Secular Right | Reality & Reason



The Evolution of God

I have been reading in Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. Lucidly written and cockily iconoclastic, it contains many mischievous pleasures. Wright rehearses the patent inconsistencies among the four gospels regarding the circumstances of Jesus’ birth (he is obviously not the first to do so); he portrays the Jesus of universal love as a creation of the PR wizard Paul and the later gospel writers, all of whom were eager to make sense of Old Testament prophecies and to market a new religious product. Mark’s gospel, by contrast, shows Jesus to be still in the throes of an Israel-centric, particularistic moral framework, and it is Mark, Wright argues, who portrays Jesus most accurately by virtue of having been closest in time to Jesus.

(Wright’s reading of the relative truth value of the four gospels is not uncontested. I asked Ross Douthat about Wright’s interpretation of Mark after a Templeton Foundation discussion; Douthat chortled. The so-called Jesus Seminar has shown just the opposite, Douthat said; it is the appealing, loving things attributed to Jesus, not the vengeful, unappealing ones, that are the most accurate. No surprise there.)

Wright presents religious morality as an epiphenomenon, not a driver, of what he calls “facts on the ground.” Religions and their idea of God have evolved towards tolerance and inclusion, Wright argues, as a result of societies’ growing cosmopolitanism. When people see themselves in beneficial, non-zero-sum relations with the foreign Other, largely as a result of trade, their religions will follow suit and become more universalistic and humane.

There are aspects of Wright’s book which I don’t understand. It seems to me that he might oversell the degree to which Christianity embraced tolerance through its own internal evolution, rather than having tolerance thrust upon it by forces outside of itself. Non-conforming believers suffered massacre and exile periodically through European history; Dissenters in late 17th century and early 18th century England could find themselves locked up in the pillory. New sects sprang up in America for the sole purpose of avoiding association with errant co-religionists. Wright says nothing about the long and recent history of Christian intolerance. I may simply be reading Wright too literally. But maybe his argument here is not paying enough attention to “facts on the ground.”

I am most puzzled, however, by his hypothesis that the “growth of ‘God’ signifies the existence of God” (286). (Wright presents this idea as a possibility, not a certainty.) Since we are basically making things up as we go along when it comes to positing the nature and habits of God, I could equally well argue that a God would be most likely to make the moral truth manifest from day one, rather than waiting around through thousands of years of false images of him and false understandings of his law, including through imperfect Christianity, to see his truth revealed.

And I also don’t quite know what to make of Wright’s statement that perhaps after all “God is love” (456). Wright is coy about whether he himself thinks that God is love:

You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn’t have to be crazy to say it (459).

Wright buttresses his argument that God may be love by arguing that love allows us closer apprehension of the truth, and since God is truth, God is also love. A parent will understand that his toddler is shrieking in the grocery store line because the child has missed his nap, not because the child is inherently a brat, Wright says. I think Wright overestimates the clarifying properties of love (though he himself acknowledges its capacity to delude). Mstislav Rostropovich ruined an otherwise superb recording of Prokofiev’s War and Peace by casting his wife as Natasha. Now perhaps Rostropovich was simply browbeaten into the decision, but he could well have believed that his beloved Galina Vishnevskaya still sounded youthful and attractive at that date in her career, rather than excruciatingly shrill and sharp.

But even if love were the most direct route to truth, the idea that love as we know it—the passionate embrace of and appreciation for another human being—has anything to do with the massive, incomprehensible explosions of energy and mass that thunder throughout the cold, dark universe billions of light years away from our reckoning strikes me as a bit fantastical and anthropomorphic. I certainly cannot explain how we got here, but I’d rather wait a thousand years to see if science can push back a few more layers of our ignorance before positing what seems to me a somewhat metaphorical explanation for our place in the universe.

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  • Jeff Peterson · August 9, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    That’s a curious interpretation of Mark, which begins with an allusion to Isaiah’s vision of an idyllic kingdom of God extended from Jerusalem over all the nations (1:3), and in his climactic sermon Jesus predicts that ultimately “the gospel must be proclaimed to all the nations” (13:9). As for the centrality of love to Jesus’ message, Mark reports that Jesus taught that love of God and love of neighbor as oneself are the fundamental obligations of Israel under the law (12:28–34) and are worth “more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (12:34), i.e., the worship of God in the Jewish temple. It’s also worth noting that in Greek the “love” Jesus enjoins isn’t the “eros” of “passionate embrace” but the “agape” that wills the good of others even as we will our own.

  • Patrick Joubert Conlon · August 9, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Heather, you’re such a good writer and I would never argue with you but I do wonder if you’ve ever seen – not the Big Bang – but the Big belly Laugh.

  • Ethan · August 10, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Heather, have you seen Coyne’s review of Wright in the latest New Republic? I thought it was devastating but I was especially staggered by the crucial bloomer re the dating of Paul’s letters and the gospels. I can’t imagine what my NT professor at UMich would have said if I’d turned in a paper that relied on all the gospels pre-dating Paul’s letters.

  • Luke Lea · August 10, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    Much more important is the role that the Hebraic conception of God played in Western history — for example, in the origins of our ideas about political freedom, social justice, and human equality — than I am in questions of whether or not such a God exists, let alone abstruse issues of dogma and theology which were really about ecclesiastical politics.

  • Luke Lea · August 10, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Edited for grammar:

    Much more important is the role that the Hebraic conception of God played in Western history — for example, in the origins of our ideas about political freedom, social justice, and human equality — than questions of whether or not such a God exists, let alone abstruse issues of dogma and theology which were really about ecclesiastical politics.

  • Polichinello · August 10, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    I thought it was devastating but I was especially staggered by the crucial bloomer re the dating of Paul’s letters and the gospels.

    Does he date the gospels as a whole before Paul, or just the core from which the gospels were complied? You can make an argument for that. The story of the Syro-Phonecian woman, for example, would not be something Paul would welcome, but it was so well established that Mark and Matthew felt compelled to include it (Luke and John…not so much).

  • Ethan · August 10, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    According to Coyne, Wright’s argument is that the gospels reveal a progressively more ethical view, from Mark to John, culminating in Paul’s universalist message. Q wouldn’t get Wright out of that pickle. Also Coyne is right (well, assuming that he gives Wright’s argument fairly) that Wright is mistaking the development of Christology for ethical development.

  • Robert Wright · August 10, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Those of you have read Coyne’s review of my book should also read my reply to Coyne:
    You’ll see that Coyne very significantly misrepresents my arguments.


  • Ethan · August 10, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    @Robert Wright
    Thanks; this is the hazard of starting a new subscription to a magazine; at least for me, it usually takes a few issues to get a feel for who is fair and who isn’t. Anyway I should have looked for a response before repeating the review’s points so I apologize. Particularly since I see from your excerpts that your statements clearly make use of the standard dating for the NT.

    I’m curious though, if Paul wrote all his letters decades before the gospels, and developed universalism from “the interplay between Paul’s driving ambitions and their social environment,” how is it that universalism has to re-develop in the gospels from 20 to 50 years later? If it’s discussed in an unexcerpted passage then a page number would be a fair answer.

  • Bob Sykes · August 11, 2009 at 4:34 am

    First, Paul is plainly earlier than any of the Gospels, including Mark, so his views of Jesus are authoritative. Also, Mark, Luke and Matthew are full of historical and geographical errors. John is authoritative in these matters.

    The other point is that both Judaism and Christianity are thoroughly permeated by Greek philosophy. By the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jews had been living in a Greek-dominated culture for almost 300 years, and had absorbed much of that culture. In particular, the not all-powerful, not all-knowing, not all-present, not benevolent God of the old testament was replaced by the Godhead of the Greek philosphers.

  • Polichinello · August 11, 2009 at 5:32 am

    Well, jeez, now it’s tougher to badmouth the guy since he’s here. 🙂

    Seriously, Mr. Wright, I enjoy you and Mr. Kaus’ give and take on bloggingheads.

  • Robert Wright · August 11, 2009 at 5:39 am

    Paul’s letters weren’t written long before Mark was written, so my guess would be that the author of Mark for some reason largely escaped Pauline influence (or intentionally rejected it), whereas later Gospel authors didn’t. But, btw, Coyne’s assertion that I posit some sort of linear moral progression from Mark through Matthew-Luke to John is another of his highly misleading claims.

  • John Farrell · August 11, 2009 at 11:56 am

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that although we can date the composition of Paul’s letters prior to the composition of 3 of the Gospels, it doesn’t mean they were circulating before the Gospels. EP Sanders, for example, writes (either in Jesus in Judaism or his book on Paul) that Paul’s letters were not circulated by his disciples until around 90 AD. That’s well after the synoptics and possibly even John were in circulation.

    Maurice Casey has looked at the Aramaic sources of Mark and concludes it was written no later than 40CE. I think he’s also more inclined to agree with Dr. Wright that Mark is closer to Jesus’ original Jewish outlook than the later synoptics.

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  • Jeff Peterson · August 14, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    @Robert Wright
    Duke professor Joel Marcus has an excellent article documenting the extent of continuity between Paul and Mark: “Mark–Interpreter of Paul,” New Testament Studies 46 (2000): 473-487.



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