While attending services and small group meetings at The Vineyard, an evangelical church with 600 branches across the country, anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann noticed that several members of the congregation said God had repeatedly spoken to them and that they had heard what God wanted them to do.
In When God Talks Back, which is based on an anthropological study she did at The Vineyard, Luhrmann examines the personal relationships people developed with God and explores how those relationships were cemented through the practice of prayer.
"The way I think about it as an anthropologist, I don't have the authority to pronounce on whether God is real or whether God is not real," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I don't feel like I have a horse in that race. I don't feel I have the authority to say whether God showed up to somebody or did not. I do think that if God speaks to someone, God speaks to the human mind. And I can say something about the social, cultural and psychological features of what that person is experiencing."
Poll numbers show that more Americans are experiencing God through personal relationships. The Pew Foundation found that nearly a quarter of Americans are what they call "renewalist" Christians, which means they have an interactive sense of God's presence. Another study cited by Luhrmann found that 26 percent of all Americans say they have been given a direct revelation from God.
"I would go to churches that were not explicitly experientially oriented, and those were churches where people were telling me that I should be having coffee with God," she says. "So I think this style of encountering God has become much more a part of the American experience."
Luhrmann has hypothesized that people going to services and prayer groups at evangelical churches have trained their minds to perceive God's voice. In the prayer classes she attended, she observed people experiencing what she calls a new "theory of mind."
"They learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God that they hear inside their mind," she says. "They're also invited to pretend that God is present. I take that verb from C.S. Lewis — he has a chapter of Mere Christianity entitled 'Let's Pretend.' ... These folks were invited to put out a second cup of coffee for God, they prayed to go for a walk with God, to go on a date with God, to snuggle with God, to imagine that they are sitting on a bench in the park with God's arms around their shoulders and they're talking about their respective days."
These people are using their imaginations to create this conversation, says Luhrmann.
"They're using their own understanding of conversation — their own conversations and friends — and building this daydreamlike exchange, but they're seeking to represent God the way that God is represented in church," she says. "In this kind of church, unconditionally loving, always wise, always responsive, always there — and then they're trying to experience that God as talking back to them and to experience what God says as being really real, and not the creation of their own imaginations."
Understanding What God Says
In these classes, congregants were taught to discern thoughts coming from their imagination with thoughts that were coming directly from God, says Luhrmann.
"What I was fascinated by, was that when people would enter the church, they'd say, 'I don't know what people are talking about. God doesn't talk to me,' " she says. "And then they would try praying in this interactive, free-form imagination-rich kind of way, and after six months, they would start to say that they recognize God's voice the way they recognize their mom's voice on the phone."
Congregants in the prayer classes at The Vineyard are taught that they are unconditionally loved by God. Luhrmann says she saw prayer groups in which a group would pray over someone who felt inadequate in some respect and remind that person that God loved him or her unconditionally.
"People practice experiencing God as a therapist," she says. "They have a sense of God being wise and good and loving, and they talk to God in their minds and talk about their problems, and then they are seeking to experience themselves as seeing it from the perspective of a loving God who then reflects back on their anxieties and interprets them differently."
On Unconditional Love
Luhrmann says she was struck by stories she heard about the moment people concluded that God loved them unconditionally.
"I would be often sitting with people, and at some point in the interview they'd begin to cry, and when they cried, they would talk about the moment when they really got it that God loved them just as they were," she says. "And then it would be gone. It was hard for people to hang onto. And I thought that many people were able to carry around in themselves this sense of being loved."
Members of the church do not use the term "self-help," but they do tell congregants that they will feel happier and more confident if they accept God into their lives, says Luhrmann.
"If you read Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life, it reads from one perspective very much like a cognitive behavioral therapy manual," she says. "He's trying to get you to see yourself from God's perspective. It starts with the statement that you are not an accident. And then, with each chapter, he is asking you to reconsider yourself, not from the perspective of your own limitations or your own failures, but from the sense that you are not properly understanding yourself as seen from the person who created you. And I actually think this really helps people."
This, of course, is a radically different philosophy from churches that preach about the wrath of God and eternal damnation. Lurhmann explains that the experientially oriented churches grew out of the social upheavals of the 1960s.
"Atheism became an allowable life identity, and there were many different ways to be spiritual," she says. "There were many different ways to be in the world, and Christianity then became a buyer's market. People chose if they were going to be Christian and what type of church they would join. And churches like The Vineyard see themselves as trying to offer a God that's quite different from the one who terrified poor James Joyce."
Luhrmann says she noticed that when people in The Vineyard prayer group concentrated on speaking to God, they attended more intensely to their own internal worlds.
"It becomes more alive, it feels more real, and occasionally it almost slipped over the edge of that boundary that separates the inner and outer, and they would hear God speak audibly or they would see something that somebody else wouldn't see," she says. "I don't think that has anything to do with ontology. If there is a God, God is choosing those moments when you have that unusual experience. But the psychological technique of prayer is independent of religion. It is a way of changing the inner experience of the person."
Luhrmann says her experiences working with the people at The Vineyard changed her own ways of looking at God.
"There's this amazing prayer by a Jesuit father that says 'Fall in love with God, stay in love with God, and it will change everything,' " she says. "I don't have this ontological commitment to this God that's kind of out there, but I do have the sense that I'm a little more able to allow myself to experience the good and the aliveness of the world, if that makes any sense."