Book Club Channel
When God Talks Back: Read an Excerpt
Faith asks people to consider that the evidence of their senses is wrong. In various ways, and in varying degrees, faith asks that people believe that their minds are not always private; that persons are not always visible; that invisible presences should alter their emotions and direct their behavior; that reality is good and justice triumphant. These are fantastic claims, and the fact of their improbability is not lost on those who accept them—particularly in a pluralistic, self-aware society like twenty-first-century America. Many Christians come to their religious commitments slowly, carefully, and deliberatively, as if the attitude they take toward life itself depends upon their judgment. And they doubt. They find it hard to believe in an invisible being—let alone an invisible being who is entirely good and overwhelmingly powerful. Many Christians struggle, at one point or another, with the despair that it all might be a sham.
They have always struggled. In earlier centuries, before atheism became a real cultural possibility, they may have struggled more about the nature of the supernatural than about whether the supernatural existed at all, but they struggled. Augustine agonized. Anselm despaired. The long tradition of spiritual literature is full of intense uncertainty about the true nature of a being that can be neither seen nor heard in the ordinary way. And whether or not people ever voice the fear that God himself is an empty fantasy, whether or not they tussle with theology, Christians of all ages have wrestled with the difficulty of believing that God is real for them in particular, for their own lives and every day, as if the promise of joy were true for other people—but not for themselves. That is why one of the oldest stories in the Hebrew Bible has become iconic for the process of coming to commitment.
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.
When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched
the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled
with the man. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."
But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." The man
asked him, "What is your name?" "Jacob," he answered.
Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because
you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome."
Jacob said, "Please tell me your name." But he replied, "Why do you
ask my name?" Then he blessed him there.
The idea of believers struggling with doubt can be disconcerting to skeptics, who tend to imagine belief as an either-or choice, and who imagine that a good Christian has a straightforward commitment to God's reality. But when you are willing to take seriously the importance of doubt, you can see it everywhere in Christianity. The Gospels them- selves expect doubt. "Do you still not see or understand?" Christ sadly asks his followers. "Are your hearts hardened?" Jesus was after all executed because people did not believe that he was the son of God, and even the disciples themselves were often painfully confused about who Christ was and what he asked of them. "But they still did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him." When a father brings his small boy to Jesus for healing because he is terribly ill, Jesus tells him sternly that he will heal only those who believe. "Lord, I believe," the father implores him. But then he adds, "Help my unbelief."
Tanya Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. She received her education from Harvard and Cambridge universities, and was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003. In 2007, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.