Tanya Luhrmann states the obvious

But I hope she didn’t write the headline: “Belief is the Least Part of Faith.”

Tanya Luhrmann has made a name for herself as the explicator of Evangelical Christianity (especially its experiential side) to American secular culture (ie readers of The New York Times). I suppose her intended audience is also mainline Christians. She does write well and insightfully about her experience with a particular form of Christianity (the Vineyard fellowship and Pentecostalism) but she is remarkably unknowledgeable about other forms of contemporary Christianity.

Thus her piece begins today with an anecdote about her recent visit to a university church which she says is very similar to the church she attended as a child. The conversation there centered on belief. She writes the following:

Why do people believe in God? What is our evidence that there is an invisible agent who has a real impact on our lives? How can those people be so confident?These are the questions that university-educated liberals ask about faith. They are deep questions. But they are also abstract and intellectual. They are philosophical questions. In an evangelical church, the questions would probably have circled around how to feel God’s love and how to be more aware of God’s presence. Those are fundamentally practical questions.

Her column includes a quotation from one of her interviewees that supports her argument: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”

Luhrmann comments:

secular Americans often think that the most important thing to understand about religion is why people believe in God, because we think that belief precedes action and explains choice. That’s part of our folk model of the mind: that belief comes first.

And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.

Now, in the course of the piece Luhrmann points out that scholars of religion do not generally think “belief” is any more important to religion than other elements–ritual or devotional practices, for example. Her argument might be stronger if she cited someone besides Durkheim. And she appeals to Wilfrid Cantwell Smith observation that “belief” in the way it’s commonly construed is itself a modern phenomenon.

Where she goes wrong is in failing to engage the attendees at her service in the very sort of conversation that she engaged her Pentecostal subjects. It wouldn’t take more than a couple of questions to hear people expressing complicated relationships with faith and belief and that they attend church services in spite of their uncertainties.

When I taught religious studies, I always began my introductory courses with an exercise in which I asked students to define religion. Invariably, their responses overwhelmingly had to do with faith or belief–that was true whether they were mainline, evangelical, pentecostal, or secular. It’s ingrained in our culture; it’s one of our basic assumptions wherever we land on the spectrum of religious faith and practice. And most of us, evangelical, Catholic, or mainline, clergy or lay, have a rather complicated relationship with the question of faith but continue our practice in spite of it.

I’m hoping Luhrmann will begin to study more closely the religious practice and religious commitments of those people who too often serve as a foil for her discussion of Pentecostals. It’s difficult to be a bridge between two communities when you lack basic understanding of one (and her apparent blindness to the complexities of non-Pentecostal Christianity makes one wonder whether her analysis of Pentecostals is accurate).

Understanding Religious Experience: Tanya Luhrmann on Evangelicals

Joan Acocella’s review of Tanya M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Luhrmann is an anthropologist who has written extensively and insightfully on religion in the contemporary world. In this book, she writes about her experiences in two evangelical churches associated with the Vineyard Fellowship. It’s on my reading list.

Acocella’s review highlights the religious experiences stressed in these communities and their members’ understanding and experience of God:

This casualness carries over to conversations with God. The Vineyarders asked him “for admission to specific colleges, for the healing of specific illness—even, it is true, for specific red convertible cars.” Some Vineyard women had a regular “date night” with Jesus. They would serve a special dinner, set a place for him at the table, chat with him. He guided the Vineyarders every minute of the day. Sarah told Luhrmann how, one day, after a lunch at a restaurant with fellow-parishioners, she was feeling good about herself, whereupon, as she was crossing the parking lot, a bird shat on her blouse. God, she explained to Luhrmann, was giving her a little slap on the wrist for her self-satisfaction.

We may find the religion described here odd; but the appeal is obvious and apparently Luhrmann also entered into the experience more than as a researcher:

Indeed, she tells us at the end of the book that she cannot call herself a Christian, and that she doesn’t believe in “a God who sits out there, as real as a door post.” At the same time, she repeatedly says, with no qualification, that she prayed with the Vineyarders and by herself under the guidance of a “spiritual director.” Like them, she kept a prayer journal, recording “what I said to God followed by what he said to me.” If she didn’t believe in a God who sat out there, whom did she think she was saying things to? And who was saying things back to her?

A deeper look at Luhrmann’s perspective. She is interested in the social construction of sensory experience, in particular, how people make sense of their experiences. She assumes of course that hallucinations begin with sensory experience in the brain, and that we make sense of that experience through culture and training:

It is also true that spiritual training may make sensory overrides more likely. Inner sense cultivation — and mental imagery cultivation, in particular — is at the heart of shamanism and is central to many spiritual traditions….[T]wo dominant forms of mental techniques in effect train the human mind to experience the supernatural: techniques that focus attention on the inner senses and those that train attention away from thought and sensation. Examples of the former include shamanism, Tibetan vision meditation, and the Ignatian spiritual exercises; examples of the latter are Zen meditation and Centering Prayer.

Both train the attention, and they probably train the capacity for absorption. Although the psychological literature is largely silent about whether these training techniques generate sensory overrides, the ethnographic and historical literature strongly suggest that inner sense cultivation produces sensory experiences that are interpreted as signs of the supernatural.

The full “primer” to Luhrmann’s perspective is here.