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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Counterpoint

Written by: on March 9, 2017

It is as if a secularist, who’s “immanence” world view can’t allow for the possibility of transcendence is trying to figure out how people claim a personal communication with the invisible Being who is transcendent. As such this books stands as a counterpoint to Taylor’s A Secular Age. [1]

When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God presents Tanya M. Luhrmann’s study of “ 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 observes think must be inevitable disconfirmation?” [2]

Whatever Dr. Luhrmann’s personal faith might be (she describes this slightly on the last page of the book), she writes in a fairly even-handed and objective style, with no apparent ax to grind on either side. I will say, however, this book should be read with a vigilance that will make sure we don’t allow our faith to be reduced to a psychological phenomenon.

She also writes, “…the idea of God arises out of this evolved tendency to attribute intention to an inanimate world. Religious belief would then be an accidental by-product of the way our minds have evolved.” [3] If a person is a non-transcendent secularist, there is no choice but to assume this. In a secular age it is impossible to imagine believing in the transcendent. If a person’s view of reality has a ceiling, with nothing above it, discussing how we experience and converse with “God” could drive that person mad, or else they would dismiss it as pure self-deluded fantasy.

Epistemology really stands at the core of this book. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines epistemology as “the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity.” [4] The ultimate question is, “How do we know?” For a secularist, a claim to know anything that claims the immanence of transcendence, particularly in a personal knowledge, is impossible to accept.

As counterpoint to the immanence concept of contemporary secularism this book brings to us a great irony: that those in evangelical Christianity understand the word “immanent” in precisely the opposite way of a secularist who believes there’s nothing above the ceiling. Immanence becomes good news when it communicates the presence of the transcendent One.

There is power in the contrast. There is irony in the contrast. There is good news in the contrast; at least it should be good news: “We are really not alone!”

As Dr. Luhrmann attempts to provide a way to understand how it is a Christian can claim relationship with an invisible being, she discusses children playing with imaginary friends. It seems that she is attempting to give a somewhat metaphorical example of how we can “imagine” something that is not visible.

I do not think she is advocating that God is just our imaginary friend. As I read, I began to wonder about “imaginary friends” from the opposite side. Might it be that the impulse for countless children to have an imaginary friend is, in fact, a demonstration of our human need, created in the image of God, to have someone “other” to whom we can pour out our troubles?

A poignant section focused on experiencing God as unconditionally loving. She spoke of the struggle we have to really believe that we are unconditionally loved… “The point is that the real problem with which we all struggle is not God’s judgement but our own. God believes that we are worthwhile and loves us for ourselves.” [5]

Regarding the predictions of mid-twentieth century social scientists, that faith would disappear, Dr. Luhrmann says, “We now know that those scholars were wrong.” She points out that “Pentecostalism is among the fastest-growing religions in the world.” [6] Lewis and Pierard will be happy to know this. [7]

Dr. Luhrmann begins the final chapter, “This book began with the nonbeliever’s puzzle: How can sensible, educated people believe in an invisible being who has a real effect on their lives?” [8]

Continuing in the spirit of Charles Taylor, perhaps the big question is: “How are Christians able to hold on to their faith despite the frank skepticism that they encounter again and again?” [9] She answers her own question by saying, “The answer is that they understand their God in a way that adapts to the skepticism.” [10]

In the end part of the answer is existential. I believe in God, in part, because the Bible makes sense of the world for me. But also I believe because of my EXPERIENCES with God. I have seen and experienced many things that have no explanation other than the real presence of the all-powerful, imminently present, transcendent God.

Luhrmann writes, “In this modern experiential evangelical faith, this way of understanding God insists on a reality so vivid that it demands a willing suspension of disbelief while generating direct personal experiences that make that God real and integral to one’s experiences of self.” [11]

An advantage to reading this book is that it reminds us that “hearing from God” really is a complex experience and is, therefore, subject to error. No one wants to hear from another person, “God told me,” or even worse, “God told me to tell you.” My wife’s response to statements like that is, “Where’s my copy of the e mail.”

So although I am convinced that God does speak to us, mostly (second to Scripture) in our minds, we need to maintain a strong sense of humility in order to hold what we think God has said to us in a loose grip.

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).
[2] Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God ( New York, NY: Vintage Books of Random House, 2012), xi.
[3] Ibid., xii.
[4] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ Accessed March 9, 2017.
[5] Luhrmann, 105.
[6] Ibid., 301.
[7] Donald M. Lewis and Richard V. Pierard, eds. Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History and Culture in Regional Perspective ( Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2014).
[8] Luhrmann, 300.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 301,
[11] Ibid.

About the Author

mm

Marc Andresen

I have a B. A. in Music from San Diego State University and received an M. Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1977. July 1 2015 I retired after 38 years in pastoral ministry. The passion and calling that developed in the last 20 years is leadership training in cross-cultural contexts, as my wife and I have had many opportunities to teach in Eastern Europe and Africa. I have been married for 38 years and have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and a beautiful granddaughter. My hobbies are photography and British sports cars.

10 responses to “Counterpoint”

  1. Pablo Morales says:

    Marc, I had a similar perception of the book. In moments I felt uncomfortable with her generalizations about evangelicalism since her descriptions did not depict my “tribe” of evangelicalism. However, I found the interviews with people rather enlightening, because it helped me understand how some people process their experiences. Like your wife, hearing people say “God told me” brings a sense of doubt rather than trust, because of the epistemological issues you mentioned.

    You said, “The ultimate question is, ‘How do we know?’” Even though I do not look for mental images when I pray or seek to hear God’s voice in an audible way, I realize that the way I discern God’s direction is by paying attention to the Scriptures, advice from people I respect, and to circumstances around me. However, Luhrmann made me realize that even in that experience, discerning God’s involvement in my life is a mysterious process that is rather very personal. After all, even in my own discerning I have to interpret the “evidence.” In your many years of ministry and Christian walk, how do you discern God’s involvement in your life?

    By the way, I enjoyed how you brought the different authors into your blog.

    Pablo

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Pablo,

      Regarding “God told me…” Years ago I decided on a habit of saying, “I think God told me…” in order to differentiate between my mental communion with Him and His clear speaking in the Bible.

      As to how I discern God’s involvement: To the three ways of hearing God speak to you, I would add a fourth: (not my terms) ‘the inner witness of the spirit’ most often sensed in prayer. But because this is the most subjective of the ways we hear from God, we must be diligent to make sure the other three avenues are faithfully heard by us.

      My daily habit in my prayer journal is to write my thoughts to God in black ink and if I think God is trying to speak to me, to write those thoughts in blue ink. That way I can go back over my journal later, trace “conversations” and develop a sense of when God was and was not speaking to me.

      I will say that as a former-Catholic-now-Presbyterian I have been deeply and profoundly influenced by things I learned and experienced at Vineyard conferences in the second half of the 1980s. The Lord did quite a renewal in my life in those years. The first such conference we attended, my wife and I entered as strong skeptics. In a week our minds were changed. You have alluded to being kind of a non-emotional analytical type personality. Perhaps the practice of listening to God in your mind/heart/soul would be a growing edge for you. May I say that to you without offense?

      • Pablo Morales says:

        Marc,
        I appreciate your insights. Not long ago, I met a Christian lady that used an imagery to explain her experience of “hearing” from God through pressing thoughts that she believed came from Him. She explained that for many people who became saved at a young age and grew up in church, hearing from God was like growing up in a home with one of those old big clocks that makes a loud sound each hour. People grow so used to it that they cease to notice it. Yet, when a new person comes in for the first time, the sound is so loud that it is hard not to notice it. She said that her Christian experience was like that new person that just moved in. She became saved at an older age, so it was very easy for her to distinguish between God’s thoughts and her thoughts. So she turned to us and said, you are experiencing the grandfather’s clock effect.

        She made me think. I am still pondering about her comment. So, no. I do not take offense to your suggestion. The very reason I entered into this program is to grow as a leader. Thank you for bringing it up.
        Pablo

        • mm Marc Andresen says:

          Her metaphor in interesting, I’ll have to think about it.

          As I think further, I think what often makes me uncomfortable is people who seem to need to tell you they’ve heard from God. There is a danger of a kind of subtle right-of-passage when we’ve heard from God. I once heard John Wimber say, “Let’s be honest, we attract a lot of space monkeys.”

          But having said that, I’m still convinced as to the legitimacy of God speaking amazing things to us.

  2. Claire Appiah says:

    Marc,
    Thanks for allowing God to speak through you and enabling you to masterfully craft a critical analysis of Luhrmann’s book in this blog. The key points that I derived the most benefit from are articulated in the following statements:
    “I will say, however, this book should be read with a VIGILANCE that will make sure we don’t allow our faith to be reduced to a psychological phenomenon.”
    “An advantage to reading this book is that it reminds us that “HEARING FROM GOD” really is a COMPLEX EXPERIENCE, and is therefore SUBJECT TO ERROR.”
    “So, although I am convinced that God does speak to us, mostly (second to Scripture) in our minds, we need to maintain a strong sense of HUMILITY in order to hold what we think God has said to us in a loose grip.”
    Thanks for making sense of Luhrmann’s nonsensible, non-scriptural, and non-substantiated presentation of the evangelical experience of God.

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Claire,

      I’m glad those sentences helped.

      I find that as we are being trained to be reflective thinkers it really does refine our thinking skills. When we process books in this way I think it helps us sort out what the authors are saying. (I am already wondering what I will do when we’re finished with the program to maintain this habit of reflective reading and writing.)

      I might add that I get the feeling that Dr. Luhrmann’s processing of God’s voice and the Vineyard seems to hang in the balance between belief and intellectually boxing Evangelical faith into a tight little space. I was not put off by her writing but find it hard to believe that she could be so involved in Vineyard churches for four years and not be a total believer.

  3. Really enjoyed this one Marc.
    “It is as if a secularist, who’s “immanence” world view can’t allow for the possibility of transcendence is trying to figure out how people claim a personal communication with the invisible Being who is transcendent. As such this books stands as a counterpoint to Taylor’s A Secular Age.” BEST. INTRO. EVER.
    I also like your wife’s response to people who say God told them so. 🙂
    Is there anything in this book that invited you to rethink any experience you had pastoring a church?

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Aaron,

      Thanks for kind words.

      I don’t think I re-thought any pastoral experiences. Actually, being a veteran of Vineyard conferences (and times at Calvary Chapel in the early 1970s) I replayed those times and processed the book through all of those experiences. I thought about tangible, visceral experiences I have had of God’s presence in those times and events. Vineyard did affect my ability to hear God and I’ve had “words of knowledge” spoken to me, and have had physical sensations. So what I really want to do is tell Dr. Luhrmann of those and why I think they are the real deal with God’s presence.

  4. Phil Goldsberry says:

    Marc:
    Not sure where you stand with Luhrmann’s writing. Did you walk away with skepticism in God or a distaste for the doubting of academia and justification thereof?

    This book took me on a path that I was not expecting.

    Phil

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Phil,

      Your question makes me wonder about that path and how you processed the book.

      I have no skepticism in God. I know He is real and I know I have experienced Him. I don’t think I have faked out myself by some psychological self-deception.

      As to academia: I respect academia and appreciate its contribution to my own life, but I must admit I pity academics who are so sold on their own intellect and research that they have found the excuses/reasons they need not to believe in God.

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