When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God

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9780307277275: When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God

A New York Times Notable Book
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2012

A bold approach to understanding the American evangelical experience from an anthropological and psychological perspective by one of the country's most prominent anthropologists.
 
Through a series of intimate, illuminating interviews with various members of the Vineyard, an evangelical church with hundreds of congregations across the country, Tanya Luhrmann leaps into the heart of evangelical faith. Combined with scientific research that studies the effect that intensely practiced prayer can have on the mind, When God Talks Back examines how normal, sensible people—from college students to accountants to housewives, all functioning perfectly well within our society—can attest to having the signs and wonders of the supernatural become as quotidian and as ordinary as laundry. Astute, sensitive, and extraordinarily measured in its approach to the interface between science and religion, Luhrmann's book is sure to generate as much conversation as it will praise. 

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About the Author:

Tanya Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. She received her education from Harvard and Cambridge universities, and was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003. In 2007, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PREFACE

This book begins with a few simple questions. How does God become real for people? How are sensible people able to believe in an invisible being who has a demonstrable effect on their lives? And how can they sustain that belief in the face of what skeptical observers think must be inevitable disconfirmation? This book answers these questions by taking an outsider’s perspective into the heart of faith through an anthropologi- cal exploration of American evangelical Christianity.

It ought to be difficult to believe in God. God is invisible. You can- not shake God’s hand, look God in the eye, or hear what God says with your ears. God gives none of the ordinary signs of existence. The sacred books are full of impossible contradictions, apparently absurd beliefs— invisible fathers, talking snakes, a dead man who comes to life and flies up to heaven.

And yet of course people do believe in God. According to a Gallup poll, roughly 95 percent of Americans say that they believe in the exis- tence of “God or a higher power,” a percentage that has remained steady since Gallup began polling on the eve of the Second World War. In 2008 the Pew Foundation conducted a quite extensive representative survey. In its sample, two-thirds of Americans completely or mostly agreed that angels and demons are active in the world today, and nearly one-fifth said that they receive a direct answer to a specific prayer request at least once a week.1 Many Americans not only believe in God in some general way but experience God directly and report repeated contact with the supernatural.

People who do not believe in God look at these statistics and conclude that if so many people believe in something for which there is no evidence, something about the belief process must be hardwired and belief must have arisen because it serves some other, more useful end. The new field of evolutionary psychology argues that many of the building blocks of our psyche were formed through a slow evolutionary process to adapt us to a dangerous, unpredictable world. When we hear a noise in the next room, we immediately wonder about an intruder even when we know the door is locked. That’s to our advantage: the cost of worrying when no one is there is nothing compared to the cost of not worrying when someone is. As a result, we are primed to be alert for presence, whether anyone is present or not.

Faced with these findings, some are tempted to argue that the reason people believe in supernatural beings is that our evolved intuitions lead us to overinterpret the presence of intentional agents, and those quick, effortless intuitions are so powerful that they become, in effect, our default interpretation of the world. From this perspective, the idea of God arises out of this evolved tendency to attribute intention to an inani- mate world. Religious belief would then be an accidental by-product of the way our minds have evolved. That, in a nutshell, is what a flood of books on religion argue— Breaking the Spell, Religion Explained, Faces in the Clouds—and those reading them sometimes conclude that anyone with logical training and a good education should be an atheist.

That conclusion is shortsighted. Evolutionary psychology looks only at part of the puzzle. It describes the way our intuitions evolved and explains why claims about invisible agents seem plausible, and why certain ideas about God are found more often in the world than others. But evolutionary psychology does not explain how God remains real for modern doubters. This takes faith, which is often the outcome of great intellectual struggle.

Faith asks people to consider that the evidence of their senses is wrong. In various ways, and in varying degrees, faith asks that people believe that their minds are not always private; that persons are not always vis- ible; that invisible presences should alter their emotions and direct their behavior; that reality is good and justice triumphant. These are fantastic claims, and the fact of their improbability is not lost on those who accept them—particularly in a pluralistic, self-aware society like twenty-first- century America. Many Christians come to their religious commitments slowly, carefully, and deliberatively, as if the attitude they take toward life itself depends upon their judgment. And they doubt. They find it hard to believe in an invisible being—let alone an invisible being who is entirely good and overwhelmingly powerful. Many Christians struggle, at one point or another, with the despair that it all might be a sham.

They have always struggled. In earlier centuries, before atheism became a real cultural possibility, they may have struggled more about the nature of the supernatural than about whether the supernatural existed at all, but they struggled. Augustine agonized. Anselm despaired. The long tra- dition of spiritual literature is full of intense uncertainty about the true nature of a being that can be neither seen nor heard in the ordinary way. And whether or not people ever voice the fear that God himself is an empty fantasy, whether or not they tussle with theology, Christians of all ages have wrestled with the difficulty of believing that God is real for them in particular, for their own lives and every day, as if the promise of joy were true for other people—but not for themselves. That is why one of the oldest stories in the Hebrew Bible has become iconic for the pro- cess of coming to commitment.

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.
When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched
the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled
with the man.Then th eman said,“Let me go,for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man
asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because
you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you
ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

The idea of believers struggling with doubt can be disconcerting to skeptics, who tend to imagine belief as an either-or choice, and who imagine that a good Christian has a straightforward commitment to God’s reality. But when you are willing to take seriously the importance of doubt, you can see it everywhere in Christianity. The Gospels them- selves expect doubt. “Do you still not see or understand?” Christ sadly asks his followers. “Are your hearts hardened?” Jesus was after all executed because people did not believe that he was the son of God, and even the disciples themselves were often painfully confused about who Christ was and what he asked of them. “But they still did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” When a father brings his small boy to Jesus for healing because he is terribly ill, Jesus tells him sternly that he will heal only those who believe. “Lord, I believe,” the father implores him. But then he adds, “Help my unbelief.”

Faith is hard because it is a decision to live as if a set of claims are real, even when one doubts: in the Christian case, that the world is good; that love endures; that you should live your life as if the promise of joy were at least a possibility. These are not intellectual judgments on the same order as deciding how many apples you should buy at the market. They are ways of experiencing life, attitudes we take toward living in the world. The Gospels clearly present the commitment to faith as a choice in the face of the uncertainty of human knowledge. Indeed, most Christians believe quite explicitly that what humans understand about God is obscured by the deep stuff of their humanness, and that their humanness—the way their minds and emotions have adapted to their social world—has shaped their interpretation of the divine. For that matter, so did the early Christians. The men and women who met in small, secret house groups to worship their god believed that the divine was inherently unknowable by human beings, whose human eyes and ears and hands are made to sense a mundane world. They took for granted that what they perceived was profoundly limited. This is the point of Paul’s famous caution, in the stately translation that has echoed down the centuries:

For now we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 
But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now
I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.

We will not see God clearly, Paul says, until we no longer see with human eyes. This is why Kierkegaard could describe the decision to believe as a leap in the dark, as a choice founded not on evidence but on the way we choose to live in the face of inadequate evidence. The fact of human uncertainty about the ultimate, and the stakes of our decision in the face of that uncertainty, are also why one can argue that no one is an adult until he or she has seriously considered the question of God.

Let me be clear: This book does not answer the question of whether God exists, or for that matter the question of whether God is truly present when someone experiences God as present. I am a social scientist, and I do not believe that social science—the study of the social life of humans—can answer those questions. I wrote this book because I think I can explain to nonbelievers how people come to experience God as real.

This is an important story because the rift between believers and non- believers has grown so wide that it can be difficult for one side to respect the other. Since evangelical Christianity emerged as a force in American culture, and especially since the younger George Bush rode a Christian wave into office, nonevangelical observers have been transfixed by the change in the American religious landscape. Many have been horrified by what they take to be naïve and unthinking false beliefs, and alarmed by the nature of this modern God.

It is indeed a striking God, this modern God imagined by so many American evangelicals. Each generation meets God in its own manner. Over the last few decades, this generation of Americans has sought out an intensely personal God, a God who not only cares about your welfare but worries with you about whether to paint the kitchen table. These Americans call themselves evangelical to assert that they are part of the conservative Christian tradition that understands the Bible to be literally or near literally true and that describes the relationship with Jesus as personal, and as being born again. But the feature that most deeply characterizes them is that the God they seek is more personally intimate, and more intimately experienced, than the God most Americans grew up with. These evangelicals have sought out and cultivated concrete expe- riences of God’s realness. They have strained to hear the voice of God speaking outside their heads. They have yearned to feel God clasp their hands and to sense the weight of his hands push against their shoulders. They have wanted the hot presence of the Holy Spirit to brush their cheeks and knock them sideways.

While these longings for God’s realness are not novel in our religious history, what is new is that the experiences and practices we associate with medieval monks or impoverished snake-handlers have now become white, middle-class, and mainstream. Ordinary Americans are now embracing a spirituality that mid-twentieth-century generations had regarded as vulgar, overemotional, or even psychotic. This suspension of disbelief and embrace of the irrational makes skeptics deeply uneasy. But in fact, evangelical Christians are sharply aware of the logical contradictions that nonevangelical observers see so clearly. What enables them to sustain their commitment is a learning process that changes their experience of mind.

This book explains how this new use of the mind allows God to come alive for people. It explains what people learn, how deep the learning goes, and how powerful it is. My goal is to help nonbelievers understand this learning process. This will not turn the skeptic into a believer, but it will help to explain how a reasonable person could choose to become and remain this kind of Christian. Perhaps that will serve as a bridge across the divide, and help us to respect one another.

Let us begin by turning the skeptic’s question on its head. If you could believe in God, why wouldn’t you? There is good evidence that those who believe in a loving God have happier lives. Loneliness is bad for people in many different ways—it diminishes immune function, increases blood pressure, and depresses cognitive function—and we know that people who believe in God are less lonely. We know that God is experienced in the brain as a social relationship. (Put someone in the scanner and ask them about God, and the same region of the brain lights up as when you ask them about a friend.) We know that those who go to church live lon- ger and in greater health.

So why wouldn’t you believe? Particularly in this God. The major shift in American spirituality over the past half century has been toward a God who is not only vividly present but deeply kind. He is no longer the benign but distant sovereign of the old mainstream church; nor is he the harsh tyrant of the Hebrew Bible. He is personal and intimate. This new, modern God is eager for the tiniest details of a worshipper’s life. He welcomes prayers about the nation, of course, but he also wants prayers about what outfit to wear in the morning. He may be grand and mighty, but he is also as closely held and precious as a child’s first puppy. This God loves unconditionally; he forgives freely; he brings joy. Why would one not believe?

But the deep puzzle of faith is not why someone should believe in God. The puzzle is how: how sensible, reasonable people, living in more or less the same evidential world as the skeptic, are able to experience themselves as having good evidence for the presence of a powerful invis- ible being who has a demonstrable effect on their lives and are able to sustain a belief in that presence despite their inevitable doubts.

It is a problem all Christians face, although it is magnified in a secular society in which many people do not take God seriously. The problem for ordinary Christians—often surrounded by other Christians, often hav- ing grown up among good, committed Christians—is how to maintain their belief despite their skepticism: not the puzzle of why we all believe to some extent in the supernatural when we are thinking quickly, auto- matically, superstitiously, but the problem of how to commit to what the Bible says is true in the face of the contradictions they experience in their world. They believe—or want to believe—that the world is fundamen- tally good or was at least created by a fundamentally good power that is still present and responsive. Yet they see around themselves a world of great injustice. They believe, or they think that they should believe, that God loves them—and yet they don’t really experience themselves, in their heart of hearts, as loved and lovable. Or they know that God wants them to love their spouse, but they can’t seem to behave in a loving way. Or they sit down to pray, but they cannot persuade themselves that anyone is listening. Or they believe in God, but wha...

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