T.M. Luhrmann is a professor of anthropology at Stanford University. She has written a book that I quite want to read, When God Talks Back: Understanding the A,Erica Evangelical Relationship With God. While ambivalent about the existence of God ("I don't have a horse in that race"', she told one interviewer), her book is a sympathetic and careful study of how evangelical Christianity in North America is more and more about a personal relationship with a God who can be imagined (her word, and quite nuanced) as a conversation partner. A good summary of her conversation with NPR's Terry Gross, and their interview, may be found here.
In a short and very readable essaypublished last week in the NYT, Luhrmann has some interesting things to say about how secular, liberal people look at religion and see it as an intellectual thing, about whether or not one can give assent to the idea of an invisible agent called God. She writes:
"And that was not really what I saw after my years spending time in evangelical churches. I saw that people went to church to experience joy and to learn how to have more of it. These days I find that it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.
If you can sidestep the problem of belief — and the related politics, which can be so distracting — it is easier to see that the evangelical view of the world is full of joy. God is good. The world is good. Things will be good, even if they don’t seem good now. That’s what draws people to church. It is understandably hard for secular observers to sidestep the problem of belief. But it is worth appreciating that in belief is the reach for joy, and the reason many people go to church in the first place."
What Lurhmann calls practical faith, the perception that an unconditionally loving God is interested in our lives and can be encountered there, is helpful as I think about my own preaching and ministry. When I came from seminary, and being a bit of an egghead, I thought and talked a lot about doctrine and theology. Doctrine and theology have their place, but in ministry and then in chaplaincy, I learned that one has to get beyond propositions to the place where, as Luhrmann says, one can "reach for joy". Too often, I think, especially in parts of the church that are intentionally (small "o") orthodox, we think that all will be well if we hold fast to certain credal and propositional claims. These claims may be foundational, but they will not sustain and attract believers if faith is not also about joyfulness.
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