[This is the fifth and final in a series of posts on the American Evangelical relationship with God by T.M. Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back. For more conversation on this book, visit the Patheos Book Club.]
Imagination changes people, not just because of the content of what they imagine, but because the sheer attention to what is imagined makes what is imagined more vivid. The medieval mystics sought to fill their minds only with God, so that the very structure of their thought would be scriptural. That is the tradition that these modern evangelicals follow when they go for walks with God, and have coffee with God, and seek in their minds for the images and words they feel that God is giving them for their prayer.
But more than content changes for those who prayed. As people became more adept at prayer, those who loved to pray would talk about how their inner world became more vivid. They were able to get more absorbed in their prayers. Their senses seemed sharper, and more alive. The God they imagined felt more emotionally deep for them, and more real. Sometimes they reported unusual sensory experience, in which they heard or felt or saw something that was not materially present, as if they had perceived it with their senses.
My research explains that these changes are the result of inner attention—what I call inner sense cultivation, because the prayer practice involves using the mind’s inner senses to attend. I have found that some people are temperamentally better at this practice than others, but that most people, however comfortable they are to begin with, develop their ability with time. Certain prayer practices enhance this development, which is why those practices have stood the test of time: prayers that use inner images, prayers that use personal memories, prayers that interweave external givens and personal responses. Those that practice do indeed seem to be more able or more likely to hear God speak audibly, or to see an angel’s wing. That does not mean that they are crazy, my research found. It means that their inner world is alive.
Questions or comments for Dr. Luhrmann about experiencing God? Leave them below. And join us for a LIVE CHAT with the author on Friday, April 27, from 2-3 pm at the Patheos Book Club!