Thinking in Public Tanya Luhrmann When God Talks Back? 11-8-2012 52:37
Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I am Albert Mohler, your host and President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Tanya Luhrmann is currently the Watkins University Professor in the anthropology department at Stanford University. She’s been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and she has also been the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. Her newest book is entitled, When God Talks Back, understanding the American evangelical relationship with God. Tanya Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist. She has been looking at American Evangelicals and her perspective is something that American Evangelicals should not miss.
Professor Luhrmann, how in the world did you come up with the idea for this project that became the book, When God Talks Back?
Luhrmann: Well actually I was doing a somewhat different project in Southern California and I was at a church, an evangelical church, talking to this young blonde woman and she said if you really want to understand my church, you should have coffee with God. And I had never heard anything like that before. She said that she talked to God over coffee every day. It was clear that she regarded God sort of as a person among people. It was obvious that God was big and mighty and beyond, but he also seems to be very intimate and I found that fascinating. I wanted to know how people did it, what it was like for them, what it meant to them.
Mohler: Well you define your own field, as that of a psychological anthropologist and you certainly demonstrate the skills of that discipline in terms of this book, but my guess is that you are telling us that your first interest was really that of an anthropological tug. You heard something that you hadn’t heard before and it sounds to me like you were very curious to figure out what all this means.
Luhrmann: That’s right and I mean the sense of how what must be imagined becomes real to people has just tugged at me all my life. Some people I met were able to make what they imagined very available, and others were not. Let me be clear in saying God is not imaginary. God is not visible. So if you are able to have this intimate relationship with the invisible you’ve got to be able to use your imagination. I think that that is remarkable.
Mohler: I want to talk about the tools of your trade here for just a moment, because I think that will help all of us understand the approach you’ve taken and the fascinating insights that you offer in terms of this new book, When God Talks Back. As a psychological anthropologist your main tool seems to be observation, a phenomenological approach to watching what people are doing and listening attentively to what they are saying. So you say in your book in another writings, you’re really not addressing the question of whether or not God exists, you are dealing with how these individuals you observed in the congregation, in particular, how it actually operates theologically.
Luhrmann: That’s right, theologically but also socially and psychologically. The church can’t determine whether God is present for somebody who says that they have experienced God, but I think that the church is better able than I am to begin to come to a determination. What I was able to do is to say, when did people say that they experienced God powerfully and personally. Or there are different kinds of people and what kinds of practices were they doing and what could I see about the way those practices changed them. So in fact I actually included in my tool kit the methods of the psychologists. So I did an addition to observation and let me take a quick sidebar- I did a ton of observation. I went to church for two years in two different settings I went to house groups, and prayer groups, I participated in a prayer training process talked to lots and lots of people. But I also ran an experiment in which I randomized people into prayer practice vs. non-prayer practice to see if my hunches, to see if what I observed was true in that prayer practicing changed the way people experienced themselves.
Mohler: I had been familiar with your work by looking at your previous work “Of Two Minds” and when I saw the new book out I actually picked it up at a Barnes and Noble in Manhattan when I was passing through. Just brand new, the sales person was literally putting it on the table and I picked it up and I want to tell you I was prepared to be offended. I read a lot of anthropological work and so I though this is going to be condescending but it’s not and I want to tell you how much I appreciate the care with which you have obviously and transparently sought to understand those who were in one sense subjects of your research.
Luhrmann: Yes well you talked about the thing that tugged at me and I would say that what really tugged was that back when I was a child I grew up between spiritual traditions. So my mom is the daughter of a Baptist minister and my father is the son of a Christian Scientist. My mother drifted from the church and my father became a doctor. We grew up in this orthodox Jewish neighborhood and so I saw all these wise good people with very different understandings of the ultimate reality. I can’t imagine being snippy about that or condescending about that. It just seems to me that these profound commitments people make to the way the world is and I also find something deeply moving about the religious commitment because it is a commitment to view the world better than we find it. And that we are transformed through that understanding. I find that terribly moving.
Mohler: In terms of your work you were clearly looking for a particular kind of congregation to observe. The word evangelical is even within evangelicalism a very contested concept, but you were looking for a particular kind of evangelical. Tell us how you arrived at the congregation in terms of choosing the congregation you would observe for this research.
Luhrmann: So I was looking for a congregation in which God talked back, in which people had an intimate interactive experience with God and felt that they knew God more or less like a person or at least that was one dimension of God, their experience of God. And so I went to a number of different churches and it turned out that there was a church across the street from me that was the Vineyard Christian fellowship and was this kind of church. As a matter of fact the first time I went I didn’t realize I found the church I was looking for because it wasn’t dramatic or startling. Nobody was speaking in tongues in the service. Then for some reason I went back and I realized that this was the kind of church where people were deliberately seeking to have a back and forth relationship with God.
Mohler: When I saw that you had chosen a Vineyard congregation my first thought was she’s not going to know that this isn’t necessarily representative of all of evangelicalism, but you actually made that very clear. You were looking for a particular congregation, the kind with a mode of spirituality and a theology, in which there was this participatory understanding of their relationship with God that goes beyond, as you know, where most classified evangelicals would be. Such as date night with God, not only having coffee with God as a metaphor, but literally pouring a cup of coffee for God, that’s a fairly new development, in a certain subculture of evangelicalism.
Luhrmann: It is. At the same time the Research Center found that nearly a quarter of Americans have a “Renewalist Christianity.” That they had a Christianity in which they had a direct experience of divinity and so I’m tempted to think that the Vineyard experience is not that unusual. You can find the reaching for that kind of experience in Rick Warren’s books, even though in the Purpose Driven Life book, Warren will say, “Don’t go after God for the experience.” He’s also inviting you to experience God as a best friend. So of course you’re right, this one kind of evangelical experience among many styles of evangelicalism. I think it represents a big strain in the theologically conservative commitment in Christianity. I do think it arises, in the 1960’s for specific social reasons. Should I say a little bit about that?
Mohler: Please do.
Luhrmann: I see this kind of spirituality as coming out of the encounter of the hippie Christians with old-time evangelical religion. And it emerged, I think the hippie Christians play a much more important role in the history of American Christianity than many of us realize. I think what they did was to bring the thirst for experience into the center of the religious experience and as their Christianity expanded it was a Christianity that appealed to people who were very much not hippies themselves. I think the reason it’s so compelling is because of what I will call the “climate of doubt,” and I don’t mean that Christians are necessarily struggling with doubt or even warming the question of whether they doubt that God exists, but I think it’s hard in the post 60’s America to be a Christian and not be aware that there are other people who are not Christians.
Mohler: Well I want to compliment that way you did that. You do take your reader through a rather sophisticated understanding of how the hippie Christians became “congregationalized” you might say and I knew, she’s going to go to Calvary Chapel and you did. To Chuck Smith, and you explain that very well. You document the split between John Wember and the Calvary Chapel movement and how you end up with the Vineyard Churches, so you really do tell that story in a way that helps even evangelicals, especially those who didn’t live through that period, to understand something of how we arrive at this particular point. I know you’re not a theologian, but even as a psychological anthropologist you really do get into theology. I think the most interesting part of the introduction to your book is where you set the stage for this massive theological shift. I am going to read to you from your own writing.
“It is indeed a striking God, this modern God imagined by so many American evangelicals. Each generation meets God in its own manner. Over the last few decades,” you write, “this generation of Americans has sought out an intensely personal God; a God who not only cares about your welfare, but worries with you about whether to paint the kitchen table.”
Luhrmann: I think that’s true, I was startled when I realized just how personal and particular this experience of God was and I have to say I think it is often helpful to people to have such a specific and particular God who knows about my kitchen table and what color of paint I’m choosing, should I cut my hair?, where shall I go on vacation?, or what shirt should I wear this morning? If you are able to use your imagination specifically, then I think that what you are imagining becomes more available to you and if you think about a theology, not only as a way of saying what’s true about God but how are people able to experience God, I think that this very particular God enables people to reach out where they might be hesitant.
Mohler: You go on to describe the theological shift and I think you actually, as your argument develops, get to what had to happen prior for this kind of God who is concerned about the color of your kitchen table to emerge in contemporary evangelicalism. You write for instance, “the major shift in American spirituality over the past half century has been toward a God who is not only vividly present but deeply kind. He is no longer the benign, but distant sovereign of the old mainstream church nor is he the harsh tyrant of the Hebrew Bible, he is personal and intimate, and this new modern God is eager for the tiniest details of a worshiper’s life.” I think that is extremely perceptive and theologians have been watching this even as a psychological anthropologist has caught wind of it.
Luhrmann: That’s interesting, so why do you think that shift is taking place?
Mohler: Well I think that in terms of the shift of worldview I think a great deal of it has to do with the adaptation of theism to a largely post-Christian world in terms of the operant worldview, but I think it also has to do with this democratizing trend that is unique in terms of its acceleration in the US. You might go back and blame Jacksonian democracy as for instance some historians Nathan Hatch have and go back and say you had a process whereby it wasn’t enough for there to be a God, it has to be a personal God. So it’s tied with a lot of things, but I think you are also right to look at the shift of the 60’s where all of a sudden there is this enormous concern with the autonomous “self”- for the fulfillment of the “self”. For the “self” as a project that has to be completed and somehow God has to be the agent of making that completion.
Luhrmann: Yea, that makes very good sense to me. I sometimes talk about this kind of God as the god of a “buyers market.” People don’t need to go to church anymore, at least many parts of the country. One could have a perfectly acceptable social life without being a church go-er, there are many different churches to choose from, many different ways to be a “religious person,” and so to make God appealing in effect, that God it’s helpful to have the best of all possible Gods, to imagine that God as unconditionally loving as always available and as intimately particular.
Mohler: Well this theology that is of such obvious concern and interest to you as an anthropologist is of very great concern for me as a theologian, and deep within your book I think you uncover something of incredible theological significance when you write, this is on page 105, “the point is that the real problem with which we all struggle is not God’s judgment but our own. God believes that we are worthwhile and loves us for ourselves, we feel shameful and unworthy because we magnify our guilt and hold ourselves responsible for our pain.” I think that is a brilliant description of a huge theological shift that many pastors perceive but don’t know how to name. I think you’ve actually named it pretty well in just that one sentence.
Luhrmann: Thank you. That is really interesting, I do think that that is a terribly important way of thinking about sin that I just saw in the church. That it was not about you’ve done something wrong and God is punishing you, but that a shadow falls between you and God because of the way you have been thinking. It’s also a psychotherapeutic God.
Luhrmann: It’s like the God of the perfectly available psychoanalyst that you, the patient, imagine in all kinds of ways and what you’re learning is that when you imagine a hostile therapist, it turns out that it’s your own construction. I heard that talk about God, when people talked about other people imagining a God that would hurt them, punish them, criticize them, they were meant to discover that this was their own limitation that it had nothing to do with God.
Mohler: You also make the very interesting point that the congregation you observed had a lot of conversation about heaven, but virtually nothing about hell. The God who would judge, the God who pours our wrath upon sin, to quote you, “[this God] never, ever [is] present.”
Luhrmann: Yes, my favorite example of that is actually when somebody came to church and gave a talk at a morning teaching, he’s talked about rolling the credits in a film about Jesus’ life and he could either be there in the film or you could be on the cutting room floor and I think that’s the closest reference I ever heard on a Sunday morning to hell. That’s remarkable. I also didn’t hear much about heaven. I heard a little more about heaven than I did about hell, but it was as if the focus had collapsed to the present and to the kind of person you could be here and now if you chose to understand the world differently. And I imagine that is a very big shift. It seems to me a pretty big shift, it seems to be what I saw.
Luhrmann: The idea that there is this external place that you will go that will torture you and that God will make that judgment. It’s very alien from this kind of spirituality.
Mohler: Well even in the sources you cite in your book, we could say that this is a tremendous shift, at the very least, a shift from Jonathan Edwards to John Wimber. It’s that seismic in theological terms.
Luhrmann: Yes, well how do you understand its theological implications? I mean I can see how it works for people as an observer. It seems to me that this way of experiencing God was actually quite psychotherapeutic for people.
Mohler: Well I think as part as a theologian, I have to see that that is part of the problem. I think it misconstrues the gospel as psychotherapy whereas actually the concern should be with the God who actually exists and the God who has revealed himself in scripture: the God who tells us that he will pour out his wrath upon sin, the God who has an enormous amount of concern for his own holiness and a God who is going to send many people to hell. I understand that the congregation that you were researching isn’t really looking for that kind of God. My first concern is not the god we are looking for, but the God who is. By the way, many of the things they affirm, Professor Luhrmann, are in scripture. Many things that they affirm are absolutely true. God is for us, but he is for us in Christ, so what’s missing, as a Christian theologian is the gospel itself, which actually doesn’t even appear in any meaningful form in your research. There is nothing distinctively Christian in the theology that you describe in terms of those you observed other than the fact that they spoke of Jesus as more or less, God’s clearest sign that he is for us.
Luhrmann: I mean, of course the folks that I talked to would disagree. They would say that they come to scripture, but they come to it through the gospel and that they don’t come to Christianity through Paul. That in some ways is what the hippies discovered or that they felt that they were finding Jesus the person without this growth that came over Jesus called the church and there is something very moving to that. It is true that someone had sent me an article that said, you know if you tell people that they are going to be punished they behave more responsibly than if you tell them that they are just loved. And I think that is a deep question that The Vineyard, the church I was spending time with, would respond, “Look, what we want is to get people into the door to church and people are not going to get there if you offer them the God of Jonathan Edwards.
Mohler: Well you know that is very interesting and maybe a topic for another research project for you to undertake because the churches that are in many ways growing the fastest right now are really the churches that are preaching a Jonathan Edwards-like theology, although without the period accoutrements. You know in other words it’s an updated, in terms of style, reassertion of the same thing. You know when I hear of the kind of hippie-model of Christianity you are mentioning and that is juxtaposed with Paul, I just want to come back and say, you know this reminds me this is going to be an odd theological source for me to quote here, but it reminds me of Christopher Hitchens who said that the people who speak that way obviously haven’t actually read the gospels, because Jesus has far more to say about hell than Paul. So again, that is a very interesting model but it is an indication of a theological truncation, which I think is actually very, very dangerous.
Luhrmann: Well how much does Jesus actually say about hell? He spends a lot of time casting out demons and the churches where I spent time, would be comfortable with that idea although it’s true that the idea of demons is more salient to some members in the church than others. So they would push back and say, look at the gospels what you see is somebody who is insistent upon God, somebody who deals with demonic presence and somebody who says “follow me.” But you see part of the burden of the gospels is to put upon you, the follower, the judgment of what it is to follow Jesus.
Mohler: And again that’s fascinating. It’s just not actually the gospels. Where you have Jesus say, fear not the one who can destroy the body but fear the one who can both destroy the body and soul in hell, whose parables repeatedly go to judgment with the sheep and goats and with warnings that there will be an enormous fire in which most will be destroyed Jonathan Edwards is actually more in the gospels than the hippies you talked about. And by the way, I think someone like Chuck Smith understands that. I think that’s one of the reasons why in terms of Calvary Chapel it’s a very different model than The Vineyard Church that you observed.
Mohler: For some time now, theologians and other observers have noted this massive theological shift that has taken place not only in the American mind, but in the American church. But now along comes an anthropologist to add this kind of ammunition to our understanding of what has really happened. The transformation of the concept of God, not only in terms of a secular culture but also given the psychotherapeutic revolution and the rise of the autonomous self within many evangelical churches as well. To a greater and lesser extent, but this theological transformation has affected virtually all of American Christianity.
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Mohler: I want to shift to something else if I might here.
Mohler: And that is your particular work and the storyline of your book. And I want to give due credit to your argument and observations here, because I think that those of us who are evangelicals would do well to read this kind of work and learn about ourselves at least in terms of how we are perceived by others. You talk about for instance a theory of mind. And you suggest that what characterizes those you researched is they have developed a theory of mind that you contrast with the decidedly secular mind.
Luhrmann: So I think that to take seriously the way of understanding God in the churches where I spent time, you need to accept the idea that God can speak into your mind and is in effect an actor in your mind; that when you have a conversation with God in your mind, it’s not just your own fantasy. You’re not just imagining it, but there is actually a presence that you are interacting with. And that is very different from the way that many Americans imagine their minds. I think many Americans are invited to experience their minds as cut-off from the world, as being private, as having their own thoughts. I mean the way that psychologists would use the theory of mind is to describe children who are able to infer that other people have minds and they may not think in the same way that they do and that other people can’t read their minds. And so to take seriously God’s ability not only to read your mind but to be in your mind, you have to think about your mind quite differently.
Mohler: Well that’s the argument that I found very, very interesting in terms of the psychological anthropology here, you are suggesting that this theory of mind that explains how children come to understand that people think differently than they think. So they understand that their thinking is distinctive to themselves, you are arguing that these evangelicals of your research understand that most of people around them don’t think this way and so they have to intentionally train their minds to think in such a way that it makes continual sense that there is a God who loves us and has a relationship with us and speaks to us and as you said is concerned about the color of our kitchen table.
Luhrmann: Yes, and I think that intuitively this is a lesson of evolutionary psychology we all assume that there might be invisible agents in the world, sort of as an initial default, but to take seriously that your daydreams are not just daydreams but also sort of participating in the world outside, I saw that that was hard for people to adapt to at first, and so people would come into the church and they would say things like, “Gee, I don’t know how to talk to God.” Or somebody said that he counseled many new comers to the church and they would say, “Can you say this to God for me?” He would respond, “Well you should talk to God yourself.” Then they would say, “But God doesn’t talk to me.” So people had to learn how to in effect hear God in their own thoughts and in their own day dreams. And they had to learn how to construct a conversation with God that they found to be plausibly a conversation with the creator. It wasn’t as if people let go of the awareness that this all might be: have a conversation with God and God says, “wear a blue shirt,” the people do a lot of things to let me know or signal that they know this might be just their own thoughts, like people who sometimes gossip about other people in the church, “oh she thinks that God says this to her but I don’t know I don’t think that’s God.” But people had to learn a way of thinking and a way of experiencing their own thoughts to in effect give themselves the room to experience a participation with God.
Mohler: Now you have another profound theological insight when you go to the distinction you make between faith and belief and the way you define faith is actually by and large the way that most classical evangelicals would understand both faith and belief, but you make very clear that for the research subjects of your concern here, belief was very much an individual choice and it was facilitated by an intentional change in what we might call the habits of the mind. Then that led to all the other things and yet you go to a very interesting source and one certainly identified with the more classical model of orthodox Christian theology in this respect. You go to C.S. Lewis and his essay, “Let us Pretend,” and so what you argue there is that amongst six different coping mechanisms or developmental tools that these evangelicals use to facilitate their worldview. You talk about the idea that using Lewis’ understanding of “Let us Pretend,” they would enter into certain religious practices such as certain forms of prayer as if they believed in order to believe.
Luhrmann: Yes, I think that Lewis has been immensely important I suspect that you must be right, that he is used in different ways by different people and read in different ways by different people, but absolutely I thought that this church was encouraging people to embrace the “Let Us Pretend” as a means to experience as real and that was the reason for the props and for the going on a date with God. So that when somebody was going on a date with God there was a way in which she was understanding herself as pretending to go on this date if she only bought one sandwich, but the fact that she was able to feel giddy and excited to have this conversation I think allowed her to give more and allowed her to take more seriously the presence of God as an interlocutor and I also think that when you make this imagined experience so real I sometimes call this “hyper-real” it allows people to emphasize the practice and emphasize the paradox and not fret about what’s exactly true or false. And I know that can sound terrible to a theologian.
Mohler: I think there are two ways to go from that though, for instance if you take C.S. Lewis and his essay “Let us Pretend” he was obviously not saying let us pretend there is a God, but he was talking about what we would call the means of grace, attending to these things. For instance in C.S. Lewis’ context that would mean going to worship, listening to the sermon, participating in the creed, singing the hymns. Knowing that, even as belief is called for at all times we are incapable of being equally attentive at all time, much less equally faithful. And so I hope that makes some sense. In other words with C.S. Lewis it wasn’t so much about being able to do certain things so that you could believe that God is concerned with the color of your kitchen table, but rather C.S. Lewis was concerned with what it means to be humbly acknowledging the fact that what I bring in terms of belief at any given moment is actually less significant than the faithfulness of God in Christ to me eternally.
Luhrmann: I think that there is also room to interpret Lewis of inviting you into a conversation you don’t understand yet. And I see that elsewhere in the book when he talks about you know if you’re a new Christian you may not understand this but this is the way it is. I think that this church treats him, in that invitational way, as somebody who is aware and in fact you could be describing an awareness of just how little we know and how imperfect we are. You can also see him as saying, it’s okay, trust yourself even if you don’t quite understand.
Mohler: One other key insight in terms of your research is the congregational nature of evangelical faith and the fact that the role the congregation played in terms of the life of these believers was huge. In fact in your research you suggest indispensable. What these Christians experienced in terms of their form of faith would have been impossible in a solitary experience but it was facilitated by a lot of detail about the worship and the fellowship and the practices even in the small groups of the congregation.
Luhrmann: And I think what I saw is, again, coming back to the importance of the imagination representing God, of this kind of invisible being, we see through a glass darkly, I think the congregation does an enormous amount of work in helping people to represent God for themselves. And so what I saw in effect is that as people came to imagine God, they would take, you know, in this very personal intimate, they sort of took their best memories of relationships from the best part of their mom and the best part of their dad and they sort of bound that together into a representation of who God was, and if they were lucky, you know, if they had good relationships with their mom or dad, that was easier than if they had tough relationships. And then they would use the church and they would use the sermons and they would use the house group and they would use their reading to reimagine and reimagine who this Being was, and then when they were in conversation with that being, they were really sort of struggling to make themselves into a person appropriate for such conversation. So I thought of it as a kind of mapping out and mapping back. So you map out of your own understanding of conversations into what a conversation with God should be like and then they used the church to restructure their imagination of that conversation, and then sought to be the person they wanted to be, they felt they should be, in the interaction. And so I thought it was an amazing process.
Mohler: One other issue I just have to ask you about; it’s less present in your book than in some of your other writings, and that has to do with the distinction that the mode of spirituality you describe is, well, it comes easier to women than to men. And you noted a very distinct gender difference. Go on and speak about that, please.
Lurhmann: So I noticed that the people who were more able to engage in this sort of imaginative relationship, a relationship in which you have to use your imagination because God is not available to the senses, or good at being caught up in their imagination, and there is a sort of a psychological tool that you can use to ask, “Is this somebody who’s comfortable getting caught up in their imagination?” And women score more highly on that tool than men in general. It’s not a big difference—you know, it’s like a one point difference on a 34-point scale—but it’s a pretty robust difference. I find it again and again, and other people have seen this as well. And so I think what this tells me is not that men aren’t able to use their imaginations; I think that we don’t as a society encourage men to use their imaginations. We know that women read novels more, that they are more likely to be readers of children’s books to their kids. I think that we allow women to feel comfort in the strengths of their imagination and we don’t give quite as much social room for men for that, and I think that that might be a cost to men, at least in this kind of spirituality.
Mohler: In your work, you’re really speaking to the larger secular community. If, right now, you’re speaking to a largely evangelical audience, what would you say that we’re missing about ourselves that you came across in terms of this research? What self-knowledge do we need out of this project?
Luhrmann: I think the most important point is that this is a learning process, and sometimes when I spoke to people in the church who felt that they couldn’t talk to God, they felt badly about themselves, they felt that they had somehow failed, and I think that that’s a mistake. I think that it’s better to think of these as capacities that can be trained and learned—there are deliberate ways to learn them if they don’t come easy—and it’s more helpful to think of a relationship with God as a skill rather than a grace alone.
Mohler: Let me also ask, just because this project really implies the question, what’s next? After having studied witches and psychiatrists and evangelical Christians, where do you go from here?
Luhrmann: I’m interested in the different ways of imagining the mind and understanding your mind to change your mental experience, and so the next step is to compare the way the people experience prayer and God and spirituality, not only in America, but also in Ghana and in Chennai. And there’s another piece of my work in which I try to understand people whose—a broken mind is not quite the right way to phrase it, but people who struggle with psychiatric illness and hear distressing voices, and I also want to compare their experience. I think that we may learn something about—or I may be able to bring something to the treatment of those who struggle from learning about the experience of prayer. I think one of the most important things that I learned was how powerful and transformative is, you know, just from the perspective of the psychological anthropologist. So I’m not making a judgment about when God is present or when God is responding, but I do think the practice of prayer is quite transformative and I think we can learn from it to help to help other people in their struggles.
Mohler: Professor Lurhmann, I can only imagine that your students find your lectures captivating and I know readers are going to find, and already have found, this book to be fascinating. I want to thank you today for joining me for Thinking in Public.
Luhrmann: Well, thank you. It’s been a real pleasure.
Mohler: Having a conversation with an anthropologist is an experience unto itself because you certainly have the experience of knowing that you’re being observed even as you’re in the midst of a conversation. But what a generous-hearted and skilled anthropologist we’ve been able to talk to today. Tanya Lurhmann is not only a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she is not only a professor at Stanford University, she is someone whose generous heart and very curious mind have been combined in a book that really does demand our attention.
My conversation with Tanya Luhrmann leads me to a rather humbly acknowledgement. When we observe the kinds of research done by anthropologist, what we might call the anthropological perspective on others, we’re all armchair anthropologists. We enter into that frame of mind. We find it fascinating and very intriguing to imagine why others believe what they believe and how those beliefs operate in their lives. When the tables are turned, it’s a little more intellectually awkward. How exactly do we understand ourselves, in terms of this anthropological perspective? One of the tools of anthropology is this kind of phenomenological observation and that kind of phenomenology means that it draws very few judgments immediately about right and wrong or, for that matter, true and untrue, but rather just looks at what is, in terms of observable behavior. And that’s exactly what Professor Luhrmann does in this book.
One of the things that comes to my mind immediately is that as we observe this kind of phenomenological or anthropological approach of others it seems quite natural; on ourselves, it gets a little more uncomfortable. And, furthermore, speaking as a confessional evangelical, in this particular study, which is of a subset identified as evangelical here, in her research she argues for a rather generous and broad understanding of evangelicals. She places this vineyard congregation within it. She acknowledges that it is distinct from classical evangelicalism, but it’s rather easy for me to take on my own anthropological perspective, in terms of joining her in the observation of this congregation and its individuals who are indeed intriguing, certainly fascinating. It’s easy for me to enter into that kind of anthropological frame of mind, in terms of understanding what they believe and why they believe, but the theologian in me is always close at hand, and so close at hand that my main reading of this book is inescapably theological. That leads me to the observation that Professor Lurhmann has actually done an exceedingly fine job of describing this massive theological shift that has taken place in the United States, especially over the last 30 or 40 years, or going back as long as to the 1960s, recognizing that something has fundamentally changed. The understanding of belief has changed. The understanding of God has been transformed into this user-friendly deity who is always well-disposed to us without reference necessarily to the cross of Christ and who means to us to be an intimate partner such that, as Tanya Luhrmann has mentioned and I can’t help recalling, that God is interested even in the color of our kitchen table. The kind of conversation that takes place amongst Christians, the Christians she observed and many Christians we know, about God’s interest in the intimate details of their lives. She documents how this comes to be and how it happens within the context of a congregation. The massive theological shift that has taken place here should be of significance to all evangelicals because nothing less than the knowledge of the one, true and living God is at stake. The issue here for us cannot be merely anthropological (what is it that people believe), but theological (what is it people should believe about God). And so we’re going to read this book from a different perspective, but we’re going to learn a lot as we go along.
In documenting this massive theological shift, she makes very clear that it’s not just about the change in the understanding of God proper, of theism and the doctrine of God, but rather how that then progresses through other areas of both spirituality and theology to make a massive change. As I mentioned in the conversation with Professor Luhrmann, her insight that the whole notion of judgment has been transformed is key to our understanding of where people are in terms of their perception of a need for a Savior, of need for forgiveness, and of the final question of judgment. If you truly believe that it’s not so much that God is going to judge us, but that we’re judging ourselves and that God is already well-disposed to us and all we have to do is join Him in agreeing that we’re just okay, that’s going to be a very different mode of theology; it’s going to be a very different gospel, in terms of how that supposedly is tied to the narrative of Jesus and what Jesus did for us and what God was doing for us in Christ; it’s going to be a very different kind of understanding of the totality and not just of the parts. That’s why the documentation of this massive theological shift is extremely helpful, not coming from a theologian at all, but coming from a psychological anthropologist. This is a confirmation from outside ourselves that something massive has happened; we haven’t just been dreaming about this shift.
The next key insight that I think comes from Professor Luhrmann’s work is the understanding that the congregation really is important and not just to the vineyard congregation that she was speaking to. The New Testament verifies the fact that we aren’t meant to be individuals, in terms of a solitary spiritual experience or just a solitary relationship with Christ, we are a part of the communion of the saints and certainly inside the congregation, we understand that the health of each one of us individually, and I would want to say even the orthodoxy of individual Christians needs the means of grace and it needs the context of the congregation and the kinds of practices and experiences that the congregation has together. Lacking from much of the presentation of Professor Luhrmann’s research is a congregation that depends upon the ordinary means of grace, the preaching of the Word of God, the fulfilling practice of the ordinances, the understanding of what it means as a congregation to be involved in a biblical definition of Christianity. Much of that has been supplanted, at least in terms of the presentation of her research, by a new spirituality based upon this rather beneficent and certainly well-intended deity who seems to be less concerned about our sin and more concerned about Formica. That’s a very different theological model and, of course, it implies a very different gospel, but the skill of looking at this is immensely important. And, furthermore, the understanding that congregations begin to identify themselves theologically then makes more sense. A congregation that is going to produce the kind of people that were the subjects of Professor Luhrmann’s research is going to be a congregation that is clearly oriented theologically, in terms of its life, its work, and its belief in order to produce that kind of spirituality. And, of course, the same thing would be true of other congregations as well.
Another major observation out of this research, quite frankly, is the limitations of a secular perspective into what cannot be reduced to a secular reality. Professor Luhrmann, by the way, in her own way, makes this very clear. She acknowledges that there are limitations to the intellectual experiment and the research that she is conducting, but, as a confessing Christian, I have to look at this and say there are essential issues that evangelical Christians understand to be central to the gospel that are simply missing from the entire picture here. We have to put those back in and we have to recreate a theological frame of reference in order to understand this. But even in so doing, we are reminded that there are anthropological insights that are just by God’s common grace helpful to us in this. For instance, let’s go back to the use of CS Lewis here in his “Let’s Pretend.” You look at that and certainly those who are in the vineyard congregation that she describes are practicing that kind of mode in their own way, but, for all of us, we need to recognize that there is a key insight there. And that the key insight there is that it takes us together, involved in singing the hymns together, involved in hearing the Word of God preached together, involved with taking the table together and observing baptism together, to understand that this is exactly what it takes to make Christians. And when you look at research like this, it’s very helpful to be able to step back and say well we know why that is so to a greater degree than an anthropologist is likely even to detect the question. But, at the same time, there is a key insight here. There’s an important insight for ecclesiology here. We ought to lean into it, even when it comes from an unexpected source.
One of the last conversation points with Professor Luhrmann was very interesting to me: the distinction she makes between male and female approaches to this kind of spirituality. And one of the things that comes immediately to my mind here is that a church that leans into this kind of implied intimacy with God that implies that the normal Christian life is to be marked by this kind of relationship with God it is going to be attractive to women far more than attractive to men, which gets back to a very important insight of biblical Christianity and that is that the truth resides in the objective truths of the faith. And that’s why many of the churches right now that are growing, especially those that are growing with the presence of young men, they’re growing because they lean into the unapologetic declaration of the objective truths of the faith, the truths that are true regardless of our emotional disposition. Men are emotional creatures too, but not to the extent that women are, as is documented here, not by someone who’s writing about gender roles in the church, but by a psychological anthropologist who looking outside says, “The data is telling us something.” That too is informative to us.
A book like Tanya Luhrmann’s, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, affirms our responsibility to read outside of our comfort zone, in terms of literature, and to read books that make us think about ourselves in ways we would never think if we were talking only to other believers. This kind of book is one that helps us in terms of critical thinking and entering into a very friendly, critical conversation. The exchange of ideas that we know matter, not only for the academic community, not only in terms of understanding spirituality in a secular society, but for eternity.
Many thanks again to my guest Tanya Luhrmann for thinking with me today. Before I close I want to direct your attention to the release of my new book, The Conviction to Lead: Twenty-Five Principles for Leadership that Matters. My concern is to develop effective leaders who demonstrate more than administrative skill and more than vision; leaders who are able to change the hearts and minds of those they lead and, otherwise, leaders who lead by conviction, driven by the conviction to lead.
Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.