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Talking with God: Religion as a therapeutic experience

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.

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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.

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