When God Talks Back: Tanya Luhrmann (Transcript)

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

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


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.

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.

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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?'”

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.

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!”

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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.

What do we make of those kinds of experiences?

It turns out that these funny voices and visions, they are less unusual than you’d imagine. So depending on the way that you ask the questions, somewhere between 10% of the general population and 70% of the general population will say they’ve had one of these odd experiences, like maybe even drifting off to sleep and you hear your mom calling your name, or maybe you walk into the living room and you look at the cat, the cat’s on the couch, you look again, you realize the cat was never there.

These are not crazy; they have a different structure and pattern than the kinds of experiences people have when, for example, they meet the criteria for schizophrenia. They tend to be rare, they’re common, and many people have them.

But when you ask people whether they’ve ever had such an experience, they’ll remember one, maybe two, maybe a handful of these experiences. They’re really brief. You see the wingtip of an angel and then it’s gone. You hear a voice, four to six words, and then it stops. And they are positive.

I remember a woman who was in distress, and she was driving down the street, and she really heard God speak out of the seat behind her in the car and say, “I will always be with you.” It was a little freaky.

She pulled over to the side of the road. But then she wept with joy because, I mean, why would you not?

So these experiences can be powerful. My work demonstrates that they respond to training. The more people practice inner sense cultivation, the more likely it is that they’ll say that they’ve had one or more of these experiences, and the more likely they are to say that the experience was powerful.

While doing this work, I ran an experiment. I got a hundred people into my office. We randomize them into lectures on the Gospels or this inner-sense-rich prayer. And the rule was 30 minutes a day, six days a week, for four weeks. We brought them back; we gave them a bunch of computers experiments and standardized questionnaires. And turned out it was the folks in the prayer condition who, on average, reported sharper mental images – they reported more sense of God’s presence, and they said that God was more present as a person to them, and they were more likely to say that they had unusual spiritual experiences – among them these voices and visions.

We were also able to demonstrate that some people are better at this kind of stuff, independent of the amount of time they spend praying. We give people a standardized questionnaire that asks them, in effect, whether they feel comfortable being adsorbed in their imagination.

Turns out that the more items you say true to on that scale, the more likely you are to say that you experience God as a person, the more likely you are to say that you have a back-and-forth relationship to God, the more likely you are to say that you’ve had one or more of these odd voices and visions.

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So what do we learn from this?

Well, the skeptic could say that we learned that, you know, Christians are just making it up out of their imagination, and that’s what I have always thought – end of story.

I actually don’t think that we learned anything about the real nature of God from these observations. I don’t think that social science can answer that question.

There’s also a Christian way to ask this question, which is: If God is always speaking, how come not everybody hears?

I think what we learn is that change is real, that as people enter churches like these and they begin to pay attention to their mind in new ways, they begin to pay attention to their inner senses, they really do have different experiences that they associate with the presence of God.

I came to think of churches as offering a social invitation to pay attention in particular ways, and I thought of individuals as having a psychological response to the way that they trained that attention.

I also think that we learned that belief is not a thing. Sometimes if you are a secular person and you kind of look at somebody who is a believer, it is tempting to think that they have this extra thing in their life – it’s like they’ve got a piece of furniture in their house that you don’t have.

I think these observations suggest that in many ways, the experience of God is made slowly, through the way that you pay attention to your world, to the way that you pay attention to your mind, to your history of hearing God and talking with God and feeling more confident that God is there.

I think these practices make God more real to people, and that has a palpable effect on their life. I also think this helps to explain why these kinds of practices are so much more appealing in this kind of society.

Since the 1960s, there is Christian mainstream liberal churches – their membership has been plummeting. Churches like these, they’ve exploded; the congregations are huge. I think it’s because of these kinds of practices. I think that they make God more relevant.

You know, you’re trying to hear God speak – God shifts from a 45-minute engagement on Sunday Morning to something you’re doing throughout the week. These practices make God more real to people, they make God more alive.

And I think these churches, by putting the emphasis on these practices, emphasize the experience of God and emphasize God’s mystery. And that helps somebody to hang on to a sense of God in what they perceive to be a skeptical, secular society.

And finally, I think we learned something about our minds. I think that we learned that the way we pay attention to our minds changes our mental experience. It’s so tempting to think that the inner landscape of your experience is somehow set as the way that it is.

I think that we learned from this that whether or not you are a religious person, whether or not you believe in God, you are making choices in the way that you use your imagination and your inner senses, and the choices you make will change you.

Thank you very much.

Resources for Further Reading:

God Knows When: Bishop T.D. Jakes (Full Transcript)

How I Met God in a McDonald’s: Tracey Lind (Transcript)

Denzel Washington: Put God First Speech (Full Transcript)

My Failed Mission to Find God – And What I Found Instead: Anjali Kumar (Transcript)

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