Let’s pretend He’s real

Listening to Monday’s edition of Fresh Air, I almost drove off the road.

I almost drove off the road because I was being told that some evangelical Christian communities openly admit to pretending that God is real.

Of course, these Christians don’t actually see it that way: they believe God exists. What they’re pretending is that God can be detected with the senses. (If you have trouble distinguishing between these two ideas, join the club.) Yet this seems like a staggering enough admission in itself: God is not detectable with the senses, so we have to pretend he is.

Let me back up a little.

Terry Gross’s guest on Fresh Air was Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist, who has written a book entitled When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. As part of her research, she spent a lot of time in evangelical churches.

I’d like to quote some excerpts from the conversation on Fresh Air, so that you can get a good sense of what Lurhmann found.

Get ready for some sophistry.

First, Luhrmann introduces the idea of pretending that God is real:

GROSS: Well, you talk about, in going to the services and in going to prayer groups at this Vineyard church, how you felt that people were training their minds to perceive God? And you attended prayer training classes. What are some of the things you learned to do in prayer training classes?

LUHRMANN: Prayer, in this context, is in an imagined conversation with God. That doesn’t mean that you’re treating God as imaginary. It means that you’re using your imagination to have a back-and-forth interaction with God. And what people are first invited to do is to experience what I would call a new theory of mind.

Right off the bat, this is sophistry of a supreme caliber. Using your imagination to have a back-and-forth interaction with God? How is that different to me using my imagination to have a back-and-forth interaction with Charles Darwin, or my long-dead grandmother, or Superman?

They learn to experience some of their thoughts as not being thoughts from them, but thoughts from God, as being external communications from God that they hear inside their mind.

The second thing they’re invited to do is to pretend that God is present. And I take that verb from C.S. Lewis. He has a chapter of “Mere Christianity” entitled “Let’s Pretend,” and his, you know, his perspective is let us pretend in order to experience as real. These folks were invited to put out a second cup of coffee for God while they prayed, to go for a walk with God, to go on a date with God, to snuggle with God, to imagine that they’re sitting on a bench in the park and God’s arm is around their shoulders, and they’re kind of talking about their respective days.

And so what’s happening is that people are using their imaginations to create this conversation. And what they’re trying to do, what they’re seeking to do – I mean, they’re using their own understanding of conversation, their own conversations, their own friends. They’re building this daydream-like exchange.

In a nutshell, these Christians are pretending that God is real. But they’re not really pretending he is real, they argue, because the practice of pretending allows them to “experience what is real”. This is C. S. Lewis’s sophistry at its best. What, exactly, is real in this process, and what is imaginary? How do they even know there is anything real there to begin with?

Terry Gross is clearly not convinced:

GROSS: How were you supposed to tell the difference between God actually speaking to you and you using your imagination to manufacture a conversation with God?

LUHRMANN: Well, that was tough, and one of the things I was so impressed by was how thoughtful people were about the process. But basically, the church taught people what they would call a style of discernment. So what thoughts – you know, what thoughts are good candidates for God’s thoughts?

Well, they are thoughts that feel different in some way. They stand out. They seem more important. They’re different from what you were thinking about at the time. They are thoughts that are consonant with God’s character. They’re the kinds of things that God would say. They give you peace. You’re supposed to feel good when you recognize God’s voice.

It is mind-boggling to me that church leaders can actually get away with such obvious trickery without their congregation catching on (I suppose they believe it themselves). What the congregation is being trained to do here is label some of their own thoughts as coming from God, because those thoughts are the sorts of thoughts God might have had (even though Christians are often taught that it’s impossible to know the mind of God).

But we could do precisely the same thing for any fictitious character. Take Superman, for instance. We know from a long series of comics what sort of character Superman is. I can therefore look at all my thoughts, and pick out the ones that Superman might have thought. Eventually, whenever I have a Superman-like thought I will, in a metaphorical sense, “recognize” his voice speaking to me. But they’re still all my thoughts. How is it any different with God?

Lurhmann then scrambles to come up with an answer to a question that follows inexorably from the discussion thus far:

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?

More apologetic sophistry. Christians have a different “ontological stance”. A big fancy term that might impress the listeners. But what it really means is that Christians arbitrarily choose to see their imagined relationship with God as somehow real, while seeing their imagined relationship with a childhood imaginary friend as completely imaginary. Why exactly is it that justifies this difference in “ontological stance”?

(Later in the interview, Terry Gross asks Luhrmann some probing questions on other topics, including the difficulty distinguishing some churches’ theology from the ideas of pop-psych self-help, and the contradiction of teaching people not to judge while simultaneously judging them – think gay marriage, etc.. So, I encourage you to read or listen to the rest of the program.)

I’ve written before about the “personal relationship” Christians claim to have with God, and Luhrmann’s findings amount to an astonishing admission, by Christians themselves, that this personal relationship is, indeed, imaginary. All it takes is a quick flourish of the sophist’s wand to endow this make believe relationship with some sort of vague, unspecified connection to reality. Yet this, too, is imaginary.

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