Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Problem of Presence

Written by: on February 15, 2018

You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it come from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8).

 This is the problem of presence: that the evidence for divinity does not come directly from the senses. It usually comes indirectly, from other, more unreliable, sources.[1]

Tanya Marie Luhrmann was not trying to prove or disprove God when she wrote her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. She was trying to answer the question, “How can sensible, educated people believe in an invisible being who has a real effect on their lives?”

Dr. Luhrmann has pondered the question since her childhood, raised as a Unitarian by parents who both rebelled against their own conservative Baptist and Christian Science upbringings. At holiday time, their living room was uncomfortable during prayer. Some believed that prayer was to God who heard and answered. Others were just being polite. Tanya wondered who was right.

By the time Tanya was an adult, trained as a psychological anthropologist, she had had opportunities to study the “problem of presence” as well as other hard questions, including theodicy, among evangelicals.

Tanya relied on her secular training for most of the answers to these hard questions, but her quest was genuine. She attended two Vineyard churches over a period of many years while conducting her research. She participated in Bible studies, services, small groups and local, regional, and national events. The pastors and the people in the churches knew her motive for being there. Some members of the churches became her friends and confidants. While she said that she would “not presume to know ultimate reality” she came to know God in her own way on this journey. (325) She understood that evangelicals like those in the Vineyard churches do experience God as a being in their individual lives. But what is this experience?

Modern psychotherapists believe that independent beings (intelligences) who are claimed by religious people to inhabit an invisible realm are “projective descriptions of the functioning of the human psyche.”[2] Voices are only in your head and people who hear them are out of touch with reality. Tanya Luhrmann seemed to concur with many rational explanations for the voices that people hear. She said that evidence for divinity comes indirectly, from other, more unreliable, sources. What are “reliable” sources? Her explanations included – evolutionary psychology, which suggests that we inherit a propensity for religious belief in our minds, improving mental imagery using magic or other rituals, and other psychiatric problems including delusions or hallucinations.

Tanya really cares for and admires her Christian friends. She believes that they experience something good, and she demonstrates that the voice that the people in the Vineyard church hear is very different from schizophrenia or hallucinations.

Preferring to call the phenomena of hearing voices by evangelicals as “sensory overrides” she notes the differences between those with schizophrenia and the Vineyard churchgoer. Hallucinations are frequent, extended, and distressing, primarily auditory, and often accompanied by strange delusions not shared by other people. (241) Christians who experience “sensory overrides” are usually in-tact people with good jobs and relationships. Tanya interviewed many people in the church and the result was that the voices they heard were infrequent, brief, and not distressing. The two experiences were very different.

A further question – Why did Christians work so hard to maintain the personal relationship with God that included hearing from Him when they pray?

She found that at the Vineyard church people were taught to recognize God’s voice in the privacy of one’s mind (72), learn to relate to God as a person by pretending (95), and, interpret their feelings as proof that God loves them (111). This kind of “evangelical Christianity solves the problem of presence with specific faith practices.” (132) In other words, since God is not material and cannot really be experienced with the senses, churches like the Vineyard church teach congregants to find God in their minds. I admit I was struggling here to understand what “real” is for Tanya.

At the heart of Tanya Luhrmann’s book is a study of prayer. She said that we cannot understand how God becomes real to someone without understanding that person’s practice of prayer, and above all the way they pray. (156) “The person praying has to learn to use the imagination to experience God as present, and then to treat what has been imagined as more than ‘mere’ imagination. The twofold shift in attention – toward the internal, as the external – is the heart of the skill in prayer.” (159, And note here the “privacy of the mind” and “pretending”.) Some people were more skilled at this than others. They were able to be “absorbed into internal imaginative worlds” (201) and they practiced it daily, sometimes for hours. She admired the way that the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius helped many people.

Tanya believed that she could train people in the skill of prayer so she did an experiment called the Spiritual Disciplines Project. (202) After the project, Tanya believed that she had demonstrated that those who used both kataphatic (guided imagination) and apophatic (centering prayer) conditions had more sensory overrides.

Tanya’s findings really convicted me about my own prayer life. Especially after reading Shelley Trebesch’s book, I believe that a voluntary period of isolation and prayer would be worthwhile.

I’m still not sure that Tanya is “born again” but she did a great job of explaining prayer to those who truly want to understand what evangelical prayer is. It is Tanya’s continual mixing of the material and immaterial worlds that is perplexing for me. She slides right over that as if there is no epistemological problem here.

Tanya also gave a great historical analysis of the faith practices in the United States. Evangelicals have gone from an intellectual acknowledgement of God as proof of salvation (18th century) to a personal relationship with Jesus (especially since the 1960’s). This intensely personal relationship with God is important to her thesis because in it she sees a new emphasis on absorption experiences. Believers long for a God who loves them and speaks to them.

Through her years of study, Tanya discovered joy and the concept of redemption from sin. She learned that love changes you. “It changed me,” she said. “In the end, this is a story of the uncertainty of our senses, and the complexity of our minds and world.” (325) Each has to decide for herself what is real. There will be mystery, or doubts as we also learned earlier from Dominic Erdozain. Doubts don’t disprove God.

It is not clear to me that Tanya Luhrmann believes that the voices people hear come from the “wholly other”. Charles Taylor pointed out that we live in a society that has problems with the transcendent. Is Tanya only looking for answers in this closed universe?

God does not dwell in our five (six?) dimensions. He is transcendent and immanent. God proved that He can break through into our world with the Incarnation. His voice is real, but what should we do about it?

This book helps us to see how others view Christians who claim to hear God’s voice. We need humility as we say that we can’t prove God exists. We can pray that our skeptical friend will soon experience the joy of salvation and even experience the very real “still small voice” of comfort and love that we have experienced.









[1] T. M. Luhrmann. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2012. xviii.

[2] T. Craig, Isaacs. Revelations and Possession: Distinguishing Spiritual From Psychological Experiences. Kearney, Nebraska, 2009. 11.

About the Author

Mary Walker

9 responses to “The Problem of Presence”

  1. Jim Sabella says:

    Mary, enjoyed your post. I find Dr. Luhrmann’s response to her research both refreshing and honest. Through the years it seems that many researchers have approached religious experience with a preconceived negative idea of religious experience and those who practice faith in God. Luhrmann’s approach and response are honest and authentic. In some ways her research gives a door of opportunity to talk about prayer with those who might not believe. Do you think that this book would be a great book for a study on prayer with people who are not “church” people? I’d like to give that a try sometime. Thanks, Mary.

    • Mary says:

      Jim, I agree. It would seem to be “non-threatening” to skeptics. There are plenty of honest searchers out there.
      Imagine if we did that study and we kept the discussion just to Tanya’s information and asked each participant in the study for their thoughts on it. I’m a firm believer in letting the Holy Spirit open the door and then leading us to recognize it.

  2. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Mary, I also wondered if she was born again or believed. Was she inspired or transformed as she studied and participated in Vineyard’s practices? Like you, I was also inspired to pray more. I have already found myself wanting to pray more and practice the monk’s prayer suggestion to pray 20′ 2x per day. It was interesting to read someone’s perspective of Christianity from the outside. Thank you for your insights.

  3. Lynda Gittens says:

    Mary I enjoyed your writing. I agree with your statement.
    “We can pray that our skeptical friend will soon experience the joy of salvation and even experience the very real “still small voice” of comfort and love that we have experienced.”

    It is prevalent that we pray consistently that the church leaders are hearing the voice of God and not moving on their own accord. I found it enlightening that you moved to understand what the Christian faith was about.

  4. Mary,
    Great post, as usual… I loved the cartoon and I did find myself convicted a bit about my own prayer life, too. Not conflicted enough to be talking about isolation, but conflicted none the less.

    You began with the questions that Luhrmann asked – the one, essentially ‘Why do (rationale) people believe in God? She made the comment that ‘it should be hard for people to believe in God’ – and I completely understand what she is saying, and don’t necessarily even disagree, but at the same time, my immediate thought was that ‘I can’t imagine how hard life would be if I didn’t’.

  5. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Mary I always enjoy reading your posts because you do such a great job of including historical facts and weave together other authors into your discussion. Whether or not Dr. Luhrmann is a “born again believer” is not what I truly cared about. I just appreciated the fact that she approached this opportunity not as a skeptic but a seeker.

    • Mary says:

      Christal, I loved the intensity and sincerity of Tanya Luhrmann’s book also. We are expected to evaluate and interact with things we don’t agree with. What a fine example of humility and graciousness for us.

  6. Kristin Hamilton says:

    I appreciate your question about whether or not Luhrmann is “born again,” Mary. In my evangelical-ish state, I am becoming more and more convinced that many people experience this birth and redemption as a long, slow process rather than a significant moment. I wonder if that is where Luhrmann fits.
    You said, “It is Tanya’s continual mixing of the material and immaterial worlds that is perplexing for me. She slides right over that as if there is no epistemological problem here.” I found your statement very intriguing. Can you share more?

    • Mary says:

      Thank you, Kristin. Yes, to #1 – I also believe that people come to God in many different ways and we should put less stress on those “I was a leather-jacketed, chain slinging, Harley rider who saw Jesus on the way to the 7/11.” Anyway, how many years had God been working on the Harley rider before he finally put it all together?
      For query #2 – You probably guessed that I have taken a few philosophy classes. I love philosophical discussions. In our next book, Mark Noll will say that it is one area where evangelicals are shining.
      But, in the end, we can’t prove God. That doesn’t mean He hasn’t given us the beautiful creation around us, or the birth of beings (life from non-life) as miracles to ponder. The question many have is – why do some “see” God in that and others only scientific explanations?
      I wish you lived closer so we could do lunch once in a while and have really HEAVY fun discussions!

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