This is a longer version of an essay published in The New York Times on Dec. 14, 2012.

Recently I had quite an interesting conversation about the nature of God. I am an anthropologist, and in recent years I have been exploring a kind of evangelical Christianity that seeks to enable its followers to know God intimately. These evangelicals talks about getting to know God by having coffee with God, or going for a walk with God. They understand that this kind of God is known through the imagination.

They do not, of course, believe that God is imaginary, but they understand that to grasp God intimately, Christians will draw on their very personal memories of love and human friendship. They talk about working with someone’s “God-concept,” and the way that people’s experience of God can be inhibited if they did not experience their own fathers as loving. They talk about learning to hear God talk back, and they teach new congregants that God is always speaking to them.

My conversation partner was a southern Baptist. He said that he loved the book I wrote about these evangelicals. He said that much of what I wrote he recognized. But he did not much approve of this way of approaching God. He thought that the Gospels demand that you know who God actually is—not how you imagine him.

Moreover, he disapproved of the emphasis on love which you find in a church like the one in which I spent time. I thought I saw that that God was presented as unconditionally loving in these churches. People would talk about God as if the real problem with which we all struggle is not God’s judgment, but our own. God believes that we are worthwhile, and loves us for ourselves. We feel shameful and unworthy, because we magnify our guilt and hold ourselves responsible for our pain. If we really believed in God’s love we wouldn’t feel that way.

In the churches where I spent time, there is no threat of a fiery damnation. The closest I ever heard a pastor come to a mention of hell was one Sunday when the speaker said that at the end of time, when they rolled the movie of Christ’s life, we could be part of the credits, or we could end up on the cutting room floor.

To be fair, I know that some people at the church were taken aback by my observation that their God loved humans unconditionally. But much evangelical writing suggests this unconditional love. When one Christian blogger took me to task for my interpretation, another defended me by saying that this was exactly the impression of God many evangelical churches provide.

My conversation partner thought so too. He was dismayed at the growing theological willingness in American Christianity to emphasize God’s love, rather than his judgment. He did not think that such a God was biblical.

I am no theologian, and I do not think that social science can weigh in on the question of who God is or whether God is real. But I think that social science does offer some insights about why this intensely imagined and intensely loving God is so powerful for modern people.

First, this way of knowing God involves what social scientists would call “active learning.” The worshipper is not asked merely to memorize scripture, but to use scripture to interpret specific personal events: for example, to treat the event of reading of a biblical passage as a direct guide to a decision that needs to be made that day. This is very common in evangelical circles, of course.

A little less common, perhaps, is the way of engaging with scripture taught by Ignatius Loyola and his modern descendants, once frowned on in the evangelical world, and now increasingly invited. When Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek, writes about the way he prays in Too Busy Not to Pray, he describes the way he learned to imagine certain things so that the imagining would catapult him into a state where his mind and emotion were focused on God.

When you create a secret place where you can really pray, over time you will look forward to going there. You will begin to appreciate the familiar surrounding, the sights and smells. You will grow to love the aura of the place where you freely converse with God. I created such a prayer room near the credenza in a corner of my former office. In my prayer place I put an open Bible, a sign that says, “God is able,” a crown of thorns to remind me of the suffering savior, and a shepherd’s staff that I often hold up while making requests…. That office corner became a holy place for me.

The props—the crown of thorns, the shepherd’s staff--help Hybels to see, smell, feel, and taste in his mind’s eye. They help him to hear. Richard Foster gives much the same advice in Celebration of Discipline: “Seek to live the experience [of scripture]. Smell the sea. Hear the lap of the water against the shore. See the crowd. Feel the sun on your head and the hunger in your stomach. Taste the salt in the air. Touch the hem of his garment.” Ken Wilson makes a similar invitation in Mystically Wired: “words are useless without the imagination …So imagine that you are part of the scene the words invite you to imagine. Notice the greenness of the pasture [in the 23rd Psalm]. Feel the texture of the grass as you lie down on it. Stay there for a while in the grass. Notice the smells. Feel the warmth of the sun.” To a skeptic, these practices distort the scripture, because they add to the text more than is there. They add your own personal memories of grass; of summer vacation by the seaside; of a let’s-pretend crown of thorns.

To a social scientist, these practices ask that the learner engage in learning in the way that we now know learning most effectively occurs. Social science tells us that if you want a child to understand scientific experiments, you teach the child to do one—not to read about them. If you want a student to learn about good writing, you get the student to write. The more we know about human development, the more we understand that learning is most effective when it is active—not passive. These prayer practices demand a very active engagement with scripture and with God.

Second, these practices make the experience of God specific and personally detailed, and that helps to make God real to people in an environment in which they know of good, sensible people who are not Christians. Vivid, concrete, specific details help someone to get caught up in a world which is not the one they see before them—and the more specific the details, the more powerful the involvement. That’s why the world of Harry Potter is so enchanting. Rowling gives readers so many little details that Hogwarts becomes a place they can imagine even when they are not reading the books, and even when the books have come to an end.

Of course, this is dangerous: Rowling is probably horrified that readers have written tends of thousands of stories that carry on the lives of her characters where she left off. This creative freedom is exactly what horrifies some evangelicals when they look at other evangelicals who allow themselves to have a beer with God and gossip with God and ask God what shirt they should wear that morning.

Yet the creative freedom what Loyola wanted people to experience, because he felt that those details made God come alive for them. Here are Loyola’s instructions for praying around the nativity:

The salvation story, which this time is how Our lady, pregnant now for nine months and (as may piously be believed) seated on a donkey, set out from Nazareth. With her went Joseph and a serving maid who was leading an ox. They travel towards Bethlehem to pay the tribute imposed by Caesar on all those lands (see Luke 2:1-14). [Then I] compose myself in the place. Here it will be seeing with the eye of the imagination the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem, considering how long it is and how wide, and whether it is level or goes through valleys and over hills. In the same way, it will be seeing the place or the cave of the nativity, considering whether it is large or small, deep or high, and how it is arranged. [Then …] I turn myself into a poor and unworthy little servant, watching them, contemplating them, and serving their needs as if I were actually there …

At this point in the exercise, Loyola asked the participant to talk to Mary and Joseph—perhaps to help them with their bags, perhaps to hold the baby. He did not seem to care whether the participants imagined the cave or the road as long or short, wide or narrow. He cared that the participants imagined intensely: that they felt that they were there in the scene as if they were present, and that when they saw Mary, and spoke with her, they felt that the conversation was meaningful.

To a social scientist, these practices create a “paracosm”: a detailed imaginary world that often begins in childhood and catches up the whole imagination. People do build these worlds, and they are utterly gripping to them. David Brooks once wrote a column in which he asked why Spaniards loved Bruce Springsteen. His answer was that Springsteen conveyed his gritty New Jersey world so vividly that it became an alternate universe for these fans. That, I think, is what Loyola—and Hybels and Foster and Wilson—are trying to create for Christians. They think that if people were going to imagine, having the imagined world be built up around scripture will make them feel alive. Social science suggests that the specific, personal details used to create these inner worlds do indeed make such worlds feel more real.

Third, representing God as unconditionally loving enables God to serve as a “self-object.” This is a term coined by the Chicago analyst Heinz Kohut, who created an uproar in the profession back in the 1970s when he suggested that therapeutic work was more about helping the patient to have better relationships than about giving the patient knowledge. Freud had thought that psychoanalysis cured people by explaining what was wrong with the way they interpreted the world. Kohut argued that what made intensive long-term psychotherapy effective was that patients learned to experience the empathic therapist as an internal “object” that was loving, caring, and concerned with what was best for them.

This object did not exist anywhere in space. Instead, a patient who was helped by therapy was able to act and think and feel as if always aware of that therapist’s loving concern, as if the patient became the person created within that responsive, attentive relationship. When the patient was able to maintain the behavior shaped by the awareness even after the therapy had ended, analysts said that the patient had “internalized” this awareness as a self-object. People who were healthy enough not to need therapy already had helpful, soothing self-objects. Their reactions to everyday life were shaped by a complex set of internal memories of someone who loved them, and with these memories always with them, they were able to respond to other people with empathy, rather than out of fear or anger.

The ideal self-object is a sort of cross between a coach and a teddy bear, always available, never intrusive, whose emotional presence keeps hope alive and self-doubt at bay. When God is imagined as personally vivid and as unconditionally loving, God becomes a self-object; holding that self-object in your psyche makes you saner. My research has shown that the more someone endorses the sentence, “I feel God’s love for me, directly,” the less stressed they are; the less lonely they are; and the fewer psychiatric symptoms they report.

The Southern Baptist man with whom I was speaking was concerned that Christians get God right. He was worried that congregants in these experientially oriented churches would imagine God in a way that violates the scriptures and would lead them astray. The pastors I saw who taught this way were more worried that people would not get God at all. They looked out into a secular world in which they saw people struggling to have faith, and struggling to hang on to a God they thought they believed in but could not always find. They used these techniques to help to make God more real to people, and to help people to imagine God as worthy of their love, and to help them feel better when God was real to them.

A social scientist cannot speak to how Christianity should be taught. What I can offer, however, is the observation that the techniques taught by these pastors are powerful, and that they may be particularly useful in drawing people who could be hesitant about faith into active worship.

About the Author

Tanya Luhrmann, Ph.D.

Tanya Luhrmann, Ph.D., author of Of Two Minds, and When God Talks Back (March 2012) is a Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University.

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