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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