Blue Ocean Summit 2011: Hearing from God in Prayer and Society, by Dave Schmelzer

One highlight of our recent trip to New England was the Blue Ocean Summit in Cambridge, MA., where I was pressed into service on a couple of plenary panel discussions.

Stanford anthropologist, Tanya Luhrmann, PhD, started the week off with a remarkable report on her study of the impact of kataphatic prayer (prayer where God talks back to people). It ended up shaping the entire conversation of the conference.

I will post more later, but here is conference organizer Dave Schmelzer’s summary of the week. Enjoy!


How I Spent My (Blue Ocean) Summer Vacation

by Dave Schmelzer (Adapted from Not the Religious Type)

This year’s Blue Ocean Summit took on a bit of a big-picture theme, with Tanya Luhrmann painting a picture of an experiential connection with God presenting a unique opportunity in a secularizing world, followed by our culture panel taking a pass at how centered-set faith makes a unique offer in many spheres of the wider world (Hollywood, publishing, academia, finance).

One of the more-intriguing themes at the recent Blue Ocean Summit was the thought that the sort of spirituality we talk about here might, in some ways, boil down to “Can we just skip the middleman?”

When God Talks Back

Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist, talked about her astounding multi-year study of people who talk to God in hopes that God will talk back to them.  I asked her before her talk: has anyone in human history done an anthropological study like this one, of the actual dynamics of what happens when people try to “relate” to God?  She hemmed and hawed for a moment and then said, “No.”

After hearing Tanya’s utterly provocative talk on what she learned, one implication we talked about was: is there a case to be made that we just bring this relational dynamic with God to anyone we meet who might like it?  Or do we need to take an intermediate step where we briefly change terms?

Do we need to tell our non-churchgoing friends, “Wow, your life can change if you learn to interact with this invisible but seemingly-very-real God and I’d love to teach you how to do it.  But first I’d like to offer you historical proofs that Jesus is the Son of God and, who are we kidding?, God himself.  And then I’d like you to sign off on that and pray a prayer to that effect.  And then we can get down to business about this change-your-life-by-interacting-with-God stuff.”  Maybe, we hazarded, we can just jump to that last part and see what happens?

Cultural Implcations

And then we enjoyed a really provocative “culture panel” with the following people: Jill Lamar (editor-in-chief of Henry Holt publishers), Peter Eavis (recent Wall Street Journal banking columnist), Brian Odom (Northwestern faculty in physics) and Gary David Stratton, PhD (moderator of the Two Handed Warrior online community and recent head of Act One, perhaps the largest gathering-point/training institution for Christians in Hollywood).

And we asked the question: is this sort of faith relevant primarily to people who go to churches?  Or is it directly relevant to the financial and publishing and Hollywood and academic worlds?  That gave us about an hour of things to talk about together.  But most-assuredly the upshot was, yes, take this to the larger world and get moving as quickly as you can pull this off.

Taking it to the Streets… I mean, Pub!

An intriguing capper came just after the summit finished, on Wednesday night.  Tanya joined about thirty folks in a nearby pub for another of our summer “Meaning in a Pub” gatherings, composed of about a third churchgoers and two-thirds folks from either other religious traditions or no religion.  She shared quite candidly about her really astounding tour of religious communities as an anthropologist–surely no one in history has lived even a similar life to hers–before turning things back to the tables for processing.

Later that night, over a glass of wine with Grace and me, Tanya shook her head and said something like, “You folks really are remarkable.  Believing Christians who truly live out centered set.  I don’t think I’ve seen that in quite the same way before.”

So just a few words on a time I’m still very much chewing on.  We may well have more to say soon…or we’ll ponder it in our heart.  Thanks so much to those of you who made it here, usually at the cost of real sacrifice.  I can’t wait to see where things go next.

But what do you think?  Can we offer whatever it is we have to offer to anyone, directly?  Or is a conversion of some sort required first?

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