Video: How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others

April 15, 2021
"How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others" event poster
This special webinar featured a conversation with author and professorTanya Luhrmann and CSWR director Charles Stang.

This webinar features a dialogue between Tanya Luhrmann and CSWR director and HDS Professor Charles Stang on Luhrmann's book How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others.

Tanya Marie Luhrmann is the Albert Ray Lang Professor at Stanford University, in the Stanford Anthropology Department (and Psychology, by courtesy). Her work focuses on local theory of mind and the world of the spirit: on voices, visions, and the presence of invisible others. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003 and received a John Guggenheim Fellowship award in 2007. How God Becomes Real was published by Princeton University Press in 2020.



CHARLES STANG: Good evening, everyone. My name is Charles Stang and I'm the Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions here at Harvard Divinity School, and that is my dog Xena in the corner. She joins me for most of these events and meetings, and I understand she has a rather large following among the CSWR audience members, so I wanted to acknowledge her.

So anyways, welcome to this evening's event and an especially warm welcome to our distinguished guest, Tanya Luhrmann, who has kindly agreed to be with us to discuss her latest book, How God Becomes Real-- Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others. Now, before I introduce Tanya I must first report that, unfortunately, Joseph Prabhu cannot join us this evening.

Joseph has fallen ill and so I will be stepping into his rather large shoes to engage Tanya in conversation. And for those of you who we're looking forward to seeing Joseph, I'm very sorry. But I can promise you that we will have him back at the CSWR for another event as soon as he has convalesced. In the meantime, Joseph, if you're watching, we wish you all our very best.

So it is my pleasure and privilege to welcome my colleague and friend Tanya Luhrmann to the CSWR. Tanya hardly needs an introduction here, but I will give her one, albeit a fairly brief one. She's no stranger to Harvard Divinity School. In 2014 she gave the William James Lecture entitled William James in Accra. We're delighted to have Tanya back. She is the Albert Rae Lang Professor at Stanford University in the Department of Anthropology. She is a medical and psychological anthropologist and also an anthropologist of religion.

More recently, she describes her work as an "anthropology of mind." She sets out to understand the way people represent thought itself, and the way those culturally varied representations shape the most intimate experience of life itself. She asks how the world is made real for people and how that realness shapes a person's sense of capacity and purpose. She has done ethnography on the streets of Chicago with homeless and psychotic women and worked with people who hear voices in Chennai, Accra, and the South Bay.

She has also done field work with evangelical Christians who seek to hear God speak back; and with Zoroastrians who set out to create a more mystical faith; and with people who practice magic, especially in Britain. Her latest book, How God Becomes Real, was published recently, just in 2020, by Princeton University Press. She has many other books known to many of you I'm sure. Perhaps, most famously, When God Talks Back-- Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. That was in 2012. That was named The New York Times' Notable Book of The Year and a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year.

Earlier books include Of Two Minds-- The Growing Disorder of American Psychiatry, The Good Parsi-- the post-colonial anxieties of an Indian colonial elite, and finally, Persuasions of the Witch's Craft-- Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003, and she received a John Guggenheim Fellowship Award in 2007.

So here's the format for this evening's event. Tanya will first introduce her book for 10 minutes or so, and then I will pose a series of questions to her, but in the hopes that she and I will fall into a rhythm of a conversation rather than a formal interview. Who knows, she might even pose questions to me. Finally, at roughly the top of the hour, we will take questions from the audience. Again, through that Q&A function at the bottom of your Zoom screen. Tanya, again, many, many thanks for joining us. The floor is yours.

TANYA LUHRMANN: Well, thank you very much, and I hope that my own pandemic puppies do not decide to make a more noisy entrance into our conversation this evening. Thanks so much for having me at the Divinity School Center of World Religions. I'm really sorry that Joseph can't be joining us, but it's so lovely to have the opportunity to talk with you and to chat about my book.

So let me say just a few words about it. I think the idea of forming the book this way actually emerged at church one morning when I looked around the congregation, and I realized that people weren't really there because they believed in God. They were there because they wanted God to-- they wanted to believe in God more. They wanted God to feel salient. They wanted not to-- they talked about wanting-- being in church and wanting to be like Christ and walking out of the door and yelling at their kids when they were driving home. They kept forgetting that God was real throughout their life.

So as you point out I spent time in a lot of different faiths-- charismatic evangelical Christianity, magicians in London, Zoroastrians in then Bombay. But also, end phase I don't write about until this book. Newly orthodox Jews in San Diego, Black Catholic church in San Diego. At some point earlier in my career I actually joined a Santeria group, just as an Afro--Cuban spirit possession practice.

And, I guess, in all of them one of the things that I saw, that I realized is really important is that people don't believe in gods and spirits. So they didn't seem so they believed in gods and spirits the way they believed in tables and chairs. That they weren't real in the same way. People might tell me that God could do anything, or a spirit was all powerful. But they never asked their god to feed the cat or write their term paper or put their foot on the brakes of the car.

They talked, they behaved as if there was something that I came to think of as a faith frame. A way of thinking about gods and spirits and the world when gods and spirits are relevant. And then a kind of everyday way of being in the world. And that the struggle for the people I knew in these many different faith walks, that their struggle of faith was try to hold the faith frame and the everyday frame together. To behave when they're washing the dishes or sweeping the floor as if God were salient as if spirit was real for them.

And so, the puzzle that I wanted to write about was how gods and spirits came to feel as if they were real. Because I don't think they felt real at all times, for all people, and always. How did these gods and spirits come to feel real? And I describe [PHONE RINGING] in the book something that-- sorry-- I describe in that-- sorry, I try to be so attentive to all my devices and, of course, one never is. Never mind. It's-- [CHUCKLING].

So in the book I describe this process of real-making as "kindling." I use that term because I think that people have little ways of paying attention into everyday stuff that helps to bring the god or spirit more into the forefront of their awareness. That makes the god or spirit feel real and salient and somehow present in the world. So what I do in the book is I redescribe this puzzle of mine-- how gods become real-- as the puzzle of a paracosm.

So the word "paracosm" is a word that was first used to describe a child's imaginative world. Like the Bronte siblings had this world they made up, and they mapped it and they use special words and they gave it a history and they wrote stories about it. I use the word "paracosm" to talk about a fiction-like shared imaginative world. And, by that, I don't mean that the world of faith is necessarily imaginary.

You've got to use your imagination to conjure it up, because it's not the world that you find in front of you. You can't see the gods. You can't feel the spirits in ordinary ways. You've got to somehow do something to make them come alive for you. To somehow supplant or be present alongside with the everyday stuff of the world. So how it's the puzzle for me it became-- you think of faith as stories. Intensely detailed stories that people can enter in and make their own and revisit again and again.

How do these stories come to feel real for people and what do I know from all my time in these different faith paths? What do I know about that process of a real-making, of how that which has to be imagined comes to feel more vividly present? So I talk about a bunch of different things. I talk about-- I notice that talent and training matter. And I should say that in this book I rely on the methods of an anthropologist but also the methods of a psychologist.

And trying to demonstrate that there are certain skills and practices that change people's experience. I point out that there are some people who are more talented-- to use that slightly shocking term-- they're more talented in coming to feel that spirits are real for them. There are people who are able to get more absorbed in their inner worlds. I point out that training, to some extent, can substitute for talent.

But if you practice using your inner senses you can come to experience that which must be imagined as being somehow-- as if it pops out of your mind and into the world so you can feel it with your senses. I argue that the way that you think about your mind matters. So in this book, I talk about the time I spent with charismatic Christians in Accra, and in Chennai and West Africa, South India, along with the charismatic Christians I knew in the States. And I show that the way in which these different cultural worlds, the way that people imagine their minds, has an impact on how vividly they experience God.

And the blunt summary of that story is that the more you imagine your mind as porous, as open to the world, the more vividly you experience things that must be imagined with the inner senses. I have a story to tell about spiritual experience. That spiritual experience is not-- that it really matters because it becomes for people evidence of the senses of what the senses cannot ordinarily sense. So it becomes, for people, an intimate personal experience about the presence of these often invisible spirits.

And I'm able to show that these practices of kindling, these small practice socially developed ways of paying attention to the world shape people's patterns of spiritual experience in particular ways. So that god becomes kindled more fluently for people in particular ways, in particular faiths. And that this makes a difference to the way that people experience gods and spirits.

So at the end of the book, I point out that these kindling practices, they change people. And that sometimes, I think, powerfully when I think that those changes might in themselves be reason for the resiliency of faith. That there is something about the way that people work within themselves to make gods and spirits feel more real that changes them in a way that is likely good for their bodies. But also changes their perspective on the world.

So I talk about prayer. I talk about the way in which prayer is really structured as a cognitive behavioral therapy. Or looking at prayer from a secular perspective, you can see that it's really a way of paying attention to some ways of thinking and supplanting others. Probably, the most striking thing that I think that I saw in these practices is that as a result of these practices god comes to feel autonomous and interactive for people. That god come to work like a human relationship in people's lives.

And this is probably less startling for people of faith than it is for secular observers. But there's something you can see-- that the god or spirit becomes, works like a human in somebody's life. And that this becomes a relationship for people, and the relationship changes people, in some ways resonant with the way that a relationship with a human being would change them.

I think one of the things that might be salient to the Center for World Religion crowd is that I was raised with what I imagine to be the ecumenical spirit of the Center for World Religion ethos. That there's one animating spirit, and if we could see past the surface details of faiths we'd recognize that there was one kind of global "kumbaya." The more time I spent, I don't know, maybe I'm making this up--

CHARLES STANG: It sounds like the Unitarian Church you were raised in that's--

TANYA LUHRMANN: Yeah exactly so I'm just pfffrrr--

CHARLES STANG: Exactly like CSWR, but go on. [LAUGHING].

TANYA LUHRMANN: Exactly. It's exactly it. That's how I was raised. The more time I've spent in different kinds of faith walks the more I would realize how ridiculous that vision is. Or, at least, how much the faith communities that I spent time with make God a particular kind of person with whom there are particular kinds of relationships. And how different that is from a shared commitment to an abstract principle.

So, anyway, so the message of the book is that faith is not about belief alone. That faith is about practices. If you want to understand faith, you really have to understand the way people experience their faith and how those experiences change them.

CHARLES STANG: Wonderful. OK, thank you so much, Tanya. I was really bowled over by this very simple quote from Pascal Boyer. On page 16 of the book where he says, "The world over, people do not easily believe in gods and spirits." That's like an act that seems to me almost a launching pad for your investigation. People believe in gods and spirits, but it takes great effort to do so. And not just to believe in them notionally but to make them relevant to their lives. To make them appear to have a relationship with gods and spirits.

It's something that takes a good deal of work, because gods do not impress themselves upon our senses in the way that your example of tables and chairs do. I also found fascinating, in that same chapter, the claim that-- or the observation that-- gods that have malintent towards us are easier to kindle than gods that are benevolent. And I'm wondering if you could unpack that observation a little bit?

TANYA LUHRMANN: So I think that's, in some sense, one of the more disconcerting things that I decided that I thought was true. Which is that if you take-- look at a faith community. Look at how gods are imagined the way that the people need to. If you take-- if you start with the idea, you've got to go to some effort to make God feel real. One of the things that you see is that it's going to take more effort to believe in and take seriously a God that thinks you were wonderful and promises you the world than the God that is going to strike you down if you entered their domain or violate some rule that they have.

So if you think about-- it's intuitively obvious-- and if you remember talking to a group of anthropologists who were telling-- it was at a panel and there were a couple of anthropologists who'd been studying religion in distanced parts of the world. And one of them was studying a spirit that promised to kill people if they ventured into their part of the forest. And this anthropologist didn't want to believe in this god. Nobody in the community wanted to believe in this god. But everybody in the community didn't want to venture into that part of the forest.

That there's a sense that-- Pascal's dilemma kind of thing. If a god has mean intentions towards you, it's much easier to worry that that might be accurate. Whereas the God that is offered by many contemporary evangelical churches, the God that's like this great teddy bear of enormous authority, of supernatural capacity-- it's a promise of well-being and justice that just it's violated all the time in the everyday world. And so in these churches then actually often begin with the observation that such a God must be unbelievable, but that you will change if you believe in him. And so I thought that there was something really there.

CHARLES STANG: All right. So one of the things that your book pushes back against is a modern notion of imagination as simply imaginary producing figments of our imagination. Although you might still-- anyone could read your book. And you might yourself regard many of these believing communities that their gods and spirits are no more than figments of their imagination. But, nevertheless, that imagination brings things forward. It creates these gods and spirits or causes them to appear for people. And you're agnostic as to the reality of what appears to people.

Now, I want to ask you about an episode you shared with me the first time we met years ago. This is how I remember it, so correct any of the errors. You were doing field work with magicians, pagans in England. And you took on, as a good anthropologist does, the practices of the people you were studying. So you were doing many of the imaginative exercises that these contemporary pagans, and, specifically, magicians and witches and warlocks were doing. And those imaginative exercises were important for this community because it's a tradition that doesn't have continuity. Its traditions were broken so they need these-- these imaginative exercises are their means of communion with their forebearers.

In any case, the point is you were taking on these imaginative exercises. And you told this amazing story of-- I believe you woke up at one point and there were three-- let's just call them druids-- in your room.


CHARLES STANG: I'm sorry, six. [LAUGHTER] So you have experienced the kindling of invisible others, except those invisible others became very visible?


CHARLES STANG: And I'm wondering if you can-- how did that event change you? It didn't, curiously, make you, lead you to become a pagan magician or to regard these druids as real. What was that experience? How significant was that experience in light of the work you've gone on to do?

TANYA LUHRMANN: So yes. It was an experience that mattered. So I had-- I don't know how old I began this work-- 22, 23, and I decided to do Evans-Pritchard in downtown modern London. So Evans-Pritchard, famed anthropologist, goes off to study with the Azande. And the question is why do these people believe in witchcraft? And it was easy for some of my teachers to say that, well, people believe in magic and witchcraft because either they don't really believe it or they don't have science yet.

And I had discovered these people in London who seem to be doing something kind of similar and I was going to go off-- young graduate student-- I was going to do-- I was going to upend and redo Evan-Pritchard by understanding how people came to interpret their world as if magic was real. And I was going to discover the narrative patterns and the ways of thinking that help people to interpret the world. So they had the same-- so they just interpreted the world differently. And I saw that.

But what really blew my socks off as a young anthropologist is that I went to this world. People said, if you want to understand magic, you've got to do these magical practices. You've got to learn to do the magic. You've got to do the path workings. You've got to do the rituals. Read the stories. And I started having the most remarkable experiences. So I had that moment where I was reading a book about druids, and I woke up and-- the book was written by a witch-- and I woke up and I saw those druids standing by the window.

Had another experience in which I felt magical power shoot through me. Had another experience in which I was reliving a ritual event, the kind of thing that was meant to make your watch stop, and I was trying to-- I was reliving it in my mind's eye. And I felt power shoot through me and it stopped the watch. So all these were pretty powerful experiences and I-- so it taught me, first of all, that this stuff is not just, or, maybe, not even most importantly about belief. It's not about a set of ideas people have about the world. It's about the way they experience their bodies.

And that these are not-- when people told me that they felt magic working, moving through them. When they told me that they saw the goddess. It wasn't a way of talking. It was something they experienced. And so for the last couple of decades I've been trying to chase those experiences trying to understand how they happen to people. As you point out, I try to put in a black box the question of whether there's an ultimate source of the event and instead I try to figure out, well, what are the paths to these experiences?

These days I'm obsessed with the question of how to distinguish between spiritual experiences and the experiences of madness. How can I say that this is an experience that's more like imagination and less like psychosis. And I guess I don't have a good answer to the question of whether the imagination reaches something that's real beyond the physical. That's the deep question of faith and the study of faith. I don't have a good answer to that question.

But I think I do see that-- I mean just the fact that practice changes your experience so fundamentally that you can have sensory experiences of something that cannot be sensed-- it just gives you this, or it gives me a sense that-- the capacities of the mind and the body-- that challenged my sense of who I thought we were.

CHARLES STANG: So were those sorts of extraordinary experiences limited to the fieldwork you did with the magical community in England, or-- you've done field work at a variety of communities-- have you had these sorts of extraordinary experiences follow you from fieldwork to fieldwork? Have you ever, with all your work with evangelicals, have you ever had the corresponding experience of God talking to you? Or Jesus being by your side? I'm just using that as an example.

TANYA LUHRMANN: So I think my most remarkable experiences did occur in the magical world. And I think that happened for a couple of reasons. I think that if Jesus showed up at the window and spoke to me-- because of the way that I was raised in my cultural location-- it would be a binary choice in the road. It would be a very big event in my life.

And so, possibly, because of that I have perhaps kept those more specifically Christian experiences at bay. I certainly feel that I had a sense of the Holy Spirit. A sense of the presence of God. A sense of, I would say, that I felt God's supernatural presence vividly. And for me in the garden. Now, that's certainly not a novel place to find God but it's certainly compelling.

CHARLES STANG: But am I right that all of those-- forgive me, I'm navigating a late afternoon light here. It's not a spiritual experience. I'm not actually being suddenly illuminated--

TANYA LUHRMANN: But how wonderful if you were.

CHARLES STANG: Wouldn't it be better if I just did that and--

TANYA LUHRMANN: No, no, no. If you were suddenly illuminated by the power of God, it would be lovely.

CHARLES STANG: It would be. Sadly, it's just a regular Monday. I was wondering, just to be clear, in neither of the case with the magician nor with these experiences that attended your work with evangelicals did it lead you to belief in the reality of these spirits and gods or powers and energies, right? So the book is predicated on the idea that, actually, as you say, belief doesn't lead to worship-- worship leads to belief.

Or let's say practices lead to the conviction that these gods and spirits are real. In your case you performed the practices. You had some remarkable experiences. But you did not take this step, or something kept you from the next step which so many of the people you study make. Which is to affirm the existence of these gods and spirits.

TANYA LUHRMANN: Well, I've certainly spent quite a number of hours in private spiritual practice and I have certainly recently joined a faith community because I value the words that are spoken in the community. I think that there is-- I guess this is what I would say. I have a pretty broad sense of the ambiguity of belief commitments. And I and I guess I more and more appreciate that many people in very conventional faith practices shared the breadth of that ambiguity.

I remember going to the Ignatian spiritual exercises in an evangelical church. And I used to think that what really counted-- particularly in that kind of church-- was the willingness to utter the sentence "I believe in God." And often, many more specific sentences about the content of that belief. And I was struck by the fact that-- so I thought in this Ignatian spiritual exercises I would stick out like a rusty nail, and, in fact, everybody was like me.

My experience is people sometimes use a slightly different set of words and they would talk about things a slightly different kind of way. But I was comfortable saying that something like spirit showed up for me or didn't show up for me. That's exactly the language that the people in the group used. They were-- I became much more alert to the fact that people sitting around a table having a conversation about God-- it's easy for somebody, particularly a new member of the community, to assume that when somebody uses the word God they have a whole set of propositions that they're committing to. And a model of their mind and an image in their mind. And they certainly have lots and lots of stories.

But the ontological commitment, the sense of where the rubber hits the road materially-- which is often a lot squeegier-- than an observer might think. And so I have these-- there is a set of ideas and commitments that I don't quite know what to do with, think about, whatever. But I do have a lot of observations about what helps people to feel as if they've moved farther into the domain of being willing to use certain words more than other words. Feel as if there's a more externalness.

I mean, so for me, one of the questions is, how do these gods and spirits feel more external? Feel more that they're not a figment of your imagination but somehow present in the world behind your left shoulder, standing at the corner of the garden? That you can learn a lot about with the tools of social science. And that so that I think I've done.

CHARLES STANG: I want to take up that phrase that you just mentioned-- well, maybe a minute ago-- "models of the mind" and ask you about this. So one of the claims you advanced in the book is the way people think about minds, about their minds, matters in terms of kindling the presence of these invisible others, these gods and spirits. I'm often struck by how often today people refer to the human mind through computing metaphors. It's ubiquitous now.

And I'm struck by it because I feel, much as you're arguing, or inchoately as if-- I feel as if this computer model of our mind where we talk about uploading information, or downloading this or that, or the code, or the software in the hardware of our mind. That that will then condition our experience as human beings. That this will come to change how we think of ourselves, how we experience ourselves. I'm curious, what are the models of mind that you have encountered out there in all your various fieldwork, and whether there are models of mind that are more or less conducive to kindling others?

You mentioned one feature already, which was porosity-- a mind that is porous, if that makes sense-- but that's not so much a model of mind as it is a quality of mind. Almost a kind of virtue. But, maybe, that's not important to me. But the other question is, maybe, not just which models are more or less conducive, but whether the model ends up conditioning the kinds of spirits and gods that appear?

TANYA LUHRMANN: Right. So that is something I've spent quite a bit of time working on recently, actually with a team of remarkable folks in the Mind and Spirit Project that I've been running for-- between 2016 and 2019. And one of the things we were interested in was exactly that question. Did different representations of the mind affect people's experiences of spirit? And so I want to distinguish these ideas.

These are a set of ideas about the world. And, particularly, about the idea about mental stuff or awareness-- for want of a better term-- and vivid experiences of invisible others on the other hand. And one of the things that we found was that-- and so this goes beyond the chapter that pops up in the book-- we did work and we talked to people of faith; we talked to members of the general population; we talked deep surveys to undergraduates.

And we found that in the US and Ghana and Thailand and China and Vanuatu-- five places that we worked in-- the more somebody subscribed to the idea that their thought could enter the world and do stuff. Or that their minds were vulnerable to the thoughts of other people, the more gods and spirits. The more they said that they had the experience of gods and spirits. And you could look just at charismatic Christians, charismatic evangelical Christians. So people with that same theology.

And that the more somebody said look, thought is potent-- somebody else's thought is potent, my thought can be potent-- the more they have these vivid experiences. And there is what you might call an affective place. So that in America and in China people were less likely to say that thoughts act in the world. That thoughts could leave the mind and act affectively in prayer or because of cursing or magical or whatever.

The few experiences that-- so folks in the US and China were less likely to talk about the mind as potent, and they had fewer spiritual experiences. And I think that what I see in the "enlightenment model" of-- I sometimes call it the "enlightenment model"-- of the mind. A citadel model of the mind. We think-- and this is partly Charles Taylor territory-- we think about the mind-- in the enlightenment West-- as being really, really important. It's the source of our identity. It's like you want to tell people who you are. You don't tell them that you're the son or the daughter of so-and-so, or you belong to this group or that group.

You tell them what you think. What your tastes are. What your preferences are. What your ideas about politics are. So the mind is very much about identity. It's a very important marker of who you are. But thought doesn't do stuff. It's thought the mind is not supernaturally efficacious. And in that kind of social world the mind is more like a machine, as you point out. It's more like a computer and those kinds of models of the mind.

Americans actually have a somewhat what I would call "an attenuated spiritual experience." They're less-- from different walks of faith-- they're less likely to have these vivid experiences of invisible others. So you can have the point of view that that's great. You can have a point of view that fewer, that it's better to be a secular person. It's better to not believe in this gobbledygook.

But there's another piece. Here's the way that I think about this, and I think it resonates with some of your work. Which is that I am struck that when I talk to people about gods, one of the things that people-- they talk about God's talking, talk about God's imperative commands. Do this, do that. They talk, and not everybody, but certainly, if you delve into the Bible the Bible is all-- God certainly has plenty of commands for his people.

There is this, there's this-- if you start thinking about God as a person, one of the things you do is to invite yourself to imagine the mind as a relationship between people. Not as a vast interior universe, but somehow as an awareness of self in a relation to self. I began thinking about this when I was trying to, beginning to sort out the differences between religious experiences and psychotic experiences.

Because people who lose connection with reality, people who become-- who have distorted thoughts and distorted perceptions of the kind that we call mad or psychotic or schizophrenic. Their experience often is an experience of communication. It's almost like as if it's a kind of default behavior of mind. Your work suggests that-- your attention to early Christianity and the ancient world-- talks about the divine double. Of the self discovering a doubled self as the heart of the experience of Divinity.

And what I've been trying to-- I know this sounds a little bit waffley-- but what I've been thinking about more and more recently is whether we have a description of mind as just-- not only is wrong but is not terribly helpful. That we imagine the mind as this vast immaterial universe. Utterly itself. Separate from the world. Maybe the human experience of mind is much more mind in relationship with others. And that gets overlaid by cultural ideas about from machines and from the enlightenment, whatever.

This kind of dabbling, this sort of self in relationship to self, that has many costs that default in psychosis. But has many, many benefits. People who are able to experience themselves as loved by this invisible other, it's obviously better for your body. That's something that we know from the scientific research. It's probably-- it seems to be a very powerful way to self-soothe. It's probably a very valuable source for human flourishing. Anyway, that's a series of slightly disconnected thoughts.

CHARLES STANG: Well maybe I'll just say something very brief for those nearly 200 people here I'm certain have no idea what divine double means. Let me just say, what Tanya is referring to is research I've done on in the ancient world into this idea that we-- that all humans, or in some cases a select group of humans have what I call "the divine double" that is some sort of divine counterpart, which is a person that you encounter. A kind of heavenly celestial or divine person that is also you. And then you enter into this-- the you that you thought you were is not actually you. You're just one part of this larger person.

So it's very much a self meeting self and discovering what this new self will be. And that's interesting, because you're absolutely right. It's a dialogical and a relational understanding of self. But it's not so much operating on the horizontal plane as between you and I-- friends-- as on some kind of vertical axis where we are each meeting some aspect of our self. But that raises a question for me about the elision between personhood and human. And so agent, human, and person all seem to mean the same thing for you in the book.

You comment on the fact that people are seeing agents everywhere. They're experiencing spirits and gods as persons, and I want to think with you about the difference between human and person. Certainly, if you're an evangelical Christian and you're cultivating a relationship with Jesus, you're cultivating a relationship with a person who is human, fully human, and also fully divine. According to Orthodox Christian theology a fully human Jesus. And so one would expect that one's encounters with that person would be fully human encounters.

I'm wondering about those people who experience spirits and gods as persons, but as non-human persons or persons that attenuate our understanding of humans. Spirits and gods that behave in a very alien fashion. It can be disconcerting precisely because we're expecting to enter into a familiar relationship with another human, but we find ourselves on very different terrain. Has that been a live feature of the communities you've worked with.

TANYA LUHRMANN: So when I think about-- when I use the word person I tend to mean by it a mind. And by a mind I mean a sense of awareness. So this actually is like basic William Jamesian kind of thing that what it is to be human is to be aware of something that we would call interior or a minus. An awareness of some sort of thought-like stuff that's different from what we are aware of. That there's this basic kind of divide in the world that then is culturally modeled in different kinds of ways.

And I think that-- and so when I think of when I use the word "agent" or "person," I'm talking about something really minimal like that sense of consciousness or aliveness. I think there is a remarkable variation in the world of these minded spirits. But I think one of the things that Pascal Boyer was really right about in his attempt to describe the constituent elements of religion, is that the gods who survive, or the gods who are known by many people, tend to be gods who are like persons but tweaked in particular ways.

So you never get a god who is so alien as to appear only on Tuesday afternoons at 3 o'clock. Those tend not to be the gods that become central to faith traditions. You also-- I think there is a big divide, and this is Ara Norenzayan's divide between the big gods and the little gods. So I think around the world you see a story about there's certain common features of gods as they become omnipotent.

Omnipotence tends to travel with omniscience, tends to travel with being its own. So there are certain common features of gods that emerge which have knowledge of what humans are thinking, and they tend to be associated with also powers over humans. The little gods tend to be gods which are less omniscient and have less power. And Ara makes the claim that these omnipotent, omniscient gods are associated with big social changes and human organization. And that changes society in particular ways.

So I think that there you can say that in some ways that there are themes. I mean Jack Miles describes the God of Job as God is a fiend in Job. But really, the God that comes out of the accumulation of all of those stories of the Hebrew Bible tends to be recognizable, more or less behaving in a ritual way like a person but as a particular socially framed kind of person.

Gods and spirits that are negative definitely become weirder. I mean so they are-- different social worlds will cast them as being particularly weird and out there and bizarre and that's certainly true. But I think-- anyway, sorry, that was a slightly rambling answer. I think that they're-- I am struck by the fact that gods are usually recognizable as kinds of people, and the more powerful they are the more alike they become. I guess that's a simple way of saying it.

CHARLES STANG: Well, we're getting near the top of the hour, and there's many, many questions already posed. But there's one I want to pose before ceding the floor to others. And that is back to Pascal Boyer's claim that, essentially, that it takes great effort to cultivate this relationship with god, which you've then explored the "how" of that. It's actually-- which is really beautifully done and--

TANYA LUHRMANN: He was commenting on my work when he made that claim, but never mind. Yeah.

CHARLES STANG: Oh I'm sorry I didn't realize that. OK, so it was not that that claim is the launching point of your book. Your book is his summing up your work on that. OK. Forgive me. In any case, this idea that, the idea that this takes great effort is no doubt right. I'm wondering about-- and this will come as no surprise-- we have a friend in common. Jeff Kripal, who has made a career mining a very different vein, which is people who have had unbidden experiences of these presences that completely append their life.

And then, among the things Jeff is interested in is what do individuals or communities of such individuals do to integrate or fail to integrate such unbidden experiences? So I'm wondering if you could comment on that reality. Not so much how hard it is to cultivate a relationship with God, but almost the opposite. When a god stubbornly presents him or herself to you-- perhaps you didn't even want the experience-- then how do the how do people manage, negotiate that relationship?

TANYA LUHRMANN: It's a great question and it's-- and I talk about the effort and I'm able to show that the effort and the practices make those experiences more likely. But I'm certain a-- it is just the case that people have these unbidden experiences. I think, for me, there's again the sort of Jamesian question of the relationship between the body's experience and the human's interpretation of that experience.

So one of the things, one of the reasons I cherish James is because of this observation that there's something in the body, for want of a better term, which is the mystical experience. That there are capacities that humans have that might have some ultimate source that present themselves to people and that can change their life. It's clear that they don't always change their life. So there's this great-- one of the penguin anthologies of mysticism has his stories, and they cut away in the middle of the excerpts in the Bhagavad Gita about people who have had remarkable experiences and forgot them because they made no sense to their lives.

So there's a story about events that happen to people. William James would want to say that even that unbidden experience really comes of a long period of preparation. I don't know if I believe that. I'm not sure. So Jeff had this unbidden experience. But he had spent many, many years reading texts. He arrived in Calcutta to read-- Kolkata as it now is-- and to read this text more intensely. And it was in the reading of these intense texts that a goddess came to him. So he had an experience that I would call sleep paralysis.

So there's a configuration of, again, the body is a big broad term that covers a lot of ground. Humans-- about a quarter of all humans-- have events in which the REM cycle seems to get interrupted. And for them, they will often experience their body as asleep, unable to move. They experience a presence in the mood in the room, and the presence then will interact. Most of those experiences are not ecstatic. They're experiences of demons. And some of them are not.

Jeff's was not. It was a sexually ecstatic experience. I think we know-- what do we know? I think we know that when you cultivate those experiences, but I don't mean intentionally. I mean that if your culture attributes meaning to sleep paralysis you're more likely to have sleep paralysis. So you can-- in this book, I talk about the rates in the US of sleep paralysis are lower than the rates in Thailand for sleep paralysis. And sleep paralysis is very it's very meaningful in Thailand.

It's really-- I have not come across a good account of why some experiences of sleep paralysis are ecstatic and some are horrific. I don't-- just I don't have a good explanation for that. I think one of the questions that I struggle with is how unbidden the experience is. I feel confident that in certain occasions I have inhibited the flowering of my own spiritual experiences. I think one reason I had so more intense experiences when I was hanging out with the witches and magicians in London is because I wanted them and they didn't carry any cost for me in effect.

I was just fascinated by these experiences. And I was young enough and foolish enough not to think about their theological or emotional meaning. I was able to simply have them. And now, I know that experiences would be much more meaningful to me. And so I think I inhibit myself a little bit more in having these more remarkable experiences. So what-- should I have one now, it would probably would have more emotional and theological meaning to me. than it did when I was 22.

I think there is so much we do not know. And so much more we need to-- I mean we are at the beginning of understanding these remarkable experiences we call spiritual. I think they're patterned in the body. Certain people are more likely to have them. Certain people, when they have them, are more likely to act on them and try to do something with them.

Many people, like Jeff, would want to chase that experience. They would have the event and then they would want it again and again. Something that athletes sometimes say to me, that certain kinds of athletic performances are so amazing--

CHARLES STANG: Yeah that's-- I think that's true of many people who had extraordinary experiences but actually not Jeff. Jeff is actually-- he says he's a paragon of non-experience. He had this one extraordinary experience, and what he has done is he's written about it. The experience has been, essentially, he's just, his work pours out of that experience. And he's also tried to theorize and frame out and make room for such experiences for people who want to make sense of them.

So there's almost a pastoral quality to much of Jeff's work in that regard. But we're not here to talk about Jeff's work, so as much as, I know, we both find it fascinating and challenging, I'm going to suggest we move to the Q&A now, Tanya. Is that OK?


CHARLES STANG: So you mentioned earlier that you are also doing work with an aim to differentiating spiritual experiences from pathological experiences. So this is a question from someone who I think is familiar with your work in that area. The question is, Professor Luhrmann, how-- you've studied severe mental illness-- how do you draw the line between being imaginatively gifted versus having a pathology like schizophrenia? Is it a matter of volition and control?

TANYA LUHRMANN: It's a great question. It's what I'm writing about these days. People do not meet criteria for schizophrenia unless their life is in disarray and unless their life remains in disarray for a good chunk of time. So, technically, six months but it's usually for much longer than that. People, so I draw the distinction. I think that there are many, many deep questions about this, and I think that the line is pretty hard to draw.

But I would say that the more-- when people talk to me about experiences-- the more audible the experiences, in other words not four to six words but paragraphs and conversations, the more negative those experiences; the more I'm willing to say, huh, I wonder if this is an experience of schizophrenia. Typically, people who become what I would call "high in absorption,"-- you have these intense spiritual experiences-- they're more likely to feel the presence of gods and spirits.

Typically, they're true hallucinations. By true hallucination I mean an unambiguous sense that there is a sensory communication. You heard with your ears. You turn to see who is speaking. Typically, those experiences are pretty brief. They last four to six words and they are rare. People can count, they can count them on the fingers of their hand or they happen a few times, maybe once a month, but they but they are rare. And they tend not to be negative. They tend to be startling.

People will say they were driving down the street; they heard God speak out of the backseat of the car and God said, "I will always love you." It's quite striking but it's not negative. So the big difference. So there's Augustine's experience. A moment of intense emotion. He wants to convert. He runs into the garden. Throws himself to the fig tree. Hears "tolle, lege"-- take it and read.

That's very different from the prototypical case of somebody with schizophrenia. And most people fan out across those two different poles. There's a lot of stuff in the middle and it's very hard to have a definitive line to say, well, this, I think, this is more psychosis, and this is my imagination. But it's a very good question.

CHARLES STANG: Here's a follow-up. Have you found that profound or long term loneliness plays a role in generating "talent" for communing with gods and spirits? How is trauma like training?

TANYA LUHRMANN: Ah, great question. So first of all, yes, loneliness is more likely to be associated with it. It intensifies the search for communication, and so people are more likely to report that there's some kind of communication from an invisible other. Trauma-- so this domain of absorption that I talk about is "talent." When I'm teaching my undergraduates, I say that I use the parable about those six blind men at the side of the elephant.

Six blind men. There's one at the elephants trunk. One at the tail. One at the side. This one says it's a wall. This one says it's a snake, whatever. In that there is an elephant in human experience, which is our capacity to experience actions of our own agency-- for want of a better term-- as non-agentic. This loose domain of absorption, trance, hypnosis, dissociation. Trauma heightens dissociation.

So not everybody who experiences something distressing is traumatized. Not everybody who is traumatized-- in all ways-- dissociates. But post-traumatic stress disorder is described the development of a capacity to dissociate which, for the person who has PTSD, protects them-- to some extent-- from the traumatic memory. That is a kind of skill and is a kind of training and it is certainly related to the kinds of training that people who seek to know God more intimately will pursue.

CHARLES STANG: Here's a very simple question. Well, maybe not. But someone is wondering-- oh, this is Graham, Graham McGrew. Hi, Graham-- were the six druids a sleep paralysis experience?

TANYA LUHRMANN: Oh, no they were-- this is a part of my obsessiveness. Is there what David Hufford would call a "core experience?" No. For me the druids were a hypnopompic experience. I was reading The Mists of Avalon, which was written by a witchy woman. Wonderful book. And I was really trying to read it the way a witch would read the book. I was really trying to allow the characters to be real for me. And I fell asleep. And I basically woke up with dreaming about the book but not in a state of paralysis. And

I didn't experience it as a dream. I experienced-- I had-- 40% of Americans have these experiences but they only become meaningful to some people. And, for me, this became a meaningful, powerful, "oh my goodness" kind of experience. I woke up. I saw six druids against the window beckoning at me, I should say, and I wrote it down in my dream diary and went back to sleep. And I got up the next day and suddenly I remembered it, and I went back to my dream diary.

I was keeping a dream diary because I was part of a group. We kept a dream diary, and this was another witchy, magical thing. And it was like, Oh my goodness. And I had written it, underlined, exclamation point. I really saw these. It was not a dream. So it was very compelling.

CHARLES STANG: But it's a little story that will lead into a question. I promise. I remember-- so I grew up with almost no knowledge of evangelical Christianity although I grew up in the Christian world-- by and large Midwest. I remember seeing a video for the song-- I believe it's Carrie Underwood-- "Jesus, Take the Wheel" is the name of the song. And, like, scales fell from my eyes because I felt like I was being shown a world view.

"Jesus, take the wheel." Not the Jesus I had known growing up in a white liberal UCC church. Now, I relay that story because you've said a number of times-- however powerfully people believe in gods and spirits, they don't ask gods and spirits to feed the cat, to take out the trash, whatever.


CHARLES STANG: So what, in your view, are evangelicals saying when Carrie Underwood-- what does she mean when she says, "Jesus, take the wheel? "

TANYA LUHRMANN: Oh, that's the wheel of the ship, I think.

CHARLES STANG: It's the wheel, no, it's driving. That's clear. But I mean that would seem, literally, she's saying, "Jesus, you steer this car. Not me." But, clearly, you don't think that's what evangelicals are actually thinking? They're going to-- Carrie is going to continue driving the car.


CHARLES STANG: What is that about?

TANYA LUHRMANN: So what I thought was so fascinating about the evangelicals I spent time with is that they really pushed the personness of God. So they really want to have these stupid, trivial interactions with God in order to make God feel more real. So it's a kind of training technique. So I remember going to church one Sunday and the pastor said, "You should pour a real cup of coffee for God." So you've got your cup of coffee, and you take a ceramic cup and you pour it full of coffee and put it there for God. So you're talking back and forth. It will make God feel more real to you.

And so the young evangelicals I knew would do things like ask God what shirt they should wear, and where they should go on vacation. Or they'd go down to the lake with God; sit on a park bench. One woman told me that, well, God's got his arm around my shoulders, and I'm snuggling up and I'm telling him about my life and my day and I'm asking him about his. And so that this young woman-- very sophisticated young woman-- I knew perfectly well like many, many people-- the people I knew in these churches-- they knew perfectly well that the more that they, in effect, mixed their experience of God with their human imagination of trivial stuff, that it might be them and not God.

It might be-- people would tell all sorts of jokes about, she thinks that God means her to marry this guy, but let me tell you that's not God's idea. That's her idea. They would tell these jokes. But so the evangelicals wanted to their imagination as vividly as they could because they thought that they weren't experiencing God as vividly as they wanted to. And then they would make God feel more real. But what they really wanted God to do was to, metaphorically, take control of the wheel. The wheel of the car of their life. They wanted God to-- they wanted not to forget God when they walked out of church.

They wanted not to yell at their kids, and they really wanted to believe and experience that if they put their trust in God, God would make the path of their life smooth for them. And it was kind of a mess and it didn't always work, and they knew that perfectly well. But that was-- I was struck by the way people lived with ambiguity and metaphor by trying to be as literal-minded as possible.

CHARLES STANG: Tanya, I think we probably have time for two more questions. And I think the second one I'm going to ask you is rather open ended, so it could take some time. But here's one from Mimi Winnick. Mimi is actually a resident here at the CSWR and the WSRP Research Associate. She writes, first of all, thank you for this wonderful conversation. In light of your Mists of Avalon experience and your additional research, how do you find particular practices of reading fiction, for example, absorption in novels connected to these "becoming real" spiritual experiences? Can certain forms of reading be a kind of training?

TANYA LUHRMANN: Absolutely. Great question. In fact, you have, Divinity School has generated one of the more well-known recent forms which is the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. I don't always agree with your interpretation of Harry Potter, mind you, but it's-- [LAUGHTER] But I'm really struck that there were two students at the Harvard Divinity School who really loved Harry Potter and turned it into a sacred text. And they used it to reflect upon their religious experience. But absolutely. I think that reading the Bible when you are doing it as an evangelical Christian is a little bit like delving into Harry Potter. People want it to be as vividly present. And reading Harry Potter, reading Hilary Mantel, reading JRR Tolkien.

Any book that is vividly-- you allow it to be vividly real can do spiritual work for you. The deep intellectual question is the relationship between the truth claim of the novel and the truth claim of the sacred text. And it's easy to say that believers are treating the sacred texts as true, and the novel is not true. I think it's a lot more complicated than that. I'll just leave it there.

CHARLES STANG: Now, this prompted me to provide some further context to that story-- you story--Tanya that I mentioned earlier. So, for everyone gathered, Tania and I first met at a conference in which we were asked to relay a anomalous or extraordinary experience we had had and then to float a theory of the imagination and reality that could somehow accommodate this anomalous experience. It was a sort of exercise. And I've already, we've already talked about Tanya's amazing druid experience, which I had not thought of as actually a reading experience. But the one that I shared was very much too intense reading-- moments of intensive reading-- where something like a-- won't go into great detail-- but something, some person--

TANYA LUHRMANN: Let's call him Nietzsche--


CHARLES STANG: OK, we're not going-- anyway, yeah. So one of them was Nietzsche. I had Nietzsche visit me once. And so I have a particular interest in the way in which reading is an ecstatic technology. A way of soliciting the appearance of, what, who knows, of persons. And then the question becomes, what is that thing that appeared? Who is that person that appeared? Is it me? Is it not me? Is it a figment of my imagination? Did I summon something? All the very questions, I'm sure, Tanya, you were going through with your druids. Except, I'm sure, I would be more inclined to suddenly become a druid if that had happened to me.

But that tells you more about me than that about you. In any case, I just want to underscore that I think Mimi's question about reading is really important. And reading gets, it gets demoted as a practice. And it is a very strange practice reading.

TANYA LUHRMANN: And I think one of the things that this work has really taught me is to really encourage one's willingness to delve into an imaginative world that feels safe and exciting for you. I think that it does all sorts of good for the soul.

CHARLES STANG: So maybe one last question, Tanya. Very open-ended question. What kind of research would you like to see on the subject of religious, spiritual, mystical experience in the future? Basically, what do you think is the undiscovered country? What's the frontier of the exploration of experience?

TANYA LUHRMANN: I think we know, still, next to nothing about spiritual experiences. We don't have a rich understanding of whether there are "core experiences." I mean we sort of do but we sort of don't. I actually think that spiritual experience is, in some sense, analogous to psychiatric experience. We have a pretty clear-- we used to have a clear sense-- we used to be-- American psychiatry used to be psychoanalytic.

Then it decided that there were "core experiences," and there were clear differences between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and depression and whatnot. And now psychiatric science is like, ah, no, there are no-- it's all dimensional. And I think that conversation has yet to be had in the study of spiritual experience. I think there's still arguments about what's core-like in spiritual experiences.

We still-- I know that being high in absorption makes it more likely that you have these experiences. There are so many more proclivities that we don't know about. So there's a question of what proclivities are more likely to lead to certain kinds of experiences. I think there's a whole puzzle about the unknown unknowns. I'll share a story that when we were doing the Mind and Spirit Project there was a young woman, Rachel Smith, who was doing the fieldwork in Vanuatu.

And we had a list of questions I knew we wanted to ask everybody about sleep paralysis and hearing the voice of God and seeing something and feeling a sense of presence and-- all sorts of questions. And Rachel kept saying we'll put it back to little blonde dwarves. And I thought this was a metaphor for everything we didn't know how to ask about. I knew some questions to ask, but I didn't know all sorts of other questions we might ask.

Well, it turned out that Rachel actually meant that, in Vanuatu, people see little green, little, I think, little blonde dwarves. And that if you're going to talk to people in Vanuatu you need to ask about that. So we figured out how to ask for that. But it just there's so much we don't know how to ask about. There's so many ways-- are the way that the early Christians experienced God, is that analogous to the way that contemporary evangelicals experience God? I could give you an argument about the way that they're familiar, sure. Charlie would give us an argument about how they're utterly distinct.

And I think trying to think about, well I mean I think that as-- the question has been formed, in some sense, in such a beginning way as, either its experience and everybody has it, or it's not. And I think that there's much more subtlety that we can bring to bear to explore how to compare experiences. So the puzzle of how to compare experiences. The puzzle of how experiences are like and unlike psychiatric experience and under what conditions and for whom.

The puzzle of trauma. What is trauma? It's such a big word in our culture. But I think that the earlier questioner was really on to something-- that their trauma does change people's experiences in particular ways. I don't think we have a good way of differentiating between kinds of trauma and how those will change people's experiences.

That whole messy question of Sai experiences. Are those experiences? How to think about those experiences? Jeff Kripal wants us to talk about UFO experiences. Are those experiences of shiny objects in the sky or are those white-light experiences that we find in every culture? Was Evans-Pritchard having a white-light UFO experience when he saw witchcraft in Zande land?

Anyway. I think that there's so much for us to explore. So that we're stuck between the humanities and the social sciences and the neurosciences. It's all relevant.

CHARLES STANG: Well, now, I'm afraid, I have to ask you one last question.


CHARLES STANG: Sorry. This was- I lied. So this Center has had a wildly successful series this year on psychedelics and the future of religion.


CHARLES STANG: So we've heard a lot about psychedelics and extraordinary experiences.

TANYA LUHRMANN: It's great, yeah.

CHARLES STANG: Some scientists who-- in Johns Hopkins where these remarkable therapeutic outcomes are indexed to very specific experiences that they label mystical--

TANYA LUHRMANN: Roland Griffiths.

CHARLES STANG: Roland Griffiths inaugurated our series. Exactly. I'm wondering what you think of either that specific conversation around experience, but more generally, do you have thoughts on this very, very vibrant live popular and academic conversation about experiences and psychedelics?

TANYA LUHRMANN: I think it's a great conversation. I think that one of the deep questions is whether different substances give arise to different kinds of experiences. Is ayahuasca different from psilocybin? It's an area-- people keep asking me to walk a little farther into this domain. I have to say that this proselytization of evangelical Christians is as nothing to ayahuasca drinkers. [LAUGHTER] Like-- I got to tell you. I remember some somebody coming and giving a talk and going out for a beer afterwards and it's like, "phew." So I think it's quite interesting, and I think that there is-- Benny Shanon wrote this amazing book about ayahuasca experiences. I don't know how to think about the relationships between the substance and their effects and ordinary human supernatural experience. There's got to be a relationship because both are acting from a human brain. And it's something that-- the human brain is generating the experience with the aid of who knows what beyond.

And there are a lot of theological questions to ask about the difference between an experience inspired by something you might want to call God and inspired by ayahuasca. Those are complicated questions. My witches once said to me, Oh, you can't take a helicopter to the top of Mount Everest. It's not the same thing. And she wanted to say that LSD was the elevator-- it was the helicopter. You know it's-- got to do something-- it has to come from within.

And, clearly, the folks who study this don't think that that's true. They think that the substance is making a difference. Anyway, I think it's a deeply interesting domain of work. I don't know if the experiences are the same. I think that they have some kind of relationship. And I think that the theology is up for grabs.

CHARLES STANG: Great. All right. Well, now I will honor what I said earlier and stop asking you questions, Tanya. I've been grilling you for an hour and a half. So, first of all, I want to thank everyone for joining us. We still have over 100 people here. And for those of you who asked questions that we were not able to address, you can take some consolation in knowing that we will pass those questions on to Tanya so she knows the kinds of questions that her book is prompting.

But, in any case, Tanya, this was thrilling. I'm really grateful to you for writing this book. I'm grateful to you for writing all your books. I'm grateful for your friendship. I'm grateful for your collegiality. And I'm grateful for the grace with which you fielded all these various questions, including some of mine which were not entirely crisply formulated.

TANYA LUHRMANN: Maybe you should share that experience with others. Thank you very, very much. Yeah, take care. Bye bye.

CHARLES STANG: Wonderful. OK, everyone. Good night. Thanks again, Tanya. Take care.