Cultivating the inner senses

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Paul Stoller. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.016


Cultivating the inner senses

Paul STOLLER, West Chester University

Comment on LUHRMANN, Tanya. 2012. When God talks back: Understanding the American Evangelical relationship with God. New York: Alfred E. Knopf.

In 1988 I traveled to the town of Tillaberi in the Republic of Niger, West Africa to attend the funeral of my teacher, Adamu Jenitongo, a sorcerer of great repute. During an apprenticeship that spanned seventeen years, he challenged me to tune my senses to the spirit world. It was a difficult challenge. In the black of night, I would often awake to watch him converse with his ancestors—all great sorcerers in their time. I could clearly hear his voice, but did not have the capacity to hear those of his forbearers.

At the time I knew that no one could ever replace my teacher but I did want to continue my education in Songhay sorcery. Several days after the funeral, I went to Niamey, Niger’s capital city, to seek out the master herbalist, Soumana Yacouba. I wanted to become his student. I had known Soumana Yacouba for ten years. During that time, we would spend many days sitting behind a mat at one of Niamey’s main markets. Each day he would display his medicinal plants on the mats, and between client consultations we would talk about herbal medicine. In time we developed a rapport but never established the kind of master-apprentice relationship I had shared with Adamu Jenitongo. When I asked to become his student, he didn’t give me an immediate answer.

“Come to my house. My wife will feed us lunch and then we’ll see what happens.”

We took a taxi to what was then the outskirts of Niamey and walked to a dusty compound of three grass huts encircled by a three-foot fence fashioned from dried millet stalks. We slipped into Soumana’s hut and sat on palm frond mats. His wife brought us a bowl of rice smothered with a chunky meat sauce, which we ate with gusto. After the meal Soumana looked at me.

“So you want to study with me?” he asked.

I nodded.

“It’s not my decision.”

I stared at him in confused silence.

“Because I am a do (master Niger River waters and plants) I must ask the ancestors if they accept you.”

He then engaged in a ten minute give-and-take with his ancestors. He described my history with Adamu Jenitongo and said positive things about my trustworthiness. I, of course, could not hear the voices of his ancestors, who, after some cajoling from Soumana, gave their consent.

“They like you,” Soumana told me. “They think I should teach you about plants and about the river.”

“But,” I said, “I couldn’t hear their voices, couldn’t hear what they said.

“Of course not,” Soumana said with a broad smile on his face. “You need to learn how to listen before you can hear the voices of the ancestors.”


Uttered in a dusty straw hut in 1988, Soumana Yacouba’s comment underscores a major premise in Tanya Luhrmann’s wonderful new book, When God talks back. How can a person, she wonders again and again throughout the pages of her illuminating text, claim to hear the voice of God? How could Soumana Yacouba or, for that matter, Adamu Jenitongo claim to have conversations with ancestors?

From a strictly positivist standpoint—an orientation, I should add, that gives most scholars great comfort—such claims are irrational, if not impossible. And yet such “impossibility,” as Luhrmann ably demonstrates through careful and sensitive ethnographic description, fires our imagination, triggers our creativity, and demonstrates the psychological rewards of learning how to hear, see, and feel the world. Put another way, Luhrmann’s new book—at least for me—is about how our senses and sensibilities play a major role in the ongoing development of wellbeing-in-the world. At the end of When God talks back, Luhrmann writes:

In the end this is the story of the uncertainty of our senses, and the complexity of our minds and the world. There is so little we know, so much we take on trust. In a way more fundamental than we dare to appreciate, we each must make our own judgments about what is truly real, and there are no guarantees, for what is, is always cloaked in mystery. On the edge of night, when you can hear the surf crash against the distant shore, and see a white horse upon a silver hill, you reach to touch it, and it is gone. (2012: 325)

As Luhrmann ably demonstrates, the world is filled with sometimes frightening impermanence. We see a beautiful image and it disappears. We seek peak experiences but find them fleeting. We endlessly pursue psychological and physical wellbeing and find much gratification when our being flows smoothly into a worldly stream. Those moments, which are few and far between, bring us such pleasure that we spend no small amount of time and effort in their pursuit—again and again (see Jackson 2011; Stoller 2014).

Seeking this transitory sense of existential wellbeing, millions of Evangelical Christians spend years developing their senses to hear, see, and feel the world. This pattern of “cultivating an inner sense,” as Luhrmann points out, has wide application (2012: 185). Such cultivation holds for Sufi mystics who follow a strict regimen of prayer and practice in the expectation that one of them might one day walk on water (see Shah 1970). In a similar manner, Songhay sorcerers devote years of study and sacrifice so that they might be able to know the spirits and listen to the ancestors. Like the Sufi mystics and Songhay sorcerers, the Evangelical Christians presented in When God talks back dedicate much of their time to a program of prayer and practice that might empower them to eventually hear the voice of God. Considered from a cross-cultural perspective, adepts of many religious persuasions attempt to develop their inner senses in search of short-lived ecstatic moments that profoundly enrich the meaning of their lives. Those moments, in turn, produce a sense of wellbeing.

Anthropologists have usually paid little attention to how people cultivate their inner senses. When it comes to religion most anthropologists have focused much of their attention on ritual practices, the power of ritual symbols, and the twisted relations of sacred and profane (see Turner 1967, 1969; and Geertz 1973, among many others). If subjects claim to have heard the voice of God or to have conversed with ancestors, the ontological veracity of their beliefs have usually been dismissed and filed away into the hermetically sealed category of irrational belief. Although there is no shortage of works in the anthropology of religion, the studies that might remain “open to the world” are those that confront the issue of belief (see Evans-Prichard 1937; Wilson 1970; Luhrmann 1989). What is really real? Like E. E. Evans-Pritchard in his classic Witchcraft, oracles and magic among the Azande, Luhrmann’s latest book focuses squarely on the nature of belief. Going beyond Evans-Pritchard, she considers a more important question: what are the cognitive and psychological mechanisms that transform the impossible—hearing the voice of God—into the possible? (See Kripal 2010; Stoller n.d.) How does the impossibly possible reconfigure the world for Christians, for Sufi mystics, for Songhay sorcerers, and for anthropologists?

Like most issues in the study of religious beliefs, these questions have no concrete, reliable, and verifiable answers. But if we open our being to them, we expand our imagination and extend our consciousness. Such expansion and extension brings the rare gift of wisdom, which, in the end, provides a profound sense of wellbeing.


Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1937. Witchcraft, oracles and maggic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Jackson, Michael D. 2011. Life within limits: Wellbeing in a world of want. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Kripal, Jeffery. 2010 Authors of the impossible: The paranormal and the sacred. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. 1989. Persuasions of the witch’s craft. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

———. 2012. When God talks back: Understanding the American Evangelical relationship with God. New York: Vintage.

Shah, Idris. 1970. Tales of the dervishes. New York: Dutton.

Stoller, Paul. 2014. Yaya’s story: The quest for wellbeing in the World: Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. n.d. “Between sorcery and anthropology.” Paper presented at the symposium, “Anthropology and the Paranormal.” Esalen Institute, Big Sur, CA. October 13–18, 2013.

Turner, Victor. 1967. The forest of symbols: Aspects of Ndembu ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

———. 1969. The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Wilson, Bryan, ed. 1970. Rationality. Oxford: Blackwell.



Paul Stoller
Department of Anthropology-Sociology
West Chester University
West Chester, PA 19383, USA