I had a lot of time to think as I sat in the dark, waiting for the tow truck. I certainly wasn’t clinically depressed, but I was feeling low, and in a mental state that allowed for focused reflection. It was my third coolant issue in as many months, and the most severe. While wondering when the tow truck would arrive and preparing myself for worst case scenarios (blown head gasket, seized engine, car shopping), I was wrestling with the whys and wherefores of my predicament.
Three months ago, I got a call at work from my wife — “Your car left a green puddle in the garage this morning.” After work, finding a similar puddle in my parking spot, I drove straight to the service station with an eye on the temperature gauge. I only made it about halfway before the needle started rising out of the normal range; I pulled over to cool down and weigh my options. When the woman whose house I was parked next to came home, I sheepishly inquired whether she might be able to help me. Turns out she had some coolant which she graciously gave me, allowing me to travel safely to the new radiator I apparently needed.
Feeling grateful, I purposed to get a gift card for my anonymous benefactor. To the best of my recollection, I had not made any sort of mental bargain with God if He would send somebody to help me. It was a gesture that occurred to me after the fact, knowing that I had inconvenienced someone who seemed (understandably) a little leery of me but ultimately chose trust and kindness. However, when the grocery store didn’t have the particular kind of gift card I thought was appropriate, I lost momentum and didn’t follow through on my plan.
Two months later, I arrived home from work and was greeted with the now familiar sound of coolant boiling out of my (brand new) radiator. That turned out to be a manufacturing defect, and so I got a second new radiator free of charge. The incident caused me to remember my gift card plan, but I didn’t act right away nor make a definite plan to follow through. And then a week later, my car actually overheated, stalling out and leaving me waiting for a tow truck with nothing but time to think about that gift card.
Specifically, I was asking myself whether these subsequent incidents were God’s way of reminding me of my debt, and/or punishing me for my laziness. As a man of science, I am familiar with the reality of statistical approaches to quality, so I didn’t find it hard to accept that I had gotten a faulty part. But as a man of faith, I didn’t want to rule out the possibility that the God of the Bible, who arranged very specific and counter-intuitive circumstances to deliver specific messages to specific people, was now trying to deliver a message to me. And as a general cheapskate, I was bit sick at the thought of possibly having to spend thousands of dollars replacing an engine if I could have avoided the situation by purchasing that gift card!
Amidst all of those thoughts, I was reminded of the evolutionary psychology which claims that religion arises from a tendency to assume agency where there is none. Early hominids who assumed a rustle in the grass was a predator were more likely to survive and pass on that tendency to their offspring. Even if they were factually wrong most of the time and the rustle was nothing more dangerous than wind, on the rare times when it was a predator the ones who always took precautions would be safe. Thus, it is reasoned, we are the descendants of those hominids who saw agency everywhere, which makes us superstitious and inclined to codify superstitions into religions. One of the less charitable versions of this logic concludes that religious beliefs are a mental illness. In the same way that clinical depression may be the overexpression of an adaptive mental pattern that permits intense, constructive contemplation and problem solving, religious beliefs may be the overexpression of an adaptive mental pattern that promotes avoidance of rare but costly dangers.
And then I thought about John 9, where Jesus and the disciples encounter a blind man and the disciples wonder who sinned. Jesus responds that the man is blind, not as punishment, but in order that God’s work might be revealed. That got me thinking — God is not glorified if I perpetuate a portrait of Him that can be dismissed as the product of mental illness. And if such a superstitious notion of God does come naturally by way of evolutionary psychology (a point which is not universally accepted, but is cited often enough to merit consideration), then believing in such a God is not really a matter of faith, but of instinct.
Going further, it struck me that one can read the story of the Bible as a trajectory away from such a superstitious, instinctual notion of God. I don’t think it is disingenuous to look at some accounts in the Old Testament, and even into the New Testament (including John 9), and conclude that the people of God tended to ascribe significance to every circumstance, good or bad. This can give the impression of a God who is capricious and arbitrary, and fosters a “what have you done for me lately” mindset. By contrast, God reveals Himself to be constant, merciful, and broad in His perspective.
Therefore, I decided that, as an act of faith, I should frame this story, not in terms of a God who was punishing me with a breakdown, but a God who can use the circumstances of life to remind us that keeping commitments, even those made privately and unilaterally, is a good way to live. And so after my car was towed away, I drove my wife’s car to the store, bought a gift card and a “thank you” note, and delivered them on my way to work the next morning.
Later, I would receive word that my engine was fine, and that the problem was an incorrectly attached hose from the installation of the second radiator. Deciding what that means is left as an exercise to the reader.
About the author:
Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichÃ©d notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two teenagers, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.