The Psychology of Spiritual Experience

“How does God become real to people when God is understood to be invisible and immaterial, as God is within the Christian tradition?” So begins one of several fascinating scholarly articles regarding the psychology of spiritual experience by a Stanford anthropologist by the name of Tanya Luhrmann.

Many of Luhrmann’s ideas about this question come from her ethnographic study of a Vineyard church in Chicago in which she involved herself in two years of Sunday morning services, a weekly Bible study housegroup, conferences, retreats, and casual conversations. Importantly, Luhrmann notes that individuals she observed in her research seemed to differ in their ability to “experience God.” For instance, members of the congregation acknowledged that:

“. . . each person would experience God in their own way and develop their own pattern of learning to recognize him: some through warm tingling; others through goose bumps; others still through images or impressions or scriptural phrases.”

Yet, others in Luhrmann’s research noted that they had a difficult time with spiritual experience. One person commented that “I don’t have these supernatural experiences that make me fall to my knees.”

Why do some seem more able to experience God than others?

Referencing the Nobel-award winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, Luhrmann suggests that there are two dominant modes of reasoning that individuals regularly use. One mode emphasizes reflective and deliberative thought. Those who rely on this mode often (thought not necessarily) may have a more difficult time with religion and spirituality, in general. The second mode emphasizes intuitive reasoning. This appears to be the primary kind of thinking involved in religious and spiritual experience.

Luhrmann believes that spiritual experience, to some extent, depends upon learning. Congregations that promote spiritual experience basically “teach” them to do so. For instance, individuals must learn to interpret ambiguous events in a spiritual way, using suitable language. In Luhrmann’s research, congregants were asked how they distinguished thoughts and images that came from God from those that came from themselves. Luhrmann reports common “tests:” “the thought or image was different from what they were thinking about; the thought or image was in keeping with God’s character; the interpretation ‘this is God’ could be confirmed in some other way; and the experience brought peace.”

A key psychological factor that Luhrmann identifies in spiritual experience concerns the trait of “absorption.” My former Professor at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Auke Tellegen, identified this trait as a key factor that helped to explain who is most easily hypnotized.

Similar to Kahneman’s ideas about different kind of reasoning, Tellegen believes that individuals are more or less prone to an “instrumental set” and an “experiential set.” The trait of absorption is conceived by Tellegen to be the proclivity to enter into an experiential set. Later researchers at the University of Alberta believe that the trait of absorption involves the motivation to seek experiences (rather than instrumental activities) and the cognitive processes to encounter them in a particular way.

Specifically, Tellegen believes that people high in the trait of absorption are responsive to evocative sights and sounds (such as sunsets), readily captured by entrancing stimuli (such as overpowering music), tend to think in images, have “cross-modal” experiences (such as synesthesia when, for example, sounds evoke images), are capable of compelling imaginations, can vividly re-experience the past, become deeply immersed in their own thoughts, and experience episodes of expanded and altered awareness. In his original 1974 article in which he introduced the idea, he notes that this trait has been “. . . described and discussed widely in literature on meditation, expanded awareness, peak experiences, mysticism, esthetic experience, regression in the service of the ego, altered states of consciousness, and in the literature on drug effects.” He also notes that “one would expect high-absorption persons to have an affinity for mystical experience.”

And, in fact, this is exactly what Lurhmann finds in her research, as absorption is correlated with sharper mental images, greater focus, and more unusual spiritual experiences. Other research finds that absorption is linked with religion pursued for its own sake, but not religion pursued for secondary reasons. Although absorption has a clear genetic component, Luhrmann also believes it can be cultivated. She writes that:

“. . . the skills of meditation and visualization – which are attentional skills to train absorption – have been taught throughout history and across culture. . . they are learnable skills. . . mastery of those skills is associated with intense spiritual experience.

Examples of these kinds of practices within the Christian tradition include St. Ignatious of Loyola’s spiritual exercises and Brother Lawrence’s ideas about “practicing the presence of God.”

Perhaps absorption also is a key psychological precursor to the experience of awe. If true, then maybe awe may be enhanced through spiritual exercises like those mentioned above. Furthermore, I wonder whether individuals could experience more religious awe by learning to connect powerful, but otherwise secular stimuli (such as might be found in nature, art, music, or in the presence of a powerful or virtuous person), with the spiritual. This notion of “sanctification” has been studied by psychology of religion researchers and has been called an important component of “spiritual intelligence” by University of California scientist Bob Emmons.

More broadly, reading some of this material makes me appreciate the unitive function of religion. In some way, intrinsic religiousness, mystical experience, and highly absorbing “flow” experiences all order consciousness and bring unity among the person, the situation, other people, and God.


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