When I read “Strength to Love,” a tremendous collection of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons, I was surprised and moved on its last pages by this particular passage, which described God in ways that feel foreign to me. While I think of God as a kind of spiritual energy, Martin Luther King Jr. related to God as a person.
The agonizing moments through which I have passed during the last few years have drawn me closer to God. I am convinced of the reality of a personal God. True, I have always believed in the personality of God. But in the past the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category that I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. God has been profoundly real for me in recent years. In the midst of lonely days and dreary nights I have heard an inner voice saying, “Lo, I will be with you.”
As inspiring as this is, I continue to find it hard to believe King isn’t speaking in a quasi-metaphorical way. He talks of an inner voice and yet he can’t be “hearing a voice” the way a schizophrenic hears it. Yet he isn’t simply saying, “I feel at peace” or “I have an inner certainty that passes understanding.” He says God is a person. He hears, or feels, a personal communication with God.
I was reminded of all this after having read a marvelous book, “When God Talks Back” by T.M. Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist at Stanford University who has been a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. It’s marvelous because of Luhrmann’s utterly objective, unbiased and long-term examination of how evangelical Christian’s learn to pray. Learn, I say, because as she presents it, successful prayer results from practice. As strange as it is to say, it’s like a golf swing. You can’t do it properly without having tried to do it for a while. It starts, for her, with a game of pretending she adapts, as an idea, from C.S. Lewis: You pretend that God is there beside you listening with utmost attention to your questions and concerns. Eventually, the game becomes what is experienced as an actual conversation — or maybe becomes an actual conversation.
When you read her accounts of prayer, it becomes clear that prayer is a form of meditation, a way for the faithful to train the mind to become aware of an inner nature, a still small voice that serves as a guide for behavior. Based on her research, one could say these Christians learn how to interpret the activities of their own minds as the “voice of God,” and that it’s a way of reconnecting with their own subconscious. Or you could, with an open mind, allow that it’s possible these believers are tapping into something else, an energy or presence larger than themselves, which eventually responds to their prayers by directing their attention to aspects of their lives that help them cope, make choices, and distill meaning from ordinary events. Some of them actually do begin to “hear” an inner voice–they learn to attend to words that rise up as an “answer to prayer” from the continuous chatter of thought that flows in the background of consciousness.
This book is most engaging when it recounts stories of people who claim to pray this way constantly. These Christians have an ongoing conversation with God all day long, both silently and out loud. For evangelicals, God becomes a best friend, not a Nobodaddy in the sky, as William Blake referred to the notion of God as a stern, remote judge of behavior. For some of these subjects, God is there at their sides, a loving listener. Her subjects say it requires time to learn how to discern what comes from God in response:
It’s a different tone of voice. It’s like recognizing someone — it’s like, how do you recognize your mom? It gets to the point where you just know it’s God’s voice. It … comes with constant prayer non-stop.
It would be so easy for skeptics to mock all of this, and certainly they do. What would Hitchens have said? (It would be funny.) But what comes through is that these people are describing phenomena that are remarkably consistent, from one individual to another. If nothing else, they are describing how the human mind can be trained to listen to its own deepest promptings of wisdom and intuition. What Luhrmann also stresses is how much evangelical Christians internalize skepticism and doubt into their experience of prayer: They are constantly questioning whether or not their intuitions are “from God.” In other words, they become intensely mindful of the content of their minds and daily experience. So prayer also becomes the practice of mindfulness, a core notion from Eastern religious traditions.
In these experiential evangelical churches, the way Jesus and God are imagined insists that a congregant pay constant attention to his or her mind and world, seeking God’s presence, listening for something God might say — such a theology demands constant vigilance from those who follow it. They must scrutinize their spontaneous thoughts and feelings, looking for moments that might be God.
In some ways, all of this sounds reminiscent of Eastern religious traditions of meditation, as well as the Russian Orthodox monastic practice of continuous prayer (which many readers will know as a central element in J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey”). Until reading Luhrmann’s book, I’d have considered this sort of thing the province of those who withdraw from the world to devote themselves to a higher calling. Yet there it is, this sort of prayer, right at the heart of a major, contemporary American religious tradition, practiced by people with families and jobs, who are fully immersed in a flood of daily distractions and obligations. Luhrman, whose study was greeted with rave reviews from the New York Times, the New Republic, the New Yorker, Oliver Sacks and many others, found that — without considering herself a Christian — she herself encountered God by practicing this kind of prayer.
I have said that I do not presume to know ultimate reality. But it is also true that through the process of this journey, in my own way I have come to know God. I do not know what to make of this knowing. I would not call myself a Christian, but I find myself defending Christianity. I have experienced what I believe the Gospels mean by joy.
As foreign as all of it is to my own spiritual life, and my own way of understanding God, this book has given me a much better understanding of, and respect for, evangelical Christianity. I’m always moved by the connection between an individual and God, as long as it is accompanied by humility, tolerance and compassion (especially in the political realm). These people, and maybe Luhrmann herself, would agree with one of my greatest heroes, Martin Luther King Jr., who said this immediately after he spoke of his faith in a personal God: “I am convinced the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearance of the world there is a benign power.”