“How will I know if he really loves me?
I say a prayer with every heart beat.
I fall in love whenever we meet,
I’m asking you ’cause you know about these things.”
I kept hearing this song in my head as I read this week’s book, When God Talks Back.  1985. Whitney Houston. Former gospel singer, diva, addict, mother, and now gone. But those words, “How will I know if he really loves me?” seemed to sum up author T.M. Luhrman’s quest. How do you know if God is really speaking? How do you know if He is real? Is he something I have imagined into being? Is he someone that I have systematically trained myself to hear? Or is he something more?
Luhrman sets out on an anthropological experiment to observe the practices, the spirituality, and the faith of those evangelicals who follow a “milder” Pentecostalism, that of the Vineyard church. Over four years in two cities, she observes, takes notes, asks questions, and researches the history of not only the Vineyard, but of evangelicalism. She takes a scientific approach to observation, and compares spiritual experiences to psychological theory. She does a masterful job.
On the topic of the book, I have two specific takeaways. First, I was most impressed with her Spiritual Disciplines study. In this study, she recruits 128 subjects to participate in randomly assigned control groups. One group participates in a month of centering prayer (Apophatic), one in guided imagination of the Gospels (kataphatic), and the third in an intellectual study of the Gospels (study). Those who regularly practiced the first two models of prayer reported the most benefit, while those in the guided imagination also generally experienced an increase in the sensory experience of God. This study is radical for most anthropologists. Luhrman compares the results to Buddhist, Kaballah, other meditation practices. She also considers the impact of culture. Yet what she cannot explain is how people identify their experiences with God. 
The second takeaway comes from her description of undertaking a similar anthropological study of magic. As with her experience with the Vineyard churches, as she immersed herself in these cultures she found herself having experiences associated with these practices. Yet in the end, she walked away from magic. As for Christianity and God? “But it is also true that through the process of this journey, in my own way, I have come to know God.”  While she does not outrightly identify as Christian, she describes her experiences and her changing understanding as one who has come to know God’s love.
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. ” (Hebrews 11:1)
Before I sat to write this post, I went out and sat on my porch and reflected for a few minutes. It was dark, softly raining, and my mind wandered to those points when I knew. I hear God’s voice. Not audibly. But I know it. He doesn’t sound like me. He speaks in the first person. But I couldn’t convince you or anyone else that it is God. Not scientifically. But I still know.
I reflected back to those days when I was fourteen years old and did not yet know God. But I desperately wanted someone to love me, to be faithful, to be trustworthy. I remember sitting in my sister’s bedroom while she prayed for my mom to get the gun away from my drunken father who was threatening to kill himself and us. A moment later my mom walked in with the gun and asked us to keep it. An answer to prayer? Coincidence? Convenient. But I was not convinced. I remember going to church with my grandparents and watching as others danced before the Lord, cried out his name, and went to the altar and wept before God. But I didn’t cry out or dance or weep. And I remember being on the second day of a five day hiking trip on a remote island in Alaska with my cousins. None of whom were Christians. My genetically defective knee gave out. I couldn’t walk. But I was not about to ask for help from the real people. So I tossed a fleece out to God and asked him, if he was really real, to fix my knee. Instantly the pain was gone. And I was stunned.
Was I a hurt and lonely kid who wanted to be loved? Who wanted to be safe? Absolutely. Was I looking for God? I don’t think so. All the same, God showed up and I was not the same. Could I have imagined my healing? Sure. I had surgery on that knee a few years later. But I knew, and later that night I found myself on the beach alone and I told God that He must be real and that I needed Him.
I could go on. I could recount experiences. I could recount times that I clearly heard God speak. I could talk about the general sense of His presence and how He has changed me deeply, profoundly and permanently. I am well trained enough in the social sciences that I could also discuss the developmental, psychological, and social processes of change that could also account for my change. But I still know that it is God.
Which brings me back to that question: How will I know? That I just do seems simplistic and unscientific. But that is what I call faith.
 T.M. Luhrman, When God Talks Back, New York: Vintage Books, 2012.
 Ibid, pp 189-226.
 Ibid, p 325.