[This is the third 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.]
The hardest thing for a congregant to grasp is that they are loved unconditionally by God. Unconditional love is not part of the human experience after infancy, after the crawling, reaching baby learns that love comes with expectations of right behavior.
At some point in my interviews, as I sat with a teacup in my hand and my taperecorder running on the coffee table, some of the people I was interviewing would start to cry. They did this when they began to describe their relationship with God as something deeply precious, private, special. They seemed to cry because the emotions they felt were so tender, as if they were afraid that if they exposed the relationship to the light it might begin to fade, lose a little of its power, the way the adored fluffy Snoopy of your childhood can seem small and shabby when you find it years later in an attic box. When they cried, they described the moment when they got it—really got it—that God loved them just as they were.
One of the things that is so striking to an onlooker at a church like this is that there are so many emotional practices—so many specific behaviors involving emotions, like crying as other people pray for you, or learning to talk to God the way you would talk to a therapist, or learning to see things from God’s point of view rather than your own. These are all practices that encourage congregants to feel unconditionally loved by God. These practices share a good deal with psychotherapy, and they have a great side benefit. They enable churches like the Vineyard to deliver emotionally to their congregants—to make their congregants feel better about themselves—even when the faith of those congregants is weak. These emotional practices can make it worth your while to go to church even if you don’t quite yet believe, completely and entirely, in this God.
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!