I had to do about seven hours worth of driving yesterday, and used the time alone in the car to get caught up on my podcast and Mars Hill Audio Journal listening. One of the most interesting things I heard was the Fresh Air interview with the Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, who has written a much-discussed book, “When God Talks Back,” about the Vineyard Fellowship, and the Evangelical belief that one can have a two-way conversation with God in prayer. I found this exchange between Luhrmann and host Terry Gross to be particularly thought-provoking:

TERRY GROSS: So you said that there are certain consequences to believing that you are hearing God’s voice, to using your imagination to hear God’s voice and to have regular conversations with him. And let me just stop right here, and I know what I’ve said will be offensive to a lot of evangelical Christians because I’ve said that they’re imagining they’re hearing God’s voice, and they would probably say: No, I am hearing God’s voice.

So I’m not even sure what language to – what language would you use here, imagining or hearing?

LUHRMANN: You know, I would use both. It’s a recent part of American history that we treat the imagination as mere imagination. The church fathers thought that the imagination was the route to God, and if you were going – and the way that I think about it is that if you are going to represent a being that is not visible the way tables and chairs are visible, you need to use your imagination.

And the church talks about using the imagination. It’s just – you know, it just makes some Christians uncomfortable to actually use that word because of the connotations that the term has in early 21st-century America.

GROSS: Well, speaking of imagination, I mean, this might be an unfair comparison, but many children have imaginary friends. And at a certain age, that upsets their parents, and the parents have to explain to them that that friend doesn’t exist, and it’s time to outgrow the imaginary friend. And…

LUHRMANN: Right. And that’s a mistake, by the way.

GROSS: OK, if you’re a rationalist, you know, you would say: Well, what’s the difference between the imaginary friend that you’re supposed to outgrow and this approach to believing that, you know, God or Jesus is like your friend, your buddy, you’re talking to each other?

LUHRMANN: In some sense, none. It depends on your ontological stance, what you take to be externally real about the world. So the way that I think about it is that I, as an anthropologist, I don’t have the authority to pronounce on whether God is real or God is not real. I don’t feel like I have a horse in that race.

I don’t feel I have the authority to say whether God showed up to somebody or did not. I do think that if God speaks to someone, God speaks to the human mind. And I can say something about the social, cultural and psychological features of what that person is experiencing.

And so when people experience God as a companion in their lives, they’re using their imagination the same way a child is using the imagination to experience an imaginary companion. But at the same – but, you know, that person doesn’t experience God as being imaginary, because they have a different ontological stance. And, you know, who are we to pronounce on that?

To restate her point: if God exists, then He must communicate to us through the mind, which is to say, through the faculty of imagination. (An interesting aside: notice that Jesus did not teach so much through proposition as through analogies and metaphors.) It is to be expected, then, that at least some people who claim God speaks to them are not merely generating these thoughts in their imaginations by themselves, but are experiencing actual communication by God through their imaginations. If, however, you have a prior ontological commitment to atheism, then any experiential claim of God cannot be interpreted as anything other than a purely psychological phenomenon. There is no neutral, wholly empirical way of interpreting these claims and verifying their nature. Different churches have methods, techniques, and rules of discernment, but all presuppose that God does exist, and sometimes chooses to communicate to his people.

This is an interesting bit as well:

LUHRMANN: Absolutely. So I think that there, again, you know, if God speaks God is speaking through the human mind. And one of the features of the human mind is that when we pay attention to our minds differently our experience changes. And what I saw was this millennia-long tradition of using the imagination to experience God by attending intensely to this internal world. It becomes more alive. It feels more real. And occasionally I noticed it kind of almost slipped over the edge of that boundary that defines the difference between the inner and the outer and people would hear God speak audibly or they would see something that somebody else wouldn’t see. I don’t think that has anything to do with ontology. If there is a God, God is choosing those moments when you have that unusual experience. But the psychological technique of prayer is independent of religion. It is a way of changing the inner experience of the person.

She is saying that it’s a psychological fact that we can train our mind to experience the world differently. How are we to know that the Vineyard people haven’t trained their mind to perceive a level of reality that eludes common experience? The other day I read something the Tibetan monk Matthieu Ricard wrote about how Tibetan lamas don’t consider their own meditative experiences to be entirely subjective, but rather that their many years of practicing spiritual disciplines have revealed to them objective facts about reality that can be experienced to those who submit to the discipline. Orthodox Christian monks on Mount Athos report the same thing from within their tradition. The question is, what should we consider as normative human experience? Are there things that we do not see and experience because we do not believe? Are there things we can only see if we believe?