I'm currently interested in learning what American psychological anthropologist Tanya Marie Luhrmann has to say on the topic of religious experiences. Specifically, I'm planning on reading two of her books: How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others and When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.

Here are the book descriptions:

How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others
How do gods and spirits come to feel vividly real to people―as if they were standing right next to them? Humans tend to see supernatural agents everywhere, as the cognitive science of religion has shown. But it isn’t easy to maintain a sense that there are invisible spirits who care about you. In How God Becomes Real, acclaimed anthropologist and scholar of religion T. M. Luhrmann argues that people must work incredibly hard to make gods real and that this effort―by changing the people who do it and giving them the benefits they seek from invisible others―helps to explain the enduring power of faith.

Drawing on ethnographic studies of evangelical Christians, pagans, magicians, Zoroastrians, Black Catholics, Santeria initiates, and newly orthodox Jews, Luhrmann notes that none of these people behave as if gods and spirits are simply there. Rather, these worshippers make strenuous efforts to create a world in which invisible others matter and can become intensely present and real. The faithful accomplish this through detailed stories, absorption, the cultivation of inner senses, belief in a porous mind, strong sensory experiences, prayer, and other practices. Along the way, Luhrmann shows why faith is harder than belief, why prayer is a metacognitive activity like therapy, why becoming religious is like getting engrossed in a book, and much more.

A fascinating account of why religious practices are more powerful than religious beliefs, How God Becomes Real suggests that faith is resilient not because it provides intuitions about gods and spirits―but because it changes the faithful in profound ways.

When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God
A bold approach to understanding the American evangelical experience from an anthropological and psychological perspective by one of the country's most prominent anthropologists. Through a series of intimate, illuminating interviews with various members of the Vineyard, an evangelical church with hundreds of congregations across the country, Tanya Luhrmann leaps into the heart of evangelical faith. Combined with scientific research that studies the effect that intensely practiced prayer can have on the mind, When God Talks Back examines how normal, sensible people—from college students to accountants to housewives, all functioning perfectly well within our society—can attest to having the signs and wonders of the supernatural become as quotidian and as ordinary as laundry. Astute, sensitive, and extraordinarily measured in its approach to the interface between science and religion, Luhrmann's book is sure to generate as much conversation as it will praise.

Before delving into these two books, I'm curious to hear other perspectives on the concept of engaging in spiritual practices that lead to experiencing the divine in everyday life. Is this idea commonly encouraged in most branches of Christianity, and to what extent? Does it differ among denominations?

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    God is actually real even when not a single person believes. Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 14:11

2 Answers 2


The Christian experience (I speak of Protestant, Trinitarianism - which is my own, personal experience) begins with the conviction of one's own sinfulness, spiritual destitution and desperate need of a real salvation.

This is clear from the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) which portray the physical ailments Jesus of Nazareth healed in demonstration of his Spiritual Abilities to heal all spiritual conditions and to supply all spiritual needs.

The further expression of the doctrine of Christ (the entirety of that structure of teaching called 'the Gospel') by Peter, Paul and John particularly, is, again, a supply of spiritual truth, communicated to faith (and principally to faith) which brings the full knowledge of Deity, as known under the Headship of Christ and as known in the revelation given, individually, to the believer, in the Holy Spirit.

The further expansion of Christianity, that of the gathering of the Church and the development of the Body of Christ under the Headship of Christ, is also a matter of real experience, genuine spiritual progress and maturing growth. It is never theoretical and cannot be simply 'assumed' or externally 'appropriated' to oneself. One is brought into these things divinely and spiritually, as an individual ; and thus one experiences the Presence of Deity within the Body.

The discovery of God's real presence (either in one's own individual soul or together with others in one, unified, body) comes through the experience of salvation. Not otherwise.

(This is my own, personal, experience of Protestant Trinitarianism ; and my own personal observation of other people's progress, or non-progress, in spiritualities.)

Head knowledge, alone, is insufficient. Those who take merely an academic interest in these matters will not be the recipients of the reality of the experience in the soul.

This becomes very evident as one follows the thinking and the behaviour of such as the Pharisees, such as Herod, such as the heretics named in the New Testament scriptures, whose interest was solely intellectual or whose motives were other than a heart-broken seeking for the salvation which Jesus Christ came to give, from heaven.

I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance [Luke 5:32 KJV]

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    +1, especially for Those who take merely an academic interest in these matters will not be the recipients of the reality... . It is not a matter of God becoming real; it is a matter of knowing him, who already is.
    – Conrado
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 11:26
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    @Conrado Thank you. Yes, indeed. The other wording is that of an onlooker who merely assesses a profession of Christian experience as a matter of self-persuasion. Which is quite possible, of course. But those of us who genuinely seek God are always examining ourselves in regard to any trace of self-delusion. And the Lord guides us out of all such sandy foundations and brings us, in our soul experience, on to firmer ground ; the solid rock of a relationship - in Christ and in the Holy Spirit - with the Father.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 13:02
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    @Nigel. +1 A very good response. I remember a few decades ago a very good friend of mine was ask by somebody the following question? "How do you know if something is of God?" He said Christians have the Holy Spirt living in them and the Holy Spirit leadings are confirmed when reality demonstrates that He/God was right.
    – Mr. Bond
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 13:09
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    @Mr.Bond Yes indeed. Our faith (if we genuinely are founded upon the rock of Christ, Himself) is not a delusion, but we are granted a real spiritual entrance into the presence of God, a way made into the very heavens by the sufferings and death and bloodshed of our Lord and Saviour. The world knows nothing of this and nor do those whose profession is merely academic or is superstitious or is short of a real experience of personal salvation. Yes, indeed.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 13:12

Those 2 books are anthropological and sociological studies of how a Christian group promotes certain conceptualization of spiritual experience in their members in the areas of prayer and relationship with God which resulted in each member designating certain psychological state to be correlated with various degrees of subjective "realness" of God. I plan to read those two books myself.

What differentiates these books from others used in churches is that these are second order reflection in the mode of rigorous academic study rather than books that are prescriptive such as:

  • the influential book by Henry Blackaby Experiencing God among evangelicals
  • charismatic books that talk about cultivating worship, prayer, deliverance, and prophetic practices that use languages such as "entering into the presence of God", "being filled with / moved by / praying in the Spirit", "God gave me a word for you", etc.
  • Catholic spirituality and mystical theology books which help Catholics increase discernment, meditation, and love for God through rosary prayers, Eucharistic adoration, Mass, sacramental life, etc. so that Jesus feels more present to you in the Eucharist and the Holy Spirit is more present in daily life.

While both kinds of books are very useful to help us understand what "relationship with God", "listening to God", or "presence of God" means, denominations would not use the former books such as Luhrmann's because the goal of churches is in the practicing rather than analyzing. In reading both types of books I think it's important to distinguish the two types of understanding, similar to how the former books is like literary criticism / film studies / musicology (such as Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed, Film Theory: The Basics or Tonal Harmony) while the latter books (such as How Does a Poem Mean or The Film Appreciation Book or Understanding Music: Past and Present) help us appreciate the poetry / movies / music performances themselves.

Finally, for church members God is already believed to be maximally and objectively real regardless of our subjective experiences so the books focus more on how we can feel and grow in our subjective experience of God as well as engaging God more intimately (in accordance with Biblical principles), rather than scrutinizing how the "realness" of God is achieved in the mind through philosophical / sociological reflections. To a church member, God is like the Sun and our attempts to see / engage God more through prayers, reading the Bible, and other spiritual practices is by removing the blockages between us and of the sun (i.e. habitual sins, worldly ambition, resentment / bitterness / hatred, etc.) similar to opening our window-blinds so that the sunlight and the heat can enter our rooms. By doing this we feel God's presence better, making Him more real to us. To God even the night is bright to him because He himself is the Light, but to us our night needs to be made day by inviting the Holy Spirit's help.

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