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?