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Can you learn to hear God?

Can you learn to hear God?

Ryan Schram

Mills 169 (A26)


April 6, 2016

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2667/5


Luhrmann, Tanya M. 2004. “Metakinesis: How God Becomes Intimate in Contemporary U.S. Christianity.” American Anthropologist 106 (3): 518–28. doi:10.1525/aa.2004.106.3.518.

Deren, Maya, Cherel Ito, and Teiji Ito. ca. 1947–1954. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Documentary. http://youtu.be/2YIO_dxyJio?t=1m27s.

James, William. 1984. William James, The Essential Writings. Bruce Wilshire, ed. Albany: SUNY Press.

James, William. 1994 [1902]. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Modern Library.

Luhrmann, T. M., Howard Nusbaum, and Ronald Thisted. 2010. “The Absorption Hypothesis: Learning to Hear God in Evangelical Christianity.” American Anthropologist 112 (1): 66–78. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1433.2009.01197.x.

What do the Twelve Tribes' neighbors think about them?

What do the neighbors of Peppercorn Farm in Picton think about the Twelve Tribes?

Hint: They don't think “nothing.”

Is there any truth to religion and religious belief?

a) A potentially explosive issue. It almost sounds as though this is asking which religion is right.

b) More generally though I want to ask are there any grounds on which one can believe in something unseen and unproven.

c) We've ducked the issue.

A velvet rope

Still from "Lost Our Lisa." The Simpsons (1998).

The limits of social science

Social scientific approaches to religion can only look at concrete, observable, empirical facts about people's behavior.

This means that social scientific explanations are always on the outside looking in.

It also means that social scientific explanations assume that, being from an outsider's position, they possess a unique claim to being true. The observed has beliefs, rituals, etc. The observers don't.

In other words, we are looking at religion as culture.

William James

  • James is a philosopher interested in the nature of human experience. As such, he is (more or less) to psychology what Durkheim is to anthropology. It is interesting to note that they were active at about the same time.
  • James is also a leading figure within the intellectual movement called Pragmatism. Pragmatism is an argument that every idea needs to be proven by evidence, and that real knowledge comes directly from evidence, facts and the sense.
  • What do you suppose Pragmatists thought about religion?

What is happening in this religious event?

A clip from the The Divine Horsemen: Living Gods of Haiti, a film by Maya Deren et al.


The beginning of ritual welcoming and honoring a lwa named Papa Legba. Pay attention to the man wearing a handkerchief around his head.

A sidebar on research questions

Many people including Deren have conducted research on the topic of Vodou possession in rural Haiti and the people who practice Vodou rites of possession.

What questions do you want to ask about this topic?

Write some down now.

Asking questions

Aristotle had some advice for his students about asking questions:

Not every problem, nor every thesis, should be examined, but only one which might puzzle one of those who need argument, not punishment or perception. For people who are puzzled to know whether one ought to honour the gods and love one’s parents or not need punishment, while those who are puzzled to know whether snow is white or not need perception. The subjects should not border too closely upon the sphere of demonstration, nor yet be too far removed from it; for the former cases admit of no doubt, while the latter involve difficulties too great for the art of the trainer. (Aristotle, Topics, Book I, Part 11)

Take a minute to think about this passage and try to get down the main idea here in your own, more contemporary language.

The three types of questions

Aristotle says there are three types of questions. Let's come up with examples of each kind.

  • Type I: Factual questions
  • Type II: Belief questions
  • Type III: Research questions, or why questions

Do I know what rhetorical means?? Do I know what rhetorical means!??

A question someone might want to ask is this:

How does Vodou possession help people to resist cultural domination?

Another one could be:

How does Vodou help people adapt to the modernization of Haiti?

Are these questions “research questions”?

There are many varieties of religious experience

  • Healthy-mindedness: You feel as though part of you is good, and through your own actions and behavior you can cultivate goodness in yourself and the world.
  • The sick soul. You see the world as a war between Good and Evil. Everyone, including yourself, need to be saved from inherent evils.
  • Conversion. You feel incomplete and imperfect, and so feel like you need to seek change.
  • Mysticism. You feel like you have an intuitive knowledge about the world from experience. You have a wisdom which you feel, but cannot put into words.

God is real

“God is real because he produces real effects” (1985 [1902]: 517).

The origins of Pentecostalism

The Asuza Street Revival, led by William Seymour, 1906-1909:

Men and women would shout, weep, dance, fall into trances, speak and sing in tongues, and interpret their messages into English. In true Quaker fashion, anyone who felt "moved by the Spirit" would preach or sing. There was no robed choir, no hymnals, no order of services, but there was an abundance of religious enthusiasm. (Synan 1997: 98)

How Pentecostalism differs from other holiness churches

  • The receipt of Pentecost, or a baptism of the Spirit.
  • Very loose organization, and very egalitarian. Anyone can preach or minister.
  • Many small churches, often completely independent, communicating through various media.
  • Use of mass media, including films, radio and television, from very early on.

The global movement of Pentecostalism

  • Spreads through grass-roots networks.
  • Paradoxically both world-making and world-breaking (Robbins 2004).


James, William. 1984. William James, The Essential Writings. Bruce Wilshire, ed. Albany: SUNY Press.

James, William. 1985 [1902]. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Robbins, Joel. 2004. “The Globalization of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33: 117–43.

Synan, Vinson. 1997. The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition: Charismatic Movements in the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

A guide to the unit

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