Q: You are an anthropologist at Stanford and your last book, Of Two Minds, examined the world of psychiatry. What led you to study the evangelical relationship with God?
A: Both psychiatrists and Christians are making sense of the pain in the human condition. Both of them come up with abstract human concepts to interpret something they know to be more complicated than they can explain in words, and yet those words then shape the way they see and experience their world. In my book on psychiatry, I set out to understand how talking about emotions transformed them. Understanding the faith experience seemed like the next logical step.
Q: Were the people of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship hesitant to have an anthropologist attending their services and meetings? Did it take time for them to open up to you? How did they react to the conclusions that you have drawn?
A: The people at the churches where I spent time were remarkably gracious and open. I think they were sometimes a little startled by the questions I asked and the things I said, but that comes with having an anthropologist around. They really liked my conclusion that prayer was a skill, and that some people had more aptitude for the skill than others, because not everyone at a church like this really does feel that God speaks to them—and that makes them feel badly, as if they aren’t really worthy of being loved by God, even if they know theologically that that is silly. So my research observation that some people had more of a proclivity for these experiences than others was actually comforting to them.
Q: Science and religion are often seen to be at odds with each other, yet you use scientific methods to shed light on religious experiences and you do it with great empathy. Was it difficult to strike this balance?
A: Anthropologists are trained both to participate; and to in effect watch themselves participate. I threw myself into the prayer experience, and I also observed what happened to me as I prayed. That experience also gave me a healthy measure of respect for how complicated the world is, and how little we understand. And really, that respect for the limitations of our knowledge is at the heart of both faith and science.
Q: What was the biggest surprise to you in your research?
A: I was startled by how real God could be for people—that some people were really able to experience God as an intimate friend, and sometimes even feel God’s touch or hear God’s voice. When people say that they heard God speak, it’s not just something they are saying to show how religious they are. They really experience themselves as interacting. And I was blown away to realize that they learn to experience God as real by talking to God about the little things—like what shampoo to buy.
Q: You describe a “magically real” God as a very modern phenomenon. When in our history did this personal experience with God develop?
A: The major shift in American spirituality began in the 1960s, with the great social upheaval of the time. People wanted a direct, immediate experience of God. It is a period when people became acutely aware of other faiths, and when people were experimenting with experience in many ways. Most people don’t realize that the Christianity many of them take to be right wing actually was born among the hippie Christians and was one of the most left-wing social revolutions our country has ever known.
Q: What role does doubt play in this kind of faith? And how does a vivid relationship with God help believers to deal with this doubt?
A: You can’t understand Christianity unless you understand that all Christians struggle with doubt at some point in their lives, even if it is just the doubt that the promise of joy they hear from the pulpit actually is meant for them. But doubt is different in this kind of modern, scientific, pluralistic society. Even the most sheltered Christian knows that there are smart, sensible people who do not think that God is real. The vivid, intimate God of this kind of church helps people to protect their faith against their own doubt because it emphasizes experiencing God rather than believing in God, and because the practices people use to develop that experience actually really do make God feel more real.
Q: You describe how prayer literally changes the brain, and allows people to experience God’s voice as a recognizable relationship. How did you test for this?
A: I ran an experiment in which I assigned Christians randomly into a prayer condition and into lectures on the Gospels. I found that after a month of prayer practice, people reported more vivid mental imagery than those in the lectures condition. They used mental imagery more readily and had somewhat better perceptual attention, and they reported more unusual sensory experience. In short, they attended to their inner experience more seriously, and that altered how real that experience became for them. I also found that there was a proclivity for experiencing God vividly. Some people are more likely to do so than others because they are temperamentally more able to become absorbed in their inner experience.
Q: After all the time you’ve spent with the people of the Vineyard, what would you say to a skeptic who feels that hearing God’s voice or having a personal relationship with God is completely imaginary?
A: I would say that skeptics should recognize the difficulty and seriousness of the question of whether there is a God, and they should appreciate that those who come to different conclusions struggle with the same questions and puzzles as their own. Belief is neither mindless nor robotic in the churches where I spent time.
Q: Do you think that your book can help bridge the gap between believers and skeptics and help them understand one another?
A: I hope so. My research shows that people who believe in God have smart, sophisticated ideas about belief. They’re not naïve, and they struggle with the contradictions that skeptics see. But they are transformed by faith practice in ways that skeptics do not always understand. I hope that spelling some of this out, as I do in my book, will help people to have more respect for each other.
Q: Did writing this book change or challenge your own beliefs?
A: The hardest question. I would not call myself a Christian, and yet I like going to church. I would not say that I believe in a God out “there,” solid as a mailbox, and yet I would say that I have come to experience God. What this has taught me is how private and precious the experience of God can be for people. Even now, with all my anthropological training, when someone asks me this question, I sometimes cry. Even now, I do not really understand why.