How God Becomes Real

Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others

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Tanya Marie Luhrmann
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , October
     2020.
     256 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691164465.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Tanya Luhrmann has spent forty years conducting fieldwork, research, and analysis about various facets of the same question: How it is that people come to believe in gods and spirits? How God Becomes Real is the crystallization of these years of scholarship. It is both a pragmatic and reasonable work from which religious leaders will benefit and a clear and persuasive theory of religion. Luhrmann’s  work is based firmly in practice and substantial fieldwork in four countries and with a variety of religious frames ranging from British occultism through Santeria, Jewish revivals, Zoroastrianism, and the largest contributor, evangelical Christianity. 

How gods come to feel real to people, this sense of engagement and meaning, is not automatic or foreordained. There is no shortcut to spiritual engagement. There is a substantial amount of personal and corporate labor involving the application of strategies to find, deepen, and develop these relationships with the numinous, to make the gods real. Luhrmann argues that this personal and corporate labor changes people who do it and gives them the benefits they seek, regardless of whether deities exist aside from the practices of religious people. Gods are experienced as present in a world in which they matter. Practices include telling stories, meditation to develop inner senses, shared rich experiences, prayer, and others. Religion is powerful not only because it provides intuitions about gods but also because it changes the faithful in profound ways and provides real direct benefits to them. 

Luhrmann begins by saying “rather than presuming that people worship because they believe, we ask instead whether people believe because they worship” (x). She then sets forth seven propositions, which she tests throughout How God Becomes Real, which bear repeating here: (1) people don’t (easily) have faith in gods and spirits; (2) detailed stories help to make gods and spirits feel real; (3) talent and training matter; (4) the way people think about their minds also matters; (5) the sense of response is “kindled”; (6) prayer practice changes the way people attend to their thoughts; (7) people create relationships with gods and spirits. 

Luhrmann examines each proposition in separate chapters. She first examines the ontological issues and patterns of reasoning involved in belief in measurable objects and in imaginative and emotional constructs, a distinction between knowing and believing, playful and practical action.  

Then she introduces the valuable idea of a paracosm—a shared imaginative world, a meaningful story— and examines the value of narrative and shared ritual exploration of the stories of the divine. The kind of training and, crucially, experiences that make the worldview of a particular religious system second nature creates an understanding of the world as responsive and alive and permits absorption in inner and outer experiences of the world are the subject of the third chapter. Then, she moves onto a discussion of the relationship between mind and body and the importance of understanding the consciousness as permeable to permit the promptings of the divine to have access to it, a sense of “thereness” in which deity suffuses the personality. Groups in different cultures experience this presence through different lenses, even within the same religion. 

Chapter 5, on non-ordinary experience as evidence of the existence of gods and spirits, is quite interesting. Full-fledged mystical experience is rare, although greatly valued, but moments of transcendent joy, or sense of presence, can provide a foundation to build personal belief on. Luhrmann examines the particular ways that these experiences happen, the assignment of meaning to details coming from an individual encounter with the numinous. We learn to pay attention in new ways to our daily experience. 

She deals with prayer as performative: rather than an attempt to create exchanges, the expression of feeling and the direct exploration of the issues that concern one in prayer are experienced as actions and as partial solutions to the problems addressed. Prayer and ritual put our troubles into a context in which life is fundamentally good, and in which an otherworldly someone cares for us. And finally, Luhrmann discusses how we create relationships with gods and spirits that are nourished through ongoing attention and continued practice. 

Each of these chapters point to the overwhelming importance of religious education, practice in prayer and ritual, and reinforcement by communities of believers to bring individuals into alignment with the groups’ understandings and the ways of their gods. Ritual practices create the relationship with the deity, and regular, consistent practice changes the worshipper and deepens the relationship.  

Practice-based theories of religion focus on what people do when they are doing religion, and not on what they believe or the sacred texts that they refer to. Humans experience the divine through the rituals that we do, with practices of prayer and worship and experience leading toward theology. By emphasizing practices, experience, and the pragmatic consequentialist evaluation of these experiences over the theoretical and ideological, and by basing her discussion firmly in extensive fieldwork, Luhrmann is direct and pragmatic. Beliefs are not primary because specific beliefs do not predict specific behaviors and vice versa. As Luhrmann points out in her earlier Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (Harvard University Press, 1991), “people often argue for a belief as a means to legitimize, and even to understand . . . the practice in which they have become involved” (310). 

Groups co-create a set of relationships to the numinous, a divinity that is specific to the group, and it is through this engagement that the group expresses and deepens its connection. This development is not passive, but active, involving the various kinds of religious labor both as individuals and as groups that Luhrmann describes.  

How God Becomes Real is a splendid, well-written, and very well-structured discussion of the methods that individuals and religious organizations employ to help make deities real in our lives and an exceptionally valuable contribution to both practical theology and the study of religion.  

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel Wagar is a PhD candidate in practical theology and dean of Edmonton Wiccan Seminary. 

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tanya Marie Luhrmann is the Watkins University Professor at Stanford University, where she teaches anthropology and psychology. Her books include When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (Knopf). She has written for the New York Times, and her work has been featured in the New Yorker and other magazines. She lives in Stanford, California.

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