By Ryan Howes
Can a connection with God offer the kind of support and affirmation that a relationship with a therapist can? New research by Stanford University anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann indicates that it can, at least for some American evangelical Christians.
Many therapists are wary of the therapeutic value of prayer or the role of religion in clients’ lives. But people have been turning to religion for comfort, healing, and understanding for far longer than they’ve been making appointments with therapists. Perhaps it’s because, as Luhrmann points out in her new book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, people with a certain psychological makeup can create a “real” experience with God. Rather than feel God in an esoteric way, they audibly hear God addressing them personally, sometimes from across the breakfast table or in the produce aisle of their grocery store. Reports of this type might raise alarm bells for some therapists, but for some churches, this type of connection isn’t cause for concern—it’s encouraged.
In this interview, Luhrmann explains how she came to spend time in the evangelical church to study the ways members communicate with God, and how this communication can be therapeutic, particularly when people tap into their imagination and hear God talk back.
RH: What led you to study evangelicals?
LUHRMANN: I actually started with researching magicians and how magical tricks can become quite real for some of the people watching them. I was interested in how ordinary people could come to experience the world as if magic actually worked, even when it seemed to violate the rules of everyday reality. I found there were certain heuristics and narratives that, with a little suggestion, allowed some people to enter a frame of mind that would enable them to experience the “reality” of magic.
RH: Not so different from religious experience.
LUHRMANN: Right. This led to my getting interested in the mental state of “absorption”—the capacity to shift your attention from the external, everyday, instrumental dimension of life to become immersed in your own mental imagery. That shift seems to be central to the experience of religion.
Religion requires us to take what’s usually experienced internally and both imagine it as having an external reality and see a quality of goodness as real and palpable out in the world. In the evangelical churches where I spent my time researching my latest book, it was important to be able to experience God as both very loving and absolutely real. At the same time, it was recognized that some people were going to be better at it than others, and that it was something you had to learn and practice.
RH: Do you mean better at engaging in public prayer or better at feeling an internal connection with God?
LUHRMANN:Among the evangelicals I spent time with, many people would talk about hearing directly from God, but others found that difficult or impossible. Many reported talking with God and going for a walk with God as an everyday experience. It was easy for them: they weren’t embarrassed about it, and didn’t find that it was difficult to carve out time for it. And they insisted that it was a two-way interaction. But the church clearly identified them as different from people who have a really tough time hearing God.
RH: I’ve heard the term prayer warriors used for folks who are seriously committed to prayer.
LUHRMANN: Yes, exactly. I was really interested in finding out more about what was happening for them psychologically. I found that they scored high on the absorption scale, which predicted which members of a church were more likely to report that they had a back-and-forth experience with God, that God addressed them like a person, and that they could feel God’s love directly. It would also predict whether people said they heard God talk audibly or whether they experienced God with their other senses.
RH: How did you measure this?
LUHRMANN: I ran an experiment in which I asked people to listen to a piece of scripture on an iPod for half an hour a day for a month. Then, while the control group was just asked to listen to lectures from a teaching company on the gospels, the experimental group was led through the scripture again and encouraged to use their imagination.
For example, with “The Lord Is My Shepherd” psalm, they were asked to look directly at the shepherd, to look in his eyes, and to see how he held himself. They were more likely to report sharper mental images, a more vivid internal experience, a fuller sense of God’s love and presence. They also reported more hallucination-like experiences—not actual hallucinations, but vivid religious experiences outside of everyday reality. For instance, they’d report, “I thought that I saw the edge of an angel’s wing” or “God spoke to me.” It seemed that by following the instructions we gave them, they learned a different way of perceiving God.
RH: Is there any way to distinguish what some people see as delusion from a faith in the intangible?
LUHRMANN: I’ve done research on psychosis, and I know a lot about the internal experience of people who meet the criteria for schizophrenia. The phenomenological accounts of that experience are quite different from those of the people I spent time with in these churches. For the evangelicals, the experience of nonordinary reality are rare and brief and filled with a sense of “goodness.” Somebody might hear God saying, “I’ll always be with you” from the back seat of a car, and they find it comforting rather than deeply disturbing.
RH: Someone shared with you that God told them to vote for George H. W. Bush in 1988.
LUHRMANN:Yes, exactly. That’s quite different from the frightening experience of someone with schizophrenia. I think many people in the evangelical churches are invited to allow some of their thoughts to become more external, but those are the good and loving thoughts.
RH: Why would they do that?
LUHRMANN: Well, I don’t think the church would describe what they do in that way. I think the church would describe that as prayer. But I think that process is really therapeutic.
RH: Self-talk is a central concept in many therapeutic modalities. Is prayer with a loving God something like talking to an affirming therapist all day long?
LUHRMANN: Yes. I think that there’s actually evidence for that. I ran one experiment in which we gave everyone a series of measures,including the statement “I feel God’s love for me directly.” The more highly they affirmed that statement, the less lonely they were and the fewer symptoms they reported on a brief psychiatric scale. Clearly, this can be quite a powerful experience for people.
RH: So as a nonevangelical outsider, how were you received by the people you studied?
LUHRMANN: Often I felt like I was trying to get academic information while they were trying to get my soul, which at times was an exhausting experience. But most of the time, people were supportive and generous and refrained from ending every conversation with an exploration of where I was in my walk with Jesus.
I did have one long conversation with the president of a Southern Baptist seminary who loved my book, but he couldn’t stand the kind of Christianity I was describing. He believed that what’s gone wrong in American Christianity is that God has become so loving that people aren’t paying attention to judgment.
RH: Not enough fire and brimstone!
LUHRMANN: Exactly. The folks I studied don’t do brimstone. They were overall pretty accepting and appreciative, especially the people who don’t hear God speak. In fact, they found my work really interesting because they were wondering if they’re doing something wrong and even questioned whether God loved them. They took some comfort from the fact that I was a respectable scientist who was saying there are these temperamental differences that make a difference in people’s experience of religion.
RH: Rather than “ye of little faith,” you’re discussing personality characteristics, telling them it’s not their fault.
LUHRMANN: Yes, and they appreciated that there was no stake in it for me to say that.
RH: Is there any hope that religious and nonreligious people can work together in harmony?
LUHRMANN: Many of my academic colleagues who look at evangelical Christianity are just horrified. At the most fundamental level, they don’t get why anyone would participate in it. As an anthropologist, I was eager to see if I could put politics aside and contribute to a sort of bridging process. I found that it’s not that people are just cut from a different human cloth, but that like other kinds of behavior, religious behaviors are learned. This learning is part of what makes religious faith satisfying, exciting, and joyful. I found that you can be a reasonable human being and still want to have those kinds of experiences.
Ryan Howes, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, musician, and clinical professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California. He blogs “In Therapy” for Psychology Today. Contact: email@example.com; website: www.ryanhowes.net.
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