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How Faith Happens

By Sarah Iles JohnstonMarch 14, 2021

How Faith Happens

How God Becomes Real by T. M. Luhrmann

MANY YEARS AGO, when I enrolled in the first semester of ancient Greek at my large state university, I met another student who was there because he wanted to learn how to read the New Testament in its original language.

But my classmate was seldom able to translate when called upon and he failed quiz after quiz. Finally, the professor’s equanimity snapped. Don’t you ever study? he asked in exasperation. Why no, came the reply: if God wants me to learn Greek, then he’ll enable me to learn Greek, and if he doesn’t, then I won’t.

At the time, I was stunned by what seemed to be a fundamental error in thinking — a muddling together of, on the one hand, the realities of the world in which we sat parsing Greek and, on the other hand, the fantastic possibilities of some other, imaginary world. My classmate’s expectation that divinity might be actively present in our dusty classroom was incomprehensible to me.

How does someone come to believe that God is so immediately real and attentive? What sustains such faith even when daily life obdurately argues against it? These questions lie at the heart of T. M. Luhrmann’s fascinating How God Becomes Real. Luhrmann, a social anthropologist who has studied the practices of evangelical Christians, Parsees, Anglo-Cuban adherents of Santeria, orthodox Jews, and others, engagingly explores not the well-worn question of what people believe about the supernatural but rather how they come to have faith in the reality and presence of supernatural agents. One thing that’s clear, across the span of religions that Luhrmann brings to the table, is that faith doesn’t come easily. It takes a great deal of work to create and maintain what she calls a “faith frame” — a “sustained commitment to the reality of invisible agents.” (Contrary to what we might think, children find it difficult to believe in the invisible agents of their group’s religion until their elders train them to do so.) In a series of chapters, Luhrmann lays out the processes commonly used by the religions she studied.

The first of these is the creation of a “paracosm” — an alternative world in which remarkable things become credible. The word was coined by psychologists in the 1970s to describe the imaginary realms that many children create for themselves, but Luhrmann borrows it to describe the worlds that are constructed by religious faiths and shared among their followers. Paracosms also spring from avowedly fictional materials, such as the novels of J. R. R. Tolkien or the Star Wars saga of George Lucas. Some fictional paracosms continue to be discussed, scrutinized, and expanded upon by their fans for decades after their first appearances.

Two of the salient characteristics shared by fictional and religious paracosms are their commitment to describing alternative realities in rich detail and the potential of their stories to imbue the lives of those who consume them with pattern and meaning long after the books are closed, the weekly religious services are over, and the theaters are dark. Some of us, for example, sustain ourselves in difficult times by remembering the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert or Christ’s victory over death; others remember how the Hobbits triumphed over obstacles during their long journey to Mordor or how Harry Potter conquered Voldemort. Effective paracosms of either type also require their participants to follow certain rules of engagement — to master knowledge of how its world runs and also, in the case of religious paracosms, knowledge of the rituals by which humans are expected to organize their lives: how to keep a kosher kitchen or draw a magic circle or maintain a Santeria altar for the spirits.

The crucial difference between fictional paracosms and religious paracosms, of course, is that those participating in the latter expect their protagonists to respond. We don’t look to Dumbledore for help in our daily lives, but some of us do look to Christ or Krishna or the Orishas. Religions train their members to discern such responses — to open themselves to the sound of a god’s voice or the feeling of an Orisha’s presence. Accomplishing this requires members not only to internalize the idea that their environment is populated by invisible agents with whom they might develop intimate relationships, but also to intentionally blur the boundaries between the world that they can perceive through their five senses and another world that they cannot. Choosing to do this is much like choosing to engage in play, Luhrmann suggests, insofar as participants purposefully superimpose something extra — something deeply meaningful that vividly engages their emotions and cognition — upon their quotidian world. The results can instill the life of the participant with intense, vibrant meaning, although the rules by which the quotidian world runs always remain primary. Any religion that endures has not only conceded this point but also endorsed it. “Trust in Allah but tie up your camel,” says an Islamic hadith — an aphorism that my failing classmate would have done well to remember. For those who have established a faith frame, the presence of invisible agents becomes real and abiding, yet remains special, set apart. The agents are still there in the background when you’re doing the laundry, feeding the dog, and shoveling the snow, but you can get on with your everyday life.

Discerning the presence of such agents requires diligent training and practice, although an innate talent is useful as well. Drawing on her field work across the span of religions she has studied, Luhrmann suggests that training usually begins with learning how to focus one’s mind on the imagining of the other world, helped along by a paracosmic paraphernalia of texts and images (Ignatian prayer is a familiar Christian example of this process) and the anecdotal reports of successful fellow worshippers. Over time, such focus produces what Luhrmann calls “kindlings” — moments when an invisible agent becomes real, when a person hears the voice of a god or feels the goosebumps that herald the arrival of the Holy Spirit — or, for that matter, suffers phenomena that are culturally interpreted to be demonic in origin, such as sleep paralysis. Gradually, these kindlings change the way in which the person envisions the boundary between the everyday and spiritual worlds, making it seem increasingly permeable. This, in turn, enhances the chances that the person will experience further kindlings. The physical body, too, becomes habituated to the experiences: the tangible signs of a god’s or spirit’s arrival — intense warmth, weeping, and goosebumps, for instance — come more readily. With each kindling, the faith frame that sustains belief in the invisible agent’s reality becomes stronger.

A rationalist might say, “Well of course the spirits come more readily — these people are caught in a pernicious cycle of self-delusion.” Such a rationalist might also point to Luhrmann’s careful analyses of how the specific nature of an individual’s experiences depends upon, and in turn influences, the local culture’s expectation of the ways in which spirits make themselves known: Thai Buddhists are likely to feel weightless and buoyant because their religion values release from the body, for instance, but evangelical Christians are likely to feel excited and aroused, because their religion leads them to expect that a powerful agent — the Holy Spirit — will take control of their bodies at such times. Conditioning and suggestibility are surely at work here, our rationalist would claim; consciously or not, these people kindle themselves to see, hear, and feel exactly what their religions tell them to see, hear, and feel.

But that’s a dismissively inadequate response, not only because Luhrmann’s analyses of the specifics at work in each case open our eyes to the subtleties of how faith is constructed, but for two additional reasons, as well. First, it’s as misguided to reject other people’s experiences with invisible agents whom they judge to be real as it is to reject their experiences with local fauna, flora, weather patterns, or geography. The post-Enlightenment dismissal of alternative ontologies has so impoverished our ability, as scholars and as citizens, to take seriously local convictions that these agents exist that we often fail to fully appreciate their effects, which are just as real as the bite of a local tiger, the nourishment from a local crop, or the rain from a local monsoon. In recent weeks, the negative impact of such effects has hit close to home. A New York Times article (January 11, 2021; updated January 19, 2021) examining evangelical involvement in the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol quoted a Texas woman as saying that she had flown to Washington after receiving what she called a “burning bush” sign from God. A moment of kindling, it was interpreted from within a paracosm: “We are fighting good versus evil, dark versus light,” she avowed, and described herself as rising up like Queen Esther, the biblical heroine who saved her people from death. Similar experiences have changed the world in more positive ways: Mother Teresa began her mission on behalf of the poor after Christ spoke to her during a long train ride, commanding her to leave her teaching post and work in the slums of Calcutta. Luhrmann, who herself calls for taking the ontologies of others more seriously, has provided us with new methodological models from which to begin to understand and analyze their subtleties and the effects they have on those who engage with them.

The second reason is that almost all of us spend time in alternative ontologies, now and again. It wasn’t rationalism that made J. K. Rowling a wealthy woman, and it isn’t only children who follow the adventures of Harry, Ron, and Hermione or Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. As institutional religions continue their multi-decade decline in Western countries (in 2019, the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life found that the percentage of adult Americans who identified as atheistic, agnostic or “nothing in particular” stood at 26 percent, up from 17 percent in 2009, and disaffection with institutional religion has climbed even more steeply in many European nations), secular fantasy fiction increasingly steps up to meet the need for places where complex moral and ethical situations can be explored, wrapped up in tales that are at least as engrossing as the story of Queen Esther.

While I know of no case in which consuming the works of Tolkien, Lucas, or Rowling (or of Philip Pullman, Madeleine L’Engle, C. S. Lewis, and so on) has driven someone to do something as outsize as storming the Capitol or establishing orphanages in the slums of Calcutta, it’s worth noting that much of the most successful fantasy fiction creates not only enduring paracosms, but paracosms that are built upon the same Manichaean worldview that inspires the adherents of many religions to take action: a battle between good and evil that will be won under the leadership of one or more savior-figures. As institutional religion declines, fictional paracosms may take on increasingly significant roles as providers not only of ethical and moral guideposts, but also of meeting places where those who wish to change the world can gather together. Aslan, the savior-figure of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, is already used by some evangelicals as a figure upon whom to focus their Ignatian practices, as Luhrmann discussed in her 2012 book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. The website of The Harry Potter Alliance, founded in 2005, aspires to “turn fans into heroes” by “using the power of story and popular culture to make activism accessible and sustainable.” Notably, the organization has recently added to its website a statement of support for trans people and reasserted its distance from Rowling, who is under attack for her controversial tweets about trans women; Harry Potter’s paracosm has broken free of its creator and begun to blur into our own world, where forces beyond Rowling’s pen affect it. I am not suggesting that we will soon be hearing about people kindled by the sound of Harry’s voice in their ears or by goosebumps that signal the arrival of Gandalf; rather, I suspect that what Luhrmann and other scholars have begun to teach us about the ways that people build relationships with invisible agents will be of help in understanding the increasingly strong bonds that certain types of fiction build with their audiences.

In the final chapter of the book, Luhrmann addresses another facet of these issues. If God or any other invisible agent is to become real in an enduring way, kindlings must build a faith frame and the faith frame itself must deepen into an emotionally rich relationship between human and God that is reciprocal in the same way as a social relationship between two humans, for better or worse. Over time, God’s desires incrementally change the human, but the needs, desires, and experiences of the human change God, as well. For some, God becomes an ever more soothing confidant, but for others he becomes an increasingly harsh and demanding father. Given that the invisible agent whom one kindles within oneself takes some of its cues from local expectations as well as personal experiences, the vivid relationship that comes to make some people feel embraced by love makes other people — especially those whose sexuality or politics are at odds with those of the God whom their particular community endorses — feel despised and abandoned with an acuity that no atheist or agnostic is likely to suffer. Because this is a social relationship, moreover, rather than an abstract moral or intellectual commitment to a set of philosophical principles alone, the sense of rejection may damage the individual profoundly.

In her preface, Luhrmann states, “This is not an atheist’s book. It is not a believer’s book. It is an anthropologist’s book and a work of the anthropology of mind, that filter through which humans become aware of their world.” Provocatively orchestrated, meticulously argued, and lucidly written, How God Becomes Real gives all of us, whatever our own view of these matters, a lot to think about.


Sarah Iles Johnston is the College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Religion at The Ohio State University. Her most recent book is The Story of Myth (Harvard University Press, 2018).

LARB Contributor

Sarah Iles Johnston is the College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Religion at The Ohio State University. Her most recent book is The Story of Myth (Harvard University Press, 2018).


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