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 Bloggingheads.tv, 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.