Hearing Things: God Talk
“I still remember how startled I was when a young woman I was interviewing told me God had spoken to her, audibly.” This is the opening line of an article I recently read. The article had an enticing title: “Is that God Talking?” With a title like that, how could I resist! If I were interviewing someone and he or she told me that God spoke to him or her---audibly---I probably would suspect some kind of mental illness. Maybe I am a theologian and a cynic!
Certainly the author, T.M. Luhrmann, is no kook. She is professor of anthropology at Stanford. Stanford is one of the leading higher education institutions in the nation. Luhrmann has been doing anthropological studies among evangelicals. She wants to know about their religious experience. And in a way, I realized that I also am fascinated by people’s experience that differ from me.
I would tell people that I have experienced God and God’s presence. It surely is hard to describe. And if someone finds it hard to believe that I experience God’s presence, I can understand why he or she would be dubious. But so far as I know, I have never actually audibly heard God nor have I visibly seen God. So I read on in the article.
Luhrmann noted that the people she spoke to did not have frequent experiences of this. In fact, some experienced it only once or twice in a lifetime. And most of the time, the audible speaking of God was quite commonplace. One woman told Luhrmann that God told her to build a school. The woman never did build it. I don’t know what the consequences of ignoring the Divine word would mean.
Luhrmann had some interesting statistics. She says, “odd auditory experiences are quite common.” I wondered what exactly did “common” mean in her anthropological study? She gives us a hint. “A questionnaire posed to 375 college students found that 71 percent reported vocal hallucinations of some kind, according to a study published in 1984 (a finding consistent with my own research). A 2000 study found that 38.7 percent of the population reported visual, auditory or other hallucinations, including out-of-body experiences.” 71% is a huge number. I was surprised.
Apparently there are more people out there who are different from me than I thought! That probably should come as no surprise, but it does. Maybe it is human nature to assume we are normal---most people are like us. And then, it often turns out not to be the case. So what do we make of this?
Luhrmann sees a link between “the mind and prayer.” She connects “hearing a voice…with focused attention to the inner senses.” I began to understand where this was going. I realized that even when I say something like, “I sense God’s presence,” I am appealing at one level to the senses. Probably this becomes even more literal for some folks.
I like where Luhrmann takes all this. She says that “We often imagine prayer as a practice that affects the content of what we think about — our moral aspirations, or our contrition. It’s probably more accurate to understand prayer as a skill that changes how we use our minds.” That resonated with me. I like the idea of prayer as a skill. It reminds me of the work I have recently done on the theme of innovation.
I am convinced people can learn how to be innovative. No doubt, the same applies when it comes to the practice of prayer or, even, meditation. To pray or to meditate is to acquire and hone a skill. There should be some skill development when one practices something. Why would prayer or meditations be any different? The author said that people who were more ardent in praying discovered their “senses became more acute.” That does not surprise me. She continues, “smells seemed richer, colors more vibrant.” In a way I hear her saying that life became more alive!
I conclude a couple things from this new information. In the first place it suggests to me what we might expect as a result of praying more intently or becoming more disciplined in our meditation. However it is not an argument for me to tell people to start praying so that God will talk to them! As I understand it, prayer is not causal. Just because you pray to get rich does not mean becoming a millionaire is around the corner. We pray in order to connect with God. I suppose one way God connects is to talk with us.
The second take-away for me is to be reinforced in my discipline of praying. If I can continue the discipline---the authentic discipline of praying---then I might expect that my own life will become more vivid and more vibrant. Maybe prayer is spiritually comparable to taking vitamins. It is good for my spiritual health. However, it won’t take away all my problems. It will cause me to be happy ever after.
But if I become disciplined in prayer, I do think God will talk. Literally or metaphorically, God will say something like, “well done!”