Talking with God, from Ghana to California

February 21, 2014
Talking with God, from Ghana to California
T.M. Luhrmann delivers the 2014 William James Lecture. Photo: Jonathan Beasley

by Jahnabi Barooah

Americans in new, charismatic evangelical churches need to work harder than Ghanaians in theologically similar settings to make God real. This is the provocative thesis that Tanya Marie Luhrmann put forward at Harvard Divinity School's annual William James Lecture on February 13.

A noted anthropologist of religions and author, most recently, of The New York Times bestseller and critically acclaimed book When God Talks Back (Vintage 2012), Luhrmann is the Watkins University Professor at Stanford University.

Her previous books include Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (Harvard 1989), The Good Parsi (Harvard 1996), and Of Two Minds (Knopf 2000).

Luhrmann has spent years in various Pentecostal congregations around the world trying to understand how the experience of God becomes real. 'Reading The Varieties [of Religious Experience], you would be tempted to think there is something acultural about religious experience,' she stated.

On the contrary, her research suggests that there is something much more complicated—the perception of the mind, emotions, and imagination in different cultures—that influences how people experience God in different cultural settings.

'There is something like the 'Western mind.' The Western self is imagined as being different. We like to see ourselves as unique…and that has consequences for the way we think about our mind,' remarked Luhrmann. 'Euro-Americans not only experience a private mind, but [also] are proud of their private mind. We treat imagination as something that is false, that is not reflective of the world as it is.'

On the other hand, in Ghana, 'the mind seems to be imagined as something interwoven with the material…and the supernatural.' Moreover, imagination in Ghana seemed much more 'pragmatic,' she noted.


A community's self-understanding of the mind is pivotal in explaining religious experiences.

'Many of the tasks of religion are mental. If you're going to know that an invisible God is real, you have to be able to treat the inner monologue or dialogue with God as more than merely imaginary,' she explained.

Charismatic Christians in both Accra, Ghana, and Palo Alto, California, presented God as their best friend, as a figure they spoke with and one who talked back to them, Luhrmann reported. Yet, in Accra, the conversation with God, seemed 'less playful,' and 'God seemed more distant and less person-like,' she added. Americans are more likely to imagine themselves on a date with God, whereas Ghanaians are more likely to pray for pragmatic needs.

On the flip side, 'it seemed hard for my Americans to really come to accept that God was speaking back to them in their minds,' Luhrmann said. On the contrary, 'it's pretty clear from a bunch of different sets of data that hallucinations—the audible experience of God—is more common in the Accra setting.'

Luhrmann stated that these differences reflect different understandings of the mind. 'This [report from Ghana] makes a lot more sense in a world where feelings matter less, and thoughts, imaginations, are more real.'

Given that God is invisible, how do people become confident that God is real? Over a century ago, William James, renowned American pragmatist philosopher, had an answer to this question. He called it the 'more.'

In his influential work The Varieties of Religious Experience, he posits, 'The 'more,' as we called it, and the meaning of our 'union' with it, form the nucleus of our inquiry. Into what definition description can these words be translated...? It would never do for us to place ourselves offhand at the position of a particular theology, the Christian theology, for example, and proceed immediately to define the 'more' as Jehovah, and the 'union' as his imputation to us of the righteousness of Christ. That would be unfair to other religions, and, from our present standpoint at least, would be an over-belief.'

In addition to delivering the William James Lecture at HDS, Luhrmann gave a talk sponsored by Harvard Medical School on February 11 on why prayer may help in the healing process.

The William James Lectures were established in 1930 through a bequest of Harvard alumnus Edgar Pierce, PhD 1895, to honor William James. Clifford Geertz, Charles Taylor, Cornel West, and Hillary Putnam are among distinguished speakers invited in the past.