Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A new book on having a two-way conversation with God

by Salman Hameed

Here is a Fresh Air interview with T.M. Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Understanding with God. Luhrmann is an anthropologist and the book is based on her study of The Vineyard, an Evangelical Church with 600 branches across the US. The Vineyard, like a number of other Evangelical churches, puts an emphasis on the experiential side of religion. Hence many of the followers train to literally listen to God's voice in their heads.

Couple of quick things. This is a good incisive interview. I think Terry Gross appropriately pushed her on some fuzzy things that she stated. I'm interested in reading the book - as it is crucial to understand how people believe and make sense of the world. At the same time, for some reason, I found the author a bit annoying. I haven't put my finger on the reasons yet. Perhaps, it is because it took a while to say any problems with such form of religiosity. Yes, she points out a lot of positives, but there are obvious downsides - for example a belief literally in a demon-infested world for some - and it took a lot of effort from Terry Gross to extract out some negatives (to be fair, she then did list out a number of problems).

However, two interesting things. First, she noticed that this Church has a concept of God's unconditional love. She links that to 1960s, when religions really became a free-market:

This, of course, is a radically different philosophy from churches that preach about the wrath of God and eternal damnation. Lurhmann explains that the experientially oriented churches grew out of the social upheavals of the 1960s. 
"Atheism became an allowable life identity, and there were many different ways to be spiritual," she says. "There were many different ways to be in the world, and Christianity then became a buyer's market. People chose if they were going to be Christian and what type of church they would join. And churches like The Vineyard see themselves as trying to offer a God that's quite different from the one who terrified poor James Joyce."
Secondly, she makes an interesting point right in the last couple of minutes of the interview. She thinks that this form of experiential Christianity is in sync with  Modern (in the sense of Modernity). Now that doubt/atheism is a viable option for personal religious belief, and everything can be put to a (scientific) test, the realm of experiential God serves as a protected zone from these outside influences.  There is no way (as yet) of definitely showing the non-existence of these experiences - experiences that are essential to their worldview.

A corollary to this: If you are interested, you can also check out my TEDx talk from January, When Evidence is Powerless, where I had looked at the role of evidence and the beliefs of alien abductees.

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