[This is the second 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.]
How do you recognize God’s voice? At a church like the one I studied, people speak about hearing God’s “voice.” They talk about things God has “said” to them about very specific topics—where they should go to school and whether they should volunteer in a daycare—and newcomers are often confused by what they mean.
The basic presumption that the mind is separate from the world is one of the most definitive achievements of childhood development. By the age of three, more or less, toddlers have developed what psychologists call “theory of mind.” They understand that what people think may be different from what has happened in the world. They know that their own thoughts cannot be known by other people unless they tell them.
The task of becoming a Christian—at least, this kind of Christian–demands that someone learns to overcome this fundamental human awareness that our minds are private. In effect, the task asks these Christians to develop a new theory of mind in which the mind-world barrier is a sieve, not a wall. Congregants say that God wants to be your friend; that you develop that relationship through prayer; that prayer is hard work and requires effort and training; and that when you develop that relationship, God will answer back, through thoughts and mental images he places in your mind, and through sensations he causes in your body.
These evangelical Christians, then, not only have to accept the basic idea that they can experience God directly, but they must learn to pick out the thoughts that count as God’s and learn to trust that they really are God’s, not their own, and they have to do so in a way that does not violate the realistic demands of the everyday world. To an observer, what is striking is how hard people work to feel confident that the God who speaks to them in their mind is also the real external God who led the Jews out from slavery and died upon the cross.
Questions or comments for Dr. Luhrmann about experiencing God? Leave them below and she’ll respond in a video to air at the Book Club later next week.
Also join us for a LIVE CHAT with the author on Friday, April 27, from 2-3 pm at the Patheos Book Club!