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"Pray in this Way": Tanya Luhrmann on the Anthropology of Prayer

Tanya Luhrmann


Watkins University Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University
June 12, 2019

It’s not uncommon for Christians to talk about prayer as a conversation with God. Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann has spent her career trying to figure out exactly what that means. Since receiving her doctorate from Cambridge University in 1986, Dr. Luhrmann has produced seminal research on religious experiences across the globe. In 2003, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and her 2012 book When God Talks Back was recognized as one of the New York Times’ Notable Books of the Year. Today, we’re sharing a conversation between CCT’s Evan Rosa and Dr. Luhrmann on the experience of hearing God and mental health in modern America. 

Evan Rosa (ER): Tanya, let’s start with a bit about you and your early life. Your research is in the anthropology of religion, hearing people talk about how they related to God. Could you say a little bit about your youth, and how you got interested in this subject?

Dr. Tanya Luhrmann (TL): My mother is the daughter of a Baptist minister, and she was more resistant to that conservative version of Christianity as she grew older. I would say that my cousins on her side of the family are all quite conservative Christians. You might call them fundamentalist Christians.

My father grew up as the son of a Christian scientist and then went to medical school, which is a pretty unusual path for a Christian scientist to take. I actually lived in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood when I was growing up in the outskirts of New York.

So, I have this pretty vivid sense that people had different commitments to God and different ideas about God. I was always fascinated by the way that people thought, making a judgment about what’s real and how they experienced, how they knew that God was present or not.

ER:  How do you link that to your decision to become a psychological anthropologist?

TL:  An anthropologist is still trying to understand what it’s like to live in somebody else’s skin, to walk a mile in their shoes, as it were. The good anthropologist begins, not by judging, but by trying to understand how somebody comes to the conclusions that they come to.

I am uncomfortable passing judgment on whether God is, or is not, real, whether God is present for people in the way that people say that God is present. Because, I saw people making different judgments about what was real. I have always been interested in how people work with a world of what you might call invisible others. I don’t think about religion, I think about psychosis. That’s very, very different. I just want to make that very clear. It’s also a world in which people are interacting with a Being who isn’t present to them, that isn’t visible to them.

So, I’ve been interested in how we can think scientifically about the difference between people who experience what they call God, and people who experience an invisible other, people we identify as having psychosis. How do you think about those differences? I contributed to that literature and thinking about the way that people come to have and report these experiences.

I’ve always been fascinated by the different experiences people have when people say that God is real to them. It’s not just a way of speaking. I mean, it is, for some people have vivid experiences with God and other people don’t. I’m also kind of interested in what we might know about those differences. Why some people hear God in a way that feels very external to them and other people say, “Well, God’s never spoken to me.” 

ER:  In an NPR interview that you did, you talk about this moment, where you were struck by this turn of phrase a woman used in describing her own relationship with God: “Having coffee with God.” Could you tell us that story?

TL:  That was just amazing, for me. I was doing a project on religion with a somewhat different orientation and I was spending time in this Evangelical Church in southern California, Horizon Christian Fellowship. This blond, beach girl said to me that if I wanted to understand how she experienced God, I should have “A cup of coffee with God.”

For me, it was an amazing way to describe her relationship with God, and I began to realize that in many of these new churches that God is experienced in that very intimate, casual, friendship way. I mean God is also, God is very complicated for people, God is big. God, for this woman and for all the people I met in a church like this, God was also high and mighty, and beyond. There was a way in which God was experienced, kind of like an imaginary friend, who wasn’t imaginary.

People would put out a cup of coffee for God. They would sit down at the dinner table and talk to God and they might be a little embarrassed about they look a little silly sitting there at the dinner table.

They would also really value that as a way of experiencing God, and I came to think about that as I set out to try to understand that world and how to make sense of the fact that people develop these ways of engaging with God like that.

I began to think of that also as something that was also not childish and not unsophisticated, but, rather was a consequence of this very sophisticated, science savvy society.

These almost imaginative practices, were ways of helping people to hang on to God, despite their sense of their own or other people’s doubts. And this was a way of talking about God that was a product of modernity.

ER:  It seems like it’s a habit or a practice that people adopt to facilitate a real relationship that they have. This is familiar from hundreds and thousands of years of spiritual practices where there are disciplines, there are practices, there are ways to train one’s self to attune to the voice of God or to become more familiar with God.

TL:  Absolutely. In ways, what I saw was that the Christians I was spending time with and these new charismatic Evangelical churches are just turning to techniques that are hundreds, thousands of years old.

On the other hand, they’re also using them in ways that are very marked by the particular period of time that we find ourselves in. Again, I became quite interested in that.

ER:  I want to ask you about your experience with the Vineyard Churches. Why did you choose Vineyard Churches? Why did you choose the charismatic movement, and what has your experience been like spending time with those folks?

TL:  I chose the charismatic churches because they had this very intimate, engaged relationship with God. I was curious about that.

They really represent the new emphasis on intimate spirituality in American religious life since 1965. I like to say that God became completely loving around 1965. There’s a way in which in the ’60s people simultaneously were reaching out for an experience of God, and also Christianity became a lifestyle choice.

You could be a perfectly reasonable American citizen and not be a Christian. That was around that time, and that mode of secular awareness really blossomed. This new kind of spirituality became a spirituality that was, in effect, making God available to people they presumed were doubters. This new kind of spirituality emphasized God’s love, rather than God’s judgment, and it emphasized God’s availability, rather than God’s distance.

The Vineyard really represents that new turn in America’s spirituality. That’s why I reached out to the Vineyard. I have to say, I was impressed by the church. I was impressed that these were churches on the edges of university communities. I was impressed by the complexity of the belief experience, and of the faith experience. And by the thoughtfulness with which people engaged in activities that might seem to a secular person very silly, like having a cup of coffee with God, but, in fact, people managed with a great deal of respect.

ER:  How are sensible people able to believe in an invisible being who has a demonstrable effect on their lives, and sustain that belief in the face of an otherwise skeptical scientific society? Would you comment on that?

TL: This is a church that models God as intimate and interactive. It tells you that God will talk back, not distantly or five years from now. But God wants to hear about your everyday experience and will talk back to you about that experience in real time.

I looked at what I would call learning invitations in the church. I looked at three big things that I thought the church invited people to do. It was inviting people to identify mental events–you might call them thoughts–which they might have taken to be their own experience, but the church invited them to consider whether those thoughts might be communications from God.

It taught people how to discern whether to take seriously that these might be communications from God.

Sometimes when I say that it frightens people, particularly the secular folks, because they think, “Oh my goodness, people are imagining that God speaks directly to them, da da da.”

In my experience, the church would say things like something a pastor once said, which is that if you think that God is telling you to calm down and relax, you don’t have to worry too much about that’s really from God, because it’s pretty good advice.

If God tells you to move to Los Angeles, and set up an apartment there, and search for a new job, you really want to have a lot of people discerning with you so that you feel more confident that that’s really God leading you, rather than your own thoughts.

In any event, the first thing the church did was to invite people to scrutinize their own mental experience for the presence of God. It encouraged people to pretend that God was present.

I always point out that C. S. Lewis entitled a chapter of Mere Christianity “let’s pretend,” and said, “Let’s pretend in order to experience God as real.”

This is where the church would say, “OK, put a cup of coffee for God. Go for a walk with God. Go on a date with God.” People had very complicated ideas about how much of this was truly true and how much of it was their imagination.

The church’s concern was not with heresy, with the idea that people would get it wrong, but with the concern that people might not get God at all.

They saw themselves as aware of people who were falling away from God and needed to experience God as a being who is intimate for them.

The third thing it did was that it invited people to engage in a set of what I’ll call emotional practices. I came to think of these as how would you feel emotionally if you really took seriously the idea that you were unconditionally loved by this mighty being?

You would probably be emotionally different than most of us are in this jangly world that we’re living in.

The church would set up what you might think of as teaching opportunities for the other church members to remind people that God is present and loving. My favorite example of this was the prayer huddle. The group prayer experience, where somebody’s in the center of the prayer, and people are around them praying.

If you look at that from a completely secular perspective, you put aside the question of whether God is hearing the prayer, and you simply say, “Well, what is this doing emotionally?”

You see that you have this anxious, distressed person in the middle of the circle, and you have people around them saying words out loud that are reassuring words, that remind the person of God who loves them.

I think that in the variety of practices like that, I saw that people would learn to treat God as a therapist, that they would take their everyday emotional difficulties and challenges to God and talk to God the way that they would talk to a therapist, and kind of wait to discern what God might be saying to them about that, and the variety of things like that. That’s what I saw the church teach.

I also saw that these practices changed people. The dimension of the change that I saw that was fascinating was not only the emotional change. You really behave as if you are being loved by this profoundly loving being. Common sense tells you that you’ll calm down, relax, feel better. You know, we have some research that suggest that that’s true.

What else I saw was that, in effect, these practices are encouraging people to do is to pay attention to their inner experience and to transform their inner experience from a fearful engagement to a loving engagement.

What I was most interested in doing, what I’m proud of having accomplished was that I was able to demonstrate these prayer practices change the way people experience their inner worlds. When people start praying, and they’re focused on their inner experience, they’re looking for the ways God has spoken to them. They’re often in this kind of prayer community.

People are praying, some stories and the scriptures. They’re imagining themselves in the scriptures, imagining themselves interacting with God. That imaginative process actually sharpens the mental imagery and makes that inner imagery more vivid and present.

It leads people to have more unusual experiences. People, when they pray, are more likely to report that they have heard God speak in a weird way. But also that they’ve had an odd, unusual experience of God speaking in an audible voice, or that they’ve had this powerful experience of feeling that there’s the adrenaline shot to their body. The Holy Spirit has moved within them, or that they’ve had a vision that feels as if it’s not just in their mind, kind of in their world.

What I did is I ran this randomized controlled trial. Brought 130 people into my office. We gave them a set of standardized psychological questionnaires. We sat in front of the computer screen. We interviewed them for a couple of hours.

Then we randomized them either to some terrific lectures on the gospel by Luke Timothy Johnson or to what you could loosely call prayer practices, or creative imagination experiences in which people are invited to enter a scriptural story to see it, to smell it, to feel it, to engage it with all their inner senses and to interact with a figure that represented God, like a baby, the shepherd, the crucified Christ.

Then they would listen to a song, listen to some music. Then they return. The folks in that prayer condition did report more of these unusual experiences over the course of the month that we had them doing this prayer practice.

They reported, for example, that God also became more person-like, that they had a more playful relationship with God, that they felt spiritually more changed. It was pretty interesting.

These prayer practices change the way people experience their inner worlds.

ER:  You’ve also written that: “to become a committed Christian, one must learn to override three basic features of human psychology: the mind is private, persons are visible, and love is conditional and contingent upon right behavior.” How do we override those three things?

TL:   One of the things that’s so fascinating about today is this mixture of commitment to the ambivalence.

I think it’s just evidently part of the faith experience. On the one hand, you ask a question of faith, whether they believe in God. It’s like, “Of course. God is really real,” but you look at what they’re actually doing.

Going to church, in effect, is a way of reminding you that God is really there. You are really loved. Prayer is really important. God does answer prayer.

There’s also this very imperfect world, in which things happen that seems to suggest that the world is not under the reign of a benevolent Lord, because the things we pray for don’t always come to pass the way that you envision them. Your mom is ill. You pray for your mom to get better. Not all moms get better. That’s often challenged it.

I think what I came to see is, on the one hand, there are ways in which our minds are well prepared to think intuitively and automatically that the divine is real and present.

You hear sound at the next room. Your first thought is whether there’s an active agent there even if you know that there’s nobody there in the room.

The world presents many, many opportunities for you to doubt and to be fearful that there isn’t this God. It isn’t a loving God. It isn’t the kind of God you thought was there.

I think that Augustine is one of our best examples of a very capable, very faithful Christian who clearly struggled enormously trying to understand the nature of faith, the right understanding of God.

I think when you try to understand the faith and strength holding those two together and trying to understand how people manage–that is really the central puzzle.

ER:  How would you override the belief that minds are private?  Is it just a practice of doubt, a self questioning?

TL:  Well, I think that the church is inviting you–typically new churches–to see some of their thoughts as not only being heard by God but also being God’s voice. I saw that people who were new to that way of thinking really struggled with that. In some sense, you look across the sweep of world history. People have heard the divine or the supernatural, whatever word you want to use.

When people have powerful, unusual experiences, people will readily identify that this is not their experience. What I saw was that people would struggle. It’s not that they struggled so much with the idea that God could speak to you. They struggled with their own comfort in interpreting a leading as truly being from God, as compared to their own human anxiety.

I saw that it was actually enormously difficult for people to hang on, for example, to the idea that there was a loving God who was really there for them.

One of my cherished memories on these interviews are moments when somebody might begin to cry when we were having our conversation. When they began to cry, they were often talking about that moment when the penny dropped. They really got it. They were loved. You could tell that they kind of got it for a moment, and then it went away. I mean, it’s really hard for humans to hang on to the idea that there is a being there who loves them. They are worthy of that kind of love.

There are two different things that I talked about, that they’re hanging together. Again, the church is about reminding you that the message is true. The promise was given. It’s not just a human set of writing. There’s something deeper than that. 

ER: As you research and you encounter certain commonalities of human psychology, how would you explain that tendency to view the world negatively?

TL: In a sense, that’s really easy. A lot of things happen to people. The world just invites you to encounter again and again how little is under your control.

Little of your own health experience is under control. Lives are short and sometimes brutal. One of the things that is a cause to the modern world is just our awareness of how much suffering there is around the world.

That is just so blatant. When I think about this, I think that there are different challenges for the teenager and for the 30 year old or the 35 year old. The teenager often is using his or her logical intelligence to reason about God.

That’s often a challenging moment for a teenager of faith because there are many instances in which it would seem that it’s hard to reconcile what’s happening in the real world with a loving God. Even if you would commit to the idea of a Satan or a devil, there’s an awful lot of suffering up there to make sense of it.

I think that, as people age, they sometimes come to faith because the world doesn’t make sense. And it’s a way of living with a bundle of tensions and contradictions that human experience presents to people. I think that, in some ways, human development, adult development, is coming to an increased awareness of limitations.

That is such a sharp experience. It can be really hard not to question the nature of God. Even if the person never says, “I doubt that God exists.” I think it’s the very rare Christian who has not wondered if the promise is really true for them. 

ER:  Sam Harris’s latest book is called Waking Up: Spirituality Without Religion. Often evangelicals feel the need to answer secular objections to religion, by giving in to the “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” notion. Did you encounter that, and how did you incorporate it into your research?

TL:  That’s a very deep question, and I don’t have a social science answer to that question.

I do think that there’s something that’s generally true, which is that the difficulty of faith is not unconnected to the reward of faith. That’s not entirely fair or accurate. It’s the kind of thing that would make many of my colleagues howl with agitation.

I think that it is not true for everybody, but it is not without truth that to be spiritual but not religious doesn’t really demand very much of you, so it’s easy to commit to it. I’m not sure how much it always does for you in persuading you that the world is a better place than their eyes seem to suggest.

I think one of the things that I saw in these evangelical churches is that very demand. When the church says, “God is here, right now. He’s talking to you. Pay attention for what he might be saying to you.” In a sense, it really captures your attention. We have these minds that go all over the place.

When you’re really being invited to pay attention to God, a God who really challenges some of your expectations about what’s real, that demand of attention might help you override some of your own doubts. Again, it’s people are very complicated.

ER:  Do you think our culture’s love of the term “spirituality” is a cop-out that people use to evade the label “religious”?

TL: I think that one of the things that’s happening in the data, there’s this big increase in the number of people who are spiritual but not religious. They’re unaffiliated to any church, but they are clearly spiritual in that they tell you that they believe in a God.

There are more of these “nones”  than there were before. The number of people who are atheist has increased, but not as rapidly as that number of “nones.”

I think that part of that is a set of political disagreements over what God demands of you, politically. This is a guess, and people have different views about that. Certainly, the traditional evangelical political commitments of the middle aged or elder generation, are quite different from the younger generations. Gay marriage is a flashpoint around this. My sense is that’s part of the struggle, that the evangelical church may be losing people over a political disagreement.

ER: You pick up what you sort of refer to as one of Paul’s questions about seeing through a glass darkly in the opening chapters of when God talks back, and I want to ask you about this. How do we integrate the certainty that often comes from spiritual experiences with the intellectual virtues of humility and open-mindedness?

TL: I think that not everybody has those big moments of revelation. The bigger the moment, the rarer it is. Saul on the road to Damascus, that’s pretty rare to have, so I would call that a mystical experience. Our data would say, I don’t know, I’m going to wave my hands and say maybe one in a thousand people have such an experience. The less intense the experience, the easier it is for people to think that it’s just their own experience.

I think the challenge of holding on to God in a way that cultivates the best possible virtue is at the heart of the argument that you’ll see in evangelical churches about the value of spiritual experience. In some sense, if you are a soul on the way to meet with Paul, that spiritual experience worked out pretty well.

But, there are other people for whom it does not work so well. I read about these two brothers, one of whom heard God speak to him and went and killed his brother’s wife. God spoke to him as well.

The risk that any church faces is that the more powerful the spiritual experience with the congregant, the more committed it could make the congregant to God, but the less control the church has over what God that is. The sociologist, Max, talks about the rolling values of charisma.

He might say that the reason that charismatic churches spring up is to give people confidence in the presence of God so they can know him. But that charisma also declines because people recognize how risky it is and how many different ideas about God can be floating around, and people experience God personally. It’s a big question.

ER:  I want to shift slightly to ask you about your work in psychiatry, spirituality, and mental illness.. You recently wrote a blog, “Is the World More Depressed?” How can we form a better understanding of mental illness in relation to spirituality?

TL:  I think that we’re becoming more and more aware of our vulnerabilities to anxiety, depression, psychosis. I think it’s really important that people become aware of that. This awareness is, in effect, two sided.

I think that it’s really helpful to not treat people as responsible for their despair. It can be terrible to blame yourself for being depressed. And that is sometimes, particularly, a burden for Christians who after all, feel they are being mugged by this loving God. I think it’s terribly helpful when churches become aware of mental illness and encourage people to reach out. It is also true that, churches are in a really good position to help people who might feel stigma about their own struggle, to reach out for help. There are newer initiatives, like Rick Warren’s initiative, and these other bunches of initiatives around the country in which people are trying to see ways in which churches can partner with mental health agencies

I do think it’s really helpful to have professionals on hand, because it’s, medication is really useful. It’s very helpful to have somebody who knows what they’re doing in prescribing medication.

We live in a world that is a very wonderful world. We’ve lived longer than ever before. We’re healthier than ever before. That’s actually wonderful. It also can be a kind of stressful world. Enabling people to manage that as best they can is a good thing.

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