My four-year-old asked me recently how God speaks to us. Her picture book said that “you hear God with your heart,” which is a bit confusing, so I picked up Tanya Luhrmann’s excellent study on how charismatic Evangelicals hear God’s voice to find out the answer for myself. A psychological anthropologist by training, Luhrmann spent over four years as a member of two Vineyard churches – one in Chicago, the other in California – and joined small groups as well as attending regular prayer meetings, conferences, and training sessions. This is participant observation at its best. She describes the lives of these churches in intimate, stark detail. I have been a member of three charismatic churches over the years, and everything she said resonated with me, from the messages pastors preached to the doubts people expressed about their spiritual experiences and the gossip between and about church leaders. Luhrmann writes about Vineyard churches as an outsider and she never assumes in her research that God actually exists, but she has an insider’s knowledge of charismatic spiritual practices and believers will not find anything here that casts doubt on the realities they describe.
Hearing God is hard, Luhrmann says, because we have come to believe that only things we can see or measure make noise, and “faith asks that people believe that their minds are not always private; that persons are not always visible; that invisible presences should alter their emotions and direct their behavior; [and] that reality is good and justice triumphant.” After talking to a lot of people who claim that God speaks to them, Luhrmann concludes that being able to distinguish God’s thoughts from your own is a skill that can be learned, just as one learns to distinguish good wine from cask wine. “Learning to taste wine is all about training perception,” she writes. “It is an olfactory training: and olfaction depends heavily on expectation. But it is not entirely expectation. Wine is made from a particular grape, grown in a particular place, and aged in a particular way. Most people, given enough training, get good enough to identify the grape.” You have to drink a lot of wine before you get good enough to distinguish between them though, and Luhrmann paraphrases C. S. Lewis’s argument that “if you pretend that you are with God, God will become more real for you.” First we practice hearing God, then we actually hear Him. Churches run training sessions on prayer, and Luhrmann points out that “there are guidelines, picked up somewhat catch-as-catch-can from books and sermons and other congregants, and individual congregants take those guidelines and apply them to their own mental experience in their own way. As they do so, again and again and again, they begin to develop their own pattern recognition.” And they begin to hear God’s voice more and more clearly.
Christians have doubts too. People at Vineyard churches use a series of “tests” to discern the difference between God and their imaginations: 1) Would you have heard or imagined this particular thing anyway? 2) Does it fit with what you know of God from the Bible? 3) Can it be confirmed through circumstances or other people’s prayers? and 4) Does it bring you peace and comfort? Luhrmann makes it clear that Christians who claim to hear God speaking to them are not crazy. Psychotic hallucinations, she points out, “are frequent, extended, and distressing. They are primary auditory, and they are often accompanied by strange, fixed beliefs (delusions) not shared by other people.” Schizophrenia is horrible. Hearing God, on the other hand, is empowering, calming, and refreshing. Moreover, the skepticism expressed by believers about their own messages means that this stuff rarely gets out of hand. Luhrmann explores a few cases when hearing supernatural voices didn’t contribute to a believer’s well-being, and she points out that this is a particular problem for people who engage in spiritual warfare. She comments, “it was hard for me to avoid the conclusion that ruminating on demons is dangerous, even when the goal is to rid the world of them, even when they may not actually exist, because when people are drawn into working with demons, they become more psychiatrically vulnerable – not because the demons are necessarily real, but because through the intense practice of prayer the demons become real to those who pray, and haunt them.”
A few years into her research Luhrmann decided to test her hypothesis that training your mind to hear God can actually make you more likely to see and hear things from unexplainable sources. She asked members of her congregation to complete a questionnaire designed to test how susceptible people are to hypnosis. What the questionnaire really tested was absorption: “a disposition for having moments of total attention that somehow completely engage all of one’s attentional resources – perceptual, imaginative, conceptual, even the way one holds and moves one’s body.” The better you are at absorption, she discovered, the more likely you are to hear God. Absorption is a character trait, but Luhrmann discovered that it can also be cultivated. She took 128 test subjects, and gave a third of them sermons to listen to on tape for three months, taught another third how to do centering prayer, and gave another third guided meditations on Scripture passages that asked them to visualize themselves in the passage. When she tested them before and after, she discovered that people who had done the guided meditation “had scores on the subjective measures of mental imagery vividness that were significantly higher, compared to their initial scores, than those who had listened to the lectures.” Practice does genuinely train your mind to hear and see God more vividly.
Luhrmann hasn’t explained speaking in tongues, prophecy, or faith healing, so there are still a lot of mysteries wrapped up in the Pentecostal movement. Nor has she proved or disproved God. “I do not think we should shift through the experiences people have of God to infer the true nature of God,” she writes. “Instead I think we can learn from intense spiritual experience how proclivity and practice shape the most basic ways we encounter our world: the way we perceive and judge what is real.” This is a book about people, not about the divine. Luhrmann’s book is refreshing not just because it is an outstanding work of scholarship, but also because it confirms something that Christian mystics have been emphasizing for centuries: prayer is a spiritual discipline that needs to be practiced if you want to master it. And the plethora of testimonies she includes of believers who do regularly hear God’s voice encourage us to go out and try it for ourselves.