I have friends and family members who have told me that God speaks to them. I know these people are perfectly sane, and I wanted to better understand what they had experienced. Having read a number of interesting New York Times columns on this topic by Stanford professor T. M. Luhrmann, I turned to her book When God Talks Back for further elucidation.
Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist, undertook a years-long study of evangelical Christians who experience the voice of God or were encouraged to do so by their church communities. She explores “theory of mind” as it applies to people who have these sorts of experiences. (As I understand it, the standard inferred theory of mind explains a child’s development of the understanding that her mind is separate from others’—that other people do not know what she is thinking and that they may perceive the world differently than she does.) The theory of mind that evangelicals must develop to hear God’s voice requires that they come to know their minds in a new way: that there is a space inside their minds where God might communicate with them, an internal space available to an external entity. They might hear voices or see things that, although not real in the way a table or a book is real, are real nonetheless. Luhrmann is clear—devotes an entire chapter to explaining—that these people are not crazy. Rather they have developed tools or techniques (not tricks) to make themselves more receptive to communication with God. Luhrmann says that if God does exist, these people are open to experiencing God in a way that differs greatly from the way most people do.
In addition to exploring the minds of evangelicals, Luhrmann explores the recent history of American Protestant Christianity and the development of today’s charismatic Christians, which she describes as having arisen out of the blending of the Pentecostalism of the 1930s and the Jesus Freaks of the ‘60s. And she reviews older forms of Christian prayer, including the devotional exercises developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, which some modern evangelicals employ. Like any good academic, she cites relevant studies (including the work of William James), but she also cites Old and New Testament passages, C. S. Lewis, Richard Foster, and Rick Warren.
When God Talks Back is meticulously documented with a massive bibliography and lengthy notes. But it is not dry. It is thoughtful and intriguing. I’ve no doubt that many readers would expect this sort of examination of evangelicals to be hostile or condescending, but it is not. Although she does not always know what to make of the experiences she describes, Luhrmann is not dismissive. She describes many Christians as having a faith that struggles with doubt; she appears to be a scientist filled with doubt struggling with faith. I was touched by a tender note near the end of the book’s acknowledgments: “I have been thinking about God ever since my grandfather, a minister, walked across the park with me when I was six and tried to explain who he thought God was. My mother, his daughter, continued the conversation, and my father and sisters helped me to know what I know of grace.” She has brought some of that grace to this book.