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Supernatural Agent Detection (Part 1): At the Hymn Sing

A long time ago, while I listened to some spontaneous testimonies, I began to wonder where people get their ideas of God.

10398719_6382542789_7329_nWhen I started out in the ministry (many years ago) I served a small church in the Muskegon, Michigan area. I was young and skinny and had a major chip on my shoulder. I was convinced of the evil of all things (theologically) liberal. (You can get an idea what I looked like at the time from the picture on the left.) I was opposed to all things that smacked of clericalism, very introverted, very opinionated — thinking back on it its a wonder that the people at the Wolf Lake United Methodist Church put up with me to the extent that they did. (People that haven’t known me a long time might be surprised that I was ever like that — but I was.)

In those days the United Methodist, AME, and AME Zion Churches got together on Sunday evening once a month for a Hymn Sing. This was a lay-run event and it rotated among all the various churches involved. (It was always a big thrill for all of us at Wolf Lake UMC when it was our turn to host the Hymn Sing since it filled the sanctuary to capacity — and beyond.)

People led in singing, brought their own musical instruments to play, and everyone got a chance to sing some of their favorite songs. I think these “All-Methodist Hymn Sings” had started in the Muskegon area as a result of a series of evangelistic services that had been held in Muskegon — services that first brought together the black and white Methodist Churches. People did not want to drop this experience of inter-racial community, so the Hymns Sings had been born to keep the spirit of the evangelistic crusade going.

At some point in the Hymn Sing the leader always opened things up for spontaneous testimonies from the congregation. This was something very familiar to me from my very revivalistic Methodist background. It was common at camp-meeting to hear testimonies of salvation and sanctification. The United Methodist Church I attended as a High School student and as  young adult had hosted Lay Witness Missions more than once. I was very used to hearing testimonies. Sometimes us young people used to mock the way Brother Scott, or Brother Valade, etc. would give their frequent testimonies — though, really, we respected them for their faith.

bible-crossThe testimonies at the All-Methodist Hymn Sing were quite a bit different, however. People would often stand up to talk about how God had answered their prayers in keeping them safe on some trip. “God was good to us. We made it to Florida safely. We saw a lot of accidents along the way. But, God was good to us.” They would talk about how God had given them good fortune in some other way. While I was used to the idea of testimonies, it struck me that these testimonies were not really what I was used to hearing. There was nothing here about God changing a person’s life and given them new direction. It was not about how God had led someone to some new mission, or some new insight or some new relationship. They were about how God had once again arranged circumstances to favor them (as people of faith) over other people.

In my very opinionated view of things at the time, liberal theology was to blame for this. In the absence of strong evangelistic preaching — with a strong call to faith and holy living — other default theologies had crept in. I sincerely doubted (even at my worst) that any of my colleagues were preaching a God of favoritism, who manipulates all circumstances. But, the testimonies at the Hymn Sing told me that it was this Manipulator God in which people trusted. It seemed to me that in the absence of clear teaching about a Redeemer God — who changes lives, and is on a mission to redeem and lift up the world through God’s people — the Creator / Manipulator God was being taught by default. I assumed (at the time) that Christian liberalism was a view that undermined both Christian experience and reliance upon the Bible as the guide to faith. At the time, the alternatives seemed clear and stark. By distancing itself from both the Christian salvation experience and the sources from which it is drawn, Christian testimony itself had been subverted.

Okay. I’ve changed. Things look a little different to me now. But, it still bothers me. Do we affirm a God who redeems, changes, and call us into mission — or a God who is basically the Guardian of the status quo — manipulating circumstances to favor faithful Christians over other people? In the absence of a strong Redeemer-God model (some people might want to say “myth”) the Manipulator-God is preferred by default. And, yes, I do think these are stark alternatives. The Biblical story — especially as seen through the lens of Jesus — is a missional and redemptive story. It is about changing lives and changing the world.

theology-after-the-birth-of-godSo, how do people form their ideas of God? Atheist theologian F. LeRon Shults has a theory. This can be found in his book Theology after the Birth of God: Atheist Conceptions in Cognition and Culture as well in several of the essays available at his web site: especially Bearing Gods in Mind and Culture, and Excavating Theogonies: Anthropomorphic Promiscuity and Sociographic Prudery in the Neolithic and Now.

In this point of view, supernatural agents are posited as an explanation of various ambiguous phenomena in the world. Humans want to understand the world they live in. The gods are hypothesized as explanations for various aspects of how the world works. Things that cannot otherwise be explained are attributed to the gods. These gods are conceived as being person-like. Shults refers to this tendency as “anthropomorphic promiscuity”: the tendency to posit human-like agencies where none, in fact exist. He argues that this tendency had significant survival value for ancient peoples — thus, natural selection would have favored this. In his own words:

Human beings are naturally promiscuous in their seeking out of human form in the natural environment. The natural selection of cognitive processes that were overly sensitive to detecting agency contributed to our ancestors’ survival. Imagine an early hominin perceiving some ambiguous movement in the forest. Interpretations of such movements as caused by the presence of a potential enemy (or a potential mate) will usually be wrong; however, in those cases where a person is in fact present, failing to guess “relevant agent” can be fatal (or counterproductive in other ways). Those for whom such interpretations became a default perceptual strategy may have more often been wrong than those who automatically guessed “wind” until more compelling evidence emerged for an intentional cause. The latter, however, would have been less likely to survive in the early ancestral environment than the former. And so natural selection would have worked to increase the trait of anthropomorphic promiscuity.  — F. LeRon Shults, Bearing gods in mind and culture.

Or, if this is still a bit unclear, here is a rap musical presentation of the theory from Baba Brinkman:

There is a lot more I would like to say about this theory, but for now I’d just like to reflect on the contrasting testimonies alluded to above. They relate to two quite different ways of perceiving God’s activity. One arises from circumstances — why did we not have an accident on our recent trip when other people did? The other arises from a salvation story about the meaning of life and the nature of human beings and their morality — “I once was lost, but now am found, T’was blind but now I see….” The contrast seemed so great to me at the time that it seemed like two different Gods. One was a God who controls circumstances, and favors some people above others. The other was a God of Redemption who is seeking change in our lives and our world.

I continued to play with this contrast in my mind and in my preaching throughout the early years of my ministry. It came to be for me a contrast between the God of the status quo, on the one hand, and the God of salvation, redemption and kingdom-change whom we know through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15 NRSV). And, I was quite confident the first “God” was a false god.

So, one thing I’d say about the theory of “anthropomorphic promiscuity” as an avenue of supernatural agent detection is this. It is credible as a theory, but it only seems (at least at first glance) to account for bad (or mistaken) supernatural agent detection. While it might explain how god-conceptions arose in the human species (gaps in knowledge), it also might not. The deeper question is why there is something rather than nothing. This also points us to a very different conception of God. Certainly this “anthropomorphic promiscuity” is clearly a god-detecting mechanism still in use by human beings. But, it is not the only way or reason God conceptions arise. (And, in all fairness, Shults’ theory does not say that it is — and accounts for organized religion in other ways.)

It’s strange how reading the reflections of an atheist about the development of the idea of God took me back to those old Hymn Sings in Muskegon.


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