Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Evolution of God

The New York Times Book Review featured Robert Wright's newly released book, The Evolution of God. Newsweek's Lisa Miller and Andrew Sullivan in TimesOnline have written other reviews of this book and excerpts of each chapter are found on the website,

'God has mellowed,' begins NYT reviewer, Paul Bloom. He continues, ' The God that most Americans worship occasionally gets upset about abortion and gay marriage, but he is a softy compared with the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible. That was a warrior God, savagely tribal, deeply insecure about his status and willing to commit mass murder to show off his powers. But at least Yahweh had strong moral views, occasionally enlightened ones, about how the Israelites should behave. His hunter-gatherer ancestors, by contrast, were doofus gods. Morally clueless, they were often yelled at by their people and tended toward quirky obsessions. One thunder god would get mad if people combed their hair during a storm or watched dogs mate.'

Bloom goes on, '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.'

'To annoy almost everyone.' Excellent! People need to be annoyed, but not preached to. I'm thinking of presenting the topic of this book, God has evolved, to the next session of our book club. Rather than pick a book, as we have always done, at the next meeting we are to present a topic upon which to chew and perhaps find a collateral book to accompany the topic. Apparently this book is high on the list.

Surely author Robert Wright has 'annoyed' the funny fundamentalists with his title which includes the ever-volatile word, evolution. Further, and equally annoying, he suggests that the man's concept of 'god' ought to be an ever-changing process. Judas Priest!

The older non-fundamentalist Christians and Jews might wrinkle their noses at this second suggestion- that their 'god' is in flux- and find that idea difficult to grasp. Long ago their idea of who 'god' is and what his characteristics are were solidly cemented in their mind. I feel sorry for these people who have built up a fortress of belief to surrounding themselves and do not wish to entertain anything new or different. I especially think of the old ladies at daily Mass who rattle their rosary beads during the service; who are we to insist that they take a fresh look at the concept of God? If they are happy with all the accoutrement surrounding their religiosity, let them be.

Rather, it would be a worthy task to enlighten the young and those who are open to new ideas as well as the skeptic who long ago walked out of church in disgust and distrust.

Paul Bloom continues, '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.'

'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.'

I like that last line, ' is not God who evolves. It is us-God just comes along for the ride.' This is where the fundamentalist gets mired in the past and whose feet become cemented. Their 'god' is the Jewish god of 1000 BCE. He has little or no relevance to the 21st Century. We humans have changed over those three millenia and, as the author suggests, are much more interrelated and interdependent than that provincial, war-like Middle Eastern tribe. The god of the Israelites was a parochial, insular god who 'served' the people of that time and that minuscule spot on this immense planet. To conceptualise that this god, in our time, and in this place, has any relevance to 21st century Americans is at best dim and at worst dangerous- dangerous because it puts the trivial land of Israel as the epicenter of this 21st century world. And we all know what blood and treasure has been spent with that concept.

Bloom goes on, '“When people see themselves in zero-sum relationship with other people — see their fortunes as inversely correlated with the fortunes of other people, see the dynamic as win-lose — they tend to find a scriptural basis for intolerance or belligerence.” The recipe for salvation, then, is to arrange the world so that its people find themselves (and think of themselves as) interconnected: “When they see the relationship as non-zero-sum — see their fortunes as positively correlated, see the potential for a win-win outcome — they’re more likely to find the tolerant and understanding side of their scriptures.” Change the world, and you change the God.'

The John Lennon hymn, 'Imagine' comes to mind, especially when he imagined, 'And no religion too.' and 'the world will live as one.' Wright says that the next step in this evolution of god [following the advice of John Lennon] is for practitioners of Abrahamic faiths to give up their claim to distinctiveness, and then renounce the specialness of monotheism altogether.

Whoa! Can you imagine that? Can you envision a people giving up the 'my god is better than your god' scenario? They'll be lots of kicking and screaming and more lethal forms of resistance to that. Lots of excommunication and expulsions ahead [as if that really matters any longer].

The review ends with this statement: 'Also, it would be a terribly minimalist God. Wright himself describes it as “somewhere between illusion and imperfect conception.” It won’t answer your prayers, give you advice or smite your enemies. So even if it did exist, we would be left with another good news/bad news situation. The good news is that there would be a divine being. The bad news is that it’s not the one that anyone is looking for.'

That's really bad news especially for those launch-pad christians awaiting rapture. There they stand, looking upward, awaiting the UFO that will carry them to Paradise, when, in fact, paradise is under their feet.

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