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 Unknowing, Julian 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.