Book Club Channel
When God Talks Back: Read an Excerpt
What I have to offer is an account of how you get from here to there. The tool of an anthropologist's trade is careful observation—participant observation, a kind of naturalist's craft in which one watches what people do and listens to what they say and infers from that how they come to see and know their world. I am, more precisely, a psychological anthropologist: I add to my tool kit the experimental method of the psychologist, which I use to explore the constraints on the way people make meaning. At one point I ran a psychological experiment, to test whether my hunch that spiritual practice had an impact on the mind's process was true. (It was.) But mostly I watched and I listened, and I tried to understand as an outsider how an insider to this evangelical world was able to experience God as real.
It didn't have much to do with belief per se. Skeptics sometimes imagine that becoming a religious believer means acquiring a belief the way you acquire a new piece of furniture. You decide you need a table for the living room, so you purchase it and get it delivered and then you have to rearrange everything, but once it's done, it's done. I did not find that being or becoming a Christian was very much like that. The propositional commitment that there is a God—the belief itself—is of course important. In some ways it changes everything, and the furniture of the mind is indeed distinctively rearranged. But for the people I spent time with, learning to know God as real was a slow process, stumbling and gradual, like learning to speak a foreign language in an unfamiliar country, with new and different social cues.
In fact, what I saw was that coming to a committed belief in God was more like learning to do something than to think something. I would describe what I saw as a theory of attentional learning—that the way you learn to pay attention determines your experience of God. More precisely, I will argue that people learn specific ways of attending to their minds and their emotions to find evidence of God, and that both what they attend to and how they attend changes their experience of their minds, and that as a result, they begin to experience a real, external, interacting living presence.
In effect, people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God. They learn to reinterpret the familiar experiences of their own minds and bodies as not being their own at all—but God's. They learn to identify some thoughts as God's voice, some images as God's suggestions, some sensations as God's touch or the response to his nearness. They construct God's interactions out of these personal mental events, mapping the abstract concept "God" out of their mental awareness into a being they imagine and reimagine in ways shaped by the Bible and encouraged by their church community. They learn to shift the way they scan their worlds, always searching for a mark of God's presence, chastening the unruly mind if it stubbornly insists that there is nothing there. Then they turn around and allow this sense of God—an external being they find internally in their minds—to discipline their thoughts and emotions. They allow the God they learn to experience in their minds to persuade them that an external God looks after them and loves them unconditionally.
To do this, they need to develop a new theory of mind. That phrase—theory of mind—has been used to describe the way a child learns to understand that other people have different beliefs and goals and intentions. The child learns that people have minds, and that not everything the child knows in his or her mind is known by other people. Christians must also learn new things about their minds. After all, to become a committed Christian one must learn to override three basic features of human psychology: that minds are private, that persons are visible, and that love is conditional and contingent upon right behavior. These psychological expectations are fundamental. To override them without going mad, people must develop a way of being in the world that is able to sustain the violations in relation to God—but not other humans. They do it by paying attention to their minds in new ways. They imagine their minds differently, and they give significance to thoughts and feelings in new ways.
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.