Last Lunch with Karl and the Evangelical Relationship with God

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By Richard Gull 

At our last lunch, Karl said that he was reading T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Karl said that finally someone had written a “smart, smart book” on born-again Christianity. In the week after our lunch, I read it and sent notes and questions about the book to Karl hoping there might still be time for some discussion; after all, I noticed on Facebook that he went to see the latest Fast and Furious movie that week. But alas it was too late. Two months after Karl died, I had lunch with his wife Dianne. Curious about what Karl thought about Luhrmann’s book, I requested and received Karl’s own copy of When God Talks Back. With a yellow marker I copied Karl’s underlining of passages into my copy. There was remarkable overlap in our respective under linings. But there was only one comment by Karl, written in the margin on page 312. Karl’s comment read: “Is this a good thing?”  The comment was next to the following paragraph:

This history tells us that the liberal Christian God has failed. The mainstream churches are often empty now, their pews unfilled, their hymns unsung, while the churches of the supernatural God blaze with life. For most Americans — and for many around the world — understanding God in a desupernaturalized way just doesn't keep them in their seats on Sunday morning. [The italicized text represents Karl's underlining.] But the lesson about the way conservative Christianity has changed is just as striking. For perhaps half or more of those that call themselves born-again, their God has become more supernaturally present than he was in the days when the fundamentalists first set themselves apart. The miracles are no longer only in the past. They are true now, and any congregant can encounter them.

“Two months after Karl died, I had lunch with his wife Dianne. Curious about what Karl thought about Luhrmann’s book, I requested and received Karl’s own copy of When God Talks Back. With a yellow marker I copied Karl’s underlining of passages into my copy.”

So Karl raises a question: Is the flocking to born-again churches from traditional Protestant churches a good thing?

Thinking back on my last lunch with Karl, he said something that is at least a partial response to his own question: “Luhrmann’s book is pure William James in Varieties of Religious Experience.  In fact, Luhrmann is more purely a pragmatist about interpreting religious experiences than James himself in that she argues against James’s claim that, since real causes have real effects, the universality of religious experience shows that God is real. Luhrmann denies this, saying that her work is about the nature of religious experience, but her methods cannot uncover a real God as the cause of these experiences. She uses Michelangelo’s Genesis to make the point:

In Michelangelo’s Genesis man reaches out for God and God for man, and their fingers do not touch. An anthropologist can describe the human side of that relationship, the way humans reach for God. I can describe the way a church can teach congregants to pay attention and learn to use their minds to help them make their experience of God real and concrete; I can describe the practice they develop, and the way they learn these practices and teach them to each other. I can tell what we know of the psychological mechanisms through which the mind can sense the presence of something for which there is no ordinary sensory evidence and the way those mechanisms are different from psychiatric illness. But my methods cannot distinguish between sensory deception and the moments when God may be reaching back to communicate through an ordinary human mind. (Luhrmann, p. xxv)

“But my methods cannot distinguish between sensory deception and the moments when God may be reaching back to communicate through an ordinary human mind.”
— T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God

So Luhrmann is not claiming that the migration of Protestants to evangelical churches is in any way an argument for the reality of their conception of God, and so is not a “good thing” in the sense that it is evidence that the present, personal God of the evangelicals is more likely to exist than the supernatural, impersonal God of traditional Protestants.

But Luhrmann is claiming that the evangelical experience of God is more real than that of the traditional Protestant churches. The ways to experience God’s presence must be taught and learned. Faith in God in this sense is not an easier option than skepticism.

To experience God as walking by your side, in conversation with you, is hard. Evangelical pastors often preach as if they are teaching people how to keep God constantly in mind, because it is so easy not to pray, to let God’s presence slip away. But when it works, people experience God as alive.

Secular liberals sometimes take evolutionary psychology to mean that believing in God is the lazy option. But many churchgoers will tell you that keeping God real is what is hard. (“Conjuring Up Our Own Gods,” The New York Times, October 15, 2013)”

That evangelicals must learn to experience God’s presence through teaching and practicing a new state of mind shows that to be “born again” is not a leap of faith as Karl wondered back in Phil Campbell, Alabama. Faith in the evangelical sense according to Luhrmann is not a leap but is rather more like an effortful climb or a ripening or an achievement.  Not everyone is equally capable of it.

It turns out that the reason not everyone is equally capable of experiencing God’s presence is that this ability is a character trait that Luhrmann calls absorption. Absorption is “a disposition for having moments of total attention that somehow completely engage all of one’s attentional resources—perceptual, imaginative, conceptual . . . .”

In other words, you get absorbed in something, it seems more real to you, and you and your world seem different than before. That is why it is related to hypnotizability.” (Luhrmann, p. 199) [The italicized text represents Karl's underlining.] The more highly you score on the absorption scale, “the more likely you are to be a reader, and the more likely you are to immerse yourself in rich imaginative worlds; the more likely you are to be the kind of person who can lose him or herself in movies and literature, the kind of person for whom the story can feel more real than the everyday.”

“Absorption is ‘a disposition for having moments of total attention that somehow completely engage all of one’s attentional resources—perceptual, imaginative, conceptual . . . .’”
— T. M. Luhrmann

Evangelicals often feel culturally inferior to college-educated, secular liberals who often regard them as bumpkins. But according to Luhrmann their rock star intellectual is the tweedy Oxford author C.S. Lewis whose Tales of Narnia with its furry lion Aslan is a model for evangelicals of God appearing as a fictional character with whom they can have a personal relationship. C.S. Lewis writes: ”Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.” God’s presence is a fiction that is more real than real. Religion becomes a game of “Let’s pretend.”  Luhrmann writes:

“Fiction . . . helps us learn what we find emotionally true in the face of irreconcilable contradictions. . . . Fiction teaches us how to think about what we take to be true. In the cacophony of an information soaked age, we need it.” (“C.S. Lewis, Evangelical Rock Star,” The New York Times, June 26, 2013)

“C.S. Lewis writes: ‘Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.’”

The following are notes I sent to Karl after our lunch and after reading When God Talks Back: Understanding the Evangelical Relationship with God. Karl told me he wanted to discuss the book but he was not able to reply:

In your interview with Joe Summers, you and Joe agree that it is better to lead a spiritually alive life than not to have one. You have always led some version of that life and you have been an exemplar of it for me. I’m writing to you about When God Talks Back to feel close to you; it’s a prayer (although not in the evangelical sense), a way of reaching out, holding you in my heart, and saying goodbye — at least for now. I hope you get to read this and, even better, to respond. But if it doesn’t happen, so be it; I’ll finish this prayer for you anyway.                                  

Evangelicals and the 60s

What I called “America’s spiritual Reformation” in my article on Esalen began in the 1960s with the synchronistic origins of Esalen and the New Left with their anti- hierarchical notions of spirituality. Luhrmann is a regular guest contributor to The New York Times. She has also been a contributor to Esalen and appeared there last October for a seminar on modern religion with Jeffrey Kripal, author of Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion. Luhrmann writes in Bibliographic Notes (p.369): “A book that captures the zeitgeist of the 1960s, though it has very little overtly to do with Christianity, is Jeffrey Kripal’s Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion.”  Kripal is a professor of theology at Rice University and taught for years at Esalen. He claims that Esalen is an experiment in a uniquely American form of mysticism. Esalen, like the New Left, was a reaction to hierarchical religion, politics, and education.

“Both Esalen and the evangelicals use the idea of altered states as means to spiritual or religious experience.”

My essay “Esalen at 50” relies on Kripal’s account. But, as Luhrmann notes, Kripal’s book is not about Christianity. Luhrmann’s book, by contrast, is about evangelical Christianity but, like Kripal’s account of the rise of the New Age, sees the impulse behind evangelicalism as an anti-church, anti-hierarchy movement. And there are other fascinating similarities and differences. Both Esalen and the evangelicals use the idea of altered states as means to spiritual or religious experience.

Esalen in the 1960s was the site of experimentation with chemical mysticism but also other altered-state technologies like yoga, meditation, art, and encounter group experiences. Evangelicals learn to use the imagination to talk to or listen to God in an altered state of consciousness. But while Catholics see visions, evangelicals hear. And “theologically conservative Christians are careful to separate themselves from anything that evokes the non-Christian. . . . A Christian should not practice yoga lest Hindu influence creep into the body and corrupt the soul.”(p.167) (Karl, as both a Protestant churchgoer and a practicing Buddhist, what do you make of this division?) And evangelicals believe we cannot reach God without language: “In the beginning there was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. ”Jesus is that word and . . . without that word we find in our stilled minds no more than an empty vastness.” 

“Evangelicals learn to use the imagination to talk to or listen to God in an altered state of consciousness. But while Catholics see visions, evangelicals hear.”

So the evangelical cultivates the type of prayer called since the fifth century kataphatic allowing some understanding of the invisible divine through the imagination. The Esalen (or pan-Buddhist) practice, by contrast, is apophatic, a clearing out of the mind; its gnosis is pantheistic. Luhrmann notes that evangelicals distrust Jesuit Spiritual Exercises: To some “the Ignatian exercises and monastic practices are a soft slide into the demonic because just as in the churches, images are used to intervene between human and God.” But this kind of objection, going back to Luther, could be taken as anti-hierarchical, a democratization of our relation to the divine, similar to radical counterculture spiritualities.

“Both leftist authenticity and evangelical discipline require solidarity with others; for leftists it’s “the movement,” for evangelicals it’s the church.”

60s leftists took participatory democracy as their goal; you become authentic only by putting the cause of social justice above personal advancement. Evangelicals have a “participatory theory of mind, taught by the social world of the church.”(Luhrmann, 202) Preparation for hearing God requires self-transformation. Both leftist authenticity and evangelical discipline require solidarity with others; for leftists it’s “the movement,” for evangelicals it’s the church. “What we have seen in the last four or five decades is the democratization of God — I and thou into you and me — and the democratization of intense spiritual experience, arguably more deeply than ever before in our country’s history.”(Luhrmann, 35)

Huxley’s Pala prayer: “Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief” is, in the Esalen gnosis, meant to detach religious faith from dogmatic finality. Evangelicals detach belief from faith by making belief secondary to the suspension of disbelief in order to experience the joy of God’s presence and to use fictions like Aslan to think about what they take to be true. This variety of the religious experience of God replaces the binary of belief vs. disbelief with the “not-quite-true-but-better-than-true” or “not-real but-more-than-real” quality of fiction. Mature evangelicals do not simply think of God as a Santa Claus answering prayers; God may not answer or may answer ambiguously. Luhrmann compares the relationship of the congregant to God to that of the psychotherapeutic relationship of patient to therapist:

The evangelical Christianity that emerged out of the 1960s is fundamentally psychotherapeutic. God is about relationship, not explanation, and the goal of the relationship is to convince congregants that their lives have a purpose and that they are loved. For that relationship to work, the congregant must be able to tolerate moments when it seems to fail. It is a psychotherapeutic cliché that failure in the psychotherapeutic relationship helps the psychotherapy to succeed, because the client learns to tolerate the therapist’s inadequacy and still experience the therapist as helpful, the client is able to act as if the helpful therapist is present despite his or her mistakes. (Luhrmann, 296)    

“Mature evangelicals do not simply think of God as a Santa Claus answering prayers; God may not answer or may answer ambiguously.”

The problem of evil and suffering, from this point of view, is not, for evangelicals, a philosophical problem that challenges their belief in God; it is a personal problem for which God is a comforting presence.

The evangelicals’ idea God’s presence makes the arguments for the existence of an invisible God irrelevant. The evangelical conception is at the other end of the intellectual spectrum from Spinoza’s intellectual love of God. Spinoza  (17th century Jewish, rationalist philosopher) rejects these “let’s pretend” products of the imagination as childish. Yet both are motivated by the same impulse in that both find the arguments for the existence of an invisible God separate from his creation unconvincing. But Spinoza opts for pantheism while evangelicals put the experience of God into the imagination of the particular mind.

Karl has inspired my interest in this subject. I’m in the process of writing a paper with the working title: “Fictitious Gods, Religious Atheists, and Spiritual Hunger Artists.”  I am interested talking about this subject with others who are interested — friends of Karl, evangelicals, clergy, anthropologists, philosophers, clergy, or critics. I have found that writing about my friend Karl has been a way of grieving for him.


Richard Gull is an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan. Contact him at rgull@umflint.edu.


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Posted on February 27, 2014 and filed under Winter 2014 Issue, Philosophy.