“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
What is it about this moment in time that supports the enormous growth in belief in a personal God? After all, in the mid-20th century, most social scientists thought spiritual faith would simply disappear.
In scientifically oriented and culturally diverse societies, these scholars argued, religious allegiance became voluntary. Spirituality was thought to have become a consumer good that adherents would sample and discard as if they were buying cosmetics in a department store aisle.
And so these midcentury scholars assumed that faith would soon diminish or disappear. They anticipated a church retracting its claims to supernatural miracles and pulling back its commitments to God’s creation, in the face of geology and evolutionary theory. They predicted that in an open society, Jesus would become understood as a wise but human teacher whose life story had been embellished by myths and metaphors.
We now know that those scholars were wrong. There are pockets of liberal Christianity left in America and in Europe, but Christianity around the world has exploded in its seemingly least liberal and most magical form—in charismatic Christianities that take biblical miracles at face value and treat the Holy Spirit as if it had a voltage. This kind of supercharged God is the vehicle through which Christianity spreads most easily, and it has been stunningly successful. A few years ago, Newsweek found that nearly 40 percent of Americans said that the main reason they practice religion is “to forge a personal relationship with God.” There are still theologically conservative Christians who do not believe that God will speak back; they still hold, as they put it, that revelation is “closed.” But membership in charismatic congregations has exploded since the 1960s while mainstream denominations have seen their membership plummet relative to the population size.
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 people around the world—understanding God in a de-supernaturalized way just doesn’t keep them in their seats on Sunday morning. But the way conservative Christianity has changed is just as striking. For perhaps half or more of those who 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 true only in the past. They are true now, and any congregant can encounter them.
What makes this conception of God so successful in a late modern world? Why does it bring people to church and keep them there? Part of the answer is the intense attention this intimate and personally real God demands. In these experiential evangelical churches, the way Jesus and God are imagined insists that a congregant pay constant attention to his or her mind and world, seeking God’s presence, listening for something God might say.
This person-like God can comfort, like a friend, and respond directly, like a friend. He can be a real social relationship for those who make the effort to experience him in this way. But because that social relationship lacks so many features of actual human sociality—no visible body, no responsive face, no spoken voice—such a theology demands constant vigilance from those who follow it. They work to build up a model of God by interpreting it out of their own familiar experience in a way shaped by the social world of the church and the sacred text, and then they work to reorient their own interior emotional responsiveness by matching it to this representation. Faiths that imagine God differently make fewer demands on attentional habits. But it may be, perhaps, that such a God is easier to take for granted. Paradoxically, this high-maintenance, effortful God may appeal to so many modern people precisely because the work demanded makes the God feel more salient. More real.
At the same time, the practice of this attention may produce actual perceptual evidence of God’s presence. As congregants learn to pray and to practice prayer, they sometimes experience God with their senses. They may feel the touch of his hand or the sound of his voice; they may catch a glimpse of a vision he wants them to see. Such experiences cannot be willed, and the more sensory they are, the more rare they become. Those rare moments can be quite powerful, even transformative. When someone hears God—directly hears, with his ears—say “I will always be with you,” it can make God real in a way that feels definitive. The more common but less powerful sensory moments when you sense God’s presence, feel his response, have a thought pop into your mind that you know comes from him—these experiences make God come alive in a way no sermon can match.
This way of paying attention shifts the reality of God into a form grasped by the mind and experienced in the mind, and that too has consequences. God becomes more real—you heard him speak—but also more private.
Here, for example, is the way one woman describes her response when someone else reports what God has said to him or her: “You know, if that’s what someone else is experiencing, I can’t discount that experience. I might see different ways in which they might be thinking from a falsehood rather than a truth, but it’s fundamentally up to them to decide what they experience or didn’t experience or feel or didn’t feel.”
This woman is sharply aware that because God speaks to each in his or her own mind, as an observer she will never really know whether God spoke to someone else and, if so, whether that other person interpreted God accurately. “Prayer is often an introspective conversation,” she told me. “You know, I am asking my conscience, which is really the Holy Spirit, ‘What do you think about this idea?’”
Almost every Christian I met tells other people straightforwardly and unambiguously that they are Christians and that they believe in God. And yet every one of them, when talking among themselves or at the end of an interview with me, uses expressions that acknowledge an acute consciousness that their belief has a complicated relationship to the everyday world in which they live.
One evening as women gathered for prayer group, all of them long-standing and firmly committed members of the church, Susan regaled us with a description of her afternoon. She told us that she had seen her 5-year-old daughter outside in the pool without her floaties, those air-filled pillows that beginner swimmers wear on their arms, and ran to yank her out. “She said to me, ‘Mom, if I had gone down to the bottom of the pool, God would have whispered into your heart and told you I was down there.’” Gales of laughter from the women. “I wanted to say,” Susan went on, “‘Honey, I know this God. You wear your damn floaties.’” More riotous laughter.
A woman who had recently dumped her boyfriend for bad behavior gasped that we all need floaties. A different woman, finding this vaguely sacrilegious, said piously that we should all believe in God like that little girl. But another woman responded, “Yeah, I dunno, I think those floaties aren’t a bad idea.” Nor was that kind of laughing ambivalence so uncommon. After a bad week, the woman who had convened the group—a deeply devout woman—opened the evening with this: “I don’t believe it but I’m sticking with it. That’s my definition of faith.”
It is my belief that the God of the late 20th and early 21st century has become imagined as magically real because that way of imagining God helps those who wish to hang on to God manage the doubts that surround them. This God is so real, so accessible, and so present, and so seamlessly blends the supernatural with the everyday, that the paradox places the need for the suspension of disbelief at the center of the Christian experience.
A great deal of sociological data also suggests that the American experience of relationship is thinner and weaker than in the middle of our past century. Sociologist Robert Putnam’s landmark book, Bowling Alone, documented the decline of civic engagement in the United States. He makes the case that American citizens have become increasingly disconnected from friends, family, and neighbors. His data also suggests that American citizens might feel more lonely. They are certainly more isolated. More Americans live alone now than ever before.
Meanwhile, the radical technological innovations of our time have fundamentally altered the conditions of our perception and the very way we experience the world. Television, the virtual reality of the Internet, and the all-encompassing world of music we can create around us are techniques that enhance the experience of absorption, the experience of being caught up in fantasy and distracted from an outer world. We put on headphones on buses and subways specifically to create a different subjective reality from the frazzled one that sways around us. We park our children in front of videos so that they will be absorbed into their own little universes, and we can cook or clean around them undisturbed.
These social changes have facilitated the modern faith practices that build an intensely intimate relationship with God. Our strange new absorbing media probably make us more comfortable with intense absorption experiences. As we switch our DVD players on and off, we practice living in multiple realities. And it seems quite likely that the closely held sense of a personal relationship with God, always there, always listening, always responsive, and always with you, diminishes whatever isolation there is in modern social life. The route to this God is complex and subtle, at once childlike and sophisticated, drawing on skills and practices found throughout human history but doing so in a form specific to this time and space. It is a process through which the loneliest of conscious creatures can come to experience a world awash with love.
Watch videos of Luhrmann discussing her research here.
From When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God by T.M. Luhrmann. © 2012 by Tanya Luhrmann. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc.