Communication with God can exist on a wide spectrum.
Some adamantly believe that any sense of divine connection is pure delusion, while others are confident they hear God’s voice, in their head or perhaps even out loud, as they go about their daily routine.
This image of an actively communicating God resonates with many people that T.M. Luhrmann interacted with on her anthropological study at a Vineyard Church in Chicago, and which is accounted in her new book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God.
Today she tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that as an anthropologist, she doesn’t feel qualified to say when God is or isn’t speaking to people, but that “[she] can say something about the social, cultural and psychological features of what that person is experiencing.”
In the NPR piece, she talks about the fascinating ways American evangelicals experience God.
From her research with prayer groups at Vineyard Church she describes the ways some Christians are encouraged to use their imagination to converse with God in hopes that the exchange will create an experience in which God can talk back. Some go on walks or "dates" with God, and some may even set out an extra coffee mug to imagine a holy presence nearby.
"They learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God that they hear inside their mind," she says.
It is these types of prayer scenarios – after repeated for several months – in which congregants seem to experience God the strongest. She says that constant reflective prayer impacts people in strong ways, leading some congregants to cry in front of her while describing an overwhelming sense of God’s love or presence.
She shares that when congregants are seeking communion with God, they are trained to look within themselves more intentionally, which, she hints, has the potential to impact people beyond the arena of evangelical Christianity, and on into basic psychological therapy.
Through prayer and introspection, she finds that people’s inner experience of love is able to change the way they see the world.