Hearing Voices, Demonic and Divine

Scientific and Theological Perspectives

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Christopher C.H. Cook
  • New York, NY: 
    , November
     258 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religious epistemologists are heavily invested in adjudicating which experiences, if any, have positive metaphysical import. Christopher C.H. Cook, in his recent book, Hearing Voices, Demonic and Divine: Scientific and Theological Perspectives, aims to unveil and explain the results of his years-long study of the kinds of religious experiences that involve voice-hearing. Voice-hearing, as Cook defines it, involves a taxonomy of possibilities. The most prominent species of voice-hearing found in religious (and contemporary) history is one of hallucination—an auditory experience that may accompany visual or other sensory experiences in a single encounter (3ff). By this he does not mean an illusion, as if hallucinations are automatically non-veridical, but rather that it is something closely analogous to a vision (6). As an “auditory verbal hallucination” (AVH), it is indeed caused by an actual state of affairs, though it cannot be disentangled from the array of natural causes involved in facilitating the experience. Sometimes voice-hearing is as it appears to be, namely auditions from an extramental ultramundane being (e.g., Joan of Arc, 122f), or it may be a metaphorized experience in the sense that one “hears” God through an improbable convergence of events appearing to have divine significance (e.g., Augustine’s “hearing” of God through a neighboring child’s seemingly unrelated chant, 113). Others attest to having heard the voices of saints (e.g., Joan of Arc, 122f), of angels (e.g., Mary, the mother of Jesus, 115f), and even of demons (e.g., Teresa of Avila, 127f). The takeaway here is that the sources as well as the nature of voice-hearing are variegated.

Cook provides us a survey of those who are reported to have heard the voice of God or other spirits in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures—as well as offering an excursus into some non-Christian ones (51-54). He, therefore, prefaces his survey by explicating the challenges and difficulties of biblical hermeneutics in attempting to discern whether any putative AVH is literal, figurative, mythological, or something else; here he offers no firm conclusion, only that one must read the “historical” narratives of scripture cautiously and provisionally. He then takes a chronological romp through Christian history to show how voice-hearing has been claimed by followers of Christ since the 1st century CE. Interestingly, Cook reports the sociological data that reveals that AVH phenomena are not relegated to religious fundamentalist pockets in the Middle East or the West, but are found across all geographical and cultural boundaries. They also transcend economic and social statuses, and even occur in the perfectly healthy and lucid, as well as the mentally infirmed and traumatized (164-66). The universal challenge to all such experiences is the fact that such voice-hearing is always interpreted through one’s religio-cultural context (147ff).

Contrary to those who “prioritise psychiatry over spirituality” (176), Cook argues that mental illness is not mutually exclusive to an AVH as being some kind of veridical experience of a (semi-)divine cause. In other words, one’s psychosis or some experience of past trauma could very well be the vehicle for a percipient to have an AVH encounter—one with theological (or atheological) significance. For one’s biophysical and neuropsychological circumstances could very well help “attune” one to better “hear” the voice of an ultramundane spirit (186-89, 193-94). This is one of the strengths of the book, for there is no good reason to think that something like schizophrenia or some other condition is somehow incompatible with the concurrence of genuinely hearing voices—whether as an AVH or something less direct. It also accounts for the interior nature of the experiences. However, if hearing voices by design is not peculiar to any particular set of external circumstances or psychological dispositions, then it is increasingly difficult to adjudicate when someone is actually hearing from spirits or only thinks she is due to some unknown pathology. Moreover, there is a worry that voice-hearing cannot be discerned to be from a demonic, angelic, or theistic source. Indeed, attempts at discerning which voices are divine (even revelatory) and which are not proves to be fraught with difficulties (199ff). While on certain models of religious experience discernment is conceivable, Cook thinks it a dubious endeavor given “the possibility of deception,” and our disagreement over “criteria by which deception and error may be distinguished from truth” (217).

As for how one can reconcile the science, psychology, and the theology of voice-hearing, Cook’s own explanatory model suggests a holistic solution. He postulates that though AVHs are “perception-like,” they may not be “veridical perceptions of a voice emanating from the external world” (217). For Cook, the convergence of all physical and psychological factors give rise to the brain’s production of voice-hearing as ifanother is speaking from without. It is the mechanism by which God speaks to us: “God is not ‘out there’, but deeply within the machinery of our minds” (218). In what Cook calls an “incarnational” approach (think panentheism) it is the “created order [that] mediates God’s constant act of speech” or “angelic voices [which] convey the divine communication” (222). Just as Jesus was the Word of God made flesh, the word of God comes to us in the flesh—in our flesh—that is the inner workings of our brains amidst the complex circumstances in which we find ourselves.

On the one hand, religious epistemologists can rejoice, for we can appreciate once again how science can accord with rather than assail the deliverances of theology. On the other hand, the metaphysical implications of Cook’s incarnational approach are needlessly heterodox given his aversion to God’s ability to directly intervene in the world is unfortunately informed by David Hume’s defunct criticisms of miracles (190-91). Perhaps even more shocking, Cook finds it problematic that an immaterial God could even interact with material things (191). Since this is God we’re talking about, the objection seems contemptible.

Though rich in insight and full of valuable research, Cook’s own speculative voice on the matter will not charm the orthodox.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shandon L. Guthrie is Visiting Lecturer of Philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Date of Review: 
July 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher C.H. Cook is Professor of Spirituality, Theology and Health in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, an Honorary Minor Canon at Durham Cathedral, and an Honorary Chaplain with Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust.


Christopher C.H. Cook

I am grateful for the positive comments that Shandon Guthrie makes about my book, and that the central message concerning the ways in which we may understand God as speaking to human beings is affirmed. It is nice to hear one’s work referred to as “rich in insight and full of valuable research.” I hope that other readers will feel the same. However, in this context, I am surprised and puzzled that Guthrie comes to the conclusion that I have an “aversion to God’s ability to directly intervene in the world.” Re-reading the relevant sections of my own work, I am at a loss as to how and why he reaches this conclusion. However, the issue is complex and perhaps I have over-nuanced my account?

It is true that I engage with a number of interlocutors, including Hume and Wiles, who were truly sceptical of the possibility of divine intervention in the natural order, but I certainly do not adopt their position myself. In any case, my task was not so much to argue that God does (or doesn’t) intervene so much as to explore the interface between science and theology concerning how God might be understood to intervene. If we are to avoid any kind of dualism, or uncritical supernaturalism, then I think that the question as to how we might understand the intervention of a non-material God in a material world is a real one, and certainly not (as Guthrie suggests) “contemptible.” In pursuing this question I take up the insights of Pollard, Polkinghorne, Peacocke, Barbour, Clayton and Knapp, amongst others, in order to show that there are a variety of possible positive responses to the question, and that it is not necessary to conclude that God cannot be understood as intervening in the light of science. My main purpose in all of this, however, is not concerned with finding definitive answers to the wider questions about specific divine action, so much as to pave the way for my exploration of how we may understand divine speech as a particular kind of divine action. I am pleased to find that Guthrie seems at least to have found this helpful.

My intention in the book was not to “charm the orthodox,” but to address some of the difficult questions that philosophers and theologians are asking in relation to the contention that God speaks to people today. In a book that is primarily an academic endeavour, I take these questions seriously. However, after Anselm, I also see this as an exercise in “faith seeking understanding,” and I lay out my Christian approach to this in the Introduction. The position that I have adopted argues primarily from a very orthodox Christology, and I sought to affirm that our basis for believing that God speaks to people is to be found in the incarnation of Christ (not panentheism). I am therefore surprised to find myself described as “heterodox”. I had expected that I might be challenged by a wider readership as to the theological particularity of my account and so I sought to convey openness to dialogue with those coming from different perspectives. I do therefore hope that in the pages of my book the heterodox, as well as the orthodox, will be given cause to contemplate the amazing claim that people today may indeed be said to hear the voice of God. Nonetheless, I trust that Christian readers will also appreciate my concern to set this in the context of the far greater claim that God is most perfectly revealed, his voice most clearly heard, in Jesus, the Word made flesh.


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