When God Talks Back: Tanya Luhrmann (Transcript)

Full text of anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann’s talk: When God Talks Back at TEDxStanford conference.

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Tanya Luhrmann – Anthropologist

What I want to talk about this morning is a remarkable phenomenon: that people not only talk to God but they learn to experience God is talking back.

Many, many Americans are involved – and many other people – are involved in what you may call a renewalist spirituality, a kind of spirituality in which they want to experience God intimately, personally and interactively; they want to reach out and touch the Divine here on earth.

I wanted to find out how they did that.

I am an anthropologist. My job is to immerse myself in the world that I’ve come to study and to keep observing so that to some degree, I get a sense of what it would take to become a native in that world.

Unlike Margret Mead and Gregory Bateson, who are pictured here in New Guinea, I did this work in America. I spent two years in the Renewalist Church in Chicago and another two years in one in the Bay Area.

I went to Sunday morning services. I was a member of house group. I was in a prayer circle. I hung out with people. I prayed with people. I really wanted to know how their God became real to them.

So let me begin by asking,

Who is God in a church like this?

Well, God is God, God is big, God is mighty and holy and beyond, but God is also a person among people. The pastors in this kind of church want you to experience God the way the early disciples experienced Jesus. They walked with Jesus. They ate with Jesus. They talked with Jesus. He was their friend.

And these pastors will tell you that you should put out a cup of coffee for God, you should have a beer with God, go for a walk with God, hang out, do the kind of thing with God that you’d get to not do with anyone who you wanted to know as a person.

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And He cares about all the stuff in your life, the little stuff: where you want to go in your summer vacation, what shirt you want to wear tomorrow morning. You can talk to Him about that.

So I wanted to know how people learned to interact with God, how they felt that God was speaking back. And I knew that they learned because newcomers would come to these churches, and they would say things like “God doesn’t talk to me,” and then six to nine months later, they would say, “I recognize God’s voice the way I recognize my mom’s voice on the phone.”

What I saw the church teach was that you should think about your mind not as a fortress full of your own self-generated thoughts and feelings and images, but you should think of your mind as a place where you were going to meet God, and that some of those thoughts that you might have thought of as yours, they were really God’s thoughts being given to you, and your job was to figure out who was God.

And in fact, people did talk in ways that suggested that they would have – as if they had experiences that weren’t their own. A woman said to me, “As I’ve started to pray in this church, it feels like my mind is a screen that images are projected on. Somebody else is controlling that clicker.”

And of course, not all thoughts were thought to be good candidates for the kinds of things God would say. People would look for thoughts that stood out, that were more spontaneous than other thoughts, thoughts that were louder, that captured your attention.

One woman explaining to me how she learned to discern God speaking said that people were praying over her one day, and the phrase “Go to Kansas” flashed into her mind. So her parents live in Kansas. She was kind of idly thinking about visiting them, but when this thought just captured her attention, it made her say, “You know, makes me want to say, ‘Where did that come from?'”

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So you could imagine there would be risks from this style of discerning God’s voice. I did think people were reasonably thoughtful about the process. I also thought that the church took care to minimize those risks.

One morning, the pastor said in church, “You know, if you think God is telling you to relax and calm down – totally fine, take it as God. If you think that God is telling you to quit your job, pack your bags and move to Los Angeles, I want you to be praying with every member of your house group, I want you to be praying with your prayer circle, I want you to be praying with me so that together, this community can help you to discern whether that’s actually God or just some of your own stuff that’s getting in the way of your relationship.”

So what are people doing when they’re praying like this?

They’re using their imagination to do something that they do not regard as imaginary. If you’re going to represent God, if you’re going to think about God, you’ve got to use imagination because God is invisible.

It’s a very 21st-century thing to draw the inference that if you’re using your imagination, you are doing something false. It turns out that using the inner senses, using the imagination has been part of the tradition of Christian spirituality for many, many years.

The medieval monastics cultivated their inner senses to make God more alive and present to them. That’s what these Christians are doing. They are not only talking to God in their mind – using their mind’s ear to talk and then to listen to something that God might say – they are imagining that they are sitting on God’s lap while they’re doing that, or they’re on a park bench and they’re trying to feel God’s arm around their shoulders, or they’re in the throne room and their cheek feels warm because of the heat of the blazing light from the throne, or they’re lighting a candle to God in their mind and they’re trying to smell the scent of the smoke as it wafts up to heaven.

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My work demonstrates that this cultivation of the inner senses, it’s a skill. You get better at it over time, and it changes you.

The people who do this, they say that their mental imagery gets sharper, they say that things they have to imagine become more real to them, and they are more likely to report that God’s voice would sort of pop out into the world and they’ll hear it with their ears.

So just to give you a sense of the way people talk about their own change:

This is a woman who said to me that as she began to pray, her images would get so vivid, “Sometimes,” she said, “it’s almost like a PowerPoint presentation.” And then she spontaneously gave this example of God’s voice popping out into the world so she could hear it with her ears.

So one morning, she had wonderful devotions, she felt great about her prayer time with God, she came out on to the street – it was Chicago, it was freezing – she was very grateful that God brought the bus along really quickly, she gets onto the bus, she’s reading a book, she’s getting all caught up in the book, and she is missing her stop to get off the bus. And God says to her in a way she can hear with her ears, “Get off the bus!”

So she stops the bus driver, she gets off, and she feels wonderful all day that God has been so intimately involved with her as to enable her to make her stop.

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