Dumbing Down Religion?

T.M. Luhrman, the Stanford anthropologist, recently published essays sympathetic to the religious practice of “speaking in tongues” and to American evangelicals’ penchant for portraying a “personal, intimate God.” Leon Wieseltier responds with a withering critique, describing Luhrman as “peddling another intellectual argument for anti-intellectualism, another glorification of emotion in a culture enslaved to emotion”:

Luhrmann not only studies tongues, she also endorses tongues: “Speaking in tongues might actually be a more effective way to pray than speaking in ordinary language.” The difficulty is that God cannot be adequately captured in language. Religious thinkers since Philo have been wrestling with the incomprehensibility of any concept of the deity that appropriately honors its sublimity. Luhrmann proposes that we give up and babble. “As a technique,” she explains, “tongues capture the attention but focus it on something meaningless (but understood by the speaker to be divine).” Myself, I would rather my nonsense not be sacred and my sacred not be nonsense. “There’s plenty here to alarm secular liberals,” she writes, invoking the stereotype that is designed to embarrass all skepticism. Actually, there’s plenty here to alarm religious conservatives, too.

Many of the world’s great religious traditions have consecrated themselves to the ideal of spiritual articulateness, and to the discovery of valid propositional content for the substance of faith. All this, for Luhrmann, is only “abstract and intellectual,” when it is merely the natural activity of thinking creatures who seek.

“The role of belief in religion is greatly overstated,” Luhrmann declares, “as anthropologists have long known.” Who gave anthropology the last word? This is like saying that the role of beauty in art is greatly overstated because there is so much ugliness in art. My fellow Americans, there are questions that do not allow of empirical answers! I leave aside the place of ideas in the evangelicism that Luhrmann adores. Are we really suffering from a surfeit of thoughtful belief? Have we been neglecting our felicity? “Secular liberalism,” with its demand for the justification of metaphysical opinions, has more to offer religion than the immediate gratifications of a credulous joyriding.

Luhrmann responds by defending the deeper spiritual meaning of “speaking in tongues”:

Wieseltier himself writes chidingly that “God cannot accurately be captured in language.” That is the point. When those who use a sacred language whose words they do not understand—speaking in tongues, but also chanting or reciting prayers in Hebrew, Arabic or Avestan—those words connect them to a God beyond understanding, a God for whom their words fall short. Many of those who pray in tongues prefer to say that they are “praying in the spirit.” One woman in the American evangelical church I studied told me that when she prayed in the spirit, she felt that she joined an angelic chorus that, most of the time, she could not hear. A woman in Ghana explained that she preferred to pray in tongues because those words had not been sullied by ordinary humans. “I am not communicating with any man.” Praying in this way reminds people that the God they reach for is sacred.

Now, to be honest, did I—raised Unitarian in an orthodox Jewish neighborhood—once think that speaking in tongues was pretty odd? Of course. I grew up moved by the sound of ancient language, but when I first encountered tongues, it seemed like babble. Yet I also think that some of the things I do for my own well-being—running hamster-like on a treadmill while watching figure skating reruns—look pretty peculiar to others, too. That’s the anthropological point. We’re all pretty odd to each other, and at its heart, life is mystery.