I know what it is like to hear God speak. I am not a Christian. I am not even sure what I mean, speaking for myself, by the word “God.” But for 10 years I have been doing anthropological research among the sort of evangelical Christians who experience God as interacting with them. They believe that prayer is a conversation in which they talk to God and God talks back. They will say that God “told” them to do something—to talk to the stranger next to them on the bus, or move to Los Angeles. To other Christians, this can seem incomprehensible, even dangerous.
People often spoke to me about the first time they had recognized God’s voice. Usually, this happened in prayer ministry. They realized that an apparently random thought or mental image was uncannily relevant to the person they were praying over, and they thought that God was telling them what the person they were praying for needed to hear. One woman remembered the first time this happened when she prayed for a stranger. “I didn’t know what to say. I was really scared. And then, I remember, I saw something. It wasn’t a vivid picture. It was more like my words described the picture more than I saw clearly what the picture was. When I described it to the person I was praying for, he just started to cry. Then he explained why he was crying, and with that information, I was able to pray for him more. It was the most powerful thing.”
Once people began to feel confident that they heard God speak to them as they prayed for other people, they began to experience God speaking to them about their own lives. They would talk to God with their inner voice, about something that was vexing them, and they would wait for his response—some inner word or image that would give them guidance. Sometimes it came immediately; sometimes it took time. They call this practice “listening.”
What I saw was that they were learning to pay attention to their inner world in a different way. The church taught that words from God should feel as if they “pop” into the mind, a spontaneous break from the flow of thought.
Let us put to one side the question of whether God is really speaking, and examine the practice anthropologically. The first thing to notice is that the practice takes advantage of what we might call the “texture” of mental experience. We have thoughts that are more startling and surprising than others; thoughts that seem a piece of the psychic river of awareness and thoughts that seem to come out of nowhere. These Christians treat these contours as significant.
But they do more than attend to thought differently. The church teaches congregants to pay attention only to certain of these striking thoughts—to good thoughts, thoughts that are the kinds of things God should say. That is, those thoughts should be relevant, wise, and loving. (“God does not tell you to hurt yourself,” people said.) You should feel calm when you have them. When you hear God correctly, you should feel peace, and if you didn’t feel peaceful, it wasn’t God.
Doing this changes you. One man explained to me how much his experience of God had altered since coming to the church. “God’s voice is like a fuzzy radio station, 95.2, 94.9, which needs more tuning. You’re picking up the song, and it’s not so clear sometimes. It’s clearer to me now.” That was why I say that I think I know what it is like to hear God speak. I worshiped with these charismatic evangelicals. I prayed with them. I read their books. I sought to pay attention to my inner world the way they did. As I did so, I began to have experiences like the ones they reported. I remember with clarity the first time it happened. I was trying to compose a note to someone—one of those complicated notes you need to send to someone you don’t know well, when you want to be personal but not forward. I fretted about the note off and on for a few days. Then suddenly the sentences just came to me. I didn’t feel that I had chosen them. They came to me, and I wrote them down, and they were perfect. To some extent, the practice works. My ethnographic and experimental work confirmed this again and again.
Religion demands of its followers that they understand reality to be different from the material world they live within—more fair, more good. It demands that they use their minds to present reality as different and as better. It is worth recognizing that this is as much skill as belief, a knowing how (to borrow from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle) as much as a knowing that. The skill is probably at the heart of what makes psychotherapy work when it works and probably what makes placebo effective. It’s a different way of thinking about God than the science-religion wars suggest and possibly less divisive.