Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Evolution of God -- Review

THE EVOLUTION OF GOD. By Robert Wright. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. 567 pp.

The idea that God has evolved may be off-putting to some and welcomed by others. How one responds to this idea may depend both on what is meant by the phrase and where one stands in regards to the idea of God. A believer may take this idea differently than will an unbeliever. Philip Clayton, in his book Adventures in the Spirit (Fortress, 2008) encourages believers in God to welcome dialog with science and philosophy, and not to fear any challenging implications to faith. It is with that sense of openness that I came to Robert Wright’s fascinating study of the evolution of the idea of God, from its origins in hunter/gather societies to the development of the great religions – especially the three Abrahamic religions. Wright admits that he approached this study with an agnostic sensibility. Indeed, the focus here is not on whether God exists, but how humans have envisioned and approached the idea of God. His is a materialist description, assuming that ideas of faith have evolved because they fulfill a role in society. Indeed, when he speaks of specific religious expressions he takes a rather minimalist view – that is Jesus said and did little of what has been ascribed to him, and the stories of early Judaism, from Abraham to Moses, likely did not happen.

By materialist, Wright insists throughout that the “origin and development of religion can be explained by reference to concrete, observable things – human nature, political and economic factors, technological change, and so on” (p. 4). While taking an agnostic position on the existence or reality of God, he insists that this materialist exploration of religion, and its conclusions on how the idea of God has developed, doesn’t by itself preclude a religious world view. But, it does mean that in all likelihood the traditional perspectives will not suffice.

Another adjective needs to be added to this perspective. It is materialist, but also functionalist. Wright wants us to look at the way religion and the idea of God has functioned in society – both positively and negatively. This is an important point to make, because while religion has had negative influences and impacts, it has also had positive ones. Over time, however, the positives have largely, though not completely, overtaken the negatives. That is, few would want to trade modern monotheism for the animism of hunter-gatherer societies. As with all evolutionary trajectories, this one doesn’t move in a straight line. Indeed, one can find in the historical record many parallel movements that run into the present day. Thus, when he begins his exploration of primordial religion, he needn’t’ go back millenniums to find examples, he needs only look at the 19th century records of the Klamath Indians of southern Oregon and northern California for an example of hunter-gather society. The notion of a god and gods develops as culture develops, for different societies have different explanatory and social needs. Because he believes that one of the key dimensions of religion, and why it emerged in our evolutionary development, is that it provides a source of social cohesion along with moral guidance. Regarding the role of religion in moral formation, Wright picks up on Paul Tillich’s rather abstract definition of God as “ground of being” and suggests that a central role that God plays in emerging society is that of the “source of the moral order” (p. 446). Indeed, if there is proof that God exists, it may be this, for religion seems to affirm a sense of purpose for human existence.

Unlike the so-called “New Atheists,” Wright takes religion and religious people quite seriously. He may be agnostic, or even an atheist, but he recognizes that religion played and continues to play an important role in increasingly complex societies, providing both social cohesion and moral direction. Indeed, it is the moral imagination that most clearly emerges as the idea of God evolves over time. In saying that God evolves, Wright takes no position on the existence of this or any other god. It’s not a question of whether God, if God exists, has developed over time, only that our ideas of God and our expectations of God and of religion have developed over time.

In the beginning there were many gods. Indeed, there were as many gods as were needed to explain reality. In Hunter-Gatherer communities, like the Klamath Indians, the world was small and the explanatory needs few. The key to religion was making sure not to offend the spirits. Broad conceptualizations of the eternal or even the moral were not high on the agenda. The shaman emerges as one who helps explain and manipulate the spiritual dimension, but in time more is needed, especially as societies grew and needed more social control – first chiefdoms and then monarchies and nation-states.

While animism and polytheism are the earliest forms of religion, in time other more centralized forms of faith emerge. First it was monolatry (worship of one god, while recognizing the existence of others). Monolatry was made possible in part as societies, such as ancient Israel, were able to subsume more and more divine functions on fewer and fewer divine beings. It will be difficult for many Christian and Jewish readers to accept that ancient Israel was polytheistic well into its existence. Thus, Yahweh may have “begun life” as a storm god or a warrior god, in time Yahweh becomes the god of Israel and then the creator of all things (consider the views attributed to Elijah or even First Isaiah). The last stage, monotheism, doesn’t develop until the exile and post-exilic periods. The turning point, however, was Josiah, whose attempt to rein in Israel’s religious options would lead to national disaster, but also to a more firmly developed monotheism.

By the time of Jesus, Judaism was essentially fully monotheistic, but it still was nationalistic. The exceptions might be Philo’s important engagement with Greek thought. But Philo, unlike Jesus, lived in Alexandria and breathed deeply Greek philosophy. What Philo was able to do was develop a theology of the Logos, a theology that Wright believes holds promise for the present, and would in time influence Christian thinkers, including the writer of John’s gospel. But in Palestinian Judaism of the first century, the expectations were in line with those of Second Isaiah, which held out a universal vision, but assumed that the world would in time submit to the God of Israel.

It is out of this milieu that Jesus and Christianity emerged. The assumption that Wright takes – influenced in part by his reading of the minimalism of Bart Ehrman (I would have preferred to see him engage scholars such as Marcus Borg or John Dominic Crossan) – he assumes that Jesus’ perspective remained largely nationalistic. Thus, his words on love of neighbor assumed a Jewish context, not a universalistic one. That would be left to Paul. Yes, those who see Paul as the corruptor of Jesus’ message of universal love will be disappointed, because in Wright’s view Paul, not Jesus, is the formulator of the Christian idea of a God of universal love. And, the reason for this is simple – Paul’s message of inter-ethnic love. In this view, Paul takes Jesus’ teaching on love of neighbor and expands on it, in large part due to his need to bring together a broader ethnic coalition into his religious entity. Thus, in time Jesus’ message of love allows for love not just of neighbor, but also of one’s enemy. And this has important moral implications.

The idea that all people, regardless of race or nationality, are equal candidates for God’s love (so long as they don’t squander the opportunity!) Is a form of ethnic egalitarianism. And ethnic egalitarianism is probably closer to moral truth than the alternatives (p. 286).

Wright recognizes that Paul’s wasn’t the only version of Christianity available – he notes especially the perspectives of the Ebionites (the original Jews for Jesus) and the Marcionites, but Paul’s expression is the one that survived and gained the most traction, in part because it was best able to provide social integration and moral guidance. Things would change, of course, for Christianity with Constantine’s conversion. Constantine would have been attracted to Christianity’s vision of inter-ethnic harmony, since his empire was by nature multi-ethnic. Wright writes: “Maybe Constantine just knew a good social cement when he saw one” (p. 297).

From Christianity, Wright moves on to Islam, and this maybe the most fascinating and helpful section of the book. With the perspective that ideas of God evolve, he makes the assumption that Muhammad borrowed from and remade the ideas found both in Christianity and Judaism. Indeed, he raises the question of whether Muhammad was originally a Christian – though not of an “orthodox form.” Wright notes the ethnic, linguistic, and cultural connections that Muhammad and Arabs would have had with their Christian and Jewish neighbors. And the Koran hints of these relationships as well. What is intriguing about this section is the promise it holds for bringing peace between Muslims and Christians and Jews. He notes that by and large the Koran holds out the possibilities of such relationships and generally speaks of living in peace and toleration of the People of the Book – a concept that over time seems to stretch to include Persia’s Zoroastrians and others. There isn’t room here to engage all that is involved in this conversation, but there is much to be considered.

Wright’s perspective is formed by his previous writings on “zero-sum” and “non-zero-sum” games. That is, a “zero-sum” game is where if one side wins the other must lose. In a “non-zero-sum” game, both may win. This thread runs through the book, as he explores how religions and ideas about God reflect the changing dynamics of these two ways of existing. The hope is that we can enter a “non-zero-sum” realm, where we are able to live together with our differing understandings of God and reality. This is why the conversation about Islam is so important. In the minds of many we live in a “zero sum” reality where it’s either Islam or the West. The good news is that within Islam itself, along with both Christianity and Judaism, there is a witness to a different way of living together.

The Evolution of God is a rather massive book – 483 pages of text, along with an extended set of end notes. It’s not difficult reading, but it is challenging. It is a book informed by extensive reading – though he admits that he isn’t a linguist or trained in any of the scriptural languages. He deals with a rather wide range of ideas, including salvation, sin, and moral development. He touches on theology, but doesn’t dwell on it. He notes the differences between Christian, Jewish, and Muslim understandings of God, but also notes their points of commonality.

Will this book satisfy the religious traditionalist? Not likely. Nor will his positive words about God and religion sit well with many atheists. Some might be frustrated by the attention given to the Abrahamic religion -- believing that Eastern Religions deserve greater attention -- but what is said of the Abrahamic religions can, to some degree, be translated to others of the great religions. The other reason why he may have focused on this trajectory is that it is here the greatest dangers to human existence lie.

While there will be those who fret about the book, many others, including people of deep faith, will find much here to explore, meditate upon, and discuss. While there are numerous points at which I might disagree, I believe that the conversation begun here can have a valuable impact on how we view and experience life today and in the future. Indeed, if it can stir our moral imaginations, then it will have served its purpose well. And what is the moral imagination?
In short, the moral imagination, like other parts of the human mind, is designed to steer us through the successful playing of games -- to realize the gains of non-zero-sum games when those gains are to be had, and to get the better of the other party in zero-sum games. Indeed, the moral imagination is one of the main drivers of the pattern we've seen throughout the book: the tendency to find tolerance in one's religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum (p. 420).

The goal, of course, is to move to the point where more and more of our relationships are non-zero-sum! So, if you're up for the challenge then this will be a most helpful and intriguing book.


Anonymous said...

I’m about 30% through this. So far, I’m thinking this would be a hilarious screenplay.

Anyway, I’ll comment later after reading the rest, and finish your review- I don’t want to spoil the plot.

By the way, don’t count this out. Everything you see is made of the same stuff. From Wikipedia-

Sir E. B. Tylor used the term "animism" to mean simply "a belief in souls". He did not restrict the term "animism" to religions that attribute souls to non-human entities. With such a definition, virtually all religions can be considered animistic, including Christianity and Islam.

Ever excuse yourself after bumping into a wall?

David Mc

Anonymous said...

You're right about the Evyonim (Hellenized to Ebionites), but in a way that will startle and shock you. If you want to discuss such things take time to learn something about them first. You'll find the most complete compilation of historical documentation about the Pharisee Ribi at www.netzarim.co.il (esp. the History Museum pages)

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