I’m halfway through T.M. Luhrmann’s book When God Talks Back, and I’m loving it. Reading this book is like revisiting my early spiritual development through the fresh, curious eyes of a newbie.
Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist (and not a Christian), spent four years trying to understand how God becomes personal and real for so many American Evangelicals. She became a regular at a Vineyard church, interviewed her fellow church-goers, read Evangelical bestsellers, and learned how to pray. Luhrmann’s book, When God Talks Back, shares what she learned. It’s an outsider’s perspective on the inside of Evangelicalism.
The easy part is eating up When God Talks Back. The hard part is knowing what to do with it.
For example, Luhrmann compares the God of Evangelicalism to an imaginary friend. Like a child’s imaginary friend, the God of Evangelicalism is always loving and never mean, a buddy always available to chat. He follows you around your everyday life, unseen to everyone else.
In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins also compares God to an imaginary friend. He takes this comparison as more evidence that God is a fairy tale. When kids claim to experience invisible beings, we don’t take them too seriously. Why would religious experiences be any different?
Is Dawkins right to take the “imaginary friend” comparison in that direction? Luhrmann refuses to discuss whether God really exists or not, so I’m left to ponder these questions without her help.
Or take this example: Luhrmann points out that Evangelical Christianity functions a lot like psychotherapy. Both approaches help people improve their emotional health by focusing on the “good voices” in their heads (God’s voice?) and ignoring their destructive, condemning internal critics. Is experiential Christianity just a spiritualized way of improving emotional stability with natural psychological principles?
Most importantly, Luhrmann reports that Evangelicals have a hard time experiencing God as real, unconditionally loving, and person-like.
In order to make God feel real, they deliberately employ their imaginations. They read the Bible as if God wrote each verse specifically for them; they interpret outside coincidences throughout their day as if they were caused by divine intervention; they learn to treat some of their own passing thoughts as if they were God’s own voice. In time, God begins to feel external, loving, and present.
But even then, these Christians know that they might be misinterpreting Scripture, random events, and thoughts. As one churchgoer told Luhrmann, “Sometimes when we think it’s the spirit moving, it’s just our burrito from lunch.”
What on earth am I supposed to do with that?!
If it takes so much imagination to experience God, how do we know that these experiences aren’t entirely made up by our imaginations? Evangelical spirituality seems so forced. Shouldn’t that make the experience less reliable?
Even committed Evangelicals have a tough time experiencing God as real- is that evidence that “God” is an irrelevant, nonsensical idea for honest thinkers today?
Luhrmann demonstrates that it is quite possible for people to make God feel real, personal, and external to themselves without special supernatural intervention in the brain. Does that make spiritual experiences more or less credible?
Should I be content that it’s possible to make God real and present? Should I give up on trying to think about God and instead focus on making and keeping God “real” in my experience? (Science Mike takes this sort of approach, as I’ve written before.)
At this point, I have no idea what to think. All I know is that When God Talks Back raises some really good questions.