Sunday, June 1, 2014

Reading Notes: The Evolution of God, Part 2

After a couple of weeks' break, I started back on Robert Wright's The Evolution of God, picking up where I left off. This time, though, I had a hardcover version on my hands instead of an eBook, and it made all the difference in the world. Remember how I said I was sort of lost in Section II? Well it's my own fault; I broke my own promise to myself—never read nonfiction in eBook format. After breezing through one chapter of Section III, I decided to go back and re-read those sections that had given me so much trouble before. And armed with printed pages, a pen, a notebook, and sticky notes, it made all the sense in the world.

Wright's biggest mission in Section II, "The Emergence of Abrahamic Monotheism," was to demonstrate just how and why the God familiar in today's religions emerged from the vengeful god(s) of polytheism. And while I hinted at this in my first post on this book, I really got it after re-reading these chapters; the dates and places and people were way less confusing the second time around!

To quickly summarize it in bullet points, here's what Wright says happened (or, if not happened, here are the factors that led to the present):

  • National religion became part of national identity; King Josiah made Yahweh the "official" God of Israel, in turn centralizing power and centralizing worship.
  • When Babylon conquered Israel, religion was a way to make sense of disaster. If Israel's God was defeated, it meant defeat for their national identity as well. Instead, massive destruction just meant God was more powerful than they believed, and everything that happened to Israel was just God's will.
  • Now there was a new religious mission for trauma-suffering Israelites—non-believers were no longer enemies; they were potential converts. 
  • Philo, a Jewish philosopher, is largely responsible for the moral development of God. He interpreted God as tolerant and, fluent in Greek, translated the Bible accordingly. Here, Wright illustrates just how important semantics have been in religious history; ambiguity, creative interpretation, and selective retention shape belief systems. 
  • And further with Philo: his most important contribution is the invention of metaphor and allegory, which he often used to justify stories in the Bible that didn't fit his own idea of a loving, compassionate God. This reconciliation of Jewish and Greek thought is the basis for modern theology.
  • And more with Philo: he came up with the idea of the "Logos"—the natural law for men and matter. These are the rules that govern the world, like the laws of physics or nature, created by God as a sort of plan for the world. Wright uses the analogy of the video game designer creating the world, the rules, and the players. Wisdom, then, is the way of understanding the logos.

When I mentioned in my last post that Wright is a refreshing, unargumentative voice on the subject of religion, that perspective is illustrated best by his discussion on the evolution of morality. In his words:

"If the human conception of god features moral growth, and if this reflects corresponding moral growth on the part of humanity itself, and if humanity's moral growth flows from basic dynamics underlying history, and if we conclude that this growth is therefore evidence of 'higher purpose,' does this amount to evidence of an actual god?"

I included this not-so-brief summary on a section I've already sort of written about because it's important to know where religion came from and what purpose it served as we begin Section III, "The Invention of Christianity."

Wright begins this chapter with an introduction to Jesus, though one that may be very foreign to today's Christians—what Wright labels "Historical Jesus." In comparing the Jesus from the four gospels of the New Testament, each written an increasing amount of time after Jesus' death, Wright contends that historical accuracy diminishes and the stories are embellished to make a point (whatever point it is the authors are trying to make). Jesus from Mark had only love for his Israelite neighbor, but by the time Luke was written, Jesus showed universal love for all. Here's where the Bible is its most interesting—its roles as a religious text and a historical record are conflicting!

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But this story of Jesus is just an example of the interpretations I mentioned above, and there was much more that led to the eventual rise of Christianity that also contributed to the present-day God. And this was done mostly by Paul. Paul, like Philo, believed in brotherly love while also believing Jesus died to atone for our sins. It was this idea of interethic tolerance that eventually spawned Christianity in a society that, Wright argues, already had the pieces in place.

The growth of the Roman Empire made interethnic tolerance more valuable in terms of economic transactions. Plus, the Empire already had social clubs and groups that played an important role in society—creating kinship and familial bonds in an increasingly populous world. Christianity offered unconditional love to its followers, and by Paul deeming there is "neither Jew nor Greek," he built a bridge to the Gentile world, abandoning strict Jewish custom and increasing the accessibility to God. Paul himself was ambitious, and tolerance was the key to gaining followers and expanding his empire. 

Though there were several version of early Christianity, Paul's version was the one that became mainstream, because it built off of Judaism rather than immediately renouncing it. Paul used Jewish beliefs as the foundation of his new religion, even recruiting from Jewish believers. It wasn't until Paul's followers needed to undermine Judaism as the heir to Hebrew tradition [to practice one's own religion in the Roman Empire, it must be demonstrated that the religion predates the Empire] that Christianity severed its ties with Judaism and really came into its own. Here the Christians claimed that the Jews had forsaken God by killing his son, and now the two diverged in opinion and belief. 

Wright's distinction between Historical Jesus and Biblical Jesus becomes clear in the section's last chapter, "How Jesus Became a Savior." In one sentence: New Testament authors believed Jesus to be the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy about the appearance from the skies of a "Son of Man." Wright continues on the theme of salvation to tie everything we've learned so far together: how the emergence of monotheism and the birth of Christianity have led to a moral God. To sum it up, because this has gotten REALLY long:

  • This "Son of Man" offers an eternal heaven to good Christian souls; basically, a pleasant afterlife is a perk of Christianity, which gives it an edge on other religions.
  • Paul decides to explicitly define sin to help people reach heaven. This definition helps people avoid certain behaviors, which causes a group cohesiveness. Suddenly, people are nicer to each other because they know that moral behavior leads to eternal happiness.

And here is the answer as to how religion became linked with morality: Wright argues that religions develop from their ability to meet basic human psychological needs, and at this particular moment in history, Christianity was able to do just that. It provided rules to live by; it answered questions about the unknown, particularly what happens after death; it gave ways to atone for the sin of mankind (because apparently at this time, mankind had very poor self-esteem); it was a social movement providing shared a forum for shared belief systems. And most importantly, it provided a way to save the individual soul. By linking salvation to social behavior, it provided individuals a sure-fire way to a blissful afterlife. 

I have seriously learned so so much from this book so far. I grew up as a reluctant churchgoer, but I realize my knowledge base is incredibly weak. I was astounded to learn that the four gospels of the New Testament have entirely conflicting information, but I was never taught that because we learned about stories in Sunday School, not history. I never even knew these were four perspectives on the same story! Wright is doing in this book exactly what I strive for in my own spiritual questioning—he is sharing context, showing how one thing came from another, explaining how things evolve based on many factors.

One of the hardest things to remember so far is that the society we're reading about in so much depth is actually only one very distinct part of the world. We're reading about Israel and, yes, the development of major world religions, but there are whole other cultures around the world developing their own theologies and religions. Wright did establish that this book focuses on only the three Abrahamic religions, and the next section will veer us away from the Jewish and Christian Middle East and into Islam.

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