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Kingdom of Priests

Robert Wright’s Evolution of God

It’s hard for a religious believer not to appreciate, at least in part, the spirit in which Robert Wright presents his new book The Evolution of God. On one hand, he regards the history of religion as the history of an illusion. On the other hand, he argues that the evolution of that illusion represents humanity’s groping toward a truth about the universe that may include the existence of a force operating in human lives, a force that it may even be fair to call God.
He writes admittedly as a materialist — for whom the most basic postulate holds that reality can be explained in purely material terms. He sees an “evolution” in the Bible where relatively primitive even polytheistic concepts are gradually replaced by more enlightened ones. His case for religion, such as it is, is about as compelling as you can expect, given the postulation of materialism.
I like the person I see in Wright’s writing. Other materialists, on the basis of their own faith in such an arbitrarily constricted picture of the world, leap to demand the dismantling of religion, the mockery of religion’s defenders, and their exclusion from public office. We have the example of bestselling atheist author Sam Harris attacking poor old Francis Collins, Obama’s pick for the National Institutes of Health, on the New York Times op-ed page. Why? Because Collins is an enthusiastic Evangelical Christian. And we have Jerry Coyne in the New Republic belittling Wright himself as peddling “creationism for liberals.” Wright must find such insults unsurprising. 
In his Afterword, he notes that following the Islam-inspired attacks of 9/11, faith as a whole acquired a foul odor. Many who previously would have been content to keep quiet about their atheism chose to go on the offensive. Today voicing even the mildly religion-friendly view that Wright does would invite mockery at, “say, an Ivy League faculty gathering unless you want people to look at you as if you’d just started speaking in tongues.”
Luckily, Wright is not a professional academic but a scholarly journalist. He has also taught at Penn and Princeton, so he knows that terrain. What I like about him, apart from the fact that he writes wonderfully readable yet learned prose, is his generosity to people of faith. I’m not being ironic. He writes that he finds it “nice” (and I think there he is being ironic) that some people can lead morally exemplary lives without God. Yet he also finds this surprising: “the natural human condition is to ground your moral life in the existence of other beings, and the more ubiquitous the beings, the firmer the ground.” It’s for that reason that he wants to find, again given his materialist premise, the most compelling case for faith that he can.


That case takes the form of a wryly told history of religion beginning with its presumed primitive origins, and has as its centerpiece the first century Jewish theologian Philo. I heartily endorse rediscovering neglected theologians of the past, dusting them off, and positioning them as vital prophets for our time. David Goldman at First Things, another writer I admire, has been doing this with Franz Rosenzweig. I’ve been trying to do the same thing here with Samson Raphael Hirsch.
Philo makes an interesting choice. He was long held at arm’s length in the Jewish world (NB: Wright is not Jewish), on the grounds that his theology inspired much of early Christian thinking about God and His Logos. Yet there’s been a move lately in some Orthodox circles to reclaim him as an authentically Jewish thinker.
Wright focuses on two points about Philo. First, his rereading of a verse in Exodus, ?”You shall not revile God,” in pluralist terms: You should refrain from reviling even the gods of others. (The Hebrew word, elokim, is ambiguous.) For the Torah “muzzles and restrains its own disciples, not permitting them to revile these [gods] with a loose tongue, for it believes that well-spoken praise is better.” 
Wright feels that Philo is setting an example for us not only of tolerance but of how the meaning of the Scriptural text evolves and, with it, God: “when prevailing interpretations of a god change, the very character of the god changes.” Rethinking the Bible in light of the need he perceived to encourage friendly relationships with his Alexandrian Greek-speaking neighbors, Philo exemplifies and justifies a trend in religious thinking to a certain generous, open-spirited wisdom. That wisdom amounts to a greater appreciation that our own interests are best served by seeing human interactions as a non-zero sum game, where your gain is also an opportunity for my own advancement, to be celebrated rather than resented. 
The second point about Philo is related. In the directionality of history toward “non-zero-sumness” (the phrase is awkward, but Wright can’t think of a better one and I can’t either), Wright wants to see the possibility of an “initial design” in the world “that would lead human beings toward wisdom.” Of course he feels compelled to disavow any dangerous association of such an “initial design” with an “intelligent design.” Instead Wright links it with Philo’s teaching about a divine Logos, identifiable with God’s wisdom, that unfolds in history and educates human beings.
I’m not doing justice to a long, subtle, and ambivalent book. A frustrating one, too. You keep wanting to shake Wright out of his assumption that materialist science has things all sewn up. In fact, the more science reveals — about the genome or the brain, for example — the clearer it becomes that the ultimate reality is spiritual, not material. Wright’s job lately has been as editor-in-chief of, where brainy journalists and academics get to debate erudite issues at luxurious length in split-screen format on the Web. How I would love to see Robert Wright discuss the scientific merits of materialism for an hour with Stephen Meyer, whose Signature in the Cell represents a frontal assault on the materialist prejudice. Perhaps he’ll read this and consider the idea.
At the same time, for all that The Evolution of God will not satisfy a traditional believer, it’s startling to see how much in the way of traditional belief Wright was able to arrive at without accepting the authority of any faith.
He assumes that there is something radical and modern in Philo’s reading Scripture in light of concerns that were contemporary in his time. But Jews have been doing that for millennia. In Deuteronomy, Moses emphasized that God made the covenant with every generation — partly, on that generation’s own terms. A medieval midrash, Yalkut Shimoni, envisions God as appearing to the people as “a picture which is visible from all angles. A thousand people may gaze on it and it gazes on all of them…When [God] spoke, every individual Israelite maintained: To me the word spoke!'”
A modern scholar, Nehama Leibowitz, showed how “Each generation must view the Torah as personally addressed to it and directly applicable to the contemporary situation.” While Torah laws remain the same, insights gained from the text unfold — one might say, evolve — as the situation changes. She gives examples of how rabbinic interpreters found such new meanings in the context of historical situations like the Inquisition and the challenge of secular Enlightenment.
The directionality of history, guided by God’s wisdom in a process whereby human beings are led through stages of increasing illumination, is an idea as old as the Bible. The prophet Zechariah describes the culmination point: “Then the Lord shall be King over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be One and His name One.” 
The Logos is only Philo’s Hellenized formulation of another Biblical idea. The idea originated in the book of Proverbs, where according to traditional understanding, divine wisdom is equated with the Torah — not the five books of Moses per se but the stream of teaching and illumination crystallized with special intensity in those books.
Wright’s evolutionary story is one of rediscovery — rediscovering ancient truths and reformulating them in secular terms. In his view, people grow and, thereby, so does God. The other possibility is that God was always there, the same and unchanging, represented enigmatically in the Bible, waiting always to be rediscovered by each generation and each person.
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Glen Davidson

posted July 29, 2009 at 4:09 pm

In fact, the more science reveals — about the genome or the brain, for example — the clearer it becomes that the ultimate reality is spiritual, not material.

What does this even mean?

Albert Einstein
There are two ways to live your life – one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.

But that doesn’t change the fact that he accepted the evidence of science, and had actual standards for supporting statements. Viz.

I cannot then believe in this concept of an anthropomorphic God who has the powers of interfering with these natural laws. As I said before, the most beautiful and most profound religious emotion that we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. And this mysticality is the power of all true science. If there is any such concept as a God, it is a subtle spirit, not an image of a man that so many have fixed in their minds. – Albert Einstein, in conversation with Gustav Bucky
To assume the existence of an unperceivable being … does not facilitate understanding the orderliness we find in the perceivable world. – Albert Einstein, responding to an Iowa student who asked, “What is God?” July 1953; Einstein Archive 59-085

There is no obvious difference between “material” and “spiritual,” as one gets from German philosophers claims like those of Husserl, that science is a product of spirit (no, not what religion talks about, Husserl’s referring to a “phenomenological spirit”):

The spirit, and indeed only the spirit, exists in itself and for itself, is self-sufficient; and in its self-sufficiencey, and only in this way, can be treated truly rationally, truly and from the ground up scientifically. As for nature, however, in its natural-scientific truth, it is only apparently self-sufficient, and can only apparently be brought by itself to rational knowledge in the natural sciences. For true nature in the sense of natural science is a product of the spirit that investigates nature and thus presupposes the science of the spirit.
This is from his The crisis of european sciences and transcendental phenomenology, but quoted from Richard Kearney & Mara Rainwater, p. 12 of The Continental philosophy reader, found on Google books

Of course to many the “spiritual” and the “material” are not fundamentally opposed, but David belongs to the modernist desacralized view of “spirituality,” hence will sacrifice the rational and empirical for a debased spirituality.
Glen Davidson

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Gabriel Hanna

posted July 29, 2009 at 8:20 pm

Why can’t “spirituality” be an emergent property of the material world?
For example, the concept of temperature is only meaningful when talking about a thermodynamic system. You can’t apply the concept to one atom. You cannot examine any of the atom’s properties and discover its temperature. Yet temperature is real. It just makes no sense on the level of single atom.
Spirituality may be an emergent property of complicated nervous systems in similar way. You’ll never find the soul or the mind, by dissecting a brain, any more than you would find a car’s fuel efficiency by taking apart its injector system. One what grounds can David rule it out? Well, he doesn’t like it and doesn’t understand it. He’ll talk about the self-evident impossibility of “blind churning forces” being responsible for anything, and close his mind.

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posted July 29, 2009 at 8:36 pm

I read Wright’s lengthy article in the Atlantic a few months back, in which he made a shorter version of the book’s argument, as well as some interviews with him. I don’t know–David makes some interesting points about him, but as a believer I find him more irritating than David did.
First, he does have a much more positive view of religion than Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, but since he says in effect that religious people are deluded, but deluded in a way that makes them nicer, I’m not sure that it’s not damning with faint praise. In some ways I’d rather have a polite atheist who is upfront about saying that religion is a delusion (from his perspective) without having to argue that it’s a nice one, or even a militant atheist, who at least says what he thinks outright.
Secondly, while Wright’s non-zero-sum arguments are interesting, he seems to make an argument for a force of progress in human history that is sort of like God, but not. To me, this is fudging it. If you’re a metaphysical materialist, there’s just no way to get a teleology. On the brute empirical level, it’s debatable that human society is getting “better” (even defining that is a can of worms). On a metaphysical level, I don’t really see how some nebulous non-zero-sum societal force of directionality is any kind of improvement on God (I’d say it’s a step down). God may be no more provable, but at least a theist doesn’t claim that material forces are an adequate explanation.
Finally, although as a believer in God I do think that He works in the world and does direct it towards His ultimate purposes, I think we as humans are better off the less we consider this. The ones who think God’s direction and guidance are clear are the ones setting dates for the end of the world, the ones flying into skyscrapers, the ones who become false messiahs, and so on. I’m not putting Wright in this category, of course, but I think he’s a little too sure of directionality. I tend to be leery of people who say things are getting much, much better or much, much worse.
Having said all of which, this is an interesting post and the stuff on Philo is interesting. I was aware of him, of course, but not that familiar with his doctrine. I’ll have to check him out–he looks fascinating.

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Larry Lennhoff

posted July 31, 2009 at 10:58 am

I believe the phrase you and Wright are looking for is ‘positive sum game’. Game theory speaks of 3 types of games
Zero sum: Any gain for one party is necessarily a loss for others (most board games)
Negative sum: It is possible for all parties in the game to lose, and thus the total ‘value’ of the game to shrink. War is an excellent example – historically it is possible to have a war where both sides are worse off than if the war was never begun. WWI comes to mind as an example.
Positive sum: A move may benefit all parties in the game. Trade is a good example – if I have more food than I can eat but not enough clothes and you have more clothes than you can wear but not enough food, if we trade food for clothes both of us will be better off.
Another way to look at this is in terms of a resource pie:
Zero sum: the size of the pie is fixed.
Negative sum: the size of the pie may shrink.
Positive sum: the size of the pie may grow.

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Your Name

posted July 31, 2009 at 2:17 pm

July 31, 2009
Cocerning Robert Wright’s book about theology, I have just the opposite point of view from reading the Bible from cover to cover 5 times. I spoke with a rabbi in Pensacola, about some moral issues
in Pensacola, Florida and the lack of tolerance I listened to at a Baptist Church preacher in Pensacola, when I sat down to ask him questions about theology.
I recently read the book by rabbi Harld Kushner, “To Life” it is the best book I have read other than Anne Frank, diary of a young girl, and the Bible itself. Although I have not decided if I will convert to the Jewish faith, I actually agree 100% with everything rabbi Harold Kushner wrote,in his book “To Life” I personally believe that God loves every human being on earth, and it is my purpose as a human being to serve God here on earth by keeping the 10 commandments, and doing the best I can to help my fellow human beings in any way I can, although I am poor, I find happiness by simply trying to be kind to evryone I meet, and as a nurse, it makes me happy inside just to know that in some small way I have helped someone who is sick feel better, by following the MD ordors for the patient, using my nursing knowledge and skills to ease someone’s suffering. I know this might seem corny, but it is actually how I feel. Although what I say or do, as one individual, one human being means nothing at all, in my own insignificant way I try to be kind to everyone I meet. However, Hatred or intolerance of any ones religion is wrong. Afterall, God created the whole universe, and God gave mankind the gift of feel will , so what right do I or any other human being have the right to ridicle, or make fun of some one else’s sincere belief system, as long as it does not involve hatred toward any other human being. God is love, not hatred. And although everyone living in this world depends on food, clothing , shelter to me life would seem pointless if all you do is run after material gain with no thought to helping your fellow human beings. Sincerely, Rita Manley RN

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posted August 3, 2009 at 12:49 am

If anybody is interested, My review, from a Baha’i’s point of view, is here:

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posted October 2, 2009 at 2:43 am

I recently read the book by rabbi Harld Kushner, “To Life” it is the best book I have read other than Anne Frank, diary of a young girl, and the Bible itself. Although I have not decided if I will convert to the Jewish faith.

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