Historians of God most often gather to bury, rather than praise, their Creator; Karen Armstrong, Pascal Boyer, and Daniel Dennett being recent examples. Robert Wright offers an interesting break in the pattern with The Evolution of God .
Wright, in his own way, is solidly in the materialist camp. In an earlier book he told how, like E.O. Wilson, he abandoned his Southern Baptist roots when he discovered evolution and recognized its power to tell the story of life. But he left God with regret. And today, it seems, “we need a god whose sympathies correspond to the scale of social organization, the global scale.” Wright looks at religion not with one eye shut and the other twitching down the sights of a Civil War“era carbine (signed personally by Colonel Ingersoll) but with eyes open to both the genius and inhumanity of man. His sketch thus rises not only to the dignity of error, but also to significant flashes of insight.
The first part of Wright’s story is familiar enough. Humanity first appears in tribes. Our early gods mirror and justify the limit of our social commitments, mainly to kin. But social evolution, like biological, works an alchemic magic whereby selfishness is transmuted into altruism. Through conquest, tribes form into nations, and nations into empires. The gods justified tribal loyalties, and therefore conquest. But imperial religion slowly evolves a new role as a social glue, allowing amicable relations between tribes that now need to do business in an expanding world.
Gibbon said that in ancient Rome, philosophers saw all religions as equally false, commoners saw them as equally true, and politicians as equally useful. Strident attacks on religion by iconic intellectuals like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are similarly matched today by popular defenses of the the truth and utility of all faiths. (Huston Smith is probably the ablest modern proponent of the commoner’s position.)
The genius of Wright’s theory lies in an evolutionary two-step that allows him to look at religion, like clouds, “from both sides, now.” Thus, on how Marduk, city god of Babylon, became “a kind of grand unified theory of nature”:
For Babylonians bent on ruling Mesopotamia forever, what better theological weapon than to reduce Marduk’s would-be rivals to parts of his anatomy? Or, to put it less cynically: For Babylonians who want to suffuse all of Mesopotamia in multicultural amity and understanding,what better social cement than a single god that encompasses all gods?
The term Wright favors to describe the binding element in that cement is non-zero sum . Marduk makes a “subtle conquest . . . assimilating other gods into his being””allowing his subjects to relate to one another symbiotically as subjects of a cosmopolitan God, without losing the social capital of tribal affiliations.
While not a completely original idea, it seems plausible as far as it goes. A fair chunk of the Chinese classic The Book of Poetry is, for example, dedicated to proving that the Zhou Dynasty Heaven”now identified with the Shang Di , or “God above,” of the previous Shang dynasty”justified, even demanded, conquest of the corrupt losing dynasty, and that his rule and that of the Zhou has no territorial bound: “This King Wen, carefully and with reverence, served God with intelligence, and by that service secured the Great Blessing. Unswerving in his virtue, he received the allegiance of states from all quarters.”
Wright fingers King Josiah as the Hebrew king who elevated Yahweh to the position of Supreme deity. The next step came when Jewish intellectuals, exiled traumatically to Babylon, banned all other gods to explain and compensate for the defeat of Israel, thus inventing monotheism. If God punished us for our idolatrous ways, then brought us home, they thought, it appeared that he “controlled the empire that had conquered the empire than had conquered the Assyrian Empire,” and was the One True God.
My friend Ard Louis, an Oxford physicist who studies protein folding, once compared the origin of life in terms of children’s toys. Find cars and spaceships made out of Legos, he told me, and you’ll be impressed. (And so I will be, having boys who do brilliant things with Legos.) But come into a room and find Legos snapping themselves into complex, coherent shapes, and the wonder is all the greater. Thus evolution itself is (he believes) a subtler but ultimately more impressive expression of God’s creative activity than direct design would be.
Wright extends the logic of theistic evolution to the evolution of theism. Suppose, he asks, the real God is the purpose or intent, the divine logos behind the evolution of the inferior and no longer believable God of orthodox tradition?
Wright is like a gardening enthusiast who explains (with dramatic pauses and frequent repetition) how a walnut seed grows into a mature tree. He describes how a seed opens and sprouts, tap root down and shoot up, breaks ground, and spreads its leaves, with all the excitement of scientific induction. He obviously thinks he is telling you something you don’t know (being, no doubt, a rube from the city). His first job is to undermine naive teleological explanations. Nuts fall by themselves, and sprout with spring rains. Like a squirrel, natural selection may plant genes in us, but for its own pragmatic evolutionary purposes, without envisioning the moral tree that will grow up and put all nations in its ethical shade.
But then, Wright recalls, nuts fall from trees. For those who care to follow the argument (Wright is careful not to overreach here) the existence of a “moral arrow” built into nature may be taken as evidence of some kind of purpose, or even of some kind of God.
The first serious problem with this story is one Wright shares with Armstrong. Did God really evolve? Early in their respective narratives, both mention the curious phenomena of “sky gods,” concepts of a Supreme God quite like the Judeo“Christian God that appear in hunter-gatherer and herding cultures around the world. (And sometimes survives in more advanced civilizations, like China.) They then move on to other matters”telling how God evolved (“more and more scholars [acknowledge] a gradual evolution of a complex Yahweistic religion from a polytheistic past”)”forgetting that a recognizable God in prehistory renders the idea that God evolved through history unnecessary.
Marduk, Wright tells us, was Mesopotamia’s “closest approach yet to a universalist monotheism.” He “had sovereignty over the whole world,” named the four quarters of the world, and created humanity.
But so did the “High God” of many aboriginal tribes. As even so firm a materialist as Emile Durkheim has acknowledged, the Aussie High God was seen as Creator of all, “benefactor of humanity,” and Judge after death. Observers have been offering similar quotes from Africa, the Americas, and parts of Asia for close to a century and a half now; Wright mentions the phenomena himself.
Why do we need modern empires to explain God, if aboriginal nomads reached the same conception just by staring at the stars? And how does Wright know the Hebrew conception of God didn’t fall like a nut from more primitive remembrances?
Problems deepen as Wright moves to the New Testament. Here Wright’s major concern is to argue that the historical Jesus “didn’t emphasize universal love at all,” unanimous early Christian testimony to the contrary. The problem here is Wright’s evolutionary scheme, which requires that universal morality grow up like a tender shoot, and not flower too early. Like a rabbit in the pre-Cambrian, a premature conception of forgiving enemies, for example, would complicate Wright’s evolutionary scheme.
Wright points out that Mark, the earliest gospel, has little to say about loving Gentiles. In fact, Mark’s Jesus obliquely refers to a Gentile woman as a dog. Wright notes that the “Great Commission” postscript at the end of Mark was added after the fact. (Unfortunately, he overlooks verses in chapters 13 and 14 in which Jesus also says that “the gospel must be preached to all nations.”)
Throwing out most or all of the early records to save a theory is, of course, poor historical method. (Though nothing that has not exasperated careful New Testament scholars before!) But Wright later sabotages his own argument by reminding us (when he wants us to know Jesus believed in a resurrection) that Paul is a good source for what Jesus said, too: “Paul’s credentials as a witness to Jesus’ teachings are good, as such credentials go. Paul was alive when Jesus died and was attuned to the doctrines of Jesus’ followers.”
By that criteria, unfortunately, not only Paul, but all Christians who lived within the plausible lifespan of Jesus’ first followers”including the authors of the canonical gospels”were unlikely to be completely mistaken about so fundamental an issue as whether they were to preach to goyim . And by the same criteria, Wright’s second-guessing is late, weak, and contradicted by anything that can be called real evidence.
Wright has read little New Testament scholarship, and what he has read is mostly by scholars like Bart Erhman, Elaine Pagels, and Morton Smith. He even cites the latter’s Jesus the Magician ”failing to recognize that Smith was the real magician, his main legacy being to conjure up the Secret Gospel of Mark out of an imaginary letter from Clement.
I once wrote a book refuting the Jesus Seminar, but here I could almost wish Robert Funk’s merry gang on Wright. Funk was deeply hostile to Christianity. Nevertheless, he noted that the story of the Good Samaritan “passed the coherence test” because it fit the remarkable portrait of Jesus in all four gospels so perfectly:
Jesus steadily privileged those marginalized in his society”the diseased, the infirm, women, children, toll collectors, gentile suppliants, perhaps even Samaritans”precisely because they were regarded as the enemy, the outsider, the victim. The Samaritan as helper was an implausible role in the everyday world of Jesus; that is what makes the Samaritan plausible as a helper in a story told by Jesus.
But in the evolutionary story told by Wright, a Jesus who cares for Gentiles and taught the Sermon on the Mount is not at all plausible. Wright’s Jesus, by contrast, is a “fire-and-brimstone apocalyptic preacher” (and xenophobe) who shares “a lot in common” with Muhammad. And here we come to the point of the exegesis.
To an untutored reader of the Sermon on the Mount, the life of Muhammad as described in standard biographies”attacks on neighboring tribes, enslavement and murder of enemies, forcible relations with a woman whose husband his troops had just killed”is less than inspiring. But Wright can hardly leave Muhammad out of his evolutionary tale, and the story must show progress.
The genius of Wright’s scheme at this point lies in its dialectic.
The temptation may be to play down violent episodes in the prophet’s life, as Armstrong does in her history of Islam, or to ignore them (in John Esposito’s 700-page Oxford History of Islam , they merit a single sentence). Wright attempts though to view Islam with both eyes without blinking”“at one point Muhammad is urging Moslems to kill infidels and at another he is a beacon of religious tolerance””then integrate that dual vision.
Wright recognizes that the more savage Quranic revelations come later, when Muhammad is safely ensconced in Medina. But as Muhammad’s tribe grew, it worked the same dialectic of exclusion, expansion, and inclusion that mark the pains of racial tribes growing into empires. “It was a deft maneuver that Muhammad’s successors pulled off: Declare war on a people because of their religion and then, shortly after the conquest, feel tolerance welling up.” Hadiths, like memory stones, mark stages of the path to an inclusive society. And therein lie resources with which to solve our modern dilemma.
Unlike Marx, Wright sees human beings as free agents, rather than as ciphers to the historical dialectic. Being clever, we pick and choose and interpret our Scriptures according to the needs of the moment. Each of the Abrahamic religions thus bares within it the potential for a humanistic interpretation. The chance for goodwill is an unexpected but inevitable byproduct of expansion, as human interactions become a “non zero-sum game.” (Putting a new spin on Muhammad’s old adage: “the way to paradise is lit by the flash of the sword!”)
We are the world. For secularists like Dawkins and Sam Harris, theistic religions are the dangerous holdouts”Buddhists and Jains are assumed to be on board. But Wright integrates Abrahamic traditions within a fulfillment scheme leading to a humanism that embraces religious and secular worldviews. Sweetening the pot, he adds that this historical dialectic may even be taken as an argument for God. Wright does not seem to recognize it, but he is at this point trodding almost in the footsteps of Clement of Alexandria.
Clement is cited early in Evolution of God . Wright credits him for attacking racism and embracing a “monotheism that has an ethical core and is universalist.” He then faults Clement for assuming the Christian God to be utterly different from the polytheistic swarm from which, Wright believes, Yahweh emerged.
But Clement actually found a more interesting role for Greco-Roman thought in the divine order. “Truth is one,” he insisted. Reminding his readers of Euripides’ racy story of how Dionysius maddened the women of Thebes so they tore their king to bloody pieces, Clement added: “Just as the Bacchantes tore asunder the limbs of Pentheus, so the sects both of barbarian and Hellenic philosophy have done with truth, and each vaunts as the whole truth the portion which has fallen to its lot. But all, in my opinion, are illuminated by the dawn of Light.”
Like Clement, Wright views theology as “preparatory instruction” toward a truer conception of God. Wright’s goal is to do to theology what Clement did to Greek philosophy: “ The Stromata will contain the truth mixed up in the dogmas of philosophy, or rather covered over and hidden, as the edible part of the nut in the shell.”
Wright and Clement differ about which part of the nut is edible, of course. But one hopes that reading Wright, Clement might again be able to affirm: “But all are illuminated by the dawn of life.”
There are a lot of problems with this book, many deriving from the fact that when it comes to the Christian tradition, Wright often does not know what he is talking about. But truth is one. And surely Wright is onto something in supposing that the history of religion itself reveals the hand of God. It would have been better if he had considered earlier Christian sketches of God’s universal handiwork, from Clement himself, Matteo Ricci, Chesterton’s immortal Everlasting Man , or Rodney Stark’s fascinating recent Discovery of God . Still, Wright usefully challenges believers to tell the “old, old story” of Jesus, and his love, in a broader context”sketching a tree with roots in every tradition, and with leaves and fruit for the healing of all nations.
David Marshall is author of Jesus and the Religions of Man and The Truth Behind the New Atheism.