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Prayer and the focused imagination

Prayer and the focused imagination

T.H. Luhrmann describes meeting people who had an auditory experience of God. Were they crazy or more intensely prayerful? She speculates that prayer both guides and disciplines the imagination.

Her op-ed appeared in the NYTimes:

I was doing ethnographic field work in a quietly charismatic evangelical church in Chicago. This was the kind of church in which people sought an intimate, conversational relationship with God. It was not at all uncommon for people to talk about hearing God….

…What do we make of this? I don’t think that anthropologists can pronounce on whether God exists or not, but I am averse to the idea that God is the full explanation here. For one thing, many of these voices are mundane. A woman told me that she heard God tell her to get off the bus when she was immersed in a book and about to miss her stop. Moreover, odd auditory experiences are quite common. A questionnaire posed to 375 college students found that 71 percent reported vocal hallucinations of some kind, according to a study published in 1984 (a finding consistent with my own research). A 2000 study found that 38.7 percent of the population reported visual, auditory or other hallucinations, including out-of-body experiences.

Schizophrenia, or the radical break with reality we identify as serious mental illness, is also not an explanation. The people who reported these events simply weren’t ill in that way, and schizophrenia is not common (the prevalence among American adults is 1.1 percent in any year). Moreover, the patterns of their voice-hearing are quite unlike the patterns we associate with schizophrenia. The voices heard by people with schizophrenia are often harsh and commanding. They go on and on — sentences, paragraphs, sometimes crowds of people screaming and yelling insults at the poor voice-hearing person throughout the day.

The unusual auditory experiences reported by congregants just weren’t like that. They were rare. Most people said they’d had one or two in their lifetime. They were brief — just a few words. They were pleasant. And they did not have that sense of command. The woman who said God instructed her to start a school — well, she hasn’t done it

She speculates about the utility of prayer from an anthropological perspective:

The more interesting lesson is what it tells us about the mind and prayer. If hearing a voice is associated with focused attention to the inner senses — hearing with the mind’s ear, seeing with the mind’s eye — it suggests that prayer (which today, the National Day of Prayer, celebrates) is a pretty powerful instrument. We often imagine prayer as a practice that affects the content of what we think about — our moral aspirations, or our contrition. It’s probably more accurate to understand prayer as a skill that changes how we use our minds.


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