religious experience

July 8, 2013

Friendship Renders the Sacred Real

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity, Robert Orsi’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

For many of the artists and intellectuals working in mid-twentieth-century Paris, there was no topic more captivating than that of sacred presence. The public lectures of Henri Bergson had awakened the idea that experiential contact with what he called l’Absolu was indeed possible, and despite the skepticism emanating from the nearby Sorbonne, this prospect was thrilling. Some went on to write about their own inner lives, like Raïssa Maritain whose extraordinary Journal recounts thirty years of locutions and visions, and eventually, a sense of actually incorporating the person of Christ into her own body and soul. Others, like the writer Charles Péguy and the theologian Henri de Lubac, perceived powerful spiritual experiences from ancient sources. So they transcribed, translated, and read them aloud to friends, over and over, hoping to recapture something of it for themselves.

Here in this portal and elsewhere, Robert Orsi’s writing on prayer as relationship turns our attention away from the familiar tools we rely on when we analyze sacred presence– familiar tools like interiority, or even the disciplining power of social norms. He helps us see how the sacred is made real only through the personal spheres of intimacy that happen always within, and alongside, the more diffuse networks of discursive and non-discursive power. This is a shift. We’re not trained to see personal bonds as having much scholarly weight. Constance Furey also writes about powerfully this: “For scholars of religion, things like friendship seem ‘not quaint exactly, but not essential either.’”


March 6, 2013

Prayer, Imagination, and the Voice of God—in Global Perspective

Tanya Marie Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and a Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her work explores how people come to experience nonmaterial objects such as God as present and real, and how different understandings of the mind affect mental experience. She is the author, most recently, of When God Talks Back (Knopf, 2012), which The New York Times Book Review called “the most insightful study of evangelical religion in many years,” and of other books including Of Two Minds (Knopf, 2000), The Good Parsi (Harvard, 1996), and Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (Harvard, 1989). Her latest project, supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, builds on and extends her research for When God Talks Back, taking her to India and Africa. On a recent rainy afternoon in Palo Alto, I spoke with Luhrmann about her work and its new directions.

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Steven Barrie-Anthony: In the final chapter of When God Talks Back, you argue that God for evangelicals is not a rejection of modernity but rather an expression of what it is to be modern. How is this the case?

Tanya Marie Luhrmann: I think that the two big characteristics of modernity are the availability of science, and pluralism. And these make the uncertainty of your own cognitive position much more available to you. So using the imagination to make God real helps to make God real. Doing this also has characteristics that we associate with postmodernity—the playfulness, the uncertainty, the sense that there is a there there but maybe we don’t really get to it directly. From what I know of early Christianity, the idea of seeing through a glass darkly was extremely salient in the first and second centuries, was less salient to a faith that was very confident, and is highly salient to modern people. It allows you to imagine God walking by your side. Are you just making that up or is it real in the world? C.S. Lewis is sure that God is real, but then, he’s also writing a novel about it. The availability of disbelief is a condition of modernity. You cannot but be aware that other people think differently—that they may disbelieve your belief. And the evangelical walking with God is a sort of suspension of disbelief, which is not really relevant unless disbelief is relevant.