Abstract: In this paper we suggest that it is important for the anthropology of Christianity and the anthropology of religion more generally to develop a comparative phenomenology of spiritual experience. Our method is to distinguish between a named phenomenon without fixed mental or bodily events (phenomena that have specific local terms but are recognized by individuals by a broad and almost indiscriminate range of physical events); bodily affordances (events of the body that happen in social settings but are only identified as religious in those social settings when they afford, or make available, an interpretation that makes sense in that setting); and striking anomalous events. We demonstrate that local cultural practices shift the pattern of spiritual experiences, even those such as sleep paralysis and out-of-body experiences that might be imagined in some ways as culture free, but that the more the spiritual experience is constrained by a specific physiology, the more the frequency of the event will be constrained by an individual’s vulnerability to those experiences. We will call this the “cultural kindling” of spiritual experience.
By Nofit Itzhak (University of California, San Diego)
While conducting fieldwork for her dissertation project among contemporary witches in Britain, Tanya Luhrmann woke up one morning to the startling vision of six druids standing against the window of her London apartment. The vision, a kind of temporary blurring of the boundary between the perceptible and the imagined, was the fruit, Luhrmann surmised later on, of visualization exercises aimed at enhancing one’s imaginative capacities, exercises she engaged in alongside her interlocutors, as she tried to understand how modern, rational people came to experience magic as real. In Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (1989), the resulting ethnography, she suggested that it was specifically this kind of imaginative and sensory retraining that allowed her interlocutors to inhabit a world which was at once rational and magical. Luhrmann’s latest ethnography, When God Talks Back, picks up where Persuasions left off, or rather addresses a similar problematic in a different ethnographic context, that of the American Evangelical Vineyard.
Abstract: Belief is important in some religious experiences and not in others. Why? I address the question here through an analysis of belief in two different religious communities in Northern Thailand. In the Northern Thai Buddhist community of Mae Jaeng the Thai term for belief is rarely evoked, while in the nearby Christian community of Mae Min it occurs often. Tying belief to ideas about causation, I argue that the different prominence of belief in the two communities relates to ideas about personal agency. In the Christian community belief creates personal agency through the mediation of an external agentive Other, while in the Buddhist community personal agency is seen to be constructed through natural processes that render belief unnecessary. In making this argument I offer a critique of the ubiquity of belief as part of religious experience, and push for further research on the intersections of belief, agency, and intersubjectivity in psychological anthropology.