Christians all over the world pray to God. At my church we have at least five different prayer ministries. Seeking God is a normative part of the Christian experience. But what about hearing a response from God? T.M. Luhrmann asks about the Divine response to humans in her multi-year anthropological study of the Vineyard Church in When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Luhrmann’s text could be a modern counter study to Erdozain’s The Soul of Doubt, as it focuses on the factors causing belief for the believer in the midst of a doubting world.
Luhrmann writes as one who has experienced believers of many different faiths and degrees alongside nonbelievers throughout her life. As a psychological anthropologist she intends to explain to those nonbelievers “how people come to experience God as real.” Luhrmann’s book is an academic work, not aiming to convert nonbelievers but rather to display the reasonableness of those who choose the Christian faith, particularly those who claim to hear from God.
I appreciated Luhrmann’s work as I live in a post-Christian part of the US that has been challenging at times. This is true not simply because it is lonely and people look at you funny when mentioning going to church, but because the gap between belief and unbelief seems wide enough that comprehension of the other side seems impossible. To hear Luhrmann speak from the inside of faith is almost like a missionary in reverse. Missionaries move into a location, learn the language and culture and adapt themselves while sharing their beliefs in culturally appropriate ways. Luhrmann has gone into the church as a student of the language and culture, and while not fully sharing in those beliefs, is able to communicate to outsiders, as well as insiders, what is happening in a technical way that can be scientifically understood.
In particular, I never conceived of Christianity in the psychological way that Luhrmann notes around belief: “to become a committed Christian one must learn to override three basic features of human psychology: that minds are private, that persons are visible, and that love is conditional and contingent upon right behavior.” She recognizes the real practice and skills required to know God in intimate ways and hear from the Divine that are completely foreign to those who do not practice Christian faith.
One aspect of Luhrmann’s work that seems a bit sterile is the reality of mystery in faith. While Christians do hope to be very certain in belief, and perhaps those Vineyard groups were, there is also a real tension in holding mystery as well. A theology that does not allow God to be beyond human comprehension, is a small faith and one that ceases to be transcendent of oneself. Luhrmann acknowledges at the end of the end of the book that “what is, is cloaked in mystery.” Mysteries such as the trinity and the eucharist are ways believers recognize God as both transcendent and immanent. These mysteries are foundational practices for many Christians, providing means for connection to God, while not extending beyond the truth of the Scripture.
Another aspect of the research on evangelicals that was glaring is the consumer nature of both believers and doubters. As much as Christianity has personal reception, the idea of loving one’s neighbor seems less important than gaining the red corvette or even being able to hear from God. The overarching reality of Scripture seems to focus much more on staying in alignment with the command to love God with all of oneself and loving neighbor before hearing God on specific requests. While the Bible clearly invites humans to ask, seek and knock, abiding in the character and practice of God is more expected than audible voices. This is not to say that Christians ought not to hear from God. Unfortinately, the emphasis on personal knowing and getting seem to undermine caring for God and others much of the time. As Taylor admits in A Secular Age, this is at least in part why the world does not understand the belief of believers. The historical and supernatural figure in Christ is less emulated and more used as a token for feel good religion than obedience and service in the world.
As Dallas Willard wrote in his excellent text, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, “it is very important to remember and to always keep before your mind this fact: You are an unceasing spiritual being, created for an intimate and transforming friendship with the creative Community that is the Trinity. Learning to hear God is much more about becoming comfortable in a continuing conversation, and learning to constantly lean on the goodness and love of God, than it is about turning God into an ATM for advice, or treating the Bible as a crystal ball.” Seeking God for our own well-being or future is not seeking for God or abiding in Him as co-laborers. The fruit of an ongoing relationship with God is to see the kingdom of God flourish. This includes healing and salvation, and maybe a car. But maybe not.
Reading When God Talks Back in the wake of being at a gathering of pastors, priests, nuns and university faculty and staff this week, primarily from Catholic and mainline denominations, I see the need of the church to come together to glean from one another. The Pentecostals have beautiful ways in which they hear God while the Catholic church and mainline groups hold the embodiment of Christ in mystical ways that are needed for evangelicals. The collaboration around the consumption of Christ could be a much richer form for nonbelievers to accept than they are currently receiving. That is, if they are willing to jump through the psychological hoops that may cause one to go mad if not grounded in the practices of spirituality.
 Luhrmann, T.M.. When God Talks Back . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, Location 131.
 Luhrmann, location 266.
 Luhrmann, 325.
 Willard, Dallas (2012-05-23T23:58:59). Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God . InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.