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The Evolution of God. Part One.
I’m about a quarter through with Robert Wright’s latest, The Evolution of God. I became a fan of Wright’s after the publication of The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life, and in some ways, his latest book is a response to that — well, to a pastor who claimed the writer was blasphemous during a sermon; Wright’s mother happened to be in the audience. Given the integrity and strength of his new book’s message — that our understanding of the God of Abraham was not suddenly introduced but actually evolved from numerous gods (and also hung out with numerous gods himself) — I can’t imagine Wright gaining too many fans amongst the fundamentals. For the rest of us, though, this is turning out to be one fascinating book.
I rarely discuss books unless I have finished them, but there is an important theme Wright is discussing, and it goes beyond the scope of the three “Western” religions. (As Amiri Baraka pointed out, if you go west of California, you end up in Asia.) There can sometimes be a world of difference between religious scholarship and religious faith, and it is that rift which creates so much confusion and bigotry. Those three faiths — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — were born of the same deity, and yet the faithful treat each as its own all-powerful, all-knowing being.
Wright starts the book investigating hunter-gatherer tribes, and follows the trend through to, where I’m currently at, the creation of Israel. He does not romanticize the “happy primitive,” as is sometimes done; he does discuss their reciprocal relationship with their environment, and how their gods were very human: bumbling, sex-crazy, confused, prone to mood swings. Back then you could trick a god with a carrot, whereas now the Western God is purported to know our every thought, even before we think it.
While those “primitive” mythologies are be viewed as quaint at best, and often untrue (from a material standpoint, not necessarily a symbolic one), one question keeps coming to mind: What is stranger, having a relationship with the divinities in which there is the opportunity for reflection and understanding, or believing that the omnipotent Oz is detached and unknowable, unseen and unheard, a judgmental figure in the ether that we’ll never actually commune with, but will decide our eternal fate nonetheless? No wonder the Gnostics thought an alien created the world and would eventually destroy us.
In the second chapter, Wright touches upon shamanism, something studied and written about at length by the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade. He uses Eliade’s source material, starting with a very timely and poignant comparison of the shaman with the modern stock analyst. “Whenever people sense the presence of a puzzling and momentous force,” he writes, “they want to believe there is a way to comprehend it. If you can convince them that you’re the key to comprehension, you can reach great stature.” This was the role of the shaman, like the village leader before him, the cleric after, and the CEO way after. What all are doing are making educated guesses — perhaps with instinct, perhaps with a little guidance, but guessing nonetheless. The most formidable guessers assume roles of political and economic power.
What interests me most about Wright’s treatment of religion is his ability to use a critical eye without sacrificing heart. This is a crucial aspect of studying faith, and when I see modern yogis fail to understand this — treating swamis and gurus like gods; engaging in the New Age habit of “mystical” neo-shamanism — I cringe. This is not to disrespect any particular teacher or healer; it helps us realize that we’re all human beings and our gods are based on human beings, and the shortcomings of the gods reflect our shortcomings. To say that one sits atop wielding some form of “perfect” knowledge negates everything that we witness in nature. And it is in nature — our nature, as well as the nature we were born into — that we need to turn to begin to study any form of theology.
What is clear across the board is this: the bigger the god, the bigger the ego that created it. The most successful gods had the most political power behind them, the most weapons, and, later, the most money to print books and travel and wield those weapons to rule over those lands that worshipped other gods. This is a crime that has infected all humanity.
I look forward to reading about how Wright’s evolutionary gods enter the contemporary world. Some strong hints have already been dropped; most likely it will have to do with the creation of a global understanding of religion — not the synthesis of many religions into one, per se, but at least cultivating a greater awareness that we’re basing our disparate faiths on the same concepts. Diversity within unity, those slogans you see on YMCAs across the country. Will it be realized? Probably not. Our mythologies have never hinted that they will; as Joseph Campbell noted, mythology is not about ethics or morals, but about “wholeness.” And as long as all those things we love and cherish exist, so will all those things that we despise and resent, for that’s the other side of that very coin. This is where the yogi learns his or her philosophy: non-attachment.
And, hopefully, enjoying the ride.