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.