O riginally published on January 26, 2011 in the news section of Fuller Theological Seminary’s homepage. To read this article on fuller.edu, click here.

Vividly Experiencing God 101
Stanford anthropologist discusses research of Vineyard imaginative spirituality

Stanford University Professor of Anthropology Tanya Luhrmann presented on the topic “The Vineyard Imagination” in a conversation on theology and art on Friday, January 21. The Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts and the Visual Faith Institute for Art and Architecture co-sponsored the event. Luhrmann, who received her PhD from Cambridge, is currently studying the way American Evangelicals learn to experience God as one of her major focuses of research. She is particularly interested in the way that social learning may affect one’s sensory experience.

In her presentation on “The Vineyard Imagination,” Luhrmann discussed her research on those “powerful religious experiences that seem striking and odd to the irreligious.” She spent two years with a Vineyard congregation in Chicago—attending services weekly, participating in a house group for a year, socializing with other congregants, and participating in regional conferences. Luhrmann explained that she knew that “when God is experienced, God is known through the mind,” but was dissatisfied with the popular theories of why people experience God because they failed to explain faith in the face of doubt. This she calls the “problem of presence,” in which the believer must override basic features of psychology, the three most significant being that the mind is private, that persons are visible, and that love is conditional. In her “attentional learning theory of religion,” Luhrmann asserts that the way we understand the mind changes our mental experience, and “these changes help people to experience God as more real.”

A major part of her research involved exploring how the Vineyard church invites congregants to learn a “new theory of the mind,” thus enabling them to vividly experience God. Luhrmann identified the way that the church addressed each of the obstacles she earlier noted—teaching congregants how to listen for God’s voice in their own minds, to see God as a person and to “daydream interactions with him,” and to engage in emotional practices such as group affirmation and prayer in order to accept God’s unconditional love.

Luhrmann observed that not everyone is able to experience God vividly, even when they want and try to, while others seem to be naturally better at cultivating an imaginative prayer life. She conducted studies in order to discover the tendencies of those who more easily relate to God in this way and found a key in one’s level of “absorption,” defined as “the capacity to focus attention on a non-instrumental object (often interior) and to disattend to everyday exterior surroundings—and to take delight in it.” Luhrmann observed a clear relationship between absorption and sensory vividness. Moreover, in another study where subjects were led in guided prayer exercises for four weeks, she found that absorption and sensory vividness levels could increase with training.

“Inner sense cultivation changes the mental experience,” stated Luhrmann in her presentation’s conclusion, and a changed mental experience is required to hear God in the way churches like the Vineyard are inviting people to. Setting her findings in the context of Western modern/postmodern culture, she pointed out, “The charismatic Christian God is not a rejection of postmodernity, but an expression of it.” The spirituality practiced by the Vineyard churches and others delivers an “imaginatively rich God” who is more vividly experienced and therefore “can be insulated from secular doubt.”

Luhrmann is currently working on a book discussing her findings, Hearing God: an anthropological account of the way God becomes real for American Evangelical Christians(Knopf).