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Imaginary friends

When people say that the idea of God is intellectually satisfying: Well, of course it is. Wouldn’t it be lovely to believe in an imaginary friend who listens to your thoughts, listens to your prayers, comforts you, consoles you, gives you life after death, can give you advice? Of course it’s satisfying, if you can believe it. But who wants to believe a lie?[1]

Thus Richard Dawkins in 2005, and since that date, much else in a similar vein. In this view, the issue of ‘belief’ – understood as assent to a series of propositions about God – is assumed to be central to religion.   Belief in such propositions is, from the Dawkins perspective, evidence of ignorance, credulousness, emotional weakness and/or the wish (as sometimes on the part of organized churches, particularly Christian ones of various stamps) to mislead or exploit others. Dawkins advocates by contrast a scientific clear-sightedness which allows for both ethical considerations and the cultivation of a sense of wonder at the universe, thus in his view neatly winnowing out the useful functions of religion while dispensing with its hopeless disadvantages. As Charles Taylor pointed out some years ago, the Dawkins stance is clearly – though apparently unconsciously – derived from the Nietzschean claim that modern man must prove his maturity by looking without illusions into the godless void (Taylor, 2009; 589). Indeed, the idea of the mind’s capacity to summon up an imaginary friend has fascinated many commentators, although they do not always reach for the link with organised religion; I think here of Michael Houseman’s work in Nanterre University, in which his students were presented with a pair of shoes said to have belonged to Marcel Mauss, and encouraged to imagine the presence of this anthropological ancestor; before long, the students were politely including ‘Mr. Mauss’ in their discussions on The Gift.[2]

Tanya Luhrmann’s interlocutors might almost have developed their style of worship with the express plan of driving Richard Dawkins to the limit of exasperation. Luhrmann conducted intensive fieldwork in Chicago and California with members of the Vineyard church, rooted in the ‘new evangelicals’ movement begun by Charles Fuller in California in 1947.   Vineyard church members do lots of things that make secular observers, and some co-religionists, shift a little uneasily on their chairs. For a start, they make a lot of minute and explicit requests of God in prayer; God, please give me a car; not just any car, however; a red convertible, if you don’t mind. Help me pass my medical exams; help me get a decent haircut and avoid that dud trainee in the salon. They talk of, exorcise and wage ‘spiritual warfare’ on demons[3], and some people can also see them as dark figures, distorting force fields or (in one unsettling example) as malign imps scuttling across a bed-pillow. They speak in tongues; they sing sentimental music; they cry a lot in church. Above all, they cultivate the sense of a personal relationship with God which is the central subject of Luhrmann’s research; they envisage and talk to Jesus (in particular) as a personal friend. Some Vineyard women speak of going on ‘date night’ with Jesus, sitting with him on a particular park bench to talk as if Christ were an ideally empathetic boyfriend, or laying a place for him at the dinner table. Both men and women in these churches long for encounters with this personal Jesus which will leave them with a deep, emotionally and sensorially based knowledge of the absolute reality of God.  At times, this knowing comes through experiences of being touched by the hand of God, seeing a vision of Jesus, or hearing the voice of God addressing you in the midst of daily life, perhaps from the backseat of a car on a long journey. More often, the conversation with God is conducted through less immediately startling intimations of divine response, woven into the everyday activities of the evangelical person as he or she matures in prayer. Asked point-blank by the anthropologist or her assistants whether their Jesus is indeed like an imaginary friend, Vineyard members reply without demur that yes, he is; but real. It is the central aim of Luhrmann’s book to explore what it means to centre religious practice around the deliberate use of the imagination in this way, and to explain, as she put it in the title of an earlier article, ‘how God becomes intimate in contemporary U.S. Christianity.’[4] A second aim of the book, summarised by the title of Chapter Eight, ‘But are they crazy?’, is to explore the privileged role that Vineyard church members give to experiences of sensory perception of Christ in the context of American fears and suspicions about what Lurhmann here terms ‘sensory override’ experiences, given the close cultural association between hallucinations and madness in post industrial countries.

Click to enlargeIllustration by Ed Linfoot

Illustration by Ed Linfoot

The major ethnographic chapters follow the sequence of steps by which Vineyard evangelicals may make Jesus increasingly real in prayer; from the initial willingness to ask whether God is speaking, through what many Vineyard members describe as the dizzying, falling-in-love phase of early self identification as a Christian who has felt the existence of a personal Jesus, through the challenges of maturing faith and the deployment of specific techniques for advanced prayer practice. One of Luhrmann’s hallmarks is the rich but clearly organised detail of her ethnography, and the way that she carries through the stories of central interlocutors as the circumstances of their lives change over time. Here the quality of her classical ethnographic writing is especially welcome and helpful, because it allows the reader to look beyond the instrumental prayers and engage sympathetically with these forms of Christian practice. Straightforwardly written passages of historical contextualisation of the Vineyard movement are also illuminating here, and Luhrmann continuously refines our received views of modern evangelicals and what may matter to them most. She points out, for instance, that the heartfelt pleas for red convertibles are real, but in some ways misleading, since while the rhetoric of the Vineyard is all about the ways that prayer can deliver real effects, its practice and temper are much more deeply centred elsewhere; it is the ability to experience life as a relationship with Jesus that is the heart of the matter. Thus she argues interestingly that the role of highly specific prayer requests is precisely to fail sometimes as well as to succeed, since this failure is taken as an invitation to develop a sense of affirmation that God exists despite both minor disappointments, and even the deepest human pain. As another example; Luhrmann is careful to qualify the default picture of Vineyard Christianity as a religion of modern ‘individualism’; while explicitly acknowledging the movement’s partial debt to both the Jesus People movement of 1970s counter-culture and the ‘me’ focus of self-help literature and popular psychoanalysis, she also insists on the central importance of church community to this kind of Christian practice.   Prayer that makes Jesus real in fact depends on participation in the church community because key aspects of what is taught and learnt are implicit; members also say that the church community is vital to allow them to sustain their sense of the absolute, underlying reality of God through periods of personal ‘darkness’; when you can’t see Jesus yourself, you let others see him for you for a while. The effect of this careful ethnographic unfolding is to lend persuasive weight to Luhrmann’s observation that (much like Courtney Bender’s interlocutors in The New Metaphysicals) Vineyard members are in fact part of a long historical tradition, although they do not clearly recognise this. For Vineyard Christians, the long tradition is that of ‘kataphatic’ (imagistic/sensory) prayer, considered in contrast to ‘apophatic’prayer which seeks the divine through the discipline and emptying of ordinary thought and perception. Indeed, other readers may share my initial surprise (and the ethnographer’s) on learning that Vineyard evangelicals employ among other methods a Protestant version of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, which involve intense imaginative dwelling on episodes from the life and Passion of Christ.[5]

Dawkins himself plays a modest explicit role in Luhrmann’s many citations and her useful bibliographic notes to each chapter. His identification of ‘religion’ with ‘belief’ is explicitly discussed as part of another revisionist set of observations, however. Luhrmann argues both that propositional theology is not much developed in the Vineyard, and also that in particular Vineyard members simply sidestep the question of theodicy. Confronted with a fathomless tragedy such as the stillbirth of a child, her interlocutors acknowledge that in theory God, who is omnipotent, could prevent such things, but fail to elaborate any of the major lines of Christian reasoning which usually follow acknowledgement of this crux. Their religion, says Luhrmann, is more ‘practical’ than theoretical; they take refuge in the cultivation of nearness to Jesus and live, although often painfully, with the mystery.

The second major aspect of the research is the use of methods borrowed from and in conversation with psychology. Reasoning that Vineyard church members were changing their perceptions of the world in significant ways through imaginative prayer, Luhrmann set out to establish this intuition in ways which would be understood by and speak to colleagues in psychology and allied subjects. Her team tested and interviewed volunteers (an initial sample of 128) from both inside and outside the Vineyard movement to establish how the practice of different prayer techniques might interact with dispositions towards intense, interior imagination or daydreaming of the kind that can make one oblivious to external stimuli, measured by a psychologists’ tool called the Tellegen Absorption Scale. Participants were assigned daily practice of either ‘kataphatic’, ‘apophatic’ or Scripture study prayer techniques.

Luhrmann clearly found the process exciting; ‘ I thought I could figure out whether the mental changes [Vineyard members] reported really did take place, and if so, whether those changes were the psychological outcome of the prayer technology they had mastered… (190). It is astonishingly difficult to run an experiment…. It is a miracle one gets results at all. We got results’ (207).  Her results were of more than one kind; firstly, ‘those who had high absorption scores were much more likely to experience God as if God really were a person – someone they could talk to easily, who talked back….’  (196); and secondly ‘there were… real training effects… those who had done the kataphatic practices had scores on the subjective measures of mental imagery that were significantly higher, compared to their initial scores’ (207). Luhrmann concludes therefore that there are personal and cultural variations at play here; some people find it individually easier to create, through absorption, the experience of a ‘personlike’ Jesus than others; however, on average, anyone will tend to improve that ability through the practice of kataphatic prayer. Vineyard church members who constantly engage that form of prayer therefore create a culture of experience in this area.

Speaking about this research, Luhrmann has commented that she finds the process of psychological experiment useful as a form of heuristic; whatever kind of knowledge of the world it is that such experiments grasp (and this is contentious for some), what they grasp is at least, she says, ‘something’ – and has the advantage of creating analytic selectivity against anthropology’s sometimes seemingly endless accumulation of cultural detail. (Of course it also has the advantage of allowing anthropology to talk across the boundary fence of the social sciences and venture into both conversation and funding engagements with the natural sciences.) In the context of this study, her approach allows the anthropological reader some access to the sorts of reactions that colleagues in psychology might have to the study of prayer. Luhrmann, who has previously written on the battle for the control of American psychiatry between talking cures and pharmaceuticals, has the background to write illuminatingly on the boundaries of religious experience with (as it were) religion’s scientific rivals or counterparts in the game of defining and managing the human mind and emotions. Her interpretation therefore speaks to a range of different debates including, of course, those between social and cultural anthropology on the one hand, and cognitive anthropology on the other, especially where the latter is influenced by evolutionary theory (Dawkins included) and its offshoots in cognitive studies conducted by anthropologists taking a number of different positions, including Pascal Boyer, Rita Astuti and Maurice Bloch. Broadly speaking, Luhrmann is in sympathy with insights offered by the latter two of these scholars including Astuti’s illustration of the imaginative labour required to sustain certain kinds of conceptions which contradict ‘normal’ knowledge about living processes, and Bloch’s claim that ‘religion is nothing special but is central’ because it rests on developments in theory of mind, the development of human imagination and trust in others.[6] She is less sympathetic to reductive aspects of discussions in cognition or evolutionary theory, or to attempts to locate religion in aspects of measurements of the brain, ‘god spots, peak moments, and universal insights’ (226). Her position is that universal human cognitive capacities are shown by her own study to be capable of differential development in different cultures, and that these cultural capacities can affect ‘the most basic ways we encounter our world; the way we perceive and judge what is real’ (226). The emphasis on different worlds and their partial incommensurability in this view might in fact give Bloch pause, but Luhrmann’s clearly articulated positions are, whether one agrees with them or not, consistently fair grounds for debate.

The discussion of psychoanalytic perspectives is also engaging; Luhrmann comments that the idea of a completely loving (rather than also judging/angry) God may be a recent development in Christianity, and links this to the possibility that prayer may sometimes work to help create a good ‘self object’ through vividly imagined relations with a completely loving Jesus. As Luhrmann acknowledges, a parallel argument has previously been made by Rebecca Lester in her discussion of the religious formation of Mexican Roman Catholic nuns in Jesus in our wombs (2005). Luhrmann’s engagement with the literature is very wide-ranging, and it may seem invidious therefore to note an omission; however, I do wish to mention that R. Marie Griffith’s excellent God’s Daughters: evangelical women and the power of submission (1997) should, to my mind, have been afforded some mention. Not only does Griffith offer a detailed ethnographic study of evangelical women’s prayer, but she also provides some highly nuanced and interesting readings of the intertwined histories of American evangelicalism, psychoanalysis and self-help movements including 12-step programmes. A more general issue for this reader was that we learn relatively little about the sociology of this church beyond the fact that it is largely but not exclusively middle-class and educated, nor about the effects of the church’s missionary and economic outreach work, although both are often mentioned in relation to individual members. The political dimensions of these forms of Christianity are therefore not directly considered in this study.

Since there has already been lively debate around this volume, I probably do not need to issue a spoiler alert before mentioning that Luhrmann takes her study, towards its conclusion, in one more direction when she tells us, ‘there is another factor that shapes the way the individual experiences God. That is the real presence of the divine. I have said that I do not pretend to know ultimate reality. But it is also true that through the process of this journey, in my own way I have come to know God.’ She adds; ‘I do not know what to make of this knowing’ (325). Thus from the retrospect of its final page When God Talks Back becomes also, in a sense, a devotional book.

Luhrmann mentions a number of personal investments in this research project, including the introduction to the Tellegen Absorption Scalewhich came from her clinician father, and an experience from her first fieldwork which fixed her interest in unusual forms of sensory experience. While working with modern witches in London, Luhrmann woke one morning after reading magic late into the night, to see six druids standing in front of her window. She experienced them as really present for a moment, and then they vanished. Richard Dawkins might ask whether in that case God and the druids were real to Luhrmann in the same way, and if so, what the implications of that might be. I am not quite sure what answer Luhrmann would give to this particular question, but the answer she gives to the question with which I started this piece is quite clear. Yes, large numbers of Christians in contemporary America imagine Jesus precisely as a real person, an imaginary friend who listens with love to every banal or profound problem, every trivial or searching question they have. To experience God in this way requires practice in specific techniques of prayer which alter our ways of perceiving the world. People do not spend that time on prayer, however, because they have assented to a series of illogical propositional beliefs; they pray as the result of a conscious, ethical decision to live their lives in a particular way and – as Luhrmann points out – in a conscious relation to a secular mainstream that threatens to drain the life out of less vividly imagined Saviours. Dawkins’s ethics invite him to imagine the void into which he can stare; Vineyard ethics require people to imagine a personal Jesus walking with them every step of the way. Who ends up with the better self object is, at least, a more open question than Dawkins judges it to be; but by Luhrmann’s reckoning, each has created part of the perceptual reality in which they have chosen to live.

  1. [1] Last accessed September 8th, 2014.
  2. [2]I am indebted to Maurice Bloch for this account.
  3. [3]For an alternative and complementary account of Vineyard church members see the work of Jon Bialecki; specifically on exorcisms, see his ‘No caller ID for the soul: demonization, charisma, and the unstable subject of Protestant language ideology’, J. Bialecki (2011), Anthropological quarterly, 84(3): 679-703.
  4. [4]‘Metakinesis; how God becomes intimate in contemporary U.S. Christianity.’   T.M. Luhrmann, 2004, American Anthropologist 106 (3): 518-28.
  5. [5]The difference from Roman Catholic practice according to Luhrmann being that Vineyard members use the Exercises to develop an acute sense that  ‘I was there’  – for instance at the crucifixion or the annunciation – while more traditional Catholic methods of teaching them may focus on the intense apprehension of the feelings of Christ himself (Luhrmann, 2012:177).
  6. [6]M. Bloch  ‘Why Religion is Nothing Special but is Central.’  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 365: 2055-61.

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