“The Evolution of God” — a purpose-driven history?
U.S. author Robert Wright traces the history of God and suggests that it might all point to the unfolding of something divine, though perhaps not in the sense that most people of faith would envision.
In his just published “The Evolution of God,” Wright takes his readers on a thought-provoking journey through the spiritual beliefs of our hunter-gatherer ancestors to the development of the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. You can see my interview with Wright here.
Wright’s engaging book covers a lot of ground and it certainly raises many questions that may be of interest to readers of this blog. I’m just going to throw a few of them out here — trust me, there could be many, many more.
1. RELIGION AND SCIENCE:
Has religion in the past given rise to science? The Polynesians that Captain James Cook encountered in the 18th century tried to predict the weather by looking at the night sky — and often succeeded. They believed this was divinely inspired but as Wright notes:
“The apparent explanation is that both the night sky and the prevailing winds change seasonally. So there was indeed a correlation between stars and weather; the Polynesians just had the wrong explanation … Still, this is the way scientific progress often starts: finding a correlation between two variables and positing a plausible if false explanation. In this sense, ‘science’ dates back to preliterate times.”
2. MONOTHEISM AND INTOLERANCE/TOLERANCE
Wright argues that “scriptural interpretaion is obedient to facts on the ground” and that “… monotheism turns out to be, morally speaking, a very malleable thing, something that, when circumstances are auspicious, can be a fount of tolerance and compassion.”
3. A PURPOSE-DRIVEN HISTORY?
Acadamic history in the West has, for the most part, long since abandoned the view that the march of history is also the march of progress. But Wright raises the possibility that the unfolding drama of human history has been one of moral progress and that this might — just might — point to divine guidance.
“What might qualify as evidence of a larger purpose at work in the world? For one thing, a moral direction in history. If history naturally carries human consciousness toward moral enlightenment, however slowly and fitfully, that would be evidence that there’s some point to it all,” he writes.
Wright is well aware that many people will take issue with this thesis, especially in light of the horrors of the 20th century. Critics could also point to the rocky start of the 21st century with the Sept 11 attacks, the war in Congo, the depths of corporate greed … well, the list could be almost endless. In Wright’s America, secular humanists on the left have decried Wall Street’s behavior and almost all of the policies of the past administration of President George W. Bush; religious conservatives have seen almost nothing but moral decline since the 1950s and 1960s.
But as Wright told me: “I think the fact that we have such a dim view of the 20th century is itself a sign of our moral progress.”
There is much more to this book including a history of God — or one might say the changing or conflicting image of God in the human mind — that is ground in material conditions, culture and politics. Much of it involves an on-going discussion on growth of “non-zero-sum” relationships in the world and the notion of “moral imagination” or “our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person” as Wright describes it.
But what do you think? Are there signs that humanity has made moral progress and could it be a sign of something divine?