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The Well

Stanford anthropologist: On hearing the voice of God

“I am an anthropologist, and for years, I have spoken to people who have had these experiences.”
Credit: Vincent Romero, master1305 / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Throughout history and even today, some people have a life-changing experience in which they believe that they heard the voice of God. Martin Luther King Jr., Saint Paul, and the Prophet Mohammed are but a few examples.
  • Most of us at least feel, and sometimes hear, the voice of moral authority. The great majority of the bereaved feel, hear, or see their spouse in the months after their loss.
  • Voices are strange and poorly understood by mainstream researchers, yet they are at the heart of the greatest moments of human transcendence and despair.

Thoughts and feelings do not behave like objects we possess. We can’t just decide not to be angry, and we can’t just love who we think we should love. It is hard to dampen down our inner chatter, or to stop thinking about that upsetting conversation even though we know it makes no sense to continue. We are the ones who think, and yet our thoughts are full of the words and actions of other people — a father’s criticism, a colleague’s snide remarks, an unbidden conversation that seems to unfold on its own.

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In many ways our thoughts behave as if they had their own intentions, their own wills, as if they are rebellious teenagers who flout the rules. We say that the thought stopped us in our tracks, as if the thought came to us from outside and we are startled. We speak of being stirred by our conscience, woken up, as Kant put it, from our dogmatic slumbers, because the idea which came to us is bigger, wiser, and truer than anything, we think, we could have come up with on our own. We feel harassed by our own self attack: I am fat, I am dumb, I am clumsy, I made it worse. We feel called to our profession, driven to work hard. Often, we do not know what inner whip flogs us, or how to catch it and break its hold over us.

Hearing the voice of God

Sometimes the sense of summoning is so clear, the commandment so visceral, that the one who is called feels beyond doubt that the voice is God. Some years ago I met a woman in California, who graduated from a decent college — and the best job she could get was the morning shift at the local gas station grocery, 6 am to 1 pm. She did not much like it:

“Lots of hung-over people, lots of grumpy, inappropriate interactions that I had.  I can’t tell you how many times I had to deal with somebody trying to get money out of the ATM with their library card.  People would come in and they would buy beer and they would buy cigarettes and cat food. And I just, I’ll be honest with you, I was as judgmental as you can get. I was like, you have got to be kidding me.  Why, why am I here with, with — and I’ll use an expression I don’t use now — with these people?  

“One morning this woman came in and she looked like she’d been up all night. She just looked like she had a rough experience. And she threw her stuff on the counter, two six packs of Miller Lite and some cat food and a food product of some kind, donuts I think. And as she looked at me, she said, ‘Hey, can you get me a carton of cigarettes?’  

“I’m thinking, ‘Excellent. This is what I want to be doing.’ So I turned around, rolled my eyes, started thinking my judgmental thoughts and in that moment, I literally heard the voice of God say to me in a way that I have not in a long time, ‘Do not judge this woman. I have created her in my image and I love her. Don’t judge her.’ And I literally, poor, poor woman, I almost fell over. I mean ’cause I was trying to give her change, and I’m like duhhh, voice of God spoke to me!   

“I have been changed ever since.” 

The thought came to her as if it was not hers. She did not feel that she interpreted the thought as God’s voice; instead, she felt in her gut that God had spoken inside her mind — and it changed her life.

A voice that changes history

At times these moments can change history. One night in the winter of 1956, a man sat in his kitchen alone. The man had helped to arrange a boycott of the local buses. Now, one month later, he and his family were getting over 30 threatening calls and letters each day. Some were sexually crude. A friend told him of a credible threat to kill him. He began to hear rumors of those threats every day. That night, a threatening call came late at night, when he was in bed. He went to the kitchen because he could not sleep. With his head in his hands, he bowed over the table and prayed out loud. He said that he was at the end of his powers, that he had no strength left, and that he could not face the future alone.

“At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

Three days later his house was bombed. Yet, Martin Luther King Jr. kept going.

In the late 4th century, a young African was struggling with his convictions. He wanted to be a Christian, but he could not commit to what would be expected of him. He thought of himself as crooked, filthy, spot-marked, ulcerous. He said he was torn against himself, sick and tortured. One afternoon, visitors came to tell him about a man who had withdrawn from the world and from ambition, living in the desert, praying to God. The young man’s heart exploded. He ran into the garden, and sobbed with abandon, lying in the dirt.

“Suddenly a voice reaches my ears from a nearby house. It is the voice of a boy or a girl (I don’t know which) and in a singsong voice the words are constantly repeated. ‘Take it and read it. Take it and read it.’ At once my face changed, and I began to think carefully of whether the singing of words like these came into any kind of game which children play, and I could not remember that I had heard anything like it before. [I became] quite certain that I must interpret this as a divine command.”

Augustine of Hippo converted. His teachings on grace and salvation, his sense that these are God’s gifts rather than human choices, shape Christianity even today.

The power of the voice

Voices are strange and poorly understood by mainstream researchers, yet they are at the heart of the greatest moments of human transcendence and despair. Augustine converted to Christianity after he heard a voice that commanded him to take his scripture and read. Paul probably created Christianity when he heard a voice from the heavens asking him why he persecuted the followers of Jesus. God spoke to Moses; Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed. Writers sometimes hear their characters speak to them as if they stood within the room.

Most of us at least feel, and sometimes hear, the voice of moral authority, and we feel the presence of invisible others, sometimes on the edge of sleep, sometimes in the sun-drenched afternoon. The great majority of the bereaved feel, hear, or see their spouse in the months after their loss, and they often say that this contact comforts them. They are sometimes ordinary, everyday, and common. Sometimes a voice leads a person to radical change for the good. People give up addictions; they find purpose; they become the people the voice invites them to be. But the voices of madness torment people. Those who are mad hear voices peeling off of cars and tumbling through the air. They can feel as if they live within a beehive of commanding, assaulting words.  

I am an anthropologist, and for years, I have spoken to people who have had these experiences, these moments of being called. Here is what I think: At the heart of these experiences is the paradoxical relationship humans have with their own thoughts. Voices, these exotic weird moments, take us into the enigma of thought as a human experience — not so much the fact that we think, but what it feels like to think, and how we come to understand the strangeness that we feel that we own our own thoughts, that they are ours, but we do not control them. These experiences teach us something about the nature of the mind — that it is not a vast interior immaterial universe, but something much more social, where thoughts have texture and carry complex echoes of our conversations with others, residues of our relationships. They also give us a capability that we can use.

The standard line on consciousness is that it evolved to help us to understand the minds of others, so that we can predict what they will do. I have come to wonder whether the true adaptive advantage of consciousness is whether inner voices have evolved to help us to manage ourselves, and every so often, they pop out into the world and speak.