James Wood is a Harvard Professor of English, specializing in literary criticism, a practice he regularly engages in reviewing books for the New Yorker. I like his literary work because he seems an advocate of the outdated but still best form of criticism: “New Criticism”, in which works are taken as they are—as aesthetic expressions—not to be dissected with one literary theory of another. Over the years I’ve written about his work now and again, sometimes taking him to task for being critical of New Atheism. And he’s replied to my criticisms on this website, saying, among other things, the following in response to my critique of one of his articles:
Anyone remotely familiar with my writing (I am the author of a novel called “The Book Against God,” for goodness sake) will know that I am an atheist, and proud to call myself one (I grew up in a household both scientific and religious — a rather Victorian combination). [Please see my favorable review of Bart Ehrman’s “God’s Problem” in “The New Yorker.”] Having written often about my atheism, I wanted to do something a little different this time – – i.e. to please neither believers nor non-believers. Clearly, I’ve succeeded! As I made quite clear in the piece, I am on the side of Dawkins and Hitchens if I have to be, but I dislike their tone, their contempt for all religious belief, and their general tendency to treat all religious belief as if it were identical to Christian fundamentalism. Dawkins always sounds as if he wouldn’t mind too much if the European cathedrals were razed. For anyone, like myself, who loves literature and music, so saturated in religious belief and disbelief, one can’t simply dismiss this history it as if it were at the level of astrology or Gypsy Rose Lee.
I’m not sure where Wood stands now on the tone of the New Atheists, but I think he got Dawkins wrong about cathedrals, for Richard has extolled their beauty as well as the loveliness of evensong. I don’t recall him ever saying that cathedrals should be razed, or anything close to that.
As I recall, I met James for coffee in Harvard Square a while back, as I wanted his take on whether he saw literature as a “way of knowing” about the universe and, as I also recall, he wound up agreeing that it wasn’t, though memory fades. . .
At any rate, in a new piece at the New Yorker, Wood seems to have become a little less respectful of faith and a little harder on its delusional nature, evincing a harder atheism than the New Yorker usually allows to appear in its pages.
His topic is a new book by Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist of religion whom we used to meet regularly at this site. My beef with Luhrmann, as it has been with Elaine Ecklund and Krista Tippett, is that, without ever pronouncing on the truthfulness of religious beliefs or tenets, they spend their careers osculating the rump of faith, extolling the virtues of religion while avoiding the delicate topic of whether religious beliefs bear any truth. While that’s ok for sociological or anthropological studies, both Eckland and Luhrmann give little doubt that they really think religion is a good thing, not just an object of study. And, after a while, this kind of soft osculation, without coming to grips with the question of gods, starts to grate on you.
It seems, too, to have started grating on Professor Wood, as his review of Luhmann’s new book, How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others, is pervaded with petulance about her failure to come to grips with the question, “Does God really exist?” And this winds up with Wood making some of the most atheistic remarks I’ve seen in a magazine not known for confronting religion.
As you can tell from Luhrmann’s title, she sees religious worship and prayer, analyzed worldwide, as a way of creating a Creator, or what she calls “real making.” But what is “real”? Wood notes the problem right off the bat:
This comparative framework suits Luhrmann, precisely because she is not interested in the questions that so gripped me when I was young: what or who is God, and how can we know if this God exists? Luhrmann passes over questions of belief in search of questions of practice—the technologies of prayer. She wants to know how worshippers open themselves up to their experiences of God; how they communicate with gods and spirits and in turn hear those gods and spirits reply to them, and she is interested in the kind of therapeutic transformation that such prayerful conversation has on the worshipper. She calls this activity “real-making,” and adds that her new book is not a believer’s or an atheist’s, but an anthropologist’s work. “Rather than presuming that people worship because they believe, we ask instead whether people believe because they worship,” she writes. Thus “the puzzle of religion,” as she defines it, “is not the problem of false belief but the question of how gods and spirits become and remain real to people and what this real-making does for humans.” Whether these questions—of belief and of practice—can be separated quite as staunchly as she wishes is the “puzzle” that surely haunts her own work.
You don’t have to read Wood’s essay more than once to see that he thinks the questions of belief and practice aren’t easy to separate. If you’re praying for something, as Luhrmann has (she’s engaged in prayer and worship along with her subjects), you expect that someone is listening with the power to give it to you. Prayer, to Luhrmann’s subject, is not just a gussied-up form of meditation. It is “real-making”.
I haven’t read Luhrmann’s book, but Wood’s take appears to be that she’s overly coy about the “reality” of a divine being, even though she denies believing in a God with a white beard who sits above, observing us go about our business. But in other places, especially in her previous writings (see my links here), she tacitly accepts the presence of Something Numinous, and avers that her subjects really do think that there’s somebody to worship and pray to.
It’s clear that Luhrmann, like Tippett and Ecklund, think that worship “works,” but there are various ways you can construe that. It can “work” as a psychological device like meditation: by talking to a god, you can feel better and calmer, and, perhaps, arrive at difficult decisions. (One wonders, though, whether a decision is better if reached by consulting an imaginary god than by rational contemplation.) But it’s clear that this isn’t what Luhrman’s subjects think. They use the other two senses of “work”: worship and prayer put you in touch with something divine, and, third, that something divine has the power to affect the workings of the universe. It’s Luhrmann’s avoidance of these second two claims that appears to rile Wood,—as it would rile me. And so we get to read skepticism of a brand that I haven’t before seen in The New Yorker. Here are a few quotes from Wood. Be aware that, like all New Yorker writers, he’s trying to show the delusions of faith without being “shrill.”
Here he discussed the subject of an earlier book of Luhrmann’s, When God Talks Back (get it?), a sociological study of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship:
Luhrmann tells us that no one at the Vineyard laid out any rules of discernment, but that when she asked people how they knew that God was speaking to them they would revert to four “tests.” First, did a suggestion seem spontaneous, unlikely, not the kind of thing you would normally say or imagine? Second, was what you were hearing the kind of thing God might say, and not in contradiction to Biblical example or teaching? (Luhrmann stresses that the Vineyard’s God is not the severe God of the Hebrew Bible—who, for instance, orders Abraham to kill his son—but the loving God of the New Testament.) Third, could the revelation be verified by asking other people who were praying for the same outcome whether they had heard a similar message? Fourth, did hearing God’s voice impart a sense of peace? “If what you heard (or saw) did not, it did not come from God.”
I have a flyer from the Jehovah’s Witnesses that asks “Can We Really Believe What the Bible Says?” and lists three reasons for doing so, the third of which is “God cannot lie. The Bible plainly states: ‘It is impossible for God to lie.’ (Hebrews 6:18).” Below this, a friend of mine has written, in pen, “Q.E.D.” The four tests of the Vineyard are beset by a similar circularity, and, in fairness, it’s not clear how any so-called theological test could escape it. The evangelical relationship to God is so possessive, and so near-idolatrous, that it’s hard to see how one could get outside it and manage the necessary “verification.”
What he’s saying in a nice way is what Jesus and Mo express in four panels of their cartoons: it’s circular to say that that something is true because it’s in Scripture, and that we know that Scripture must be true because it comes from God.
Wood also zeroes in on the problem of evil. Perhaps you can avoid theodicy, as some of Luhrmann’s subjects do, by taking the world as a given, not set up by a God, and then relying on a divine being to help you deal with evil. But that’s a non-starter:
The “question of evil,” the ancient dilemma that has driven people to madness or despair—why is the world beset by tragedy if a providential and loving Author created it?—becomes a much easier therapeutic question: why is my life the way it is, and how can Jesus help me to make it better? Luhrmann neglects to say that the interventionist evangelical God ought to make the believer feel the problem of evil all the more acutely, since a deity mundane enough to have an interest in the outcome of a job interview might also be presumed to have had some role to play during, say, the Holocaust.
That’s a brilliantly understated but trenchant criticism (I love the “”say, the Holocaust” bit). And Luhrmann’s subjects do pray to get certain job interview, so they assume an efficacious god. But Luhrmann evades a direct answer, again resorting to the idea that worship “works”. Wood’s take (the bold is mine):
We aren’t told who or what Luhrmann was praying to. My surmise is that she isn’t sure (a perfectly respectable position), which explains how often her analysis, at the very brink of deciding, as it were, which way to vote, engages in curious slippages of argument. Her major refuge is a kind of therapeutic pragmatism. She’s fond of the verb “work.” Prayer works, belief works, real-making works, she says, in the sense that, as far as these believers are concerned, God is made real; and these prayer practices therapeutically change the people who practice them. But does prayer “work” in the most important sense, of achieving what it proposes—which is to communicate with an actually existing God? Luhrmann won’t be drawn out, committed as she is to a kind of Feuerbachian religious anthropology, in which God is merely the reality we conjure and create through our activities, imaginings, and yearnings.
No, hers is not a perfectly respectable position—not if you think that there is someone listening at the other end, and can effect change in your life. I’m surprised, actually, that Wood, an atheist, thinks that Luhrmann’s failure to be drawn out on the issue is somehow “respectable.” It’s not respectable: Luhrmann is being evasive in failing to specify what she means, deliberately courting liberal believers by refusing to come to grips with the issue of whether there is Someone to Pray To. What, exactly, is “made real” by worship and prayer?
Wood ends his piece, and I’m going to give a long final quote, singling out Luhrmann’s big evasion, one that, I surmise, makes Wood think that her book is deeply flawed. To be sure, he never says that explicitly; in fact, he says that it’s valuable. My emphasis in the quote below:
Yet surely prayer can’t be studied solely as a technology or a practice. Prayer is also a proposition. It proposes that God exists and that we can communicate with that God. And evangelical prayer, premised on faith in an interventionist God, goes further, because it insists on a certain connection to miracle. Luhrmann may distance herself from the table-like reality of God, but her evangelical subjects almost certainly don’t. God, for them, is even more real than a table and chairs, and, when it suits him, this real God can do miraculous things with tables and chairs.
There’s nothing intellectually improper about Luhrmann’s omnivorous agnosticism, to be sure, and only a thoroughly unbalanced reader like this one, with rusty old theological axes to grind, would demand that her writing be other than what it so valuably is. Besides, even when one has decided that God doesn’t exist, one might still hesitate to conclude that religious practice, with its glories and degradations, is just one long unending history of illusion and hallucination. When I was growing up, the evangelical church I attended didn’t offer the only example of how to think about religion. Durham is dominated by a beautiful cathedral, one of the great achievements of Romanesque architecture. I spent long hours inside this magnificent building as a cathedral chorister, and grew to love its gray silence, its massive, calm nave, the weight of centuries of devotion. Sometimes I could almost feel the presence of the faithful stonemasons who, in the twelfth century, arduously placed one stone on top of another.
A friend of mine, with whom, when I was older, I used to have long “God battles” (me against, him for), once teased me with a question: If, as I claimed, religion was just an enormous illusion, was Durham Cathedral “just a mistake”? No, not a mistake—of course not, I replied. “O.K., a great temple, then, erected to honor an illusion? A big stone hoax?” Yes, perhaps. ♦
But there’s surely something intellectually improper about Luhrmann’s omnivorous agnosticism, for it fails to come to grips with fact that the only evidence she or her subjects have for a god is their own feeling that there is a god: in other words, the emotional reassurance you get from your peers, parents, Scripture, and revelation. And that’s not evidence at all, but confirmation bias. Her failure to admit that there’s no evidence beyond that stuff, when there should be evidence if there’s a listening, theistic God, is intellectually improper. Wood’s statement that he himself is “unbalanced”, with “rusty old theological axes to grind” seems to be self-denigrating cant: Wood is an atheist, and he’s an atheist for good reasons—reasons that Luhrmann studiously avoids.
In the end, Wood calling Durham Cathedral “a big stone hoax” puts him adjacent to Dawkins, who calls religion “The God Delusion.” It seems as though the last few years have drawn Wood closer to the message of the New Atheists that he once denigrated. If so, good for him! The New Yorker could use a few more nonbelievers and less osculation of religion. That would be real-making!