Sunday, February 24, 2013

Absorbing read

It's taken me forever to finish this book - I picked it up (actually, got a free copy) at AAR in November - but I'm finally through. Don't take my slow process through it as a sign of lack of enthusiasm. To finish a book for as scatterbrained a person as me requires multiple acts of recommitment!

But in this case it took a long time also because it's such a good book, so incisive. (Sometimes I don't finish something because I don't want it to come to an end.) Ostensibly a study of the Vineyard churches, a new Evangelical movement (another Southern California gift to contemporary religion!) which encourages its members to talk with God all the time, it's really about faith in the modern world. This becomes explicit at the end, but I sensed it as I read. I've never been part of a Vineyard type congregation, nor been tempted to be. But the efforts, anxieties and rewards described here resonated with me - a surprise, as I'm not a very diligently religious person.

T. M. Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist, now at Stanford, who cut her teeth in earlier studies of neopagan and psychoanalytic cultures. As well as anyone I've read in a long time she maintains a neutrality in her writing, neither simply accepting nor contesting Vineyard people's accounts of what's going on. A sign of her success if the embrace of her book by Evangelicals, who recognize themselves in her account, no less than by the outsiders she refers to as "skeptics." She manages somehow to report that studies find religious practice lead to happier and healthier lives without endorsing or relativizing these practices.

Like William James, in the distinguished lineage of whose Varieties this book belongs, When God talks back ends with a carefully stated endorsement of the reality of the experiences studied. In my own way I have come to know God. I do not know what to make of this knowing. I would not call myself a Christian, but I find myself defending Christianity. (325) But Luhrmann's done more than James, who sat in his study reading memoirs, and then concluding God is real because he has real effects. James thought himself constitutionally excluded from such effects, but Luhrmann allowed these effects to happen to her. She let Vineyard texts, sermons and groups teach her to pray, even engaged a spiritual director, and began to understand parts of church teaching not just as so many intellectual doctrinal commitments but as having an emotional logic of their own. (325) She writes all this on the last page of her text, which I am proud to say I didn't sneak a peek of before time. You sense it long before. It suffuses the rigor, sympathy and care with which she writes.

One can only hope that the book is read widely. It would be nice for smug skeptics to appreciate that Christians are not credulous dupes but find God hard to hear, and work hard - on their own and even more together - to sift his voice from their own. (Vineyard practice, we learn, is all about teaching you how to feel God's presence, in intimate detail and in your daily life.) They might initially be disappointed that these Evangelicals are less interested in explaining things (even evil) than feeling related to things, but should eventually be relieved at not having to work so hard at imagining them pathological and irrational. Maybe they'd even admit to participating in analogous efforts to coax a meaning for the cosmos into reality. Evangelicals might find in her work confirmation that non-Evangelicals can be trusted to listen, and to hear.

I found When God talks back a bracing read in part because of her ability to write so sympathetically - virtually from the inside - about a worldview she does not share. Not because I felt she was invading "my" space, but because her place within it reminded me a little uncannily of my own. The religious studies scholar's cap sometimes stays on when I go to church. This doesn't undermine the experiences of the significance of ritual, of community, etc., as I encounter it, I think. (Rather, it's more like "aha, so that's what that theory was all about!") But it does make me wonder if what I'm getting isn't perhaps more generic, or at least more general, than the Christian trappings in which I meet it.

What particularly intrigued me, and unsettled me a bit, too, was learning about psychological studies which find that some people are more open to "absorption" experiences than others. Luhrmann introduces a 34-statement test called the Tellegen Absorption Scale:

The scale ... has only one statement that could be construed as religious. Instead, its statements describe experiences of nature and color and music. They describe textures and smells. There are statements that assert that you, the scale-taker, sometimes experience things as a child; that you can "see" the image of something when no longer looking at it; that you sometimes discover that you have finished a task when your thoughts are elsewhere; that different smells call up different colors; that you often sense the presence of a person before seeing him or her; that you can become oblivious to everything else when listening to music; that you sometimes keep listening to a fascinating voice. (195)

Many more people have these sorts of experiences than you might expect. And it turns out that people who give positive responses to many of these are also more likely to have had experiences of hearing religious voices that seem to come from outside their minds, feeling God's touch on their shoulder, seeing angels, Jesus, etc. The sorts of practices the Vineyard encourages teach people how to become more open to the sorts of experiences psychologists define as "hallucinations" but Luhrmann more gently defines as "sensory overrides": moments when perception overrides the material stimulus (216). Being able to immerse yourself in, to savor an experience beyond immediate stimulus is demonstrably a boon in many circumstances. It's about perceptual bias, not perceptual deficit (219).

I haven't taken the test but the discussion suggested that I'm in the absorptive pack. I suppose I've always know this, but in this setting it was unnerving. Why? Well, Luhrmann's discussion suggests that religious experiences are mediated by factors of personality as much as by whatever religious objects they may have. And besides, the capacity for absorption isn't only a good thing. High absorption people are highly suggestible in the false memory department, etc. I guess I've known that part, too, always picking up, as few of my students do, the point in Schleiermacher's Speeches on Religion where the church is born: powerful experiences of passivity, of being acted on (Schleiermacher's language now, not the Vineyard's or Luhrmann's) must surely be unsettling, and the first thing one might expect someone who has such an experience to do is to describe it to trusted others, to make sure one isn't being acted on by a malevolent force. That is why, the inventor of modern "religion" thought, Once there is religion, it must necessarily also be social. (trans. Crouter [CUP 1996], 73).

Powerful stuff, and powerfully contemporary! This account barely scratches its surface but When God talks back is a great book. It'll open your eyes, about others and also perhaps about yourself. Read it!

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