When God Talks Back

Millions and millions of Americans experience themselves as having a personal relationship with God that is as vivid and intimate as a child's imaginary friend. Why has this way of imagining God become so popular?
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I am an anthropologist. More than 10 years ago now I was in pursuit of a project on religion and community when a young, blond, giggly California beach girl told me that I should have a cup of coffee with God. She loved hanging out with the Lord, she said. They chatted in the morning, she said. He was kind and loving and he helped her to sort out her life -- a perfect boyfriend, she chuckled. When she had first come to the church, she said, she hadn't been able to pray. To get down on her knees. Now, she found it easy to pray, though she still didn't kneel. Now, she could talk to God about anything. She did not, she went on, ask God whether she should paint her toenails. Then she hesitated, as if wondering whether she wouldn't. "It's a very humbling experience," she explained, "because you're talking to the Creator, and you're an ant. You know, he created the human race so that he could have a relationship with us. It's almost like -- I wonder whether he's lonely, or was lonely. It just kind of blows my mind."

That conversation blew my mind. Ten years of hard work later, I have begun to understand -- with the eyes of a social scientist -- what she meant.

Millions and millions of Americans experience themselves as having a personal relationship with God that is as vivid and intimate as a child's imaginary friend. They go for walks with God. They go on dates with God. Sometimes they set a place at the dinner table for God and sit down across from the place setting to talk things over with Him. Exactly how many Americans have so intimate a relationship is a little hard to determine, but that is the kind of relationship many evangelicals seek. Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven Life" -- more than 25 million copies sold -- says that God should be your "best friend." Dallas Willard, a beloved evangelical author, explains that God's face-to-face conversations with Moses are the "normal human life God intended for us." In 2008, the Pew Foundation found that more than a quarter of all Americans said that God had given them a direct revelation.

Why has this way of imagining God become so popular for modern Americans? It is not the first time that God has inflamed the American senses. Over the course of our history, there have been periods when people have sought to experience God intensely and immediately. Historians have called them "great awakenings." No doubt these yearnings are fueled by different motivations at different times. In this era, the yearning may be fueled by secular doubt. No Christian in America is unaware that there are other Americans who are not Christian, and are not even believers; and that may be unsettling, for the knowledge raises the possibility that one's own beliefs are hollow. The quest to experience God with personal immediacy may arise out of this climate of doubt, for a God you can feel and hear and talk to can dispel the anxiety raised by a neighbor's skeptical look.

The harder question is how. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that the fundamentals of religion are undergirded by our cognitive structures, so that the idea of an invisible agent automatically seems plausible. But it is one thing to feel intuitively that there might be a God, and another to sit down across from an empty table setting for a conversation and believe that you are not talking to the empty air. What I saw as an anthropologist was that experiencing God vividly required work. It required skill and it required practice. People had to practice imagining that God was present again and again. This does not mean that God is imaginary: the senses capture only the material world, not an immaterial one. It does mean that those who sought to use their imagination had to learn to take what they imagined seriously, and not treat it as ephemeral thought.

What I found so striking as an anthropologist is that prayer changed people, not so much morally or emotionally, although prayer might change people in these ways, but in their capacity to imagine. Prayer changed the way people used their imagination and it changed the quality of their imagination, so that what they imagined felt more real to them. They became able to feel God beside then as they walked. They experienced God as talking back. They needed to use a new "theory of mind" to do this -- they needed to be taught that what happened in their imaginations could be real. But when they practiced taking what they imagined seriously, they began to feel that they had evidence that God was real and responding to them.

It is important to recognize the trained imagination at work in evangelical prayer because otherwise this style of faith can seem incomprehensible, even foolish, to onlookers. It is neither. These evangelicals are using a style of faith practice used by the desert fathers and medieval monks and -- in different forms -- by different faith communities around the world. They use these practices because these practices make God more real. In a world full of secular skepticism, that can be useful.

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