Is religion easy or hard? In How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others, sociologist T.M. Luhrmann answers “hard” with a really compelling reason: real religion involves believing in beings that I can neither see nor sense in the typical way, and it isn’t easy to maintain that sense that there are invisible spirits or gods or angels that care about me or all people. (In our society, it can be hard enough to believe that visible people care.)
How does religion, which depends on this belief, make the hard work easier?
… prayer and ritual and worship help people to shift from knowing in the abstract that the invisible other is real to feeling that gods and spirits are present in the moment, aware and willing to respond. I will call this “real-making,” and I think that the satisfactions of its process explain—in part—why faiths endure.
And what is real-making? Luhrmann explains:
By “real-making,” I mean that the task for a person of faith is to believe not just that gods and spirits are there in some abstract way, like dark energy, but that these gods and spirits matter in the here and now. I mean not just that you know that they are real, the way you know that the floor is real (or would, if you paused to think about it), but that they feel real the way your mother’s love feels real. I mean that people of faith come to feel inwardly and intimately that gods or spirits are involved with them. For humans to sustain their involvement with entities who are invisible and matter in a good way to their lives, I suggest that a god must be made real again and again against the evident features of an obdurate world. Humans must somehow be brought to a point from which the altar becomes more than gilded wood, so that the icon’s eyes look back at them, ablaze… I call these acts of real-making “kindling,” because they are small events, like the twigs and tinder from which a great fire can be lit, that shape where and how the fire burns.
This seems right. When I think of all the answers to “Why is prayer important” or “Why should I read my scriptures” or “Why should I go to the temple a lot,” people often say, “This is how God speaks to you.” But I think the fascinating flip-side to that is, it can help me feel like there’s a God to speak to me. Especially in this world, I think it’s helpful to remember that feeling this invisible presence in concrete ways is hard. But prayer, scripture, the temple—not to mention song, other priesthood ordinances, gathering in church, and sacred time like the Sabbath—these are the small acts, the hard work, the kindling, that helps make the invisible divine presences real to me. They’re the tools that God has given me, in a world where he is bound by certain “rules of engagement” that require him to remain regularly invisible to the natural senses.
And knowing that He is in fact my Heavenly Father, I can’t help but think that he cherishes these real-making moments. He wants to feel real to us; but we must receive these gifts of worship from him, so He can. And when we do, I imagine it makes him incredibly happy.
I’m not great at this. My habits of prayer have been lacking lately, and aren’t as consistent as they should be. But the idea of “real-making” has given me strength when I’m tempted to skip an opportunity for prayer.