Retrospective: Voices immanent and transcendent (Part 3 of 3)

Over the last few weeks, the blog has reproduced a series of articles by Chris Cook (HtV co-investigator). Originally published in 2017 by the Church Times, this three-part series explores the relationship between voices and spirituality.

Speak, Lord, thy servant heareth: the child Samuel hears the voice of God (Chronicle/Alamy).

RECENT advances in the scientific understanding of voices heard in the absence of a speaker (“auditory verbal hallucinations” — AVH — to use the technical terminology) have been significant. We now know that most voice-hearers hear more than one voice, and fewer than half of them hear these voices out loud (thus making them simply VH rather than AVH).

More importantly, voices are not “just” voices: they are perceived to have personality and agency. Fewer than one fifth, one recent study states, are understood to represent supernatural agents. The content of what the voice says often has bio­graphical or psychological signific­ance for the hearer. A history of sexual or emotional abuse greatly increases the likelihood of hearing voices, and what the voices say is often related to this in one way or another.

NEURO-IMAGING studies show that regions of the brain associated with the production and procession of speech are implicated in the pro­­duction of AVHs.

It seems likely that at least some AVHs are mis­attributed “inner speech”: that is, arising from the person’s own thoughts, but experi­enced for some reason as alien, and with perception-like qualities. Others may arise from memories, or “im­­agined” voices, or from mis­­inter­preta­­tion of sounds in the external environment (so that they are strictly illusions, rather than hallu­cinations).

It would seem likely that there is a “top-down” effect at work in many experiences of voice-hearing, where higher mental processes, in an environment where sensory information is ambiguous, wrongly “predict” a voice, even when one is not present. Culture, including religion, also plays an important part in shaping expecta­tions.

WITH this growing body of know­ledge about the science of AVHs, it is tempting for some to conclude — as in so many areas of scientific progress — that we now know (almost) all there is to know about how the world works, and that there is nothing left for theo­logy or faith to explain. Such a view tends to emphasise religion as being con­cerned only with the transcend­ent realm, and science as occupying and explaining the immanent frame of reference.

As the gap in (immanent) know­ledge becomes smaller and smaller, the (transcendent) God of the gaps is extruded altogether. But Christian theology has traditionally been concerned with understanding the Divine as both immanent and transcendent. Indeed, the doctrines of creation and incarnation require us to grapple with the paradox. God is not absent from his creation. Divine immanence is as important a truth as Divine transcendence.

Our knowledge, then, of the science of voice-hearing does not require us to abandon faith in the God who communicates with human­kind. Most of this communication, in any case, occurs in ways other than through the hearing of the Divine voice in any literal (perception-like) sense.

When God does appear to put a thought into our minds, however, or when (rarely) a Christian does literally hear God answer his or her prayers in an audible voice, it is not necessary to explain everything away on the basis of psychology or neuroscience. A thought can — at the same time — be our “own” thought, but also divinely inspired, just as scripture is both the work of human authors, but also divinely inspired.

THE human brain is a highly complex system. John Polkinghorne has suggested that God may act within complex systems in such a way as to convey information without exchange of physical energy. Taking a simpler and somewhat different model, Fraser Watts has suggested the analogy of a radio receiver: that human minds can be, in some way, “attuned” to God.

Thomas Merton, influenced by his reading of Simone Weil, re­­flected on the importance of prayer as giving attention to God. It is notable that Tanya Luhrmann’s work (referred to in the second of these three articles) also focuses on the importance of attention (as an aspect of absorption), in her theory of voices arising as “sensory over­rides” during intense prayer.

When we attend to God carefully, sometimes it may seem that we
hear him speak to us. To dismiss such voices completely would be as rash as accepting them without question. They arise within human minds which are prone to error, but which are also very good — at least, sometimes — at tuning in to God.

Reposted with kind permission from the Church Times. The original publication can be found here.

Retrospective: Learning to discern (Part 2 of 3)

This week, the blog will reproduce a series of articles by Chris Cook (HtV co-investigator). Originally published in 2017 by the Church Times, this three-part series explores the relationship between voices and spirituality.

Dark night of the soul: Salvador Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross

EXPERIENCES of hearing God’s voice are very diverse. For some people, it happens once in a lifetime; for others, it is a daily occurrence. Some hear God “out loud”; others describe it as being as though “God put a thought into my mind.” Yet others have no particular experience of “hearing a voice”, but, rather, encounter God in scripture, nature, and other people.

Research by Tanya Luhrmann, in the United States and elsewhere, and by Simon Dein and Roland Littlewood, in the UK, has shown that Christians hear God when pray­ing more commonly than might have been supposed.

In a study by Dein and Littlewood in a Pentecostal church in north-east London, 25 out of 40 Christians who completed questionnaires indicated that they heard God’s voice in answer to their prayers. The voice was clearly distinguished from their own thoughts, and usually focused on immediate and practical issues. Fifteen respondents had heard the voice speaking aloud, although this was usually a once in a lifetime experience.

As Luhrmann indicates in her book When God Talks Back, spir­itual practices commonly encountered in both Evangelical and Catholic circles can lead to a state of absorption in prayer within which there is an intense inner focus. If, as is often the case, this is associated with an expectation that God will speak, then, sometimes, sensory overrides occur.

Sensory overrides are experiences in which perception overrides the actual sensory stimuli that the brain is processing. When this occurs in prayer, then God — who is not material — is experienced in a sensory way.

Luhrmann leaves open the question of the theological interpretation of such experiences, but she notes that, within the churches that she studied, there is an awareness of the need for discernment. It should not automatically be assumed that the voice is from God. For example, is it the kind of thing that God might reasonably be expected to say? If the voice contradicted scripture, it should not be believed. And the question should always be asked: might this simply have been my own thought?

Not everyone is equally able to enter the state of absorption which seems to facilitate sensory overrides. It seems likely that different prayer practices are more likely to generate sensory overrides than others. Few people can have spent as much time in prayer as Thomas Merton, and yet there is no indication that he ever heard a voice in his prayers.

Moreover, Christian spirituality has traditionally been wary of placing too much weight on such experiences. St John of the Cross, for example, warned that they leave people open to deception, pride, and a diminishment of faith.

GOD’s voice is not heard only during states of intense prayer, and is sometimes completely unexpected. Mother Teresa first experienced the voice that called her to her work with the poor when she was on a train journey to Darjeeling.

Mary Neal, an orthopaedic surgeon, in her book To Heaven and Back, describes her multi-sensory, near-death experience during a kayak accident. Susan Atkins, serving a life sentence in prison for her part in the Manson murders, writes in her autobiography of hearing the voice of Jesus in her prison cell. Hugh Montefiore, later Bishop of Kingston, heard Jesus speak to him when sitting alone, a dejected teenager, in his study at school.

We now know that voices are heard by many ordinary people, religious or not. Voices have been traditionally associated with serious mental illness, however, and the hallucinations and delusions experi­enced by people with psychosis frequently include spiritual and religious content. Typically, this is not the positive kind of experience reported by Luhrmann, or by Dein and Littlewood.

While the voices heard may be understood to have a divine origin, they may also be experienced as demonic, and may be deeply distressing.

Negative voices of this kind are associated with significant stigma. Research suggests that Christians have variable experiences of support from their church communities. Potentially, at least, churches can provide positive networks of support which are deeply valued by those undergoing experiences of this kind. Prayer can also provide an important coping resource.

BECAUSE voices span such a wide spectrum — from heavenly to hellish — there has been much debate about how to distinguish between the good and the bad. One approach, which I do not favour, is to offer a guide to differential diagnosis: to distinguish the signs of voices that are associated with mental illness from those that are “true” spiritual experiences.

There are problems with this model, not least that it seems to imply that God does not talk to people who are mentally ill, only to those who are well. This is really just a mirror image of the approach that dismisses all religious or spiritual experience as an indication of mental illness. Surely, the reality is much more complicated than this, and why should God not have more to say to those who are undergoing deep emotional turmoil?

THE approach taken by St John of the Cross would seem to have much to commend it. Voices, whether appearing to be from God or else­where, should not be accepted uncritically, and should not be sensationalised. Criteria for discernment are needed. Sometimes, however, it would seem that God really does talk back.

Reposted with kind permission from the Church Times. The original publication can be found here.

Retrospective: Speak, Lord: thy servant heareth (Part 1 of 3)

This week, the blog will reproduce a series of articles by Chris Cook (HtV co-investigator). Originally published in 2017 by the Church Times, this three-part series explores the relationship between voices and spirituality.

On the road: The Conversion of St Paul, detail of the triptych of the Holy Trinity, 1467, by the Master of the Choirs, in the Chapel of the Cross at Kraków Cathedral, Poland.

Hearing a voice when there is no speaker present has traditionally been associated with either serious mental illness or religious experience. We now know that many people who are not mentally ill hear voices, and that the spiritual content of some voices is not associated with any particular faith tradition.

“Voices ” can take many forms. Some are heard as though spoken out loud; others are more internal, like thoughts, but still experienced as though spoken by someone else. For some people, the experience is positive; for others, it is distressing.

When a voice is felt to be coming from a spiritual or sacred source, the experience raises some challeng­ing questions. How can we know whether it is from God or from with­­in our own minds? Were St Paul, St Francis, or even Jesus voice-hearers? If so, does this make any difference to the way in which we understand their experiences — or ours?

While historians and biblical scholars would now express caution about how much can be known about the psychological experiences of people who lived 20 centuries or more ago, this has not inhibited some psychiatrists and scientists from expressing a view. Whatever the academic position, many who read the Bible not unreasonably conclude that it tells us that God does, indeed, speak to people — sometimes out loud — and sub­sequent Christian history would appear to confirm this view.

In the Old Testament, God converses freely with Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, and others who are not so much hearing voices as having conversations with God. These exchanges seem to become less frequent in the later historical narratives — to the extent that Richard Friedman was able to suggest that, in the Bible, God gradually “disappears”.

It is clearly implicit (and sometimes explicit), however, that the prophets heard God speak, or else they would not have been able to prophesy in his name. Although it is not specified whether this experi­ence of hearing God took the form of a voice, it would seem likely that it must have done, at least some­times.

In the New Testament, experiences of hearing a voice are fewer, but, where they do occur, they are very significant. Jesus hears a heavenly voice at his baptism, and the disciples hear a similar voice at the Transfiguration. Jesus also encounters a demonic voice during his temptation in the wilderness.

St Paul’s experience on the Damascus road is characterised both by a light and a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9.4). Prophecy does not die out in the New Testament, but the hearing of the human voice of Jesus puts all other voices into a different context. God has now spoken, not in a disembodied way, but, uniquely, in the human form of Jesus.

IN THE Early Church, visionary and voice-hearing experiences appear to have followed on from the biblical tradition. Athanasius’s Life of Antony, written in the fourth century AD, tells of the conversion of St Antony of Egypt and of his colourful, multi-sensory encounters with demons who assail him psycho­logically and spiritually. Antony (like Jesus) remains faithful in the face of temptation, and the book became widely popular.

In his Confessions, St Augustine of Hippo tells of his conversion as a result of hearing a voice. Under­stood usually as being the voice of a child in a neighbouring garden, the voice that told Augustine to “Take it and read” reminded him of the story of Antony’s conversion, and encouraged him to read St Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Whether there was actually a child in the next-door garden or not, Augustine understood the divine voice to have been commun­icated to him both by the child and by his reading of scripture. After Paul’s story, Augustine’s has been one of the most influential as a pattern of Christian conversion.

Another comes almost a thousand years later. St Francis of Assisi was reportedly praying before a crucifix in the ruined chapel at San Damiano when he heard Jesus say: “Francis, don’t you see that my house is being destroyed?” Under­standing initially that this referred to the chapel in which he was praying, he set to work restoring the building; later, he came to under­stand the reference to Christ’s Church in a wider and more spir­itual sense.

SOME classics of English medieval spirituality, notably The Book of Margery Kempe, and the Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, include rich accounts of voices. Margery experiences her voices both in an episode of mental illness after childbirth, and in subsequent spiritual experiences that are quite different. She converses with various saints, and with the first two Persons of the Trinity. She hears the Holy Spirit (non-verbally) as sounding like bellows, or like a dove, or a robin.

Margery’s spiritual life includes frequent and familiar dialogue with the saints, and with God, about which she is not shy of talking. This divides her acquaintances between those who show her friendship, and those who are irritated by her.

Julian’s 16 visions, all but one of which are associated with voices, were in contrast focused on a single episode of near-fatal illness between 8 and 13 May 1373. Her voices take a variety of forms: they are often more like thoughts than sounds, and come in response to her deepest theological questions as she struggles with God concerning the meaning of her experiences. The longer text of Revelations reveals the depth of her subsequent reflections over two decades or more.

VOICES and visions are not confined to any one tradition, although it has been suggested that voices are more typical of Protestant experience, and visions of Catholic experience. John Bunyan heard a voice which asked: “Wilt thou leave thy sins and go to heaven, or have thy sins and go to hell?” George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, heard a voice saying: “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” Florence Nightingale refers in her journal, on at least six different occasions, to a “voice” that was variously encouraging or critical.

Many more examples could be given. In some cases, as with Antony, we have little or no evidence on which to base any opinion about the nature of the experience underlying the texts that history has bequeathed to us. In others, especially more recent and autobiographical texts, we might more confidently assert that the experiences of Christian saints have included voices which, in many ways, resemble those of the contemporary phenomenon of “hearing voices”. In the next article, I will further explore the possible spiritual significance of these voices.

Download the full article here.

Reposted with kind permission from the Church Times. The original publication can be found here.

Polyphony Forum: Responses to “The Recovery Narrative: Politics and Possibilities of a Genre”

Recently The Polyphony posted a series of responses to The Recovery Narrative: Politics and Possibilities of a Genre, an article by Angela Woods (HtV Co-Director), Akiko Hart and Helen Spandler that provides a “critical investigation how recovery narratives are constituted and mobilised, and with what consequences”. In a special Polyphony forum (ed. by Katherine Longhurst), survivors, activists and academics from multiple disciplines engaged with, complicated and challenged ideas raised in The Recovery Narrative.

The responses can be found below:

Follow the discussion on Twitter and have your say via the hashtag #RecoveryNarrative.

Book Launch: ‘Hearing Voices, Demonic and Divine’ by Professor Chris Cook

17 January 2019 | 6-8PM | Priors Hall | Durham Cathedral | Durham | DH1 3EH

We warmly invite you to celebrate the launch of Hearing Voices, Demonic and Divine: Scientific and Theological Perspectives by Professor Chris Cook (Co-Investigator, Hearing the Voice) at Prior’s Hall, Durham Cathedral on Thursday 17 January 2019, 6-8pm.

Featuring an introduction by John Swinton (Professor in Practical Theology and Pastoral Care and Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies, University of Aberdeen), our panel of experts will explore the experience of hearing voices from scientific, spiritual, theological and personal standpoints. Chaired by Charles Fernyhough (Director and PI, Hearing the Voice).

Wine and canapes will be provided.

All welcome. If you would like to attend this free event, we kindly ask (for catering purposes) that you register through Eventbrite.


About this book

Experiences of hearing the voice of God (or angels, demons, or other spiritual beings) have generally been understood either as religious experiences or else as a feature of mental illness. Some critics of traditional religious faith have dismissed the visions and voices attributed to biblical characters and saints as evidence of mental disorder. However, it is now known that many ordinary people, with no other evidence of mental disorder, also hear voices and that these voices not infrequently include spiritual or religious content. Psychological and interdisciplinary research has shed a revealing light on these experiences in recent years, so that we now know much more about the phenomenon of ‘hearing voices’ than ever before.

Hearing Voices, Demonic and Divine considers biblical, historical, and scientific accounts of spiritual and mystical experiences of voice hearing in the Christian tradition in order to explore how some voices may be understood theologically as revelatory, proposing that in the incarnation, Christian faith finds both an understanding of what it is to be fully human (a theological anthropology), and God’s perfect self-disclosure (revelation). Within such an understanding, revelatory voices represent a key point of interpersonal encounter between human beings and God.

The open access version of Hearing Voices, Demonic and Divine can be found here.