As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I am reading T.M. Luhrmann’s book—When God Talks Back. Dr. Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist. The book focuses on her investigation of the way prayer works for evangelical Christians. Specifically, she has researched charismatic evangelical Christians within the Vineyard denomination.
While I am not going to fully treat the book here—and, in reality, I am only using the book as a jumping off point—I cannot recommend this book too strongly. Simply put, it is scholarly, accessible, charitable, and challenging.
Dr. Luhrmann has been arguing that, if God interacts personally with people, then he does so through our natural psychology and biology. She has argued that prayer—at least the model put forward by evangelicals—encourages people to develop a “social relationship” with God. In order to do this, people must suspend three basic assumptions: First, that minds are private. Second, that persons are visible. And, third, that love is conditional. Then, she argues, people must develop certain psychological habits whereby they are able to “hear” God. She spends much of the book describing various practices which allow people to perceive God. For instance, people must give deep meaning to alien thoughts—that is, people must ascribe meaning to random flashes of thought typically considered distracting and random. Or, people must cultivate their imaginations whereby they imagine sitting down with God for a talk or going on a walk with him.
Those people in her study who claimed to have the best “relationship” with God were those people who were able to successfully imagine God. To imagine spending time with him as one would spend time with a friend. In fact, such people agreed that God is like an imaginary friend, except real. These people are able to sense which thoughts in their heads are from God, which images are from him, which sounds are from him, etc. Essentially, some people are able to—psychologically speaking—socially interact with an external person created out of internal thoughts and emotions. Now, of course, this makes no comment about God’s existence. People could be truly imagining this relationship in the same way that children have imaginary friends. Or, of course, the friend could turn out to be real.
In any case, I am in the middle of the chapter titled The Skill of Prayer in which she argues that people who are skilled in this sort of hyper-imaginative sort of prayer—which she in other places calls kataphatic prayer—are also easily caught up in a novel or a movie or hypnosis. That is, people with a certain personality type—dreamers, imaginers, artists, creative writers—are more easily able to cultivate a personal relationship with God.
This makes sense. If we are going to describe prayer as the means by which one maintains a relationship with God—in the same way that one maintains a relationship with another person—then we would be interested in techniques which allow people to as personally and really as possible perceive God. God is, of course, anthropomorphized in such techniques, which isn’t the problem per se. The problem is that God is invisible and immaterial, and so he has to be imagined.
But what about people who don’t really have active imaginations? What about people who find it highly difficult to spend large quantities of time locked in their own heads? What about scientists (maybe this is one reason the vast majority of scientists are not believers), engineers, and people who are innately pragmatic? Or, in my case, what about external processors?
If God is real, and if he is personal, then he interacts with people according to their own nature.
Here is my deal: I am an external processor. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I am an introvert (though not terribly strongly so), but I think out loud. I think by talking things out. When I can’t do that, I tend to write, which is not quite as good as talking things out, but it gets the job done. But, more than that—and please hear me—it is virtually impossible for me to sit in silence and think. Think about that. I cannot organize my thoughts, get a handle on what I am feeling, or reach conclusions unless I externalize. And often, in speaking aloud, I go through many revisions before I am satisfied with what I have said.
So what am I supposed to do when I am told that I should treat God like I would a person? I am supposed to imagine God. I am then supposed to hold that image/feeling of God in my mind and spend time with him just like I would a human being. Except it’s impossible for me to do. While I could talk out loud to empty air all day long—and I have done so—I know full well that the reason why external processing works for me is because I know I am being heard.
I guess I get why people made idols. It externalizes God in a tangible form. I can talk to the golden calf. And, I suppose, while I know he won’t talk back, it’s still easier than holding an other-image in my head and talking to it. This reminds me a bit of Cast Away when Tom Hanks invents Wilson. While, for the Hanks character, Wilson was an external representation of his ego or super-ego, the way he interacts with the volleyball is startlingly similar to the way some evangelical Christians interact with God.
The problem, as I see it, is that the phrase personal relationship with its associated anthropomorphic characteristics has come to dominate the way we conceive of God, despite the fact that no writer in the New Testament even describes such a way of thinking about God. The closest we get is Paul and Jesus referring to God as Abba (daddy), but for Paul it was about the corporate response of the church to God and, well, Jesus may have had a special thing going given that he is the son of God. This is, of course, not to diminish the fact that we can view God as our daddy so much as it is to say that, perhaps, we need to be a bit more careful about the way we set expectations for the way people interact with God.
Let’s straighten out a few things: First, the Godhead is not human (the second person of the trinity became human in Jesus, but neither you nor I have ever actually met Jesus). Second, Jesus’ first disciples could have a personal relationship with Jesus in the human sense. He was as real to them as your mother is to you. We, however, are not afforded this luxury. Third, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to indwell his followers after he ascended. The Holy Spirit is, as his title would imply, spirit and, therefore, not flesh.
My point is that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to our relationship with God. I suppose I mean that not everyone does or can experience God in a kind of social relationship, and we should stop setting that as the bar.
Tomorrow I will post a blog describing how I—a verbally processing INTJ—approach prayer. Perhaps I can offer a viable alternative to praying against our personality quirks.