Does God Really Talk to People?
By Alyce Gilligan
June 7, 2012
Face it. We’ve all been there. Every Christian has wondered if that was really the voice of God they heard. If they just made it up. If they just heard what they wanted to hear. If those vivid dreams were merely the product of all that spicy food the night before.
T.M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist trained in psychology and the author of Of Two Minds, had the same questions. But as an outsider to the evangelical tradition, she couldn’t help but wonder: How is it that otherwise rational and logical people are convinced they hear from an invisible being—in the face of profound and vast evidence to the contrary?
Luhrmann took her research into the field. She attended services and various small group meetings at a local Vineyard church. She interviewed evangelicals, sat through prayer vigils, watched people do bizarre things in attempts to communicate with God and walked away with a profound sense of mystery and awe in people’s experience of the divine. She documented her experiences and findings in the recently released book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.
Recently, Luhrmann talked to RELEVANT about her experiences, what she found out about prayer and whether or not people are truly hearing the voice of God.
What drew you to this topic?
Well, I grew up as kind of a spiritual mutt—that's the way I describe it. My father's father was a Christian Scientist; my father became a doctor. My mother's father was a Baptist minister, so her sisters and their family became theologically very conservative Christians; my mother became quite a liberal Christian. So I grew up in a Unitarian church. I was in a neighborhood with Orthodox Jews. I would go and turn on and off the lights for a family on the Sabbath. So I grew up with this intense awareness that decent people had very different understandings of alternate reality. I became, from early on, fascinated by the question of how people knew, how they came to be confident that their view of reality was correct.
Do you think there's a point at which Christians overreach with the concept of relational religion?
I actually was quite impressed with the thoughtfulness with which people talked about hearing from God. They were acutely aware they might be wrong, that when you listen for God in your mind, your own stuff gets interlaced with what you take to be God's desires. There was a sense of discerning God's voice, which meant that you were not to take what could be hurtful to other people or to yourself as a word of God. I thought people were pretty sophisticated. There's a pretty measured sense of when people might be fooling themselves.
When people say phrases like "I heard God," what do you think they're trying to express? Do you think they audibly heard this from God or do you think it's just their way of tangibly expressing what they felt?It's mostly the latter. But they're learning this skill, which is to look for the presence of God in the world or in their mind. They often have a tough time identifying God's voice in their mind initially, but over time they feel more confident. What they're doing is kind of training their imagination. People are training their imagination to represent God and represent a conversation with God. They're reshaping who [God] is through what the Scriptures tell them God is, and then they learn to use that representation to pick out thoughts they have that they think might be candidates that could be spoken by such a person. When somebody says God spoke to them, they can mean they felt the Holy Spirit wash over them at a certain moment. They often mean a thought popped into their mind, it seemed different to what they were thinking, it seemed like what a loving God would say, they felt good when they had that thought.
So you say it's a learned skill, this ability to experience God. Have you seen any negative feedback from believers when you say this?
Some people sometimes hear it that way. I think there are two very different interpretations you can make from what I've observed. One would be the skeptical: Oh, this just proves it's in their imagination. The other way of thinking is that if God is always speaking, why do only some people hear? As an anthropologist, I take the view that I can't identify when God really is speaking or not, but I do believe if God speaks, He speaks through the human mind, and I can say something toward the conditions in which people report having this experience. I think the demand of religion is to be able to see that the world you know before you is not all there is of the world, and you need to use your imagination to envision that. So the people who are able to feel comfortable praying need to be able to switch their attention from the grocery list and the crying kid to an awareness of a world that is different from what is in the everyday. The act of prayer is really asking you to use your imagination anyway. To focus inward, away from the distracting world.
In your experience and your time spent researching, what were some of the more bizarre habits you encountered?
Sometimes people got overexcited and they would make claims I thought were a little silly. I was at an event when someone was trying to teach us to hear from God and she held up her keyring and said, "OK, I'm going to tell the Holy Spirit which key I'm thinking of and I want you to ask the Holy Spirit which key it is."
I've struggled a little bit more with demons. I understand theologically why people take the idea of demons seriously—you can't take the Gospel seriously if you don't take demons seriously. Jesus spends a lot of time dealing with demons. But it did worry me sometimes when I saw people get very caught up with the experience of spiritual warfare. Sometimes young women in particular would feel such a heavy burden on their hearts. They would start to pray and pray, and their sense of responsibility would grow and grow, and they'd go to restaurants and sense the evil and they'd pray, or they'd walk down the streets and sense the evil and they'd pray. They started to cry all the time, and it just felt sort of overwhelming to them.
I did know a woman who was persuaded she had demons and then she had an exorcism, and then she was persuaded the exorcism hadn't worked. That kind of put her into the worst position. She'd gone through the exorcism, so she was pretty persuaded the demons were real. But the exorcism didn't work, so she was kind of stuck in a way that was really profound, and that was terribly difficult for her.
Was there anything you truly couldn't explain as far as to how believers connect to God?
I have certainly had experiences which feel like experiences of God. People do have powerful, vivid, life-transforming moments when everything seems to change and they feel as if they've touched the divine directly.
I came to this with a much simpler understanding of God and what belief was like. I knew belief was more complicated than a simple proposition, but I was quite impressed by the complexity of what I would call “the God complex”—the God experience. I was impressed by how thoughtful people were by it. I was impressed by how, when God becomes so intimate, God can also move away from people. I was impressed they can still believe [when] they don't feel His presence.
I can say I think the evidence suggests people who have a strong relationship with a loving God are healthier and more effective. In one of the researches I did, the more someone affirms the sentence "I feel God's love for me directly," the less stressed they are and the less lonely they are. So that's not a cortisol study, but it tells us something.