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Keeping the experience of God alive

Keeping the experience of God alive

In a column for The New York Times, anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann examines why people believe in the supernatural.

She tells the story of a young man whom she calls Jack, who created a fox as a tulpa, which she defines as “thought-forms, or imagined creatures.” Jack was able to create the fox, but not able to keep it alive indefinitely. She writes:

The mere fact that people like Jack find it intuitively possible to have invisible companions who talk back to them supports the claim that the idea of an invisible agent is basic to our psyche. But Jack’s story also makes it clear that experiencing an invisible companion as truly present — especially as an adult — takes work: constant concentration, a state that resembles prayer.

It may seem paradoxical, but this very difficulty may be why evangelical churches emphasize a personal, intimate God. While the idea of God may be intuitively plausible — just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are atheists who have prayed for parking spots — belief can be brittle. Indeed, churches that rely on a relatively impersonal God (like mainstream Protestant denominations) have seen their congregations dwindle over the last 50 years.

To experience God as walking by your side, in conversation with you, is hard. Evangelical pastors often preach as if they are teaching people how to keep God constantly in mind, because it is so easy not to pray, to let God’s presence slip away. But when it works, people experience God as alive.


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Murdoch Matthew

According to John Michael Greer in his statement that I quoted above:

Human beings under ordinary conditions encounter two kinds or, if you will, worlds of experience: one that’s composed of things that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched, which we might as well call the biosphere, and one composed of things that can be thought, felt, willed, and imagined, which we can call the noosphere (from Greek nous, “mind”). The core theory held by religions everywhere is that there is a third world, which we can call the theosphere, and that this is what breaks through into human consciousness in religious experience.

I suspect that the noosphere is language, the medium in which we think, remember, will, and imagine. Language creates such a powerful sense of reality that it can over-ride mere facts, and will, unless we guard against it. As for the theosphere, that would seem to be the stories we tell, explaining and elaborating on our experience. We really are stuck in bodies and in a physical universe, whatever glories we summon in language and story.

Murdoch Matthew

This is an extraordinary article to find on Episcopal Café — suggesting that invisible companions (such as the Holy Spirit or Jesus?) are mental constructs maintained by meditation and imagination. I’ve thought that promptings from the Spirit might be a part of the self somehow hived off, like a multiple personality. Not to deny the value of such promptings — the experience is real, although explanations may differ.

I question Ms Luhrmann’s theory that the human search for agency (causes) led to positing agency in the universe. It seems to me that the basic illusion misleading people is the sense that consciousness, awareness, animates the body — that we’re free-floating pilots sitting in a cockpit behind the eyes, controlling the organism. We now know that consciousness is produced by the organism; we don’t animate our bodies, our bodies’ physical processes produce consciousness. In fact, studies show that our minds are great rationalizers, producing reasons on demand for things that our bodies do on their own.

The problem with promptings of the Spirit is that their substance, and value, depends on the tradition in which they occur, and the interpretation of that tradition. A liberal Anglican and a devout Southern Baptist live under different assumptions. In all the discussions of Discernment, I fail to see any central direction. Each person gets their own guidance. Any common goal is supplied by community, or authority. We’ve had over a thousand years of Church (starting with Empire and dissipating with Colonialism), and humankind has blindly pursued growth and comfort at the expense of the larger biosphere. Has God really been indifferent to our crowding other creatures out of their habitats and poisoning the atmosphere and oceans? We were fruitful and multiplied — enough already!

Human population has bloomed with the exploitation of cheap fuel — coal, oil, and gas. That bonanza is coming to an end. The cost of producing those things is rising to equal the benefit derived from them. We aren’t going to run out of oil — we just aren’t going to be able to afford to run our civilization on it much longer. Oil is everywhere you turn — automobile fuel, road surfaces, all kinds of plastics (computer cases and supermarket bags!) When it turns scarce and expensive, our communities must become much more local and labor intensive. (Slavery was replaced by machinery — I wonder whether it might make a come-back sometime.) I hope the knowledge we’ve gained during the Industrial Age outlasts the depletion of resources that produced it. I also hope that the move away from fossil fuel burning comes in time to save the atmosphere from the catastrophic changes now becoming evident.

Where does the Church fit in the age to come? Not so much as an overall, imperial organization, but as a collection of communities, localities. John Michael Greer has been looking at possible roles for religion when globalization breaks down.

All through the Long Descent that terminated the bustling centralized economy of the Roman world and replaced it with the decentralized feudal economies of post-Roman Europe, though, there was one reliable source of investment in necessary infrastructure and other social goods. It thrived when all other economic and political institutions failed, because it did not care in the least about the profit motive, and had different ways to motivate and direct human energies to constructive ends. It had precise equivalents in certain other dark age and medieval societies, too, and it’s worth noting that those dark ages that had some such institution in place were considerably less dark, and preserved a substantially larger fraction of the cultural and technological heritage of the previous society, than those in which no institution of the same kind existed.

In late Roman and post-Roman Europe, that institution was the Christian church. In other dark ages, other religious organizations have filled similar roles—Buddhism, for example, in the dark ages that followed the collapse of Heian Japan, or the Egyptian priesthoods in the several dark ages experienced by ancient Egyptian society. When every other institution fails, in other words, religion is the one option left that provides a framework for organized collective activity. The revival of religion in the twilight of an age of rationalism, and its rise to a position of cultural predominance in the broader twilight of a civilization, thus has a potent economic rationale in addition to any other factors that may support it.

(Greer goes farther than I do in valuing experience of the Spirit:

It so happens that a large minority of human beings—up to a third, depending on the survey—report having at least one experience, at some point in their lives, that appears to involve contact with a disembodied intelligent being. Many of these experiences are spontaneous; others seem to be fostered by religious practices such as prayer, meditation, and ritual. Any number of causes have been proposed for these experiences, but I’d like to ask my readers to set aside the issue of causation for the moment and pay attention to the raw data of experience. There’s a crucial difference between the question “Does x happen?” and the question “Why does x happen?”—a difference of basic logical categories—and it’s a fruitful source of confusion and error to confuse them.

Whether they are caused by autohypnosis, undiagnosed schizophrenia, archetypes of the collective unconscious, the real existence of gods and spirits, or something else, these experiences happen to a great many people, they have done so as far back as records go, and religion is the traditional human response to them. If nobody had ever had the experience of encountering a god, an angel, a saint, an ancestor, a totem spirit, or what have you, it’s probably safe to say that we would not have religions. Human beings under ordinary conditions encounter two kinds or, if you will, worlds of experience: one that’s composed of things that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched, which we might as well call the biosphere, and one composed of things that can be thought, felt, willed, and imagined, which we can call the noosphere (from Greek nous, “mind”). The core theory held by religions everywhere is that there is a third world, which we can call the theosphere, and that this is what breaks through into human consciousness in religious experience.

As I said, I suspect that people project their sense of free-floating consciousness onto the universe at large, but Greer is right. Explanations aside, the experience dominates. I’ve never had it, but I hope that my friends promoting love, compassion, and awareness prevail, whatever their inspirations.)


I suppose that, in many ways, my God is relatively impersonal.

…but not when I eat him. ;-p

[I noticed that Luhrmann’s piece focused on rational and/or scoffing atheists, and personal-relationship Evangelicals, w/ no mention of sacramental [small/broad ‘c’] catholics]

JC Fisher

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