In How God Becomes Real, T. M. Luhrmann’s goal is simple: to explore and explain why and how humans “conceive of that which is not available to the senses” (xi). And while other scholars highlight imagination’s role in enabling religion, Luhrmann specifically investigates how religious behavior toward the invisible other enables “what is unseen to feel more present and alter[s] the person who performs them” (xii). Put another way, her central claim is that “god or spirit – the invisible other – must be made real for people, and that this real-making changes those who do it.” To substantiate her claim, each chapter works through a different hypothesis.
In Chapter One, Luhrmann argues that “people don’t (easily) have faith in gods and spirits” (xii). She develops this argument first by highlighting that while the modern West has a culturally specific way of thinking about what is real, indeed all cultures do so, humans nonetheless “distinguish what counts as natural from what is beyond the natural, even though they may draw the line in different ways and come to different conclusions at different times about what is on which side of the line” (5). So, drawing on a range of psychological and anthropological literature, she highlights how people – cross-culturally – think about and behave regarding invisible others in a way distinct from how they interact with ordinary objects. Put another way, “one remembers and anticipates as if gods and spirits matter” through religious ritual. Luhrmann makes sense of this line between the material and invisible other by introducing what she calls the faith frame: “In this way of thinking and interpreting, people hold gods and spirits in their awareness as if those gods and spirits are present and engaged” (22). She explains the faith frame via the notion of serious play, wherein Luhrmann echoes previous anthropologists who observed that “the sacred has a play-like quality” in which “the play claims,” namely, claims with no clear root in reality, “are also serious claims about the world.”
In Chapter 2, Luhrmann explores the role of narrative and world building in establishing believable religion . This world, or paracosm, enables religious followers “to sustain their faith frame” (26) and grips their “private imagination so powerfully that . . . they kindle the sense that they are true”: world building and the paracosm make god feel more real. Such religious narratives occurring within a paracosm, a constructed world, thereby enable “us to imagine the characters as if they were real” (29) and build a sort of relationship with characters; however, in Luhrmann’s discussion, those characters with whom we build relationships in the world are gods and spirits. Thus, she effectively and rightly leverages narrative cognitive sciences to explain aspects of religious experience. Moreover, while a religious world, a paracosm, can mirror fiction, the religious paracosm has certain rules of engagement, signs of participation, and means of interaction, and such “interaction with the invisible other is one of the central features that sets the special world of faith apart from fiction” (32). After describing her in-field experiences regarding these through requirements for a religious paracosm, Luhrmann again highlights how serious play, the faith frame, allows practitioners 1) to use narrative and ritual to imagine and represent an invisible god and 2) to create a “private-but-shared imaginative world” (56).
In Chapter 3, Luhrmann explores the central role of training and orienting imaginations for their respective paracosms: “Absorption and inner sense cultivation kindle the realness of gods and spirits” (58). That is, based on her fieldwork and academic studies, “something like talent and training facilitates the felt realness of gods and spirits and the kinds of experiences people deem spiritual” (60). This claim is justified first via her fieldwork on witchcraft in England and on Christianity in evangelical Christian communities, wherein individuals learned how to treat what would normally be considered internal phenomena as external with an invisible other. Such an observation is reinforced by the Tellegen Absorption Scale, which shows that “people who score highly in absorption are more likely to say that God speaks to them” and that they have experienced God being present and alive (71) – an invisible other. Furthermore, based on her fieldwork, Luhrmann argues that inner-sense cultivation enables people to experience an invisible other. That is, various traditions encourage practices wherein people treat words and images internally generated as if they were generated externally or developing more vivid mental imagery and explain its origin as externally based on a constructed paracosm. Simply put, developing one’s ability to imagine vividly and to blur the internal-external boundary yields perceived relationships with invisible others.
In Chapter 4, Luhrmann builds on the previous chapters by not just highlighting the inner-outer boundary in one’s mind but by showing how the boundary, or the in-between area, plays a role in the religious imagination inasmuch as the boundaries speaks to how different ideas of “the mind” impact understandings. Indeed, how one thinks about the mind directly impacts how one judges or interprets an event or experience. So, Luhrmann discusses three case studies involving Christian churches. Here, she highlights that people experienced God in different ways in these diverse contexts “because of the specific ways that they attend to their own experience” (100). Similarly, the means by which God “spoke” back differed based on local training, cultures, and other factors. Therefore, Luhrmann effectively demonstrates that how people understand mind-stuff, real-stuff, and the in-between directly impacts how God becomes real for them.
In Chapter 5, Luhrmann’s more technical approach shows how “practices of attention shape the most basic evidence people have that gods and spirits respond” (111). For example, individuals in certain contexts might have goosebumps; and such a stimulus in some contexts is taught to be indicative of divine presence. Therefore, she works to account for this sort of attention to stimuli. First, Luhrmann draws from Emil Kraedpelin’s notion of “kindling” to suggest that religious experiences attributed to a supernatural source shape how one experiences the events itself and future events; and kindling in an ongoing process becomes “more habituated and more fluent for members of that social group” (113). Such kindling comes about through building blocks and event cognition: certain bodily events are “incorporated into accounts of gods and spirits” (114) and “categories through which people identify the events” (114), respectively. With this theoretical framework, Luhrmann designates three broad kinds of events: phenomena with names but no specific bodily anchor (e.g., certain feelings, such as goosebumps, when they perceive god as speaking to them), bodily affordances (i.e., experiences that occur everywhere but can take special meaning in a religious tradition, such as “a Holy Spirit experience” after crying in a church setting), and anomalous events (e.g., sleep paralysis) that “may or may not carry culturally specific labels” (116). While heuristic in nature, these categories nonetheless enable Luhrmann to define how people relate to and perceive their bodily experiences. So, she links these categories with her theory of spiritual kindling from previous work to show that “the theory of spiritual kindling predicts that the frequency of events deemed spiritual is shaped by culture” (120). Finally, she shows the value of this framework through two case studies, one of a US-based charismatic church and the other of Thai Buddhists: both groups pay attention to different things. So, she concludes, “their attentional patterns can alter something as basic as their perceptual experience. ‘Kindling’ is a more specific account of how attentional learning unfolds for people” (135).
In Chapter 6, Luhrmann explores a simple question: why does prayer work? Fundamentally, she describes prayer as a metacognitive process that naturally involves emotion management and thus changes “the way people attend to their own mental processes” (139). Here, she explores how multiple facets function metacognitively: reorienting toward the positive (gratitude), organizing experiences (confession), the assertion of hope (asking), words meaning more when speaking to an other (even an invisible other!), and the brain treating personalized prayer to an invisible other as if a person were speaking to a friend forming a real social relationship. Of all of Luhrmann’s chapters, this was one of my favorites.
In Chapter 7, Luhrmann works to bring the various chapters together by describing more broadly how people create social relationships with gods and spirits, with invisible others. So, she shows how various field experiences of a god’s social relationship can be good for individuals but not the social whole. Such diverse parasocial experiences, Luhrmann suggests, derive from differing senses of inner other and imaginal relationships. And she also shows examples of how social relationships with gods are clearly not good for the social whole. Thus, Luhrmann fundamentally addresses not only “why people think gods and spirits are real but about how they become and are real for them” (184).
Overall, I enjoyed Luhrmann’s work. And because the Ood will undoubtedly sing Doctor Luhrmann’s praise, I will instead focus on engaging with specific aspects of How God Becomes Real.
First, although I agree with and appreciate Luhrmann’s frame for religion, the as-if frame derived from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, more engagement with H. Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of ‘As If’: A System of Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind, would have strengthened her notion of a faith frame. Although I do not have access to Huizinga’s book at the moment, Luhrmann’s representation of Homo Ludens does not consider what underlies the work. Vaihinger uses the as-if framework to explain the psyche’s logical function: everything is perceived “as if” because we can never describe reality in the truest sense. As such, the human logical function, or how we perceive things, always uses fiction by necessity. So while Luhrmann rightly draws from how play theorists use Vaihinger’s as-if framework, more engagement with Vaihinger may have enriched her discussion. For example, if we agree with Vaihinger that all human perception is filtered through this as-if framework and that this as-if framework is necessarily a fiction working toward understanding reality, how might that impact her work? After all, the as-if framework aims to describe reality, but focusing on making an invisible other become real runs contrary to this logical function, especially when people using this as-if framework fail to recognize that they are, in fact, using a fictional framework. In short, more attention to Vaihinger would have enriched this study. (Admittedly, this critique may have more to do with the play theorists than with Luhrmann.)
Second, to substantiate Luhrmann’s idea of a paracosm, we ought to turn to an outright construction of a paracosm. Karl Barth’s “The Strange New World within the Bible” explicitly argues that the Bible is not about history but rather leads readers “into a new world, into the world of God” (https://jochenteuffel.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/barth-the-strange-new-world-within-the-bible.pdf). This statement affirms Luhrmann’s comment that a paracosm, or in this case the Bible, enables followers to know their god through narrative. To push this point further: the fact that Barth explicitly theologized a paracosm raises another question: to what extent does intentionality in creating a religious paracosm impact how gods and spirits become real to followers? I ask not only in light of Barth but my own practices. As I reflect on my Jewish spirituality, I know that I am creating a paracosm for understanding and interpreting the world, but I also know that the paracosm is not necessarily reality. Rather, it is fictional. So, how might Luhrmann approach this matter? Put another way, we have three tiers: people who construct paracosms without realizing they are doing so; people who construct paracosms intentionally and perceive them as representing reality; and people who construct paracosms while recognizing those paracosms don’t necessarily align with reality. While I don’t have an answer, I will say that the issue of recognizing whether something is fiction (in Vaihinger’s sense) again highlights that additional consideration of Vaihinger’s philosophy on its own terms may have strengthened Luhrmann’s theoretical constructions.
Third, as much as I enjoyed Luhrmann’s discussion on prayer, her discussion about prayer as metacognition could take into consideration metarepresentation. Within Theory of Mind, metarepresentation is our ability to tag and track information. What if, though, part of the metacognition in prayer is reorienting and retagging our metarepresentations of events, people, and ideas? Indeed, Luhrmann alludes to this idea, inasmuch as she says that prayer is a reflection that attempts “to sculpt, shape, reframe, reword, and remaster thoughts and feelings” (140). Incorporating metarepresentational reconsiderations as part of prayer in some ways aligns with Luhrmann’s comment on confession in prayer, that it enables people “to organize experience” (146). Ultimately, linking metacognition with intentional metarepresentation may be a more precise, helpful way of thinking through why prayer works. Moreover, intentional metarepresentation also becomes a means by which a follower and person praying can reinforce their faith frame, which compliments her discussion from chapter 1.
Overall, I highly recommend How God Becomes real by T. M. Luhrmann. As my extensive marginal notes in the book suggest, her work is a helpful theoretical model for thinking about religious experience and related phenomena.
 To be clear, Luhrmann does not use the language “world building” but rather simply a world. I redescribe Luhrmann’s work with world building in light of Building Imaginary Worlds by Mark J. P. Wolf.