The idea struck me recently as I was finishing T.M. Luhrmann’s book When God Talks Back. Luhrmann, a non-Christian anthropologist with a focus on psychology, set off to understand how God becomes real for modern, sensible people. She accomplished her goal and then some.
When God Talks Back describes, from an outsider’s perspective, how God works in Evangelical communities. People learn to identify some passing thoughts as the voice of God, and then they enter into dialogue with those thoughts as if they were external. They pray using their imagination, infusing their prayers with the kind of vivid details that our brains associate with external events. They seek God in their minds, in their Bibles, and in their day-to-day circumstances, and it works. When they go looking for God, they find God speaking everywhere.
Until recently, each time I sat down to read Luhrmann’s book, I’d end up asking the question So how do we know that God isn’t just made-up?! Luhrmann doesn’t address those sorts of questions, so I was left to ponder them on my own.
But then it struck me: Maybe I’m asking the wrong question.
To an atheist, the “voice of God” is just an ordinary, passing thought like all the rest. Crazy coincidences are nothing more than coincidences. Even strange visions sometimes occur to atheists, but they typically interpret them as hallucinations produced by the mind and nothing more. The emotional development that occurs in many Evangelical contexts can be obtained through secular psychotherapy.
I think Luhrmann is right. There is no event or experience that is inherently, self-evidently the work of God. We interpret things that way. When we put on “God glasses,” we see God throughout our lives; we associate some thoughts and events with the work of God; we live into the story of God. But with a different set of glasses on, we would not see any God whatsoever. Maybe believing in God has less to do with seeing an additional layer of reality and more to do with seeing everyday reality in a different way.
God is less a being “out there” who, once located, might be added on top of a previously atheistic perspective. God is like a box that we sort certain events, feelings, behaviors, and actions into. And just as our lives affect our interpretation of God, God affects our interpretation of our lives. Believing in God is about learning to live a certain way, a way that works.
This leaves a few crucial questions still unanswered for me: Will God-glasses hopelessly distort modern science? Will they create illusions as I look to the future? Will they hurt my eyes, causing me to tear the glasses off or look away, if I look too far into the suffering of the world? Will they lead me astray, causing me to bump into endless contradictions?
For the record, I think that the typical notion of God is still borderline nonsense and requires serious rethinking. I will continue working towards a concept of God that makes sense to me (and I’ll keep writing about my journey on this site). But in the meantime, I’m beginning to think that ditching my God-glasses or trying to determine if they’re “true” will be unnecessary.
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