A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, September 27, 2009

What I'm Reading

Notes on The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, Part II: The Emergence of Abrahamic Monotheism

When I was a sophomore in college, I was in an honors seminar in which we discussed the Big Ideas of Western civilization. One week, the professor asked us, "Why do we think monotheism is superior to polytheism?" I remember that the discussion fizzled, perhaps because we were in the Bible Belt, where most of us were raised to think that the existence of one and only one god was revealed truth. I was open to the question, but I don't think I came up with an answer, other than that maybe we prefer unity to diversity. Which of course elicited only another "why" from the professor.

It has occurred to me since then that many nominally monotheistic believers have polytheistic tendencies. After all, surveys show that an awful lot of people believe in angels who are more than just God's messengers, but also do things like push people out of the way of oncoming buses and such. And then there's the widespread belief in the existence of Satan, which suggests that a lot of people are Manichaeans without knowing it. And there's also the Trinity, which seems to me a needless multiplication of entities that should have been lopped off by Occam's razor.

I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that according to Robert Wright's reading of it, the Bible -- at least the Old Testament -- is kind of confusing on this monotheism thing. "If you read the Hebrew Bible carefully, it tells the story of a god in evolution, a god whose character changes radically from beginning to end." It not only starts with the "hands-on deity" whom Adam and Eve hear walking in the garden, but also with a god who seems to belong to an entourage of deities: "It talks more than once about a 'divine council' in which God takes a seat; and the other seats don't seem to be occupied by angels." It concludes with a god who is omnipotent, omniscient, solitary
and surprisingly detached from the affairs of humankind -- "indeed there is no mention of him at all in the last book of the Hebrew Bible, Esther." In short, "Israelite religion reached monotheism only after a period of 'monolatry' -- exclusive devotion to one god without denying the existence of others."

Wright also tells us, "It's even possible that Yahweh, who spends so much of the Bible fighting against those nasty Canaanite gods for the allegiance of Israelites, actually started life as a Canaanite god, not an import." He cites evidence that the northern Canaanite god named El may have been a precursor of Yahweh, "that Yahweh in some way emerged from El, and may even have started life as a renamed version of El." Wright notes that in Part I, he has already established that "the ancient world was full of politically expedient theological fusions." In this case, Yahweh "rose through the ranks" because of "a shift in the relative power of northern and southern Israel, of El's heartland and Yahweh's heartland." And "whatever the truth about Yahweh's early history, there is one thing we can say with some confidence: the Bible's editors and translators have sometimes obscured it -- perhaps deliberately, in an attempt to conceal evidence of early mainstream polytheism."

But Yahweh seems to have emerged not only from El, but also from that more notorious Canaanite deity, Baal. Some passages in the Bible, including even the parting of the Red Sea, seem to have curious parallels to myths attributed to Baal.
One initially puzzling aspect of the situation is that Baal, throughout the Bible, is Yahweh's rival. Bitter enmity doesn't seem like a good basis for merger. But, actually, in cultural evolution, competition can indeed spur convergence. Certainly that's true in modern cultural evolution. The reason operating systems made by Microsoft and Apple are so similar is that the two companies borrow (that's the polite term) features pioneered by the other when they prove popular. So too with religions.
In the Bible, "Yahweh beats Baal in the showdown arranged by Elijah, and then later 'appears' to Elijah -- invisibly, ineffably -- on Mount Sinai. ... a milestone in the evolution of monolatry, a way station on the road to full-fledged monotheism." Wright observes that the first Commandment -- "You shall have no other gods before me" -- is a "monolatrous verse often read as monotheistic."

Wright puts the rejection of "foreign" gods, the solidifying of the Israelites' belief into a single god, Yahweh, in the context of the times:
This ancient sociopolitical environment is a lot like the modern sociopolitical environment as shaped by globalization. Then as now international trade and attendant economic advance had brought sharp social change and sharp social cleavages, delimiting affluent cosmopolitans from poorer and more insular people. Then as now some of those in the latter category were ambivalent, at best, about foreign influence, economic and cultural, and were correspondingly resentful of the cosmopolitan elites who fed on it. And, then as now, some of those in the latter category extended their dislike of the foreign to theology, growing cold toward religious traditions that signified the alien. This dynamic has to varying degrees helped produce fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Jews, and fundamentalist Muslims. And apparently it helped produce the god they worship.

Another reason for Yahweh's emergence was that he had always been a god of battles, "the god who could authorize war and guide his people through it ...; he was the commander-in-chief god. So Yahweh would naturally draw popular allegiance from international turmoil." So when Josiah became king around 640 BCE, he destroyed the temples of other gods. "Josiah's reign marked a watershed in the movement toward monotheism. Yahweh and Yahweh alone ... was now the officially sanctioned god of Israelites."

But calamity was about to befall them: the Babylonian exile. And the interesting thing is that this great national catastrophe only made Yahweh stronger. "To think of your god as losing so abjectly was almost to think of your god as dead. And in those days, in that part of the world, thinking of your national god as dead meant thinking of your nationality as dead." So the conclusion was that "the outcome had been Yahweh's will." He must be punishing us for our sins by letting something so awful happen to us, went the reasoning, and "any god that wields a whole empire as an instrument of reprimand must be pretty potent." Maybe even ... omnipotent?
An apt response when a people kills your god is to kill theirs -- to define it out of existence. And if other nations' gods no longer exist, and if you've already decided (back in Josiah's time) that Yahweh is the only god in your nation, then you've just segued from monolatry to monotheism.... Monotheism was, among other things, the ultimate revenge.

Meanwhile, as the Israelites were turning to monotheism as a way of explaining what had happened to them, the Greeks were finding their own path to monotheism through scientific inquiry. "The more nature was seen as logical -- the more its surface irregularities dissolved into regular law -- the more sense it made to concentrate divinity into a single impetus that lay somewhere behind it all." Which in turn inspired a Jewish thinker living in Alexandria, Philo. "Ethnically and religiously he was a Jew. Politically, he lived in the Roman Empire. Intellectually and socially, his world was heavily Greek." Philo's cosmopolitanism gave him an appreciation for what we would now call diversity, and it made him value tolerance in particular.

Tolerance, in fact, was emerging in post-exilic Jewish thought, as evidenced in the books of Ruth and Jonah. The latter happens to be one of my favorite books in the Bible, mainly because it's perhaps the funniest. Not just the whale stuff, but the character of Jonah himself, so put-upon by God's insistence that he go and cry out against Nineveh, and then so ticked off when God changes his mind and decides not to destroy the city after all. God gets one of the great punchlines when he replies to Jonah's pique: "And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle."

As Wright puts it, "Traditionally, this sort of ignorance -- not knowing good from evil -- is what had stirred God's wrath, not his compassion.... In the book of Ezekiel, God was proud of having made Assyria suffer 'as its wickedness deserves.' Now, in Jonah, the suffering of Assyrians gives God no pleasure, and their wickedness he sees as lamentable confusion. This is a god capable of radical growth." (And that aside about the cattle is a hoot.)

God's growth is what gives Wright hope for the world's religions: "when I say God shows moral progress, what I'm really saying is that people's conception of god moves in a morally progressive direction." Which provokes this question:
[I]f the human conception of god features moral growth, and if this refelcts 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?
For the moment at least, the question remains rhetorical as Wright returns to Philo of Alexandria and another problem that plagues people of faith: the conflict of science and religion. In Philo's case, it was one of "cognitive dissonance. Philo believed that all of Judaism and large parts of Greek philosophy were true, and so long as they seemed at odds, he couldn't rest easy." So "[w]hile Jesus was preaching in Galilee, Philo, over in Alexandria, was laying out a world-view with key ingredients, and specific terminology, that would show up in Christianity as it solidified over the next two centuries."

One way that Philo went about reconciling Greek science and Jewish religion was to treat much of the latter as allegorical and symbolic -- an anticipation of what most non-fundamentalist believers have had to do. And to explain God's role in the world, he used the term "logos," which meant "word" and "speech" and "account" and "computation" and "reason" and "order." "In his mission to reconcile a transcendent God with an active and meaningful God, Philo would draw on all these meanings, and more." Wright compares Philo to a computer programmer or a video game designer.
Long before modern science started clashing with the six-day creation scenario in Genesis, Philo had preempted the conflict by calling those six days allegorical: they actually referred not to God's creation of the earth and animals and people, but to his creation of the Logos, the divine algorithm, which would bring earth and animals and people into existence once it was unleashed in the material world. ... God himself is beyond the material universe, somewhat the way a video game designer is outside of the video game. Yet the video game itself -- the algorithm inside the box -- is an extension of the designer, a reflection of the designer's mind.

But the video game analogy is inadequate, Wright notes: "However transcendent God is, we can get closer to actual contact with him than Pac-Man could ever have gotten to Toru Iwatani, Pac-Man's creator."
[T]he Logos is a little like the Buddhist concept of dharma: it is both the truth about the way things are -- about how the universe works -- and the truth about the way we should live our lives given the way things are. It is the law of nature and it is the law for living in light of nature. This double entendre is hard for some people to accept, as today we often separate description (scientific laws) from prescription (moral laws). But to many ancient thinkers the connection was intimate: if basic laws of nature were laid down by a perfect God, then we should behave in accordance with them, aid in their realization; we should help the Logos move humanity in the direction God wants humanity to move in.

Of course, we've heard about the Logos elsewhere, in the beginning of the book of John. But that's the next section of the book.

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