When God talks back


First aired on Tapestry (18/01/13)

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Imagine having a best-friend you could always rely on. Feeling lonely? Your best-friend is always up for a long walk or a casual cup of coffee. Feeling nervous about going on that big first date? No matter the time, your best-friend is always willing to lend an ear and their advice. Feeling stressed? You can always rely on your best-friend to tell you a good joke or help figure out a solution to your problems.

Now imagine that best-friend is God.

Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, spent hundreds of hours immersing herself in parish life to learn how God becomes real enough to people that they claim to hear the deity.

One of the women she met suggested that to find out what God means to the parishioners, Luhrmann should go get a cup of coffee with God.

"It became clear that she experienced God like a person among people -- that she hung out with him, she giggled with him, she laughed with him, she danced with him," Luhrmann told CBC's Tapestry. "And I was just so intrigued that I wanted to know how somebody did that."

She found many people in the church sought this intimate relationship with God. The pastor even once compared God to a best-friend. Luhrmann learned this desire for a personal, almost friendship with God in the 20th century originated from the Christian hippie movement.

"These kids who started out, you know, yearning for experience, dropping acid and, at one point, traded out acid for God," she said.

So, many parishioners now talk to God about everything -- from pre-job interview jitters to an upcoming hair cut appointment -- and God responds. But some novice church-goers start out uncertain of this relationship, said Luhrmann. They start going to church saying they don't know what others mean when they say God speaks to them. Within six to 12 months, she says, more often than not, they too are hearing God.

"They're learning to imagine their mind differently," said Luhrmann, who says she does not know whether or not God exists. She simply conducted a study to determine how people come to hear the deity.

People learn to open up their minds, which are usually considered private, and give God room to speak in their minds. Parishioners learn to think that maybe some thoughts are coming from God.

The church calls this process of determining which thoughts might be messages from God discernment, and people look for thoughts:

  • That stand out and may not have been something they were thinking at the time.
  • That are in keeping with God's character, such as God not wanting people to hurt themselves or anyone else -- except for Abraham, who God tested by asking him to sacrifice his son.
  • That make them feel good and give them a sense of peace.

But possible messages from God are not just blindly accepted, she explained. When the message would require a behavioural change -- such as moving to a far-away city -- the interpretation is tested: the pastor weighs in, others pray about it and it is discussed at a prayer group.

Throughout her time immersing herself at the church and conducting her study, Luhrmann learned that faith is not just about belief. "Faith is about learning to hold certain attitudes and learning to experience the world in particular ways," she said. "It is a learning process and it continues throughout life."

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