Characteristics attributed to God often indicate apotheosis—some quality beyond human understanding, beyond worldly constraints. Commonly used terms include supernatural, omnipotent, and incorporeal, to name a few. Four decades ago, it would have seemed absurd to hear God characterized by American evangelical Christians in terms of personhood, with words such as audible, visible, or coffee-drinker. In this interview, psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann describes how God becomes real for certain groups of evangelicals and how practicing prayer through mental imagery can develop sensory awareness of God’s presence. Discussing the fieldwork of her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, Luhrmann explains the experience of God, not as a distant transcendent deity, but as a figure who is entirely present and accessible through an intensely personal relationship.
Through years of fieldwork with members of The Vineyard Movement, a multi-branch American evangelical church, Luhrmann observed congregants in direct contact with their friend, God. Through Vineyard prayer practices, congregants develop what Luhrmann describes as a “new theory of mind” in which even mundane thoughts are interpreted as evidence of God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, xxi). In her RSP interview, she recalls a congregant suggesting that, to understand the experience of the divine in real time, she should treat God as a real person and literally have a cup of coffee with him. For American Christians raised on a more formal association with God, positioning him in such a casual role might seem like a return to the playground days of imaginary friends. However, congregants insist that the sense of God’s presence is not only external but also interactive.
Luhrmann posits this conceptualization of a highly participatory God as a natural development within the context of emerging pluralism in America. As she explains in her interview, it all began with “hippie Christians” of the 1960s (e.g. the “Jesus Freaks”) who wove charismatic traditions of Pentecostal Christianity into their philosophy and practices. Instead of dropping acid to contact a transcendent reality, they brought transcendence down to them, making God a “person among people.” Luhrmann suggests that this form of association with God has staying power, providing a way to keep God not only close in heart, but actually present in life.
Though a popular notion in contemporary charismatic evangelical thought, a personal relationship with God does not always come easily; it often requires a learning process of becoming comfortable with God’s presence. Vineyard churches encourage practicing pretend casual conversations with God. In a sense, congregants become comfortable with God by playing house with him, literally pouring him a cup of coffee and chatting. To reinforce God’s presence, prayer groups occasionally designate someone to stand in for him as a human surrogate. Additionally, members are encouraged to imagine God as a loving therapist who is genuinely interested in their lives and concerns.
So, is this imaginary-yet-real God accessible to anyone? Luhrmann observed that about one-quarter of her interviewees do not experience intense sensations of God’s presence, while others experience God so intensely and frequently that Vineyard members refer to them as “prayer warriors” (Luhrmann 2012, 155). To investigate these apparent differences, Luhrmann used the Tellegen Absorption Scale to evaluate subjects on proclivity for absorption, or tendency for becoming absorbed in their imaginations. Results reflected trends of higher scores relative to higher reports of what Luhrmann describes in the interview as “cool, weird spiritual experiences.” She concludes that sharpened mental representations of God described by congregants correlate with (1) belief in God’s direct presence through sensory experiences, (2) absorption tendencies, and (3) practice of imagining God’s presence.
Seemingly central to Lurhmann’s interest is how some congregants report “mental changes” following prayer practices, as if, through prayer training, their minds learn to sense God (Luhrmann 2012, 190). In her book When God Talks Back, she describes Vineyard groups that convene to improve prayer practices through kataphatic exercises, where congregants imagine themselves observing or participating in a biblical scene while paying close attention to sensory details of the experience. She studied the effects of these absorbing imaginative practices among congregants, finding this type of prayer to be more effective in enhancing vividness of mental imagery than listening to scriptural lectures or apophatic prayer (i.e. centering the mind on a spiritually meaningful word). Like training for a triathlon, regularly practicing absorption in this way strengthens sensory awareness, enabling congregants to “give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events,” thus becoming more receptive to (and conscious of) God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, 221-2).
From an etic perspective, it is difficult to accept claims of regularly and casually encountered religious experiences, especially when the caliber is so amplified as to relate a persistent (very real) presence of God. Yet, ironically, skeptics are not alone in facing the problem of interpreting the intangible; this challenge indeed characterizes the Vineyard experience at its core. As the process of sensing God requires an initially effortful imagination, congregants face the issue of discernment in determining the validity of their experiences. Luhrmann notes in the interview that congregants are often skeptical themselves; some even gossip about others who claim questionable divine requests. Interpreting divine inspiration requires the help of the community, with increasing urgency in cases of greater demands. To determine whether God’s instructions are real or imaginary, congregants employ a loose pattern of heuristics: (1) real God experiences are typically spontaneous and surprising; (2) the experience should realistically coincide with God’s expected behavior; (3) the credibility of an experience is valence-dependent; as Luhrmann suggests in the interview, Vineyard’s “teddy bear of a God” should inspire warm and fuzzy feelings.
Luhrmann makes a significant move by highlighting the interpretive challenge facing Vineyard congregants. She shows believers confronting the issue of maintaining faith in something that cannot be proven by scientific means. They are not shying away from epistemological evidence—they are actively engaged in altering their minds to welcome it in the form of God’s sensed presence. By illuminating the believer’s narrative, Luhrmann clarifies the spiritual experience that frequently halts discourse due to its internalized nature. She must be commended for this contribution to the enormous project of bridging the gap between believers and non-believers. For the sake of religious studies discourse, Luhrmann faces the tyrannical problem of communication head-on, enabling the possibility of respect through understanding.
Luhrmann, T. M. (2012) When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Vintage Books.