Some thoughts on reading portions of The Evolution of God by Robert Wright (Little Brown & Company 2009).

Wright's book is a tour de force, a “sweeping journey through history” as the inside book cover says. I was only interested in three things, so read selectively:

  1. What does Wright say about Paul and the start of Christianity?

  2. How does Wright describe the coming of Islam onto the world scene?

  3. What is it that God has evolved into?

It turns out these three questions are curiously interrelated.

In relation to Paul, Wright discusses his religion as the “fittest” to survive in the Roman world out of all the Christian sects that were formed early in the history of Christianity. I was interested in how he described Paul's 'enemies' the “judaizers” (a non-Biblical term). Wright suggests they were still around several hundred years later and were known as the Ebionites. Wright describes them on pages 292-293:

As Bart Ehrman noted in his book Lost Christianities, the Ebionites' conception of Jesus was probably closer to Jesus' own view of himself than was the picture that eventually prevailed within Christianity. Jesus was no god,said the Ebionites, just a messiah. And though he, like some past Israelite kings, was a son of God, he'd been born like any other human, to a biologically impregnated woman. (In fact, said the Ebionites, Jesus was God's adopted son, chosen for his exemplary conduct.)  Here the Ebionites were being more faithful to Hebrew scripture than the Christians of today.

Wright mentions Ebionites again on page 362 when suggesting that Muhammed's view of Jesus may have been influenced by the Ebionite view.

Speaking of Islam and Muhammed, Wright says nice things about the Koran, likening it to what could or would have been produced by a single Israelite prophet (the Bible makes an unfair comparison since it is a mish-mash of genres, authors and times/viewpoints). Wright is making a comparison between Biblical and Koranic language and the strange trade-off in both books between language accepting diverse views and threatening the holders of diverse views. He likened Muhammed to Israel's king Josiah as well as to Paul, at different times. On page 391 he discusses the nasty language concerning the treatment of infidels and observes:

This is a long way from the “Love your enemies” passage attributed to Jesus. Then again, as we have seen, Jesus probably never said this anyway. And the person who probably did inject this into Christian scripture—Paul--was a mere proselytizer who couldn't afford to antagonize his movement's powerful enemies. He was, in short, like the Muhammed of the early Medinan years, or the Muhammed of Mecca, the Muhammed who said to “turn away evil by what is better” and to greet antagonists by saying, “Peace.”

Wright then compares Muhammed to Philo who, rightly, saw belligerence against Rome as suicidal and thus emphasized the scriptural admonitions for tolerance and glossed over the Deuteronomic passages telling Israel to slaughter infidels during the reign of king Josiah:

Those verse were associated with King Josiah. Not coincidentally, Josiah's circumstances match the circumstances of Muhammed when Muhammed was producing his most belligerent sayings. Both men were political rulers who wanted to expand their turf. Their moral compasses made the necessary adjustments.

Wright then goes on to suggest that in terms of prescribing bloody brutality, the Deuteronomic passages are unmatched in Muhammed's sayings. Judging by which book was the bloodiest in its exhortations to violence, the Old Testament wins over the Koran. However if one were to judge by the quantity of belligerent passages, the Koran wins.

The point Wright makes out of all this is not that all these books are void of inspiration and are instead just political manifestos. That, he says, is a modern interpretation, and (pages 352-353):

In earlier times, as we've seen again and again, religion and politics were flip sides of the same coin. No doubt Muhammed's special access to God's word gave him mundane authority in the eyes of believers. No doubt the same was true of Jesus and of Moses. But that doesn't mean that any of these men considered their link to the divine less than genuine. Whatever you think about the reality of divine inspiration, human nature permits people to believe they are under its influence.

This is a very nice way of saying what I have been struggling to find words to say. I find some of the scriptures of my former belief, Mormonism, to be extremely self-serving. For instance, the first prophet of Mormondom, in his Section 132 of the book Doctrine & Covenants has God come down on his first wife, the wife of his youth, with threats of destruction if she does not accept the wives God has already given him in addition to her. Wright's words fit here: the prophet probably felt he was actually speaking the will of God in making this dreadful set of threats. These threats were sweetened, of course, both before and after, with promises of great eternal rewards for obedience.

I have learned to despise that “revelation,” but have always felt it to be within the realm of the likely, not just the possible, that the writer of this sacred hurtful nonsense felt he was reflecting the will of his God.

His God? Yes. Not my God.

Wright's book title is The Evolution of God. So what, in Wright's mind, has God evolved into? Wright refuses to answer, but in his “Afterword” he answers the question “By the Way, What Is God?” with a few personal observations (page 444):

In this book I've used the word “god” in two senses. First there are the gods that have populated human history . . . . These gods exist in people's heads and, presumably, nowhere else.

But occasionally I've suggested that there might be a kind of god that is real. This prospect was raised by the manifest existence of a moral order—that is, by the stubborn, if erratic, expansion of humankind's moral imagination over the millennia, and the fact that the ongoing maintenance of social order depends on the further expansion of he moral imagination, on movement toward moral truth. The existence of a moral order, I've said, makes it reasonable to suspect that humankind in some sense has a “higher purpose.” And maybe the source of this higher purpose, the source of the moral order, is something that qualifies for the label “god” in at least some sense of that word.

Wright acknowledges that this is an agnostic point of view.

It takes several pages of arguments back and forth between imagined believers and atheists for Wright to finally come to this question “Is God Love?” on page 456. Now he waxes eloquent:

There are people who have it both ways—who harbor a fairly abstract conception of God, yet get some of the psychological perks of believing in a more personal god. One key to their success is their choice of abstraction. Perhaps the most commonly successful abstraction is love: God is love.

Is it true? Is God love? Like all characterizations of God, this one presumes more insight than I feel in possession of. But there's certainly something to the idea that love is connected to, indeed emanates from, the kind of God whose existence is being surmised here.

The connection comes via love's connection to the moral order of which that God is the source.

In other words, this idea appeal to Wright because love and the widening of love beyond immediate family and associates, widening across boundaries such as creeds, races and nations, is what can bring a new moral order to the world. Wright celebrates the unity of all of humanity and looks forward to this sense of love creating a new world order of mutual respect, in so many words, on page 458, where he finally ties this God-concept back to evolution in a sentence so long it seems as if I am reading German:

It's pretty remarkable: natural selection's invention of love—in some anonymous animal many millions of years ago—was a prerequisite for the moral imagination whose expansion, here and now, could help keep the world on track; a prerequisite for our apprehension of the truth that the planter's salvation depends on: the objective truth of seeing things from the point of view of someone else, and the moral truth of considering someone else's welfare important.

Wright suggests the argument over the existence of God is similar to the argument over the existence of the electron, all we can do in both cases is ascribe properties to both. Wright suggests that in the case of God, truth and love, which are intimately related, may be ascribed as properties (page 459):

You might say that truth and love 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.

That is cute, but thoughtful. All through this afterword I was saying to myself, inaudibly, that this is what Rumi believed, and that, to my surprise, brings Islam back into the picture.

Rumi was asking for tolerance between religions (he, a Muslim, married a Christian woman) and for an acknowledgment that if anyone of any religious persuasion had love in them, he or she was in fact in good standing with the God from whom emanates love in all its various manifestations.

Rumi was 900 years ahead of his time.  If the world feels that Wright is on time that is. Rumi also said something more mystical in asking people to become both the Lover and the Beloved. In earlier times he saw God as the Lover and a Human as the Beloved. Later he saw that since God (Love) is in us, we are potentially both Lover and Beloved, and ought to seek to feel and exercise that divine power in us. The result would be ever expanding tolerance and good neighborliness.

Rumi the Muslim (Sufi) was just a few small steps beyond the agnostic Wright. And not crazy!

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