I was intrigued with the distinctive definition for faith by T.M. Luhrmann in the opening preface to When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. “Faith,” she states, “asks people to consider that the evidence of their senses is wrong.” Faith in a transcendent God asks people to believe some really unbelievable things, to accept “fantastic claims” that, at best in the discernment of unbelievers, are improbable possibilities. Believing in an invisible being is difficult enough, Luhrmann notes, “let alone an invisible being who is entirely good and overwhelmingly powerful.” If American Evangelicals base their belief in God on faith, then what is the substance of faith? The old adage “seeing is believing” does not fit when one lacks visual confirmation or substantive evidence on which to base faith. The Hebraic writer defined faith from a similar perspective: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Beginning with the enlightenment through Fredrick Nietzsche’s nineteenth century proclamation of God’s death, reason and evidence through scientific method has grounded belief in Western culture. According to John Caputo, this era is characterized by the “idea of a believing thinker or a thinking believer — is a square circle.” When faced with “unanswerable questions” faith has responded with “unquestionable answers.” How does one express their hope and faith in the “unseen” in a secular era of agnostic disbelief in God and a skeptical incredulity of anything expressing faith? In Luhrmann’s words, “How are Christians able to hold on to their faith despite the frank skepticism that they encounter again and again?”
According to Luhrmann, however, recent surveys and studies indicate 95% of Americans believe in “God or a higher power” and perhaps most significant is that a majority believe God is a demonstrable presence in their lives and they “experience God directly and report repeated contact with the supernatural.” In the first decades of the twenty-first century, there is an ever enlarging divide between believers and nonbelievers in social community and in academia. Luhrmann notes that the contemporary widening “rift between believers and nonbelievers has grown so wide that it can be difficult for one side to respect the other.” Is it possible to bridge the gap between belief and unbelief? Between the believer and the nonbeliever?
Using a narrative story-board genre, Luhrmann attempts in When God Speaks Back, to “explain to nonbelievers how people come to experience God as real.” In ethnographic form, Luhrmann spent time with evangelical believers entering into and engaging them as one living among them. She did not have the answers, rather her tools were listening, questioning, probing, recording and coming back again with more questions. Her choice of the Vineyard Church was genius. I had little connection and no affiliation with this community; Jason Clark is my only association. Yet, repeatedly as I read the narrative stories of this group’s discovery and struggle with faith, I repeatedly exclaimed, “Yes, this is me, my experience, my story!”
Several ideas or faith concepts that resonated with me:
There is a twofold challenge to believing in God. First, there is the task of faith to believe when there is no tangible evidence that can be witnessed and verified by the senses. This aspect of belief can be achieved. It is at the core of the central question being asked, “How can sensible, educated people believe in an invisible being who has a real effect on their lives?” One aspect of the answer is to find God in the everyday world. It is a personal encounter, not some “deluded fantasy” or “selfish wish.” It is a choice according to Luhrmann; “coming to a committed belief in God was more like learning to do something than to think something.” I was particularity interested in how Luhrmann’s concepts coincided with Caroline Ramsey’s management of learning through deliberate attention to practice. Deliberate attention is at the center of engaging their problem of faith; it “is identifying the divine in ordinary life and distinguishing it from madness, evil and simple human folly.” It occurs to me this prohibits a “blind faith” based on “unquestionable answers.” Rather, it is the simple faith of a child that engages life as it is. An answer might lead to another question but it also leads to discovering reality. My mother was a great woman of faith, not because she did not question but because she accepted the simple presence of God in her everyday life.
The second challenge is remaining faithful when confronted with doubts: unanswered prayers, disappointments, disease, when one encounters the difficulties of everyday life. Doubt, of course, is real; “Many Christians struggle,” Luhrmann recognizes, “at one time or another, with the fear that it all might be a sham.” Just as faith can be apprehended through the simple experience of God in everyday life; so also the difficult questions of doubt find meaningful expression in everyday life. “How,” Luhrmann asks, “can anyone believe in a God who is all-powerful and benevolent is a world that is filled with suffering? … The answer is that they understand their God in a way that always adapts to the skepticism.” God is not just real; God is “hyperreal!” Every life experience can be understood in the same context as Ramsey’s opportunity to learn through practice; it is participating in real life with the deliberate effort to learn from each experience. If faith is a choice, then it is something that requires constant work – adaptation through a deep commitment to discovery. Luhrmann indicates there are several responses to doubt when confronted with difficulty and suffering. The practice of the Vineyard evangelical Christian is to “ignore it. Then they turn the pain [doubt] into a learning opportunity.”
My observation is that the Vineyard Evangelical faith is characterized by presence and practice. Experiencing God’s presence is a fundament key to “unseen” faith. God’s presence is the evidence! Faith formation, or what When God Talks Back refers to as “Developing Your Heart,” can only be achieved through “practices.” Similarly, John Wesley challenged believers to holiness of heart and life through “works of piety” as the presence of God and “works of mercy” that was the practice of faith in God. Throughout When God Speaks Back, Luhrmann reveals how the Evangelical Vineyard Church “solves the problem of presence with specific faith practices.” It is experiencing the everyday presence of the immaterial God who cannot be seen, smelled, heard or felt in ordinary ways.
To know God, to some measure, is the greatest challenge the greatest blessing and the greatest achievement in life. One of my favorite passage of scripture is in the Lord’s prayer for believers and nonbelievers: “Now this is eternal life; that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3 NIV)
 T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2012), xii.
 Ibid., xiii.
 Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)
 John D. Caputo, Philosophy and Religion Kindle ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006), 102.
 Luhrmann, Ibid., 300.
 Ibid., ii.
 Ibid., xv.
 Ibid., xv.
 Ibid., 300.
 Ibid., xxi, emphasis original.
 Caroline Ramsey, “Management Learning: A Scholarship of Practice Centered on Attention,” Management Learning, 45 no. 1, 6-20.
 Luhrmann, Ibid
 Ibid., xiii.
 Ibid., 301.
 Ibid., 268.
 Ibid., 132.