Evolution of God

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Book: Robert Wright. The Evolution of God.


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From a review by Dan Cryer in the Boston Globe:

"Wright assumes from the outset that religions change. And the most trustworthy means of explaining why is to trust “the facts on the ground’’ - that is, the economic-social-political context. In the final analysis, he emerges as an optimistic materialist. For he concludes that change will eventually tilt toward a more benign global religious environment. Now before you can shout “9/11’’ or “jihad,’’ listen to his argument.

The author traces the growth of gods from the animism of hunter-gatherers (where spirits rule over natural phenomena) to the polytheism of chiefdoms and ancient states (where multiple gods govern every aspect of life). These gods are hardly paragons of right living; they are capricious and often cruel. Over millennia, these models give way to a hierarchy of gods, with a powerful sovereign in charge, and, later yet, to monolatry, in which a city-state or nation bows to a single god considered superior to all others.

Most of the book, however, is devoted to the evolution of God concepts within more familiar precincts of monotheism: the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and the Koran. In the archeology and textual criticism of modern scholars, which Wright cites, these scriptures seldom appear in chronological order. Read in the proper sequence, however, they reveal a record of change.

Much like Jack Miles’s “God: A Biography,’’ 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.

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." (http://www.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2009/06/28/8216evolution_of_god8217_makes_case_for_cooperative_monotheism/)