In his brilliant new book, “The Evolution of God,” Robert Wright tells the story of how God grew up. He starts with the deities of hunter-gatherer tribes, moves to those of chiefdoms and nations, then on to the polytheism of the early Israelites and the monotheism that followed, and then to the New Testament and the Koran, before finishing off with the modern multinational Gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Wright’s tone is reasoned and careful, even hesitant, throughout, and it is nice to read about issues like the morality of Christ and the meaning of jihad without getting the feeling that you are being shouted at. His views, though, are provocative and controversial. There is something here to annoy almost everyone.But here is the key bit about the evolving concept of God tied to our own changes over time:
Wright makes it clear that he is tracking people’s conception of the divine, not the divine itself. He describes this as “a good news/bad news joke for traditionalist Christians, Muslims and Jews.” The bad news is that your God was born imperfect. The good news is that he doesn’t really exist.Read the full NYT review here.
Wright also denies the specialness of any faith. In his view, there is continuous positive change over time — religious history has a moral direction — but no movement of moral revelation associated with the emergence of Moses, Jesus or Mohammed. Similarly, he argues that it is a waste of time to search for the essence of any of these monotheistic religions — it’s silly, for instance, to ask whether Islam is a “religion of peace.” Like a judge who believes in a living constitution, Wright believes that what matters is the choices that the people make, how the texts are interpreted. Cultural sensibilities shift according to changes in human dynamics, and these shape the God that people worship. For Wright, it is not God who evolves. It is us — God just comes along for the ride.
And here is a bit from the Boston Globe review that talks about the evolution of the three monotheistic religions:
Wright’s narrative shows a “Yahweh’’ alternatively compassionate or vengeful, mercurial or wise. The God of the Hebrews takes a while to differentiate from the El of the Canaanites and the Baal of the Phoenicians. In doing so, his story gradually sheds remnants of polytheism; the god Pestilence, for instance, becomes mere pestilence. Under Persian influence, Abrahamic monotheism eventually shifts “from a nationalistic and exclusive theology’’ to “a more international and inclusive one.’’
In short, the Hebrew God shakes off his adolescent belligerence and assumes a kinder, gentler persona. While regarding the Jews as his favorite, this God presides benevolently over all the world’s people.
Wright charts a similar evolution in the chapters grouped under the title “The Invention of Christianity.’’ Mark, the earliest Gospel, is surprisingly devoid of the New Testament’s supposed hallmark, love. There are no beatitudes, no turning of the other cheek, no “love your enemy.’’ The neighbor you are obliged to love is defined narrowly, most likely one of your fellow followers of Jesus. Not until Matthew and Luke is love enlarged; the Good Samaritan does not appear until the last of the Gospels, Luke.
It was under St. Paul’s charismatic leadership that the fledgling Jesus movement was transformed into a vehicle of interethnic brotherly love. Wright’s description of Paul as an entrepreneur brilliant at expanding his Jesus “brand’’ throughout the polyglot Roman Empire may put off some Christians, but it provides a convincing account of why early Christianity was able to succeed among a Babel of competing deities.
As for the Koran, Wright’s task is admittedly harder. The young preacher Muhammed, reaching out to Jews and Christians, comes off as far more likable than the mature politician-warlord who rids Medina of Jews - some of them by hacking off their heads. Wright has to balance all the Koran’s injunctions to “kill the infidels’’ with its counsel of “to you your religion; to me my religion.’’
Can we all live together in peace? Over history’s long haul, Wright believes we can. In the meantime, believers need to feel themselves not in a zero-sum game but a win-win situation. That’s when scriptural bases for tolerance trump those counseling belligerence. Westerners fearful of radical Islam should therefore do all they can to encourage Muslim moderates, and the reverse.
Read the Boston Globe review here.