07/18/14

How God Became Real for Two Modern People

Soon after Bill admitted himself to the Towns Hospital for what would be the last time, he cried out: “If there be a God, let Him show Himself!” His hospital room was filled with a white light. He was seized with an “ecstasy beyond description.” In his mind’s eye, he stood on the summit of a mountain, where a great wind of spirit blew right threw him. “Then came the blazing thought: ‘You are a free man.’” He became aware of a Presence, like a sea of living spirit. “This,” he thought, “must be the Great Reality. The God of the preachers.” Bill Wilson never took another drink. He had started down the path to become one of the cofounders of Alcoholic Anonymous.

Within our modern culture, “sensory override” encounters with the supernatural are met with skepticism or viewed as the ravings of fanatical individuals and groups. But rejecting the reality of the supernatural contradicts what William James described in The Varieties of Religious Experience and what T. M. Luhrmann reported in When God Talks Back.  Bill Wilson read VRE to help him make sense of his encounter with the God of the preachers. And Bill would later refer to James as a “cofounder” of A.A.

Like William James, Luhrmann persuasively validated these experiences of the supernatural in When God Talks Back. She even provided some experimental evidence that “sensory override” experiences were not pathological. See a description here in “How Does God Become Real for Modern People?

I have never worshipped in a Vineyard church. But I did spend some time in charismatic evangelical churches after my own personal encounter with God. A friend challenged me to read the book, More Than A Carpenter, by Josh McDowell. He said it had played a role in his own conversion. I remember being surprised by McDowell’s effective use of logical argument. But, I still wasn’t persuaded, as my friend had been.

One Saturday afternoon, I found myself wondering why McDowell said the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ was necessary for the redemption of humanity. Then in my mind (not audibly) I heard a voice say: “There was no other way.” I immediately knew the statement was true. And I immediately knew that voice was God.

I grew up in the Roman Catholic church, but had never been told that God would speak to you like that. Ironically, at that time one of the individuals I counseled actually believed he was Jesus Christ when he was in a psychotic state. I returned the book to Jerry, not saying anything about God speaking to me. My plan was to never speak of that experience to anyone. A few months later, some further, less profound experiences led me to acknowledge Jesus as my savior and Lord. I eventually did contact Jerry and tell him about God talking to me; and I have periodically told others of the experience as well.

God speaking to me is a part of my personal spiritual journey. But it is not an experience that I intentionally sought to cultivate (then or now), like the members of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. This was over thirty years ago, and I have not had a spiritual experience of the divine that has ever come close to this encounter since then. I agree with T. M. Luhrmann that: “the problem of faith is not finding the idea of God plausible but sustaining that belief in the face of disconfirmation.”

You don’t have to have God talk to you in order to believe in Him. But if He does, it can make Him real to you in a profound way. Thanks Tanya for helping me to better understand my personal encounter with God. I look forward to your next project. And I have some suggestions, if you’re interested.

Have you had any sensory override experiences of your own?

07/4/14

How Does God Become Real for Modern People?

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image credit: lightstock

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?