THE EVOLUTION OF GOD
By Robert Wright
Little, Brown, $25.99, 568 pages
REVIEWED BY JEREMY LOTT
Publication of Robert Wright’s books tends to be greeted by loud hosannas from Very Important People. Then-President Bill Clinton called “Nonzero” an “astonishing book” and the author “a genius.” Mr. Clinton required his White House staffers to read it. The Economist compared “The Moral Animal” to Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.” These praises grace the back cover of Mr. Wright’s fourth and latest effort, “The Evolution of God,” and a cursory glance at the early reviews shows most critics are suitably impressed.
That’s nice, you might say — is the book any good? It has its moments. The author is a decent and funny writer and he is usually sensitive to what scholars of religion have to say, with a few clanging exceptions. However, many readers won’t be able to shake the feeling that he has chewed off more than he can bite.
The book has many problems, starting with its too-great ambition. It would be one thing to trace the development of Abrahamic monotheism, from Egypt to Israel to Rome to Mecca, looking at how the great faiths collaborate and clash. That is what you might reasonably expect from a book called “The Evolution of God.” But the author skimps on the clashes part because he has a more urgent agenda in mind. “Religion at its worst is … well there are too many examples these days to bother elaborating,” he writes.
In Mr. Wright’s telling, the God of the Old Testament is not the dour deity that many have wrongly contrasted with the loving New Testament God. Rather, this old school God is shown to be “capable of radical growth.” That’s a good thing because “what the world really needs is a [G]od that does grow.” In the past, we might have lived with more backward deities, but globalization has “made the planet too small to peaceably accommodate large religions that are at odds.”
This is a theme that he comes back to again and again. Near the end of his “sermon,” Mr. Wright asks, “Is it crazy to imagine a day when the Abrahamic faiths renounce not only their specific claims to specialness but even the specialness of the whole Abrahamic enterprise? Are such changes in God’s character imaginable?” Answers: yes, emphatically yes, and you must be joking. God is a rather all-or-nothing proposition.
Mr. Wright doesn’t see it that way. He is former Baptist turned agnostic. He believes in a moral order to the universe whether or not there is an Orderer, apart from natural selection. He gives fair warning in the book’s introduction that what follows will be a thoroughly materialistic account of the development of theology and religion and explains that such an account “actually affirms the validity of a religious worldview” — sort of.
“The Evolution of God” aims to make the case for what is “not a traditionally religious worldview, but a worldview that is in some meaningful sense religious.” Mr. Wright calls it a paradox: the development of the idea of God is “in some sense, the evolution of an illusion” but at the same time it “points to the existence of something you can meaningfully call divinity.”
This paradoxical evolutionary approach to religion and God may be defensible. However, Mr. Wright steps in it when he superimposes this scheme on the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. He trots out the well-worn, deeply flawed theory that it was the missionary Paul of Tarsus, not Jesus, who really invented Christianity. In order to make that case stick, he makes some serious errors regarding the four New Testament accounts, or Gospels, of Jesus’ life.
This is not the place for an extended Sunday School lesson, so one example will have to do. Mr. Wright argues that the normal process of editing and retelling of Jesus story that went on between the writing of the earliest Gospel (Mark) and the last one (John) radically changed how the main character was perceived. Jesus went from being a small-m messianic figure to being on par with God Himself.
Mr. Wright says, “In no previous Gospel does Jesus equate himself with God. But in John he says, ‘The Father and I are one.’ Christian legend and theology have by this point had sixty or seventy years to evolve, and they are less obedient than ever to memories of the real, human Jesus.”
Nice try but wrong. According to Mark (chapter 14, verses 61-62), the first and, according to Mr. Wright, most authentic Gospel, Jesus was brought up on trial before the Sanhedrin, where the high priest put the question to him directly: “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed?” Jesus answered, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
The question was vague enough to accommodate Mr. Wright’s conception of Jesus, but Jesus’ answer was not. “I am” was one name for the Jewish God and the second bit was right out of the Old Testament’s book of Daniel. Jesus was placing himself in the fiery heavenly chariot throne reserved only to the Ancient of Days.
• Jeremy Lott is editor of Capital Research Center’s Labor Watch newsletter and author of The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.