Friday, December 31, 2010

The Evolution of God, by Robin Wright

The Evolution of God by Robin Wright (Little, Brown and Company, 2009) considers how religions developed in the western world. Its main focus is Abrahamic religions, those that claim the Old Testament figure Abraham in some sense as a founding ancestral figure. This means Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Wright suggests how the idea of a god or gods developed over thousands of years as humans evolved culturally. He marks the emergence of tribes and nation-states as the starting point for the modern religions we know today.

Wright suggests that the concept of God—Yahweh, Jehovah, the Lord, Allah—developed in response to the social, cultural, and political environment in the Middle East. Three thousand years ago the Middle East consisted of tribes and states that believed in an array of gods. They were polytheists. Some gods they believed were more powerful than others. Some groups prayed to their own deities, but also acknowledged the existence of other gods.

Gradually, by the first millennium BCE, for the Hebrews the Old Testament god Yahweh emerged not only as the most powerful god but as the only god. They at first conceived of him as their own god, but over time they came to view him as the god of everyone, as a universal god. Wright discusses how the Old Testament God became the Christian God and, later, the Islamic deity, Allah. (Some members of these faiths refuse to believe that their god is also the god of other faiths). Linguistically, the words for “god” in the Jewish and Islamic faiths are closely related.

A basic thesis in this book is that the emergence of a monotheistic God was closely related to the development of the concept of nationhood, of national identity.

By arguing that the Abrahamic concept of a single deity emerged from social and political circumstances, Wright presents God as a social construct. He doesn’t insist on God’s existence or nonexistence, but it’s clear, both from his approach to this subject and to his comments in the text, that he is at best a skeptic. But he does not argue for skepticism or atheism. He merely presents his theories, and those of religion scholars, about how the concept of a monotheistic god emerged in western culture. For believers, this process could be described as the way in which God chose to reveal himself. For nonbelievers, it is a matter of cultural evolution.

I was particularly interested in his description of the evolution of Jesus as a religious figure. Wright argues that the earliest statements that can be attributed to Jesus are ones indicating that he thought of himself as a political and even military leader, someone who might lead the Jewish people in a revolution against their oppressors. When Jesus was crucified, no revolution or revolt had occurred, and the followers of Jesus were left with a problem: how to characterize a messiah who did not bring about the long-prophesied revolt. Gradually, especially in the books of the New Testament that were written long after Jesus’ death, his nature came to be associated with miracles, with divinity, and finally with resurrection. The political, earthly messiah becomes a divine messiah.  Wright regards the apostle Paul as a brilliant manager who in his epistles sought to solidify the growing Christian faith and church and in the process laid down many of the basic tenets of Christianity.

Wright sees evidence of moral progress for humanity in how the Abrahamic faiths have evolved towards inclusiveness and tolerance. This progress he suggests might be seen as evidence of a divine presence or force, but this would be a much different deity, a non-anthropomorphic deity, from the one at the center of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Even for a nonbeliever, Wright’s presentation of the Abrahamic faiths as the product of environmental and cultural and political forces offers a challenging and difficult approach to the idea of religion.

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