Train the Brain 1

Last Saturday I posted a link in Weekly Meanderings to a review in The New Yorker of T.M. Luhrmann’s new book, When God Talks Back, and I found the review a bit peevish to be honest. I have loads of respect for cultural anthropologists, not the least of which reasons is that this scholar, T.M. Luhrhmann, combines it with expertise in psychology.

Do you think God became more intimate and personal in the late 2oth Century? have you ever given thought to how the spiritual world is filtered through our brains so that spirituality and brain/mind work together? Any thoughts on this? Why do you think some Christians “hear” God so often, or have palpable confidence they commune with God directly, while others do not?

And she has undertaken to examine the religious experience of Christians in John Wimber’s legacy, the Vineyard movement. Mercy, what a task she has chosen. Some observations about her book:

1. I’m not entirely convinced, but she could be right, that a “major shift in American spirituality over the past half century has been toward God who is not only vividly present but deeply kind” (xvi). Yes, I’ve seen this, but the resources have been present throughout church history. Ever read the spiritual writings of the monks and nuns who focus on Song of Solomon?

She traces this new view of God to 1967 and focuses on Lonnie Frisbee, whose influential was big in the Jesus freaks and who himself was outed as gay and who died of AIDS, but before that was a dynamic presence with Chuck Smith in California evangelicalism. I remember the days … and then along comes John Wimber. Differences appear in the late 60s and 70s, but it was probably not as substantive as Luhrmann’s sketch. Anyway, she gives a good sketch of how the Vineyard came into being: it was a Southern California thing at first.

Her concern is the hyper-personalizing of God and of the intimacy of this God and how humans can know God is speaking to them. She calls this the “democratization of God” (35).

2. Her concern is how “sensible people” who live in a scientific age can believe God is personal and speaks to them. She admits this kind of Christianity “seems almost absurdly vivid” (xix) to those who are more mainstream, and she grew up there but admits to having no faith now. Which created a challenge for her — because she spent hours and hours with Vineyard folks, in their services and participating in small groups and prayer sessions.

3. Her theory is that this is all explained by “attentional learning”: “that the way you learn to pay attention determines your experience of God” (xxi). The mind learns, she argues, to talk to itself so that one side is God speaking and nudging and prompting the person to listen and to do. That is, “people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God” (xxi).  Then such persons, because they believe God is speaking, listen and live in light of what God (in their brain) has said to them.

4. Committed Christians, she says, have to learn to untrain the brain in three ways: that minds are private [that is, God invades the mind]; that persons are visible [God is invisible]; and that love is conditional and contingent upon right behavior [because God’s love is not conditional or contingent].

5. This process works in changing people. The challenge is to remap the brain to the biblical view of God so that the biblical brain trains the human how to live in a Christian manner.

6. She is not commenting on whether this is true; she’s a “social scientist” on a hunt for how this works in the brain. And she’ll admit that if God works, this is how God works. She’s concerned to see how those mental processes work in Vineyard Christians.

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  • phil_style

    This is a really interesting subject. I had my first “faith crisis” as a late teenager when I was reflecting on my own prayer time. I recall a moment of sheer horror when I suddenly realised that the mind processes I used to “hear the voice of God” were the very same processes I used to imagine things.

    It was at this point I became much more skeptical of the “god voice” in my head, much more aware that the things going on up there could very well be my own imaginings.

  • DRT

    I expect that most people who feel god is talking to them are simply talking to themselves. It is very easy to do. And I get quite uneasy when people blame/credit god for their conclusions and the lead, though I also don’t doubt that god often speaks to us.

    I have adopted the attitude that if I think god is talking to me then his message would stand up under intense scrutiny so I use the thoughts as ideas to examine through a period of discernment. The problem is that people tend to skip that step when they think it is god talking.

  • There’s a lot we could say about this, but one thing that I was always taught from scripture is that so many characters in scripture thought they heard God and then asked for a sign or some kind of confirmation.

    I could share some stories along those lines, but I’ll just share one of the most basic ones. While at a grocery store, I saw a woman struggling to pay her bill. I prayed for her, quietly to myself. While praying, I clearly heard God tell me to take a twenty out of my wallet. I found her in the parking lot and gave it to her as an act of obedience. She began crying and hugged me because she had gone $20 over her budget that week and was praying that evening for God’s help.

    Was I just talking to myself? I don’t know. I think I do that sometimes, but that’s why it’s so important to pray in community and to seek confirmation. I could have just been giving a woman a $20, but in that particular circumstance, I believe God was directing me. There have been plenty of other times when God has spoken to me and another Christian has helped confirm it or God has sent a confirmation of some sort. Sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes I’m right.

  • I never gave much thought to the way the spiritual world is filtered through our minds until reading Luhrmann’s book (despite the fact that I was a member of the Chicago Vineyard during Luhrmann’s time there and filled out many of her psychological questionnaires).
    I have had too many experiences of the sort described above by Ed Cyzewski to ever doubt that God does indeed speak within our minds. However, this book has prompted me to marvel at the complex ways in which our unique brains do seem to shape (and to some extent determine?) our relationship with our maker.

  • I’ve seen enough of the type of thing she’s speaking of to be aware that self-talk in the name of God happens. Problem: How exactly do you PROVE anything either way? Showing that “this is how the brain works in these other cases” does not prove that “this is how the brain works when you think God is talking to you.” Ed’s experience (#3) indicates (to me at least) that either there are some really amazing self-talk coincidences, or that God does speak specifically at times to us.

  • Bill

    You are probably right in suggesting this is not new. Familiarity with God has always been there and has been expressed in significant ways – Here are some examples by century-
    17th Century – The Boehmists on the Continent and the Quakers in England
    18th Century – The beginning stages of Methodism
    19th Century – The holiness movement (which is still impacting American Christianity)

    I am convinced that knowing God in a familiar way is part of what is meant when people are described as “filled with the (Holy) Spirit” in the New Testament.

  • Jon Stovell

    DRT: Although Scot did not mention it in his post above, Vineyard prayer practices are acutely aware of the potential problem that one might confuse thoughts generated from oneself with those from God, and a significant part of the practices are dedicated to handling that well. First, Vineyard encourages people to always adopt a position of tentativeness about what they hear. The recognition is always there that one may have misheard what God had to say. Second, a series of checks are also conducted before one starts to put confidence in a “word,” including alignment with Scripture and whether others in the church community have also heard the same. Third, the decision on whether to accept any message as authentic always lies with the people to whom the message is directed. If I hear a word for you, I share it in a form like “I think the Spirit might be saying such-and-such. Does that make sense to you?” It is is ultimately up to you to decide about it, not me.

  • Rick in IL

    For me, two of the big differences between “self-talk” and “hearing from God” is that 1) self-talk usually tells me what I want to hear and enjoy following through on. God-Talk tells me what I don’t want to hear. and 2) Self-talk is usually predictable in where it goes. God’s voice pulls stuff out of thin air.

  • Jim

    I liken hearing the voice of God to hearing the voice of my mother. Since I enjoyed years of an active and positive relationship with my mother before she died, I can still sense her presence and hear her voice. I sense her guidance, not in any direct sense, but by means of her “presence” via memory and the influence she had upon my life and thinking.

    Since i have spent and continue to spend hours in God’s word I have taken God’s “voice” into my mind (& heart, etc). I sense God’s presence and guidance, not in a direct sense, but in terms of how his word has shaped my life, mind and heart.

    i.e. the more I sink into the word of God in scripture, the more likely I am to “hear” the voice of God.

  • Amos Paul

    So she’s trying not to tell us what is or isn’t ‘true’, but presumes to make a point like:

    >The mind learns, she argues, to talk to itself so that one side is God speaking and nudging and prompting the person to listen and to do. That is, “people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God”


    If her point is that Christians train themselves to talk to themselves and think that it’s God, then she is indeed saying that the ‘God’ part of it is untrue so that this state looks like psychosis (even if she doesn’t want to call it that).

    There are a variety of observations I could make here. But, firstly, who doesn’t talk to themselves already? Don’t we all know what that’s like?

    Moreover, whether it’s Vineyard, ancient Monatism, early Methodism, or whatever–‘hearing’ from God cannot be separate from ‘testing’ the Spirits. It’s either true or it isn’t. We don’t hold it subjectively or as somehow distinct from a ‘scientific’ worldview. That doesn’t even make sense to me.

    I’ll agree with the point about training yourself to pay attention to detail. After all, we Christians often talk about the still small voice that Elijah had to hear in order to find God. But I very much disagree about needing to ‘untrain’ the brain the ways she discusses.

    Indeed, my experience is ever so much the opposite of what she says. I had to believe that God *doesn’t* ‘invade’ my mind in order to interact with Him but, rather, speaks through the mind He crafted and which I already possess. Moreover, that when I have eyes to see and ears to hear–God can in some ways be seen and heard rather than be thoroughly invisible. And finally, that God is a part of me preveniently and engages with me whether I deserve Him to or not.

    I guess you could call those 3 beliefs a kind of ‘re-training’ of the mind. But certainly not a method of re-training to the mind to somehow operate differently. Instead, they are ways of re-thinking who you think God is so that you might be open to the possibility of His still small voice.

  • MikeK

    Just a few comments in passing (not having read the book…yet):

    I was a little surprised that Luhrmann omitted comment on reflexivity in her book. No: really surprised. For those with the stamina: read Margaret Archer.

    To be sure, we’re all involved with self-talk, and for those who pray, in varying degrees, we hear from God. Those are two different activities, but why Luhrmann omitted engagement with Archer (or others) on reflexivity makes this very peculiar.

    But, that omission doesn’t detract from this interesting book.

    Also, I’m not sure why “the mind” and “the brain” are made synonymous. I would suggest reading John Searle’s book, The Mind, for a very helpful and clear distinction of the two.

  • Jon

    Isn’t it ironic that nobody in the comments thus far has appealed to scripture or Jesus’ own practice and commands in this area? Was paul then just hearing his voice when he ‘was led’ to Macedonia? Was Jesus just thinking to himself that he should spend a month in the desert? I ask sincerely how luge man understands this data.

  • Amos Paul


    Some of us have hit on some Scriptural touchstones (I did). But it doesn’t seem that anyone (including myself) attempted pulling out chapter/verse references to setup some sort of Scriptural arugmentation because, at least for me, an argument appealing to the authority of Scripture did not seem to be the right kind of argument in response to a non-Scriptural sociological analysis of praxis.

    The author, Luhrhmann, is not a Christian. She simply spent two years ‘studying’ some praxis specifically at some Vineyards.

  • Rana

    Interesting. I was thinking about this yesterday when I was at an exercise studio, picked up a free magazine and noticed the family name and first name of a writer that piqued my interest, I then came home went on FB and saw her name crediting her inspirational quote. At first I thought wow, maybe God … Then I read more about her and realized she is part of a big health, well-being, music festival taking place this month an hour away. And then I realized, it wasn’t God speaking to me, it was just really good marketing, repetition, framing. I’m still interested in her work, just no longer think God is speaking to me 🙂

    On that note, last year I was disappointed when a well known Reformed leader, author promoted and released a book on abortion when a Republican pro-life Congress person in this author’s hometown was up against a Democrat pro-choice candidate and abortion became a central issue in this local election.

    I see this same issue and tactic being played even now. Currently there is a film out about abortion, made by Christians, the story is actually inspired by a friend of mine from high school/ college youth group. Anyhow, I’m happy my friend’s story of surviving an abortion is being told but I have to ask myself, why is this film being made/ released NOW? Months before a Presidential election? When we all know many single issue voters, I used to be one! And what better way to fire up an election than ignite the ever sustainable fires of culture wars and talk about abortion?

    For what it is worth, I do not advocate for abortions and I am not enamored with Obama.

    I do think as Christians our witness would be better off supporting the fatherless widows and orphans instead of politicizing our faith (coming from a woman who for many years genuinely believed, because she heard it over and over again form the Calvary Chapel pulpit, that Christians ONLY vote Republican, Christian EQUALS Conservative).

  • Amos, Jon,

    is it not possible that God uses exactly the mental processes described by Luhrmann, and which are nourished through whatever we immerse ourselves in, i.e. Scripture and the things of God, to speak to us? It is not for nothing that most of the people credibly describing such experiences are either godly, scripture-soaked believers or else (I am thinking of some of the reports from Moslem countries) earnest God- and Truth-Seekers. And that these things ARE somewhat subjective (i.e. depending on our mind) is borne out by the insistance of the NT writers that such experiences be tested against the Word of God and do not in themselves have the standing of divine revelation.

  • I have not read the book but I listened to a fascinating interview with Lehrmann on NPSR’s Fresh Air

    I thought it quite interesting that she admitted to having experienced God during her research although she did have difficulty describing what that was.

  • I don’t think Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Moses, Amos, John the Baptist, trained half their brain to be a mock ventriloquist for God. Most people who heard from God in Scripture, heard things they really had no desire to hear.

  • MikeK

    Fawn Parish,
    Great! Add Abraham, and for that matter, Adam and Eve…

  • Sherman Nobles

    I’ve often heard God speak to me very personally and directly and often things I did not wish to hear. I believe so because 1) I think scripture affirms that such is normative for the Christian, 2) personal experience and the testimony of others confirms such, 3) tradition affirms people hearing God speak to them, and 4) it only makes sense if one believes that God is love. Love communicates and communication is a major key in any relationship.

    Why do some people hear God more than others? I believe we all hear God, most simply don’t recognize it’s Him though and attribute it to their own mind as some random thought. How many times have you had the thought “go this way” only to go the other way and suffer accordingly, or go that way and be amazed at it resulting favorably?

    Thus a major factor in why some people hear God and others do not is because some people believe that God wants to and does speak to people today and others do not. That’s just one factor of course, though it’s a significant factor. Other factors include one’s calling and experience. It only makes sense to me that those who are called as leaders and equipers in the body of Christ would hear God speak more; and those who by reason of use, experience, have trained themselves to listen to hear God’s voice would hear more.

  • Tom F.

    Has God become more intimate and personal over the 20th century?

    Yes, because American post-industrial life is socially isolating. If the Israelites looked to God to provide good crops (in a petitionary way, not a manipulative way), then it would make sense that we would accentuate the ways God is intimate and personal in the midst of industrial and post-industrial isolation.

    Does the spiritual world interact with our brain?

    Well, yes. This gets into issues of theological anthropology, and relates to some of the stuff RJS has done on spirit/soul/mind/body. I think that spirit/soul/mind/body are not separate things, but rather aspects of our whole, unitary selves. For me, something spiritual is also mindful (cognitive) is also embodied and so on and so forth.

    Consider “hearing” God. If you hear God speak to you, presumably you are using the part of your brain involved in language comprehension, right? How else would it work unless you had a separate “soul” that could also understand language. But that seems awful redundant for your soul to have a completely independent capacity to understand language, if your brain is normally involved in understanding regular speech.

    Why do some Christians have such an experience of hearing from God, while others don’t?

    Different expectations and different needs. Part of it is how much a given Christian culture is concerned about false positives or false negatives in hearing from God. If you are more concerned about false positives (people who think they heard from God but really didn’t), than you will tend to make the barriers really high, expecting an awful lot of external confirmation and so on before that experience is viewed as genuine.

    Other cultures may be much more concerned with false negatives. That is, these cultures would be afraid that God might be trying to say something, but people aren’t listening. These cultures might have much less stringent guards on what is necessary to deem an experience of hearing from God as genuine.

    It seems to me that different social situations and historical circumstances might affect which is worse, false positives or false negatives. Individual differences obviously play a role. And as such, I don’t necessarily think that there is a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the levels of experienced “hearing” from God. God is responsive to human needs in particular human communities. Christians need not feel deficient either because they experience “too much” or “too little” direct communication from God.

    BTW, I worship at a Vineyard church that is a little different from the one that Luhrmann surveyed. We talk about hearing from God a lot, but I think we also talk a lot about discerning in community, about hearing God not just through “inner” aspects, but also as he speaks to us through relationships and the entire body of Christ.

    I think there is a big story here about the role of “inner” experience (a la Augustine, Teresa of Avila) in discerning God’s voice. An argument can be made that the Western church has overly privileged this “inner” experience in ways that would have been foreign to Jesus, who balanced inner experience with discerning what God was doing externally (e.g., love between believers, spiritual fruit of character, healing and restoration “signs”, ect.)

  • In the scripture, there is an example of an audible voice from God along with three different types of reactions. The different perceptions of the voice of God may have been related to the mental attitudes of receptivity of the potential listeners.

    John 12:28 “Father,glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. 30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine.”

    There were three perceptions of the voice.

    [1] At least John heard the voice, recognized the words, and identified the source as being God. Else how could he have written about it? Others of the 12 disciples probably heard it correctly, also, since “your” in vs 30 is plural.

    [2] Some heard at least a voice containing words, but they misidentified the source, assuming it was some lesser spiritual source such as an angel. “Hmmm. Wonder what that was. Ho hum.” Ask them if they had heard from God, they would probably have said, “No, way!”

    [3] Some heard the voice but assumed that it was just noise and made a natural explanation to take the place of the supernatural voice of God. “Didn’t know rain was in today’s forecast.”

    Don’t we see these group types today? I wonder how many times God has tried to speak to me, and all I heard was noise that just fit in with all the other sounding brass and clinking cymbals that were occupying my attention.

  • Amos Paul

    @Tom F

    That was a great post. Interesting to see all the Vineyard folks come out of the woodworks.

  • alastair

    ill join Amos and say great post. very thankful for this.

  • al.t

    I have been really interested in this post – like most experiencing the inner voice of ‘God’ in daily Christian living – and that includes a healing ministry. Let’s just say – I have fallen fowl of the inner guidance thing – and seen many a word that just went wrong – from the platform or even in the hospital when ministering to the sick. One thing I note with the inner stuff – you rally can’t authenticate something your imagination does not really know – that’s why words of knowledge are kinda vague, and very general. I have NOT seen the inner leading interact with the phenomenal world – to demonstrate the ‘intelligence’ behind a word, picture or text given. It’s not like the way Jesus did it – He definitely had supernatural knowledge invading the phenomenal world. Even the doubters SAW the miracles. But at the same time – I have experienced – not an interior leading, but an exterior one, as in Job 33:14…where God spoke TO me, or AT me, in a vision, dream or audible voice. This was not the same as the looking inside myself stuff (that Wimber taught). I read nowhere in the NT where the disciples practices the interior thing. What is seen is supernatural incursion into the phenomenal world, via angels, spirits, voices or whatever – you don’t hear of that ministry these days! I believe that we need to get back to this, rather than looking inside our own self for leadings – for sure our own brain (or fallen man within) will easily accommodate this. I say if you know this inner voice so well; can you reveal mysteries, the secrets of men’s hearts, can you act and see a results in the phenomenal world? Impressions, leadings, words etc – in the mind are just that. Did God not say: “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways”. Seems like we are moving entirely in the former – our own thoughts, imaginations – with no exterior divine incursion whatsoever! Look at the data you generate in ministry – it’s not like the Acts of the apostles – it’s hit or miss, with placebo effect in many cases. What I want to see is genuine divine ministry that has an evidence base in the phenomenal world. Jesus only did the things the Father showed him (in vision) – we do things our imaginations tell us – that’s why we have such lousy results!