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Stanford professor asks, how does God become real to people?

Tanya Luhrmann's research seeks to narrow the gap between believers and nonbelievers, which she says has grown so wide it can be difficult for one side to respect the other.

Steve Fyffe

Stanford anthropology professor Tanya Luhrmann's research explores how evangelical Christians train themselves to converse with God through prayer.

Anthropology Professor Tanya Luhrmann says the suggestion was disarming at the time: "I was sitting with an evangelical woman and she told me that I should go have coffee with God. Then she explained she had coffee with God every day."

Luhrmann said she was confused and amazed. "She talked about God as her best friend."

But the encounter also made Luhrmann wonder, how does God become real to people?

So for the next several years, Luhrmann immersed herself in the activities of evangelical Christians – joining a church and attending Sunday services, weekly prayer meetings, lectures, conferences and retreats.

She interviewed congregants and conducted experiments to try measuring the power of prayer and its effect on the mind. She hoped her research would help narrow the gap between believers and nonbelievers, which she says has grown so wide that it can be difficult for one side to respect the other.

"What I found out is that there's a learning process. People are able to learn to have vivid experiences of God," Luhrmann said. "And the learning process changes the way they experience their mind and the way they use their mind."

Her observations are documented in her latest book, When God Talks Back, released last month.

Luhrmann's research focused on evangelical Christians at Vineyard Christian Fellowship churches first in Chicago, when she was teaching at University of Chicago, and then in Palo Alto, near Stanford.

Evangelicals seek a close, personal relationship with God. They go on walks with God, cuddle with God and go on dates with God. He is a God of unconditional love and kindness, Luhrmann says, and practitioners believe that with some training, they can recognize God's presence, even voice, in their minds.

When they pray, they're talking to God in their minds, not reciting Scripture or a suggested prayer, such as the Lord's Prayer, a staple in many Christian services, Luhrmann says.

"What they're really trying to do is walk into the Scriptures and have them come alive," Luhrmann said.

L.A. Cicero Tanya Luhrmann

Anthropology professor Tanya Luhrmann has spent 10 years studying evangelical Christians who seek to hear the voice of God when they pray.

The Vineyard church, Luhrmann says in her book, invites congregants to "pretend" that God is present and make believe that he is talking back like the very best of buddies. They don't think that God is imaginary but they do believe that when congregants use their imaginations in prayer, they can experience God more intimately.

"They are not the lunatic fringe," Luhrmann says. "They are not crazy. Their beliefs and their belief experience seem pretty startling to an onlooker, but I actually think there's good evidence that having this kind of intimate relationship with God is good for you."

She said she and other researchers have found that people who report that they feel God's love directly feel less lonely and less stressed.

According to Gallup polls, roughly 95 percent of Americans say they believe in the existence of God or a higher power. A Pew Foundation survey in 2008 found that two-thirds of Americans completely or mostly agreed that angels and demons are active in the world and nearly one-fifth said they receive a direct answer to a specific prayer at least once a week.

Luhrmann said her research does not intend to prove or disprove the existence of God.

"I don't pass judgment on whether God exists or doesn't exist, or whether God shows up in any particular moment in which somebody's reporting God's presence," she said. "But I found that people did hear what they described as God's voice, and they sometimes heard that voice audibly, as clearly as you're hearing my voice."

Luhrmann describes the prayer practice used by these evangelicals as "inner sense cultivation." This involves deliberately using the capacity to see with the mind's eye and hear with the mind's ear to represent the divine. She believes that inner sense cultivation changes mental experience.

"If the divine exists, the divine is invisible," Luhrmann said. "To represent it you must use your imagination. Training your imagination helps people to experience God as more present, more alive, more real in their lives."

To understand how this deep prayer changes the mind, Luhrmann created an experiment during which she separated some people into a prayer group or a Bible study group.

Members of each group were given an iPod. The prayer group's playlist consisted of Scripture readings, followed by questions about the passages that encouraged participants to use their inner senses to take part in what was happening in the Scripture.

The Bible study group's playlist consisted of lectures about Scripture.

Luhrmann found that after 30 days' listening to the tracks for 30 minutes a day, the prayer group had more vivid imaginations.

"I found that the prayer practice did sharpen people's mental imagery. They were more likely to say that they experienced God more as a person by the end of the month," she said.

"It also increased the chance they would report an unusual sensory experience," she said. "Some of them reported feeling God touch their shoulder or speak with them or interact with them in a way they actually experienced with their senses."

She also sat study participants at computers to do a series of exercises to challenge their imaginations. They had to identify letters superimposed on a spinning wheel, as well as solve a series of geometric puzzles that demanded the use of mental imagery.

"If you looked at the high performers, they were more likely to be in the prayer group," she said. "Paying attention to your mind changes your mental experience."

This type of evangelical faith came out of the social upheavals of the 1960s, Luhrmann says. People were choosing between many different faiths and ways to believe. Atheism was more accepted. The mainstream churches began to decline. Churches like the Vineyard wanted to offer a faith practice that let people have a closer relationship with a loving God.

Luhrmann said the prayer techniques – paying more attention to your inner thoughts – don't have to be limited to a religious context.

"These techniques involve attending to your imaginative experience and treating your imaginary experience as significant, meaningful and worthy," she said. "I think when that happens, your inner world springs alive."

Media Contact

Tanya Luhrmann, Anthropology: (650) 723-3421, luhrmann@stanford.edu

Brooke Donald, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, brooke.donald@stanford.edu