Hearing the Voice of God

Illustration: Kathleen Kinkopf

On a spring Sunday evening, around 50 members of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of the Peninsula in Palo Alto gathered for a special event in a rented room above a popular coffee shop. Before the occasion officially got under way, the conversation was a friendly and exuberant mix of the mundane and the heady: the gorgeous weather, Christian writer C.S. Lewis, the lusciousness of the strawberries set out as a snack, someone's car trouble, the problem of demons. Alex Van Riesen, lead pastor of the church and former team leader of Stanford's InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, is a tall, informal, open-faced man who eventually got everyone settled and quiet.

For those of you who haven't been to our church, this is the way it is," Van Riesen, '84, began cheerfully. "Everyone hangs outside eating, drinking coffee and talking. Then, when you hear the voice of God, you come inside."

There was a burst of appreciative laughter: an evangelical joke for an evangelical Christian audience. Van Riesen then segued to the main event. "Have people been asking you about the book?" he asked the group. "I've been getting lots of email about it."

 The book in question is When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God (Knopf), published to plenty of fanfare in religious, academic and mainstream circles. Terry Gross interviewed the author, Stanford anthropology professor T. M. Luhrmann, on NPR's Fresh Air. Stellar reviews included ones in the New Yorker and the New York Times.

In essence, the book and the hoopla around it are about the people in this very room. On the makeshift stage next to Van Riesen sat Tanya Luhrmann, certainly no stranger to the attendees. Having spent two years studying this Vineyard church and another two years at a Vineyard church in Chicago, she knows these believers well.

In the name of research, Luhrmann attended Sunday church where members danced, swayed, cried and raised their hands as a sign of surrender to God. She attended weekly home prayer groups whose members reported hearing God communicate to them directly. She hung out, participated, took notes, recorded interviews and "tried to understand as an outsider how an insider to this evangelical world was able to experience God as real and personal and intimate." So real, in fact, that members told her about having coffee with God, seeing angel wings and getting God's advice on everything from job choice to what shampoo to buy.

After being introduced jokingly by Van Riesen as Professor Luhrmann to people who have known her for so long as Tanya, she told the group her book does not weigh in on the actual existence of God. Rather, her research focuses on "theory of mind," how we conceptualize our minds and those of others. In this case, she investigated how the practice of prayer can train a person to hear what they determine to be God's voice.

"I do think that if God does speak to someone, God speaks through the human mind," she explained. "As an anthropologist, I feel I can say something about the social, cultural and psychological features of what that person is experiencing. I came into this project wanting to understand the question: How are rational, sensible, educated people able to sustain faith in an invisible being in an environment of skepticism? That is fascinating to me."

Luhrmann's provocative theory is that the church teaches pray-ers to use their minds differently than they do in everyday life. They begin by holding conversations with God in their heads, modeled on the kind of chummy conversations they'd have with their best friends. As they talk to Him, tell Him about their problems and imagine His wise counsel and loving response, they are training their thoughts, much as people use weights to train their muscles. The church encourages them to tune into sounds, images and feelings that are louder or more intense or more unfamiliar or more powerful—and to interpret these internal cues as the external voice of God.

And because Luhrmann knows this evening's audience so well, she made sure to answer the question that was, no doubt, on the minds of most of them: After all the time she spent in their church, after trying to tune into the voice of God, did she finally hear it, too?

"I came in with a set of stereotypes of evangelicals—the kind that you'd expect from someone in the academy," she said. "I came out with more respect for the religious process . . . how private and precious the experience of God can be for people."

But unlike the evangelicals in the room, Luhrmann still struggles with the "ontological commitment. . . . I would not call myself a Christian, but I find it profoundly moving to be in church. I would not say that I believe in a God out 'there' as solid as a mailbox. . . . What I carry with me and what I work to carry with me is more of a representation of God that works for me."

She read from her book's final chapter: "I have said that I do not presume to know ultimate reality. But it is also true that through the process of this journey, in my own way, I have come to know God."

There was a noticeable flutter of relief through the room, and Van Riesen gave voice to it. "This book feels like a healing experience between people of faith and the academy. I thank Tanya for that: for honoring the experience of the people in this church, for taking prayer seriously, for not calling it—you know—a crock."

Luhrmann's interest in what many in the secular world might call a "crock" has roots deep in her intellectual and emotional past. She describes herself as an anthropologist with one foot in psychology. She could easily add that her other foot is in theology and both hands have a firm grasp on philosophy.

Her upbringing was that of a "spiritual mutt." In the book's preface and acknowledgements, she writes that she has been thinking about God ever since her maternal grandfather, a Baptist minister, "walked across the park with me when I was six and tried to explain who he thought God was." His daughter—Luhrmann's mother—took her children to the more free-form Unitarian church. Luhrmann's paternal grandfather was a Christian Scientist whose son—Luhrmann's father—became a medical doctor, a psychiatrist. The eldest of three children, Tanya was raised in a suburban New Jersey neighborhood where she helped Orthodox Jewish neighbors as a shabbas goy, a gentile who assists with activities that are restricted on the Sabbath, such as turning on light switches. "I came from this background where I knew smart, good people whom I loved, but who came down on very different positions on the existence of God—not only on the yes-no dimension, but on who God was."

This spiritual puzzle landed her, in her teen years, in the center of nonbelief. For the high school paper, she wrote an editorial about atheism. A captain of the debate team, she knew arguments about the nonexistence of God, her "favorite late-night college topic."

"What was true for me then is true for a lot of people," she explains. "What matters in thinking about faith is logic, structure and coherence, so I was taken with the classic question of how do you believe in a god who allows pain and suffering?"

As a Harvard freshman, she had thoughts about Immanuel Kant that, in many ways, set the course of her career. She decided that the philosopher was "cheating" when he "explained away" the irrational. "I've always been intrigued by myths and stories and the way people construct their world. People live in the narrative and that is more important than their logical sensibility in many ways. So, I switched from philosophy to folklore. . . . I was just so curious about people and about the way they come to hold their beliefs—even in the face of evidence to the contrary."

An academic mentor encouraged her to pursue graduate studies at the University of Chicago, but a chance encounter with a volume in the Harvard bookstore sent her in a different direction. "It was a book that told you how to be a witch," she recalls with a laugh. "I was amazed by this. You can learn that?"

She headed to Cambridge University for graduate studies, from whence she could go "hang out in London with all these pagans and magicians—for the most part educated and middle-class people—and plunge into this really batty dissertation on modern witches."

The goal was not to rule on the validity of magic. Luhrmann was more interested in the magical process, of what happened in the minds of the practitioners. "I was really taken by my observation that something does happen. I didn't quite know how to think about it, but they experienced something directly. It's very powerful to have a sense of magic shoot through your body."

Luhrmann did "what anthropologists do" and participated in their world by joining their groups, reading their books and performing rituals. For 30 minutes a day for nine months, she practiced seeing with her mind's eye, following instructions such as Build up in imagination a journey from your physical plane home to your ideal room.

The sensory-honing and imagination-building techniques were "pretty close to Christian kataphatic prayer practice" that she would encounter later in researching When God Talks Back. In a chapter called "The Skill of Prayer," she recalls, "The idea (I came to think of it as the theology of magic) was that if you could learn to see mental images clearly, those images could become the vehicle by which supernatural power entered the mundane world."

What startled her was that her witchcraft self-training worked. Her internal awareness seemed to shift; her senses felt more alive and alert. She had her own supernatural experience: One night, after she'd done some pleasurable and immersive reading about the early Celts, six druids appeared outside her window and just as suddenly vanished. "Had they been there in the flesh? I thought not," she writes in When God Talks Back, but the vivid, singular experience led her to wonder "for many years if something about the practice associated with magic made these supernatural experiences more common. When I encountered the same spiritual techniques in experiential evangelical Christianity, I was determined to find out."

Anthropology has been called the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities. Most anthropologists are "firmly camped on one side or the other," says Joel Robbins, professor of anthropology at UC-San Diego and editor of the University of California Press book series The Anthropology of Christianity. "What makes Tanya unique is that she is a master of both the scientific methodology and the humanistic side—what one famous anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, called 'deep hanging out,' getting a feel of what lives are like in the round."

OPEN TO THE UNSEEN: Luhrmann, who has studied modern witches, colonial Parsis and American psychiatry, is interested in how minds accommodate belief in the face of skepticism. (Photo: Leah Fasten)

Luhrmann's other forays into "deep hanging out" took her to India to study Zoroastrianism, which resulted in The Good Parsi: The Fate of a Colonial Elite in a Postcolonial Society (Harvard University Press, 1996), and to the anthropology department at UCSD, where her research interest "switched from my mother's inheritance (religion) to my father's inheritance (psychiatry)." Of Two Minds: The Growing Disorder in American Psychiatry (Knopf, 2000) was based on extensive interviews with patients and doctors, as well as fieldwork in residence programs, private psychiatric hospitals and state hospitals. The book studies, among other topics, psychiatric residents and their handling of patients who had visions.

She continued researching supernatural experience in, among other places, a black Catholic church and a Santeria group. One day in San Diego, she had a conversation with a "giggly, blond beach girl," who told Luhrmann that if she really wanted to know God, she should have a cup of coffee with Him. The advice took Luhrmann by surprise—the idea of so companionable a divine being was not part of Christianity as she understood it—and she wanted to know more. Moving to the University of Chicago in 2000, she began communing with a Vineyard church.

At the time, such research was an unexplored field. Through the 1990s, anthropologists rarely studied Christianity, explains Luhrmann's former UCSD colleague Robbins. Anthropologists are supposed to study exotic cultures and these mostly white, mostly middle-class evangelicals were considered to be "too much like us." On the other hand, they were also ignored for the opposite reason: They were too much on the religious fringe of the modern world. "It's shocking, really. There was almost a taboo against studying them," Robbins says. "But that's not the case now. Tanya really helped open a space for the study of Christianity in anthropology."

The New Yorker called Luhrmann a specialist in "esoteric faith," a description she finds puzzling, given that, according to a 2008 Pew Foundation study, two-thirds of Americans completely or mostly agree that angels and demons are active today, and that nearly one-fifth say they receive a direct answer to a specific prayer request at least once a week. "That's a lot of people," Luhrmann explains. "Not so esoteric."

In 2007, Luhrmann and her husband, Richard Saller, moved to Stanford, where she has since taught courses in culture and madness, ethnographic writing and other subjects. Saller is dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Stanford was the setting for a psychological experiment described in When God Talks Back. To better understand if and how spiritual practice impacts the mind, Luhrmann randomly divided volunteers who were Christian into groups: one listened on iPods for 30 minutes a day to lectures on the gospels. Another group participated in a more interactive, imagination-rich way, similar to the prayer style of Vineyard members. Their recordings invited them to see, hear and touch God in the mind's eye, to carry on a dialogue with Jesus, to imagine a psalm in every detail.

"I found that after a month of prayer practice, people reported more vivid mental imagery than those who listened to the lectures," she says. "They used mental imagery more readily and had somewhat better perceptual attention, and they reported more unusual sensory experience. In short, they attended to their inner experience more seriously, and that altered how real that experience became for them."

Not long ago, a Stanford colleague posed a question: Can prayer produce the same results—the same heightened awareness, the same sense of the supernatural whispering in your ear—if you substitute someone else for God? If you substitute, say, Leland Stanford Jr.

Luhrmann made audio tracks similar to the ones that she used in her evangelical study, and Stanford undergraduate volunteers were invited to listen and use their inner attention to "experience" Leland. She's uneasy saying much about this experiment, its results not published. But some students did report uncanny experiences "and some of them reported seeing young Leland and feeling that he spoke back." Something about created inner dialogue is obviously "very, very powerful."

The night before Luhrmann's appearance with the Vineyard congregation, she read and answered questions at a Bay Area bookstore. She traced the modern history of the evangelical movement from its hippie, Jesus-freak roots of the 1960s to its current mostly conservative, mostly middle-class state. She talked of the people whose stories give the book its narrative pull, people whose faith proved more complex than she had imagined.

This was an entirely different crowd. A couple of atheists ranted about how people who talk to God must be nuts. Another person in the audience, a little more measured, wanted Luhrmann to address the impact that conservative evangelicals are having on the country's political landscape.

It is not a small impact, given the numbers of those who subscribe to the evangelical viewpoint. Of the many Baby Boomers who once stopped going to churches, half have returned to religious practices, but not to the mainstream services of their childhood. They have flocked to churches similar to the Vineyard. A study by Newsweek found that nearly 40 percent of Americans said that the main reason they practice religion was "to forge a personal relationship with God." Some call this movement the country's fourth Great Awakening—a reference to other eras in American history in which religious fervor shaped the national agenda.

While Luhrmann intentionally avoided politics in the book, it's a question that she can't avoid in life. It comes up in interviews and reviews, as readers and critics wonder (as did the Times reviewer) if the author "ever engaged her subjects in a lively conversation about gay marriage or evolution."

She has begun to weigh in, most notably in a May op-ed piece in the New York Times. Her gist is that conservative evangelicals and secular liberals are at such odds politically because they think about life very differently. If political progressives really want to stop scratching their heads over why evangelicals get so upset about same-sex marriage and health-care reform, they need to understand how they think about God.

It's a contrast between people focused on consequences and those focused on aspiration. "Secular liberals want to create the social conditions that allow everyday people, behaving the way ordinary people behave, to have fewer bad outcomes. When evangelicals vote, they think more immediately about what kind of person they are trying to become—what humans could and should be, rather than who they are. From this perspective, the problem with government is that it steps in when people fall short."

Hanging out with believers—whom she found "smarter and more varied than many liberals realize"—has given her some insight that could double as political advice. "If Democrats want to reach more evangelical voters, they should use a political language that evangelicals can hear. They should talk about the kind of people we are aiming to be and about the transformational journey that any choice will take us on."

Jill Wolfson is a journalist and novelist in Santa Cruz, Calif.