The historian Wilfred Cantwell Smith has noted that to believe in God used to mean putting faith and trust in a being who was assumed to exist, whereas now it means having the opinion that he exists. Meanwhile, it seems as though the divide between those who have that opinion and those who don’t is getting bigger all the time. Is there any way to make it smaller—to make religious belief more intelligible in a secular age?

T. M. Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist at Stanford, sets out to answer those questions by talking with Evangelical Christians, specifically those in the Association of Vineyard Churches. This group is not, strictly speaking, part of the Bible Belt. It originated in California during the 1970s as the mainstreamed child of the Jesus people—hippies who turned from drugs to an adapted form of Pentecostalism. Although many of its tenets and practices would scandalize some Evangelical groups such as the Southern Baptists, its approach to God has much in common with that of many other Evangelicals. With at least 25 percent of Americans following a faith in which “the Christian God is understood to be intimately and personally present,” the Vineyard is as good a group as any to help a scholar get at what makes the American Evangelical mind tick.

Vineyard Christianity preaches a loving God intimately connected to the particulars of one’s everyday life. This is not a God who is unknowably distant and judging. For Vineyard Christians, God is with them in their work and in their conversations with friends. If a Vineyard Christian wants a car, for example, she might specifically ask God for a green Volkswagen Beetle—a practice colloquially referred to as “name it and claim it.” The Vineyard’s Sunday church service features a band playing contemporary music, to which some people quietly sing with their eyes shut. Others raise their hands and smile. Some cry. After a few songs, the pastor gets up and shares a “teaching” (not a sermon) about how the Bible speaks to the congregation’s own experience and how they might hear the voice of God better in their daily lives. A group of people then stand up and offer to pray with anyone who wants to, usually suggesting that God has given them specific instructions as to who should come up—someone with back pain, for example, or someone struggling with a major decision. The band picks up again, and soon many in the room are shedding tears.

Why do they cry? One longtime member of a Vineyard church told Luhrmann that when she attended her first service she cried “because for the first time in her life she was singing directly to God, not about God, a love song to a living person—a man even—who loved her openly and unconditionally, and it made her sob.” Many Evangelical Christians believe that God communicates primarily through such strong emotions. In this kind of Christianity, insistent or unexpected thoughts can be divine messages, especially in the context of prayer. As a result, Vineyard churches try to teach their members how to identify what comes from God and what might be, as one person put it, “just our burrito from lunch.”

A few members of one Vineyard church undertake an adapted form of St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. When Luhrmann did the Exercises, her spiritual director spoke “of what she called the ‘movement’ of God in our lives, as if God were a tide that ebbed and flowed. She had us notice the times when we felt we had made an unexpected emotional connection with someone; when we were able to say something easily, so that someone felt heard and touched; when we had a sense of peace; when we felt happy. That, she told us, is God.”

Vineyard Christians are not embarking on a wholly new project. Much of their belief and practice has deep roots in Christian tradition. Their affective spirituality, for instance, has similarities to the seventeenth-century Pietist movement. The importance of affections of the heart, the relevance of Scripture for the life of the believer, the power of intercessory prayer—these all exist in most forms of Christianity. But Vineyard churches give them a new degree of importance. For them, doctrine is less important than experience—as long as that experience does not directly contradict Scripture. What you feel matters more than what you believe. Luhrmann writes that the Jesuits use the Spiritual Exercises to try to imagine what Jesus himself had felt, the better to understand what he taught. Evangelicals, by contrast, want to know how God is appearing in their own lives. For Vineyard Christians, God is just as likely to help you get that green VW as he is to inspire you to serve the hungry in Africa. And he is nothing like the angry God of earlier American revival traditions. Luhrmann says that for these Evangelicals, I and Thou becomes you and me: “God retains his holy majesty, but he has become a companion, even a buddy to play with, and the most ordinary man can go to the corner church and learn how to hear him speak.”

For Christians who grew up thinking that God was distant and irrelevant to their lives, a Vineyard church may offer a kind of intimacy they’ve never experienced. For some Catholics who feel burdened by church doctrines or bored by stale liturgies, this may seem an attractive option. But Vineyard churches also show the danger of do-it-yourself religion, of private religious experience undisciplined by a larger—and deeper—theological tradition. You can’t simply “name it and claim it” if you take your cues from St. Francis. Yes, both Ignatius of Loyola and the Vineyard stress an affective spirituality that engages the imagination, and both value intimacy with God and a sense of his presence in the little things of life. But Ignatius also believed firmly in sacraments whose efficacy did not depend on emotional response. Faith was not reducible to feeling, and the way to intimacy with God was not by diminishing the role of doctrine, but by rediscovering its source. For Ignatius, it was a mistake to try to tether God to one’s own desires; discipleship required radical availability to God’s will.

One could write an interesting book by examining the Vineyard movement’s beliefs through the lens of theology. This is not what Luhrmann has done in When God Talks Back. She is an anthropologist and a psychologist, and she sticks to the methods appropriate to her disciplines. She bases her conclusions on an experiment she ran and on countless hours spent in churches, prayer groups, bible studies, and conversations. The results are quite impressive. Luhrmann captures well what it is like to live in this kind of community and to practice this kind of Christianity. She also knows which kinds of question her methods can answer and which kinds they can’t. She can describe what goes on inside a religious community or report what someone says about his own religious experience, but she cannot determine whether God exists or whether he is doing what people claim he is doing. As she puts it, “My methods cannot distinguish between sensory deception and the moments when God may be reaching back to communicate through an ordinary human mind.”

Her methods lead her to understand the Vineyard experience of God as a process of “attentional learning”: “the way you learn to pay attention determines your experience of God.... In effect, people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God.” She makes extensive use of psychologists who identify a character trait called 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.” In her analysis, this capacity allows people to make real to the mind what is not real to the senses.

As Luhrman notes, this hypothesis is compatible with both supernaturalist and naturalist explanations of God:

To the believer, this account of absorption speaks to the problem of why, if God is always speaking, not everyone can hear, and it suggests what the church might do to help those who struggle. To a skeptic, it explains why the believer heard a thought in the mind as if it were external. But the emphasis on skill—on the way we train our attention—should change the way both Christians and non-Christians think about what makes them different from one another.

In other words, the eyes of faith see more because they have learned to look for more. Of course, there is more to Christianity than “attentional learning” (what Christians attend to also matters), but Luhrman, using only the methods of a social scientist, has confirmed what the church has always taught: that faith is, among other things, a habit of the mind and heart—and like any other habit, it can be cultivated.

Nathaniel Peters holds a Ph.D. in theology from Boston College and is the executive director of the Morningside Institute.

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Published in the 2013-01-25 issue: View Contents
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