more in-depth why people nowadays are more likely to explore or combine spiritual experiences that differ from their family’s or communities’ traditions, which introduces us to my second reflection.

While reading Luhrmann’s work I couldn’t help to recall constantly how my culture, family, and several historical developments helped me embrace the faith frame of Pentecostalism, accept its paracosm with great commitment, train in the skills required to make Jesus, Jehová and the Holy Spirit real and therefore engage in a real relationship with them. Prayers, the word of God in scripture, authoritative relationships, congregational supernatural experiences, and my own level of absorption led me to experience God as real. However, for diverse reasons, I stepped out of such a frame of reality. In that sense, despite all the documented good effects of experiencing God as real, I resonate with Luhrmann’s claims on how certain individual commitments to such a real God are not always beneficial at the individual and social levels. I see some harmful effects on myself, as well as in the lives of women around me in the communities I intend to study for this program. We opted for an intentional abandonment of the “as-if” proposed by the Pentecostal church, so we are trying to create different alternative faith frames. However, we are learning that the experience of the Christian-Pentecostal God as real still has evident consequences in our lives on the psychological, emotional, and social levels. 

Based on such reflections, I wonder what the process of abandoning a faith frame entails and how to expand on the analysis of the pros vs. cons of faith frames. Why would people renounce or change faith frames? Is it related to expectations, functionality, or trauma? How would a process of deconstructing a faith frame look like? Is a faith frame always functional and necessary to interact with the “mundane frame” in certain cultures or circumstances? What happens when a person “breaks up” with God and the relationship is no longer real? How does it relate to current studies on religious trauma? How does it affect broader cultural-social dynamics?

Finally, and on a different stand, Luhrmann’s work highlights the significance of the “real-making” process in the context of faith for individuals in our fieldwork areas. She brings attention to the tendency of some ethnographers to reproduce science imperialism by ignoring or dismissing individuals’ religious practices as irrelevant or unreal. I agree with Luhrmann when she argues that people’s relationship with God and spirits is real and significant. Therefore, it is crucial to consider the realness of their faith while designing human and social sciences programs, practices, and interventions for communities. How can we acknowledge and respect other people’s experiences of faith and interact with them to make human and social sciences programs, practices, and interventions appropriate and holistic for communities without considering the realness of their faith? How do we approach and interact with other people’s experiences of faith daily?