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Robert Wright


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Robert Wright covers quite a lot of the same ground as Karen Armstrong did in A History of God, but I'm glad to say that he does so in a more readable form: the tone is mostly light and sometimes even facetious. But Wright's attitude to his subject is nevertheless serious; he thinks that religion is important.

The book has five sections plus an extensive set of notes and references. Part 1 is a brief outline of how Wright thinks that religion may have arisen, starting with prehistory and moving on through shamanism, religion in the age of chiefdoms, and religion in the ancient Middle East (Mesopotamia). This leads up to the main theme of the book, which is how religion as we experience it in the West has arisen. Part 2 is about the emergence of monotheism in ancient Israel; Part 3 deals with Christianity; Part 4 is on Islam; and Part 5 considers where religion is going today.

Wright's aim throughout is to relate religious ideas to the context in which they arose. He has an interesting discussion of the development of monotheism in Israel. He discounts the Biblical story of the Israelites entering Canaan from abroad (Egypt) and establishing monotheism, and instead makes a pretty convincing case for the view that monotheism arose indigenously among the people who were already in situ in Canaan. This was a gradual process, moving from polytheism to monolatry (the worship of one particular God among others) before the establishment of monotheism proper (the claim that there is only one god). Evidence of this rather haphazard development can, he claims, be found in the Hebrew Bible if it is read in the correct chronological sequence (which is not the same as the order in which we find it now). And archaeological evidence confirms this.

In his discussion of Christianity, Wright follows many modern scholars in seeing Jesus as an apocalypticist who expected the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth in the near future and who did not have any intention of founding a world religion; that was mainly St Paul's doing. Wright traces this development in a fair amount of detail, concluding with a chapter entitled 'How Jesus Became Savior'. While this material will be familiar to anyone who has read some of the more objective historians of Christianity it is likely to come as a surprise to many Christians.

Wright's chapter on Islam is also likely to surprise a good few Christians. He rightly, I think, refuses to call the Muslim deity Allah, preferring simply to use the appellation 'God'. In fact, as he points out, 'Allah' and 'God' are interchangeable names for the Deity in the Abrahamic faiths; Syrian Christians customarily refer to God as Allah. As for the currently vexed question of whether the Koran advocates holy war against the infidel, Wright concludes that you can take whatever message you like from the Muslim holy text, just as you can from the Old Testament.

In view of the critical attitude that Wright adopts throughout in his treatment of religion, one might expect that he would end by advocating frank atheism, yet this is not what he does. In the concluding part of his book he advances the view that human history gives evidence of continual, if intermittent, progress towards tolerance and universal harmony. In short, he thinks there is a moral order or higher purpose in the universe, or at least in human history. 'And maybe the source of this higher purpose, the source of the moral order, is something that qualifies for the label "god" in at least some sense of the word.'

Wright discusses this idea in his concluding pages, though without frankly committing himself to a definite position. He finds that the formulation of God as love is probably tbe best way of expressing the notion that he is carefully tiptoeing round, though he doubts whether we are able to articulate a clear account of what this means. He seems to think that God does exist in some sense although he cannot say exactly what sense. He draws an analogy, which I found unconvincing, between the theologian's description of God and the physicist's description of an electron. According to at least some physicists, he says, the concept of an electron is no more than a useful fiction to describe the nature of reality; perhaps that is a useful way of thinking about God.

I am not fully persuaded by Wright's view of an evolving moral order. His discussion is concerned almost exclusively with the Abrahamic faiths, which he thinks have evolved progressively towards morality, yet the Buddha was preaching adherence to a moral order two and a half thousand years ago—and without postulating a God to sustain it. But I found this to be an entertaining and stimulating read, and the account of the origin of monotheism in ancient Israel was certainly illuminating.

24 September 2009

%T The Evolution of God
%A Wright, Robert
%I Little, Brown
%C London
%D 2009
%G ISBN 978-1-4087-0204-8
%P 567pp
%K religion

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