Talking Amongst Ourselves (When God Talks Back)

When God Talks Back book cover

When God Talks Back by T.M. Luhrmann

Last week, I shared a few lessons on talking with non-evangelicals that I had taken away from T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back. This week, I’m going in the opposite direction. What are some things that evangelicals need to do better?

Accept our creatureliness. When describing Luhrmann’s work to evangelical friends, one of the main questions is, “Doesn’t this explain God away?” That is, if our ability to pray and to hear from God in prayer is related to certain psychological traits, then doesn’t that mean that God is just a psychological phenomenon?

Luhrmann herself rejects that line of reasoning. She is very clear throughout the book that she’s not investigating the existence of God or making any claims about his existence based on her research. Further, I’m not sure that discovering a psychological structure connected to the act of prayer says anything more about the existence of God than discovery of the optic nerve says about the existence of the Mona Lisa.

Historically, evangelicals have been very nervous about the physical aspects of the mind. We’re getting much better — I’ve seen incredible progress on the topic of mental health just in the years I’ve been a believer. This nervousness, though, is connected (I think) to the modern tendency to see ourselves as superior to and separate from our own bodies. This, in turn, is a rejection of our limits and, ultimately, our mortality. We are not only our bodies, but, as bodily creatures made by God, our bodies are an integral part of who we are. As Christians, after all, we profess believe in a physical resurrection, which suggests that there’s something important about this hunk of flesh.

Interestingly, several Christian philosophers have revived the idea of the sensus divinatus – the divine sense that enables us to sense God directly. See Thomas Nagel’s review of Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism for a brief discussion. If there are certain psychological traits or practices that can enhance our ability to sense God, I wonder if there could be a connection to this philosophical concept.

Embrace unity with Christians of the past and other traditions. We’re not the first Christians to seek intimacy with God or expect our prayers to be answered. Luhrmann repeatedly draws connections between contemporary practices of the Vineyard Church and prayer practices and teachings on prayer of Christians from the past. These included not only 20th century writers like C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Henri Nouwen, and Thomas Merton, but Ignatius of Loyola, the anonymous Cloud of UnknowingJulian of Norwich, and Teresa of Avila. I wish more evangelicals were comfortable — and familiar — with these older theologians. For that matter, I wish I were more familiar with them!

Open up to suffering. In chapter nine, “Darkness,” Luhrmann turns to the problem of suffering. This chapter broke my heart. Luhrmann opens by describing the problem of theodicy – the problem of why an all-powerful, all-merciful God allows suffering. She describes three classic solutions: evil as the lack of goodness, created by humans; all will turn out for good in the end; and everything is already the “best of all possible worlds,” in Voltaire’s mocking phrase. Lurhmann then writes:

Churches like the Vineyard handle the problem of suffering with a fourth solution: they ignore it. Then they turn the pain into a learning opportunity. When it hurts, you are supposed to draw closer to God. In fact, the church even seems to push its congregants to experience prayers that fail [due to their boldness]. (268, emphasis added)

As someone who wrote his master’s thesis out of a theology of suffering, I’m especially sensitive to evangelicalism’s limited resources when it comes to dealing with suffering. Luhrmann observes that community was often the solution given to suffering, “because when an individual’s private experience of God fell short, that individual needed their community to pull them through” (283). Mostly, though, I saw in Luhrmann’s descriptions a church that had neglected Christianity’s deep resources for dealing with suffering — not the least of which is the cross itself.

I encourage you to read When God Talks Back for yourself, and I would appreciate your thoughts about the book or about the issues I raise above.

Earlier: What do academics think of evangelicals?Mike’s initial review, Talking to non-evangelicals

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    Andy Walsh commented on September 25, 2012 Reply

    The relationship of prayer and suffering makes me wonder: to what extent should we expect God to relieve our suffering in response to our prayer, and to what extent is the act of prayer itself the means by which we should expect to find relief?

    Rachel commented on September 27, 2012 Reply

    If there is one issue that I think evangelical communities need to work on, it’s the problem of suffering. When life hurts, our first reaction is to find a solution – a Bible verse, a spiritual discipline, a well-meaning cliche – that will help us get over it as soon as possible. After all, aren’t we supposed to be joyful always? Aren’t we doing this faith thing wrong if we aren’t happy all the time?

    That’s the impression I’ve gotten from the church, sometimes, and the message that used to play in my head: that failing to just ‘get over it’ must mean you’re a failure of a Christian. We end up blaming the pain on ourselves or each other for not trusting God enough or not having a strong enough faith; we think if we try a little harder, pray a little harder, believe or obey or surrender with a little more sincerity, the worst of it should just go away. We want relief, to borrow Andy’s word, and it’s an embarrassing flaw in the system when we can’t get this God thing to “work” like that.

    And so we try to talk about Good News without confronting the horror that it was meant to answer. We try to skip ahead to Easter without passing through Good Friday… not to mention that long, silent Saturday in between. We’re afraid that someone’s faith will collapse – theirs or ours – if we don’t have a pat answer.

    I think the mistake is trying to think our way out of a problem that is first and foremost about what we feel. There is no intellectual answer to suffering that can satisfy the heart. But there is a God who suffers with us and for us, and maybe sometimes through us (Colossians 1:24) for the world. I love a good theodicy as much as the next person… but you can’t collapse into the arms of an explanation when it’s all too much for you to bear. You need God himself for that, and we need his Body here on earth to be those arms and to speak his words and shed his tears with us until he returns. So yes, community – but a community that’s not afraid of following Christ to Calvary to be with those who are suffering… whose promise is not just relief, but resurrection.

    Andy Walsh commented on September 30, 2012 Reply

    Rachel, thank you for elaborating more clearly on some notions that I was vaguely starting to coalesce in my mind when I made my initial comment. We see in scripture where both Jesus and Paul prayed to be spared from particular suffering, and neither was. The Psalms contain no shortage of pleas for relief, many of which resolve into songs of praise even when there is no indication that relief was forthcoming. We should not be surprised if our experience is the same.

    Micheal Hickerson commented on October 1, 2012 Reply

    Andy and Rachel – Thanks for your comments. Luhrmann spends quite a bit of time in the chapter “Darkness” on the problem of suffering, and her observations are worth spending more time on. My post tomorrow will go into more detail.

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