How God becomes real.
People don’t worship because they believe in God. They believe in God because they worship. So claims Tanya Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back, the subject of my previous post. In the current post I discuss her anthropology of religion—all religion, not just Christianity.* Ideally, these two posts should be read together.
One reason practice precedes belief is that because on the face of it belief in God is preposterous.
The idea that there is an invisible other who takes an active, loving interest in your life is in many ways preposterous and takes effort to maintain, even in a community that has never been secular. (2020, p 17)
For humans to sustain their belief in invisible entities who care about us requires that God must be made real again and again in the face of a stubborn world that rarely cooperates. It takes groups of people to do that.
Here is where ritual steps in. Rituals remind people that gods and spirits matter. Rituals describe the gods, tell stories about them, and frequently involve singing, praying, and dancing. All this encourages an enthusiasm in which these invisible beings can be summoned up and experienced as though they were real. Lest this sound like a description of so-called primitive tribes, this is how Luhrmann described the Christians of the Vineyard movement, the subject of her previous book.
It takes work to maintain belief, especially when this belief is not readily supported by reality. “Faith flouts facts.” People sicken and die not matter how hard people pray on their behalf. So why don’t people just give up their beliefs? Because it is the ritual itself that is rewarding, changing the way people think about themselves in relation to God.
People don’t act as if gods and spirits are real in the same way that chairs and people are real
People may talk as if their gods are straightforwardly real, but they don’t act that way. “Not in the Bible Belt, not in medieval England, not in Fiji, and not among the Nuer” (p 12). Chairs and people just exist. Gods have to be made real by certain practices, which we call religion and ritual. One could think of this as anthropological Marxism: the practice creates the belief, much as Marx argued that economics creates ideology.
The assumption of so many theologians, including almost all considered on this blog, as well as critics of religion, is that religion is all about belief, particularly the kind of belief called faith. No, religion is about what you do with others that creates and sustains belief. You may not go to church or synagogue, but the practices there enable and support your belief. Belief without organized followers is too fragile to survive.
Why prayer works
Expressing a sense of how things should be helps people with the world as it is (p 139). How does this work? It works like Søren Kierkegaard said it works. Prayer may not change God, but it changes the person who prays.
All monotheistic faiths hold that there is one God, and this God is good. No matter what has happened that day, no matter how great the sorrow or loss, this world is a good one, and the person who prays is grateful for its goodness.
The Lord gives, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. (Job 1:21)
Where Luhrmann goes wrong
Luhrmann goes wrong in arguing that we find the world good when we look at our troubles and insist that the troubles contain blessings (p 144). It’s not so simple; people are more subtle than that. The death of a loved one, or the death of six million loved ones in the Holocaust, contains no blessing. The Holocaust renders all feelings of gratitude absurd. The recent death of my wife contains no blessing, except perhaps that it was the termination of two years of terrible pain. But is that really a blessing or just an end?
Gratitude is experienced amidst terrible loss when we recognize that life itself is a miracle gift. To experience the gift of even a difficult life as good is a religious attitude, though it gets complicated for it is not difficult to imagine the arch-atheist Friedrich Nietzsche as grateful for a difficult life. “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” he said.
Ask for the right things
Prayer works when we ask for the right things. Even the act of praying causes (or should cause) us to consider what it is right to pray for. Prayers for healing often shift the focus away from a cure, and toward the acceptance of illness. The Book of Common Prayer says it beautifully.
If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus.
Prayer works when it changes our relationship to God. God is no longer the one who hands out miracle cures. God is the one who is with us throughout our suffering, as well as our everyday joys and setbacks. Petitionary prayer (prayer that asks for something), when it is done properly, always ends with the words “but not my will but thy will be done.” Prayer in this spirit strengthens our relationship to God, and it is this relationship, not the belief that accompanies it, that comes first.
Conclusion: a relationship with God
The most powerful but also most perplexing observation I have made in my work is that people of faith learn to identify gods and spirits as responding, that this responsiveness comes to feel like a relationship, and that this relationship changes people. (p 158)
God is most likely to respond when we pray for the right things in the right way. God is most likely to respond when we pray with others in a heightened atmosphere in which ritual, music, and movement, such as swaying back and forth (called shuckling by Jews), lead us to experience God in our midst.
But what does it mean to experience God? It means that God feels real. Feeling real is not the same as believing in. Feeling real is more like an emotion. “It is more like knowing that your mother loves you than believing that she is in the den.” (p 156) This emotion is reinforced by the presence of others, but for some it is available at almost any time. It is not the knowledge of God; nor is it simply faith. It is the experience of God.
* This post contains less criticism and a bit more summary than most. An anthropologist, Luhrmann is concerned with all religion in How God Becomes Real, from Christianity and Judaism to the practices of so-called primitive tribes.
Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back. Knopf, 2012.
Tanya M. Luhrmann, How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others. Princeton University Press, 2020.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, p xv. Hackett, 1997 [original 1889].