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Miniblog #148: According to NPR, I Don’t Have a “Relationship with God”

by Carson T. Clark on November 18, 2012

T.M. Luhrmann is a professor of psychological anthropology at Stanford University. Months ago a number of friends recommended her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. It sounded like a fascinating work about a theme I’ve long wrestling with, but it got lost in the shuffle. Thankfully, during date night/camping I heard a wonderful NPR interview with Dr. Luhrmann about the subject. In the introduction, David Bianculli queried, “What does it mean to have a personal relationship with God, as many evangelical Christians say they have, to believe that God cares about your welfare and interacts with you like a friend? Those are some of the questions our first guest Tanya Luhrmann set out to answer in her book[.]” I was hooked. My entire life those around me have been insisted that the christian life is, first and foremost, about a relationship with God. Yet it has never made the least bit of sense to me. I mean, seriously, the whole thing eluded my grasp. It always seemed like well-intentioned, pious gibberish. Since 2006 I’d been exploring this intently without making significant headway, but on Friday night the whole thing finally began to gain clarity.11.To be clear, I’m not saying I began to experientially take part. Quite the opposite, the segment made clear that I don’t have a relationship with God as commonly understood within the broad evangelical schema. What I’m saying is that, for first time, I’ve begun to understand what others mean when they say they have a relationship with God. It has been enlightening. Whether you’re someone who openly professes to have a relationship with God or a person like myself who can’t make heads or tails of it, I cannot recommend this NPR interview highly enough. If you’re interested, here’s the link: ‘When God Talks Back’ to the Evangelical Community.

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  • Gill

    I haven’t yet listened to it, but I started to tackle this subject in my thesis, because it is a flashpoint between the Orthodox and the evangelicals. There is surprisingly little theology about it – it’s waiting to happen. It’s also interesting to note that it is not a biblical term – nowhere does the New Testament talk about ‘having a personal relationship’.

    • Seretha Curry

      Just because terminology changes doesn’t mean phenomena does–“relationship” is a relatively new word. Certainly the Bible and the New Testament talk about loving God–does that not presuppose what modern evangelicals mean by relationship? And the whole Bible speaks of God in terms literal, metaphorical and analogical that are relationship terms–mother, father, bother, priest. If God is those things to us, then we have relationships with him. Older writings (Aquinas for example) talk about relations.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mweaver2 Mike Weaver

    I’m not sure the experiences she describes is what I take to mean “relationship with God.” Though I think that some others might mean this when they say it. Though, I would admit to have experienced God through prayer in the internal “imaginary” sense, yet I have never had coffee with him. But, I do have an ontology that willingly accepts the possibility of his encounter through the mind of a praying believer, though I have always felt uneasy about the paucity of explanation for the restrictive means by which he uses–why not speak in a bush for ME?–again, an ontological possibility by not an ontological necessity.

    Just some thoughts.

    Actually, Carson, I found it startling to hear that the “relationship with God” mantras are so new. Could it be argued that this language is an extension of a much older tradition (perhaps, I don’t know, medieval monks)? What is your, off the cuff, historical understanding of this? Would you consider it a new theological development from 1965?

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I enjoy NPR.

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