Interview with Don Richardson, Part III
III. God and the Anthropologists
Let me ask about the book Eternity in their Hearts, if I can. Lots of people have been influenced by your book, including me. Part of the book talks about people around the world who are aware of God – in the sense that Christians believe in God. In his recent best-seller, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins writes:
surprisingly, since it is founded on local traditions of private revelation
rather than evidence, the God Hypothesis comes in many versions.
Historians of religion recognize a progression from private tribal animisms,
through polytheisms such as those of the Greeks, Romans, and Norsemen, to
monotheisms such as Judaism and its derivatives, Christianity and
Is Dawkins right about the history of religions?
Absolutely not. What he’s picking up on is the theory promulgated back in the 1870s by a British anthropologist – one of the first people called an anthropologist – Edmund B Tylor. And Tylor said, ‘Well, you know, Charles Darwin is promulgating biological evolution. What about social evolution? Let’s see if we can apply the principles of biological evolution to the social life of mankind!’
He said, ‘OK, evolution begins with something very simple and gradually works its way to something more complex, more profound. What’s the simplest kind of religion? Animism. It believes in spirits and ghosts of trees, rocks, rivers. That’s the simplest kind of religion, so it had to be first. Animism coincided with a stage of human development when there were no class strata, and everyone was on the same social level. So all the ghosts and spirits were on the same social level in the imaginary supernatural world, Tylor posited. But gradually, mankind developed until there was an upper class. So religious leaders said, ‘Ah, just as we have the upper class and the lower class, the chiefs and the rulers and the headman and the rank-and-file people, there must be something equivalent to that among the spirits as well.’
Thus, gradually polytheism developed as an echo of class stratification in human society. That’s why have the pantheon of the gods in Greece and other places. Gradually, one member of the upper class was elevated to the level of a monarch, a king. ‘Let’s add something in the supernatural world that reflects that.’ And that’s when monotheism began to develop – the idea of a Supreme God corresponding to a monarch.
So Tylor’s theory was that there’s no development in religion until something in human society suggests it. It’s an imaginary thing, but now that we understand the evolutionary process, it’s time for religion to be phased out, it’s time we moved beyond it.
You talk about a very interesting guy named Andrew Lang.
Yes, Andrew Lang was a student of Edmund B. Tylor. In fact, Tylor called him one of his best students.
His books are still available in local libraries, in the fairy tale section, a lot of Andrew Lang’s fairy tales.
I didn’t know that. So Tylor’s theory was based upon an armchair thought experiment. It was not put to the test by anyone going out into the jungles, to check with animistic peoples to see if Tylors’ thoughts corresponded to reality. Well, who was going out to do the research? Who were interacting . . . ?
Missionaries were! Missionaries learning the languages of hundreds of animistic cultures around the world were surprised to find out, that even though they believed in the spirits, they often believed in one Supreme God, often called a Sky God, who was invisible to human eyes, who lived in the sky as His primary residence but who also was present everywhere. He was Creator of the Heavens and the Earth but no one created Him. They were animistic people who were still on a single social level, and were not supposed to have developed this idea. But, the idea was there.
So Andrew Lang began reading these reports, and he realized that his teacher Edmund B Tylor was wrong. But meanwhile, Tylor’s theory was taken over by liberal theologians in Germany, and became a basis for scrutinizing the OT in terms of the Elohim, and then leading to the Yahweh – it was just an application of Tylor’s theory to the OT.
One of the reason I quoted from Dawkins is because some of these ideas – they’ve become popular with the New Atheism. Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins in particular try to make the same argument.
Yes. So finally, anthropologists said, ‘Look! Missionaries are sending these reports back about what became known as ‘native monotheism,’ which refutes Tylor’s theory, so we’d better go and check it for ourselves.’ So they did, and they found it, too. And so Tylor’s theory was refuted. Is Dawkins referring to it as a basis for his book?
This is not scholarly.
It’s a hundred years out of date, anyway.
Do you see this widespread awareness of the Supreme God as an argument for existence of God that would be valid in a secular (venue)?
I certainly do. People look at the Creation, and they find there’s food. Why is there always food available, wherever they go in the world? And the strange thing is, the Sawi people that I lived among. The Sawi people that I lived among, found out that if they wanted to catch a fish in a pool of water, and you don’t even know if there’s fish there because there’s a dark red algae in the water, it’s like a black tea, you can’t see more than a few inches below the surface. But they found out you take the bark of a certain kind of tree, break it off and hold a couple pieces of bark under the surface of that pool, swish it back and forth so that the white milky substance on the inside of that bark spreads out into the water. There’s an acid in it apparently, and fish do not have eyelids. So the acid is hurting their eyes. They have to come to the surface of the pool to ease the pain of the acid on their bare eyes. And while they’re swimming around at least partially blinded, with their heads right at the surface of the pool, the Sawi man takes a long stick, flicks them out on the shore, and he’s got fish for dinner!
Some of the tribes in Taiwan did something like that!
And you know what? How did they find out? Because they don’t conduct scientific tests. They’d don’t say, ‘Hey, let’s take 50 different pieces of bark from
50 different species of tree and put them under the water in 50 different pools and see what happens.’ It’s like they saw a divine revelation. Someone knows they need food, they need help and they arrive in this area, and they’re guided to find things to survive. But this idea that God is there, it’s innate. And people have to try very hard to really dig down and make themselves believe there’s no God. Oh, and by the way, did you see the film ‘Expelled’ by Stein?
And Stein asked Richard Dawkins, ‘Sir, if you meet God what will you say to Him?’ And do you remember how Dawkins answered him?
He quoted from Bertrand Russell . . .
He quoted Bertrand Russell’s saying, ‘Sir, why did you go to such extreme measures to hide yourself?’ Well, that implies that if God exists and wants to be recognized he has to come out and manifest Himself to someone like Dawkins, someone like Russell. But then, if I’d been Ben Stein, I’d have asked Richard Dawkins: ‘OK, so God is responsible to reveal Himself to you. Tell me, what sort of a manifestation would you accept as proof? Suppose He appeared to you as a man and said, ‘I’m God. Hello Richard Dawkins.’ Dawkins would say, ‘Well you’re not God, you’re just a man.’ Or suppose He would say, OK, I’m going to appear as a mile-high man. So suddenly Richard Dawkins is looking at this mile-high man towering above him – would he accept that as proof? No, he’d say this is somebody’s state-of-the-art holographic projection! So the point I’m making is that nothing finite can ever be proof of something infinite! It’s impossible. So it’s a matter of seeing thousands of indications of care, of justice, and of a sense of justice that’s in the human heart, that boils over, gets enraged, or can become blasé, feels guilty, knows it should feel outrage when it doesn’t.
Do people who are non-Christians, and people who are skeptical, attend any of your speaking engagements?
Yes. In fact I’ve been invited to defend missionary work in quite hostile anthropology classes, and I’ve loved it. Because I know the things the professor has been telling the students to make them look down on missionaries. So what I do is to one-by-one-by-one-by one give responses refuting the insinuations the professor has made. I’ve stood at the front, and the professor sits at the back, just sort of waiting for his students to tear this missionary apart . . .
You’re rather cynical!
But gradually the students begin to see the questions they were about to ask have already been answered. And I see them looking back at their professor with strange looks in their faces, saying,
Now what do we say?
Yeah, and so the professor ends up being the embarrassed one.
I’d also like to ask you about another point you bring up in Eternity in Their Hearts. I love the story you tell about the SE Asian tribes. Just after I read that book in 1984, I did some mission work among those tribes. Later on, when I was living in China, I visited a remote Lahu village in southern China with a hill in the middle of the town. On top of the hill there was an old wooden church with a bell. When the bell rang, people would come up the hill to church. That church was founded by the Young brothers that you write about. How did all these tribal peoples in Thailand and Burma and southern China – hundreds of thousands of them – become Christians?
They were animistic peoples, like we were describing earlier. When William Marcus Young – and even before him, George Dana Boardman, a colleague of Adiram Judson – went to the Karen, he found out they not only believed in one Supreme God, they even believed that he’d given mankind his Sacred Writings in a book. The ancestors had had that book, and lost it. But one day, the true God would send a white brother from the distant West in a ship with white sails to bring another copy of the lost book to them. All the people were waiting, waiting, waiting.
And lo and behold, here came George Dana Boardman, initially to Rangoon. And then, because the Burmese Bible was being translated, he went down to Taboy, in the southern part of Burma. And that’s where the Karen were in the hills above the city of Taboy. He arrived in a ship with white sails. And he was a light-skinned person, and he was kind and brotherly. So the Karen, hearing about him, came thronging around the house that he and his wife Sarah were moving into . . .
And they weren’t very familiar with white people in those days . . .
No, not at all. And this was in a part of Burma where the British – I don’t know if they even went down there. They said, ‘We hear you’re a white brother from the West. And you’re to bring us a book. And the book is supposed to be white also. So Boardman went into his house and picked up his Bible and held it up in front of a crowd of Karen people. And they saw it had a black cover. They all heaved a sigh, ‘Oh, it’s not white, it’s a black book. It’s not the one.’
But then George Dana Boardman opened it, and showed them the white pages inside.
Like an Oreo cookie!
Right! So they practically kidnapped George Dana Boardman from the city of Tavoy, saying, ‘You don’t want to stay here. You’d better come up into the hills. We’re the people who are really going to welcome you.’ And it was an incredible people movement. Thousands of Karen became believers in Jesus Christ as he learned their language and taught them.
So when you talk about redemptive analogies, you’re not just talking about some clever devices that missionaries use to persuade people. You’re talking about things that God has done to prepare people.
Yes! Things that are already there, that they own and believe in. They’re ‘cultural compasses,’ like physical compasses point to magnetic north.
Back in the 2nd Century, Justin Martyr called Greek philosophy ‘tutors to Christ.’ Were you at all aware of those concepts from Christian history when you first started doing this?
Not from Justin Martyr. But you know, I was reading a book by C. S. Lewis before I went out to the mission field. And I credit him with planting a seed-thought in my mind. C. S. Lewis said, ‘In every human society,’ (I think he used the word ‘society’) there are three interwoven strands. Just plain human, the demonic, and the divine. And it’s up to us to discern the difference between them.
Do you remember what the book was?
You know what? I thought that I read that in Reflections on the Psalms. But later, in years later, I came back and said, ‘I’m going to find where I read that,’ and couldn’t find it in Reflections on the Psalms! Other people who have read everything by C. S. Lewis can’t remember.
It almost sounds to me like something from G. K. Chesterton’s Everlasting Man.
Perhaps. It’s been so many years, but I remember . . . So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going out to another culture – I’ve got to expect to find things that are just plain human – and there’s lots of that.
C. S. Lewis prepared me for what you had to say, because he believed the same way, and thought a lot about it too . . .
So I’m not the first to find something like this. But it seems that earlier missionaries were helped by these things, used them, but never thought to extrapolate from their experience to an aspect of God’s love that’s worldwide and runs down through the ages. They never gave it a name.
I think there were some names used . . .
If you know any names, tell me, because I want to know . . . Bruce Holsten wrote about things in Mottaloni culture. But he didn’t say, ‘Let’s call this something,’ and then say, ‘Here’s other examples of it.’
(J.N.) Farquhar used the term ‘fulfillment theology.” The term ‘tutors for Christ,’ ‘evangelical preparation,’ ‘seeds of faith’ is another term Catholics use . . .
But another step beyond that, David, is not just to say these tutors for Christ happen to be there, but to credit God with placing them through general revelation as prior influence. That’s another step . . .
One of the things that’s striking about your story is, here these people are living in New Guinea by themselves. They don’t know much about the outside world, they might have seen an airplane flying overhead once in a while . . .
They thought it was about 60 miles wide.
And then suddenly they’re part of the human race. And you’re the conduit – someone’s going to come and someone’s going to be the conduit . . .
It’s inevitable. You just have to pray, ‘May the most beneficial outside influence get there first.’
Does the Gospel help you see the experience of different tribes and different peoples around the world as a single unified story?
Yes. In fact, I’m finishing up a fifth book, called Unhidden. It’s going to be published and shipped – it might come out as early as February or March. I’m self-publishing through Zulon this time – it’s a new thing for me to self-publish. Gives me control. And if any publishers are interested in taking it over later, we can negotiate.
You speak enough to be able to sell it. You really have to have a ministry like that to make it worthwhile.
I have a website, too. I am working on the idea that, just as there was a redemptive analogy for the Sawi, there was a ‘peace child,’ and the Yali through places of refuge, and through the upside down tree in India, I began to think, ‘What about an all-encompassing redemptive analogy for the scientific mind, for people who demand logic to the nth degree? And so I actually began () something that could be called a ‘unified field.’ A set of laws which if they are understood, allow you to see the foundations of everything. A set of laws which, when it’s complete, you can’t imagine the need for another one to be added. Because any other thing you try to add, is already covered somewhere. And you can’t imagine any one of the laws being debated because it’s going to destroy the symmetry, it’s going to destroy the ().
This is one of the things that makes me think – much in the same way – about a story that unifies the human race. You go back to Durkheim and Lang and some of the people who wrote about primitive people in Australia. And then you look at what some scientists have discovered through astronomy. And very often the things they’re saying about God are very similar.
Yes, indeed! There are certain places, and certain concepts of theology and science that are coming closer together. It’s like two comets that are at least going to glance off each other . . .
Is your book about science, then?
Yes. A lot of it is about science. It seeks to bring about a wedding of theology and cosmology.
It’s actually my first book, David. I’ve been working on it for 43 years. I had the first draft written before I even knew I would write Peace Child. I have to call it my magnus opus.
Is it already going to press, or are you still working on it?
It’s within days of being scanned and printed.
I’d love to take a look at it!
I’ll give you a copy!