In a former post (, Theophilus), I noted, with a startling lack of originality, that there are many odd things about prayer; and the burden of the post upon which we have just embarked will be that things seem just as odd when you try to make sense of the idea that God might talk back.
We begin in the world of Creative Writing, and specifically in the heavy workbook with which Open University Creative Writing students presumably hold their doors open or defend themselves from muggers.
The poet Paul Muldoon advises new writers not to think of themselves primarily as writers but as receivers (Open University, 2004). The writer acts as a kind of medium or channel, catching the words and organising them. You stay alert and ‘listen’ instead of bracing yourself for some hard test. If you cultivate an attitude of curiosity, trust, and receptivity towards writing, it will flow more easily.
There are several techniques that can help with this. They are often referred to as methods for ‘harnessing the unconscious mind’. The idea is that our conscious mind contains only a fraction of our selves and we need to tap the huge fund of ideas, images, memories and emotions that make up our unconcious minds. All of the methods involve fast unpremeditated writing. This is in order to bypass the intellect of the internal ‘censor’, which is always trying to evaluate and direct the writing.
The fact that undergraduates are being advised in this way not to think is perhaps evidence that, after all, only the scientists and mathematicians are studying proper subjects. On the other hand, perhaps some readers of this post are aware of some definition of the word ‘unconscious’ which makes this sound advice. What’s most peculiar about the quotation for me is that it sounds peculiarly familiar. This is exactly how, in my teenagerhood, I was taught to hear God’s voice.
Here are some relevant quotations from Kay Velker and Mark Virkler’s Learning to Communicate with God: Teen Edition, which incidentally are non-representative and miss out many good and useful sayings in favour of the bits which sound like the OU’s thoughts on acting as a medium or channel.
The key word for us today is “spontaneous,” natural, unforced, not thought about ahead of time.
Thoughts from my mind are analytical. Thoughts from my heart are spontaneous.
God is speaking to you all the time, and you are receiving His injected thoughts. Until you begin distinguishing them from your own, you are simply grouping them together and assuming they are yours. In learning to distinguish His voice, you are learning how to separate the spontaneous thoughts that are coming from Him from the meditated thoughts that are coming from your own mind.
And what’s the first thing that happens when you get a thought like this? You think about it, wonder where it came from, question if it’s your idea or God’s, get off on a tangent wondering why or when or what if. You “short circuit” God’s communication to you by doubt […] we need to check our spontaneous thoughts. But not right now. Get the idea? Write down the thoughts quickly as they come and before you have a chance to ponder over them. Then think them through and test them later […]
So, for anyone who skips quotations… The OU writing tutors want you to relax, tune into the spontaneous flow, and write down a load of stuff without evaluating it until later, and so do Velker and Virkler: but the OU people think this will enrich your Creative Writing with the treasures of your unconscious mind, whereas V&V think this is the way to hear God speaking. I find this odd. That is, I may or may not find the idea itself odd, in one form or both; I do definitely find the similarity odd. Whence this convergence on the idea that spontaneity is to be so highly prized? Is the convergence just a coincidence?
It’s hard to know what should be said at this point, not knowing how widespread such ideas are in either Christianity or Creative Writing. This post (as should be made clear in case any philosophical friends read it) will not be able to argue that p. All it can do, for the moment, is present a p found in one place, and a p found in another place, and wave them about a bit, like a scene in Sesame Street.
At the moment it is not clear to me that a carefully meditated thought is less likely to be a God-thought than a spontaneous one: meditation, in fact, is undeniably In The Bible and a Good Thing from any Christian point of view. V&V’s suggestions are rooted in Habakkuk 2:1-2…
I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.
And the Lord answered me:
“Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so he may run who reads it.
…but a piece of writing made plain on tablets for the sake of communication to others is very different to a piece of writing spontaneously recorded in a private journal to be weighed and tested later. Making the vision plain on tablets requires care, consideration, meditation: Habakkuk wasn’t told to start journalling. On the other hand, journalling might be exactly how God speaks to someone other than Habakkuk, since God, being God, is presumably able to speak in any way He likes, and in different ways to different people. “There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.”