How Does God Become Real for Modern People?

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Several years ago I read a fascinating study of psychiatry, Of Two Minds, by T. M. Luhrmann. Her insights brought clarity to how I view modern psychiatry and how it has changed since the 1970s. So I looked forward to reading When God Talks Back, where she sought to explain to nonbelievers how God becomes real for modern people. What I didn’t expect was to find new insight into how God became real to me over thirty years ago. In a future post, “How God Became Real for Two Modern People,” I describe two examples of what Luhrmann calls sensory override encounters with God, one of which happened to me personally.

Luhrmann spent time with members of two separate churches in the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. She intentionally chose a style of evangelical Christianity whose belief system would be difficult for ordinary Americans to accept. Members of Vineyard churches are encouraged to see God as someone who “interacts with them like a friend”; someone who speaks to you—at times with an audible voice. God is someone who you can hang out with; or go on a date with. Someone who wants you ask for specific things, like a particular score on your medical boards: “God just doesn’t want to know that you want to pass the MCAT. . . . God wants a number.”

According to Luhrmann, the relationship with God within a Vineyard church represents a shift towards “a more intimate, personal and supernaturally present” encounter with the divine that has developed in American spirituality over the last forty years. This style of evangelicalism wants Jesus to be as real in their lives as He was in the lives of the disciples. And it “involves an intense desire to experience personally a God who is as present now as when Christ walked among his followers in Galilee.”

God becomes “hyperreal.” He is “so real that you are left suspended between what is real and what is your imagination.” In literature, film and art, this is known as “magical realism.” Here the supernatural is seamlessly and unexpectedly blended into the natural world. Some film examples of this would be: “Stranger Than Fiction” and several Woody Allen movies, including: “Midnight in Paris” and “To Rome With Love.”

Luhrmann’s thinks that understanding or experiencing God in this way helps believers manage the doubts posed to such a belief within Western culture where reality is explained in terms of natural, physical laws. God becomes so real and so present that “the supernatural is presented as the natural.” In other words, individuals report sensory perceptions of the immaterial: of God. These “sensory overrides” are odd moments of hearing a voice when you are alone; seeing something that isn’t there; smelling or tasting something that isn’t present.

She systematically and even experimentally demonstrated how these sensory overrides were not pathological. Unlike hallucinations, these experiences of the immaterial were typically rare, brief, and not distressing. Luhrmann pointed to examples in the Bible and a long Christian tradition of individuals reporting they heard or saw the supernatural. But these sensory overrides are not limited to purely religious experiences. Like William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, Luhrmann successfully described what James said was the instinctive belief of humankind: “God is real since He produces real effects.”

Are people seeking “a more intimate, personal and supernaturally present” experience of God?


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