Luhrmann and Seeman _ Aditya Chaturvedi

T. M Luhrmann sets out to explore and explain how God becomes and ‘remains’ real for evangelical Vineyard Christians in contemporary U.S.  She argues that this happens through a complex learning process called the ‘theory of attentional learning’ and it functions through “learning to do something than to think something”(p.xxi). This learning transforms the way these people use there minds and perceive reality. This spirituality, says Luhrmann, “is all about the relationship” (p.274) and hence, the ultimate goal of Vineyard churches is to develop an intimate relationship  with the God. 

 The first chapter of the book provides as brief historical context for the shift in the American imagination of the God from a distant and impersonal God to a “buddy”- a friendly and loving. However, it is not easy to inculcate faith in God as it requires a committed Christian, Luhrmann argues to learn to  “ override three basic features of human psychology: that minds are private, the persons are visible, and that love is conditional and contingent upon right behavior” (p.xxii).  In the second chapter this process is spelled out clearly and she suggests that the learning in this setting actually involves unlearning. The process leads congregants to develop interpretive tools of knowing the presence of God and recognizing when the thoughts in their minds are not theirs but God’s. Once the God has been found, the person develops ways of interaction with him as an imaginary companion, and then learns to develop a relationship with him. This involves ‘pretending’ as if God was real and responding to congregants as their “buddy”. She compares this to a play which becomes real through practice (p.99). Once this has been accomplished, the last process involves experiencing the unconditional love of  God and this is done through six practices like crying in presence of the God . She argues that the evangelical Christianity that developed in 1960s is psychotherapeutic (pp.296-297) and the six “emotional practices” share a lot in common with psychotherapy (p.101). She points out that one of the many roles that God plays for the practitioners is that of a therapist (p.120). She then moves on to discuss prayer as a “faith practice” with potential of bringing about mental transformation. This is premised on her argument that there is a psychological skill to prayer with real potential psychological changes. Through what she calls the “participatory theory of mind” those participating, “heighten and deepen internal sensation: seeing, hearing and touching above all” (p.161). Luhrmann concludes through her study that “people stay with God not because theology makes sense but the practice delivers emotionally” (268). 

Luhrmann’s stated objective behind writing this book is to bridge a growing gap between believers and skeptics. In the last chapter of the book (Bridging the Gap) she suggests that Americans are increasingly disconnected from important social relationships and as a result feel lonelier and isolated and in such situations they develop a relationship with God to overcome the loneliness and isolation and to feel happy (p.324). She provides a good combination of evolutionary psychology and ethnography in the book. At the very beginning she makes her project clear to the readers by stating the limitations of its scope and outcomes. She calls herself an ‘outsider’ and engages with the community as a participant-observer.

Don Seeman’s essay “To Pray with the Tables and the Chairs” deals with prayer and materiality.  His analysis of Chabad contemplative practices show that these practices are transformative facilitate practitioners to see the material world as divine. Prayer for both him and Luhrmann is the in-between where this transformation occurs. Seeman argues against universalizing and generalizing the binary of material and spiritual and for being context-specific in studying traditions that offer a different conception. Luhrmann psychological analysis, since is evolutionary, makes no room for sudden and unconditioned experiences which might be real to the practitioners ( or may be not); it certainly overpowers the voices of the practitioners themselves. So my questions are : a) if this approach succeeds in “bridging the gap”, because while the psychological approach might convince skeptics, it may fail to convince the practitioners’ such a representation of their own practices? b) How do we make sense of the ‘in-betweens ’ like prayer in our writings? How useful is ‘as if’ in representing a world that is seemingly different from ours?      


3 Replies to “Luhrmann and Seeman _ Aditya Chaturvedi”

  1. Aditya, thanks for the precis! I appreciate your emphasis on prayer as sites of relationship between “material” and “spirit,” if, as Seeman calls to mind in “Prayer and Medical Materialism,” those categories are even usefully distinct.

    One of the topics that I think is immediately raised by Luhrmann’s work is last week’s discussion of mediation. Meyer takes as her task a look at the ways in which various experiences are mediated in movies. What remains unanswered, and yet is as critical here as it was there, is whether mediation is an act of compression or reduction. When something is mediated, is it reduced in some way, made less than or different from what it was? Or is it instead compressed, shrunken but encoded, such that somehow, miraculously, all of the original is maintained, and yet, changed?

    This question connects both to the topics of psychological explanations of religious experience–does psychological explanation reduce or compress religious experience?–and the discussion of the relationship between material and spirit. Since I addressed the former question in my response to Kristin’s precis, and because you bring up the idea of “bridging gaps” from Luhrmann’s work, I’ll address the latter issue here.

    How does material relate to spirit? Does it make sense to talk about them as discrete? Seeman in “Prayer and Medical Materialism” relates the story of the neuroscientists who believed that “mind” is just “brain” (Seeman 1). I don’t have much of a problem with that notion, except for the word “just.” There is a sense in that phrasing that the mind is not only coequal to the brain, the mind is *reduced* to the brain. In the same way, it follows that if there is anything like spirit, it is reduced to the material. This seems both humanistically unsatisfying, and theoretically problematic. As Seeman suggests, there are problems both with viewing spirit as something that exists separate from body so as to not be reduced down to it, and also problems with reducing spirit to body altogether. In each case, the approach gives the things separate being. If they mutually arise together, then we are presented with a much more complicated task in which it does not make sense even to say, as Christian theologians might, that “the spirit works in the world”–there is no spirit separate from the material world that could possibly then work in the material world, because there is no material world separate from spirit. There is only being.

    This is one approach, and it is getting both rather theological and phenomenological. But I think this kind of mutual model that interweaves two supposed opposites is also beneficial for thinking about the role of the “as if” in Luhrmann. While I have, in previous weeks, questioned the plausibility of the “as if” among ethnographers who attempt to “treat the goddess as real,” I’ll stick up for it here a little bit. “As if” becomes a problem primarily if you think there is a hard distinction between imagination and reality. Much of our work this semester has been to consider the experiential worlds that people navigate in their daily lives. These worlds are created in the mix of social, ideological, material, and spiritual forces that construct their lived realities. Why should imagination not have an equal ability to contribute to the phenomenological frame of peoples’ experiences?

    Birgit Meyer argued last week for the consideration of imaginaries as contributors to phenomenological lifeworlds. It seems to me that the “as if” is another evocation of the imaginary. God is imaged as being present, visualized intently. The vineyard participants are trained to image this present God without the material object of the image. But the imaging is still a process of constructing an imaginary that contributes to the lifeworld.

    In this same way, the only thing that seems an obstacle to the ethnographer is the sincerity with which they approach the task of “as if.” It may be accurate to describe others operating “as if” God is present, but whether or not the ethnographer is able to truly make this God a part of their own experiential landscape likely has to do with whether they can be trained in the same kind of imagination as the people with whom they work. In many fieldwork sites, that is probably so difficult as to be impossible, in part because such training is not accessible or even consciously part of the task of coming to operate with an “as if” of God. But in the Vineyard church, this training was an explicit feature that was immediately at hand.

    There are still many questions about whether an ethnographer can, and also whether they ought to, engage in such an attempt to enter into the experiential world of those with whom they work. But the “as if” seems possible by the token that the imaginary is not counterposed against the real, the same way that spirit is not counterposed against material.

  2. Aditya, thank you for your précis. I enjoyed reading your analysis. I agree with you on the author’s comment that “This spirituality, says Luhrmann, “is all about the relationship” (p.274). Luhrmann points to this important point again when she said, “The central point of the renewalist evangelical church . . . is that one should build a personal relationship with God through prayer” (133). For American Evangelicals, a direct and personal relationship has been central to one’s spiritual formation since the Protestant Reformation which began in 1517. To experience God personally is similar to Seeman’s To Pray with the Tables and the Chairs. Seeman writes, “One does not see merely a “table” or “chairs,” nor does one come to see them as illusory and false, but one learns to perceive the divine vitality that is in them and that constitutes their true reality. To pray with the tables and with the chairs means, at least in part, to take one’s cue from materiality but to work backwards to its divine source and vitality, to learn to truly see this vitality where once there was only a chair or a table, and then to reveal, to the extent one is able, the truth that zimzum—divine absence—is itself the illusion that reveals materiality, and that alles is Gott (“all is God”). As I reflect on the Evangelical’s emphasis of a “personal relationship” and the Chabad’s understanding of praying with the table and chairs, I am also reminded of Michael Jackson’s concept of the penumbra. Given these three examples of religious experience, what strengths and limitations do you find in her methodology of evolutionary psychology?

  3. Aditya, thank you for your precis and the questions you’ve provided. I also found myself wondering about your first question, that is, whether or not Luhrmann’s informants would resonate with or be convinced by Luhrmann’s analysis. I think you’re right that her approach is likely to be persuasive to the skeptic, but I would certainly be curious to hear from those at the two Vineyard regarding her work. I think she has represented their voices and stories well in, especially, chapters 3-5, but I wonder if they would feel well represented by her explanation of their behaviours and experiences.

    Regarding your second question, I would also add another from Luhrmann’s work which I thought was especially interesting. That is, how does the ethnography adequately account for and represent religious doubt/uncertainty (something Luhrmann’s highlights frequently). I’m thinking of doing ethnographic work in increasingly plural societies, where religion is perhaps not so neatly married with the dominant culture. How are the places where a religious person/group struggles to map religious experience onto other prominent cultural norms explored and represented in anthropological work? In Luhramann’s work, prayer as a practice serves this function but does not remove all uncertainty. I’m interested in how other ritual practices might function in a similar way for other christianities and other religions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.