Just when you thought liberal Protestantism was dead, Robert Bellah writes what is arguably the greatest work of liberal Protestant theology ever. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age is about the evolutionary roots of religious behavior. It is a magnificent treatment of ancient human religiosity, with particular focus on the civilizations of Israel, Greece, China, and India. The book begins with the Big Bang and terminates around two hundred years before Jesus of Nazareth, in the period that Karl Jaspers called the “Axial Age,” the moment in history when human thought attained a genuinely universal character and a profound ethical maturity. In Bellah’s magnum opus, which took thirteen years to write, he seeks to explain how we reached this axial age of universal reason and how religion helped us get there.
So why try to characterize it as a theology? The liberal Protestant tradition was concerned to defend the integrity and value of religion after the Enlightenment rejection of traditional Christianity. It insisted that we should no longer seek to defend religion by appeal to divine revelation and turned instead to the sociological role that religion plays in giving life a sense of ultimate purpose and in instilling ethical attitudes. Jesus teaches us what it means to be human and to love in an authentic way, and in that sense he brings the ethical project of humanity to its completion.
How could one credibly update such a vision today? In obvious ways, Bellah’s work is quite different from that of Schleiermacher, Harnack, or Tillich: Nowhere does he treat Jesus or Christianity, nor does he offer explicit theological or apologetic theses. Nonetheless, he does something Schleiermacher, Harnack, and Tillich never could. He sets their now somewhat dated vision of Christian humanism in successful dialogue with the two most important contemporary challenges to religious belief: evolutionary atheism and postmodern pluralism.
The former flatly denies any legitimate basis in human beings for religious behavior: Why should a haphazard, randomly formed bundle of matter be religious? The latter asks why we should privilege Western, Christian canons of rationality and ethics over, say, those of ancient India. What Bellah does in both cases is genuinely intriguing—and theologically significant.
Bellah begins his treatment of evolution with the study of Big Bang cosmology, to which he adds astute sociological insights into the religious and the areligious views of contemporary cosmologists. He then goes on to offer a detailed and eloquent portrait of the evolutionary origins of living things, from the single-celled prokaryotes and eukaryotes, the only living things for perhaps two billion years, to the development of complex mammals, progressing from chimpanzees to homo erectus and eventually to homo sapiens. Following biologists Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart, he suggests ways in which living things succeed more or less well owing to their new material adaptations. Consequently, it is the whole organism and not just its collection of genes that evolves through time. In natural selection, living things make use of their genetic alterations to engage their environment more successfully. We are not simply organic media through which genetic mutation makes its merry way.
This nonreductive vision of living beings provides an essential basis for Bellah’s explanation of the emergence of advanced cognition in complex mammals. We are animals with adapted social features that permit us to pursue better forms of survival. Animals communicate to one another through mimicry, signaling, and even interactive play, and group membership becomes an advantage to the survival of the species. Bellah locates the remote origins of human culture in these communicative adaptations, especially in “play” as a “relaxed state” not ordered immediately toward either nutrition or procreation. Out of animal play come the capacities to mime, narrate, engage in ritual, and, ultimately, theorize.
Such is the basis in human society for religion and philosophy, as well as modern science. We are still animals able to tell stories, even as our stories change over thousands of years, and even when we are narrating the history of the cosmos in a modern university lecture hall.
What is wrong with this picture? From a biological point of view, perhaps very little. What about from a religious point of view? For a Thomist, it does no harm to underscore the animal character of human thought and religiosity. By all means, invite the neuroscientists to measure every jot and tittle of brain activity present in a human being reciting the Nicene Creed. Aquinas himself affirms that rational animals always think conceptually through recourse to images and sense phantasms.
One would expect, then, corollary events in the cerebrum for every intellectual, spiritual act. Do we not pray on our knees or with our hands extended, or communicate meaning with the use of narrated stories and gestures? Only a Manichean would deny our embodied spiritual lives. Bellah has done a wonderful job of creating a space for profound conversation between biology and theology, in ways that are in fact implicitly consonant with the Catholic tradition.
The problem is that Bellah refuses the larger metaphysical questions that are always in the background of our modern cosmological storytelling. Our understanding of the cosmos and our biological development as animals have undergone an irreversible revolution: from Galileo to Newton to Darwin and Mendel. Bellah offers sharp and persuasive criticisms of reductive and materialist interpretations of this revolution. But in the end, the atheists who claim, often in the names of these indisputable scientific discoveries, to have resolved the meaning of life are reproposing something old-fashioned: the ancient metaphysics and ethics of Democritus and Lucretius, or even the views one might find in Buddhism or Parmenides—which is to say, new versions of materialism and Epicureanism, monism and compassionate nihilism. They are all formidable philosophical theories, but at the end of the day, they are also just philosophical.
Although Bellah’s account of evolutionary science, culture, and religion is much more congenial to theological concerns, one needs to do more than criticize the philosophizing scientists for being unscientific. The perennial questions of classical philosophy must be addressed, and addressed in close connection with expansive scientific reflections of the sort Bellah offers. For example, it is certainly the case that the human frontal lobe, throat, tongue, and jaw bone underwent an evolutionary development that made human speech and cognition possible. We find imperfect intimations of these developments in less sophisticated mammals, some of which are our ancestors.
But the passage from the linguistic sign to the conceptual universal and to intentional signification (reflexive thought) is another matter. It is one thing to be able to explain biologically how we are able to coordinate our bodily movement to dance to music we hear, but quite another to be able to explain what “justice” is. You can’t reproduce justice by doing experiments on the frontal lobe, no matter how powerful the microscopes and electromagnetic impulses.
When human beings begin to think about the essences of things, or about what numbers or values are, or why the universe exists (which turns us toward the question of immaterial being), they do something that moves from the world of sensible singulars into the world of immaterial universals. Here the human spiritual animal acquires a new interiority alien to that of the other animals. Human beings rise up above the flux of nonrational beings. They judge their inner meaning and worth, as well as their ultimate causes.
Of course the materialists here will cry foul and claim that the study of neuroscience will inevitably allow us to explain away the residual belief in human “spiritual exceptionalism.” The soul has got to go, along with fairies, ghosts, and God. Our evolutionary history will explain us “all the way down,” exposing our intentional thought worlds and free decisions as hallucinations.
To which the right response is: no, actually. In fact, our human capacity to study our universe scientifically, including our neurological system and its evolution, is the product of our uniquely abstractive, spiritual capacity. And what is more, we alone among the animals can not only understand that history but also pass back behind it, as it were, to the deeper question of why the cosmos exists at all. We can look (as Aquinas does in the five ways) at the universe as a web of interconnected finite forms and interdependent causes and see that it is an inherently question-raising cosmos. Whence does all this come, and upon what (or whom) does it actually depend? As the only rational animal, we enjoy the privilege of asking the question of the existence of God.
Bellah rightly underscores the animality that undergirds all our intellectual, moral, and religious activities. But he does not engage the philosophical arguments that reflect on these same activities and that lead us to think about the immaterial soul, with its powers of intelligence and free will. There is a principle in the core of our being that comes from God directly and that is called to return to God. Consequently, it is the spiritual person as both body and soul who remains religiously restless and active in the material world. Each human being is a precarious bridge that runs between the visible world of matter and the invisible world of God.
Of course, Bellah will say that such thoughts outrun the limits of science and the disciplines of biology and sociology. That is quite true. But the excitement of reading Religion in Human Evolution stems in large part from the sheer ambition of the project—a genealogy of human culture that reaches toward universality. This quality leads Bellah to press beyond the narrow range of modern science. He is an academic pluralist who transgresses disciplinary boundaries. It is an indication of the deep taboos of our contemporary academic culture that the classical questions of metaphysics have no role to play in this book about the origins and purposes of all our religious beliefs, actions, and rituals.
Pluralism: What are we to make of the fact that there are many religions? Is there one true religion toward which all the others tend? Is there some one truth that gathers in all the other partial truths? St. Bonaventure, the medieval Franciscan theologian, seems to think so. Drawing on St. Augustine, he claims that the essence of religion consists in right worship: radical devotion of the heart offered to the true and living God. The prayer of Christ is such devotion offered perfectly, and Christ stands over history as the model of all religious and ethical endeavors. Other religions need not be rejected, then, as entirely false. Rather, the partial truths we find in them take on their ultimate value when they are purified by the illuminating light of Christ.
Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion tells a secular version of this story. Christianity, for Hegel, is a religious precursor to the age of philosophical Enlightenment. Myth gives way to dogma and dogma to reason. Christianity itself eventually leads to secularization, and the perfection of secular reason is found not in Christ but in modern, democratic liberalism. In shorthand: The history of human culture begins in cave painting and finds its perfection in a globalized market economy, governed by the political principles of John Rawls.
Bellah wants to avoid both Bonaventure’s and Hegel’s triumphalist accounts and, for that matter, the triumphalism involved in any story of religious development that culminates in a single true religion or philosophy. Bellah insists that the pinnacles of civilization, the “breakthroughs” that make the Axial Age axial, are manifest in a diversity of cultures in different, nonreducible ways. Moreover, unlike Hegel and many other modern theorists, he insists that religious doctrines and rituals have enduring importance in sustaining culture. They are not merely a prehistoric skin that modern reason needs eventually to shed.
This commitment to the enduring, nonreducible integrity of the different “axial breakthroughs” is elaborated in the treatment of four archaic civilizations between the years 1200 and 200 b.c.e. Bellah spends almost three hundred and fifty pages on ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India. In each case, he seeks to show that the archaic religions of the past established a framework from which universal, critical thinking emerged.
For example, ancient Greek religious rituals and Homeric legends provided a cradle for the development of civic democracy. The religious practice of ancient theater—Aeschylus and Euripides were originally performed in a liturgical context—created a symbolic form of reflection on human existence, which prepared the way for ancient philosophy (particularly that of Plato and Aristotle). Similarly, the ancient ethical reflections of the Hebrew prophets gave rise to normative legal theories about the meaning of the state and its obligations and its limitations in the face of human dignity. Confucian and Daoist theorists debated the relative importance of the political community with respect to the larger natural order and the environment. In India, as Bellah notes, the criticisms of Brahman culture made by the Buddha led to egalitarian ethical reforms within Brahmanism itself.
This commitment to pluralism distinguishes Bellah from his liberal Protestant forebears. Their theologies were organized around philosophical anthropology, a general theory of man as a religious animal. But in substantive and sometimes covert ways, they retained a christological center or end point. The fully religious and human way of living invariably ended up taking a Christian form, however remotely.
Unlike Schleiermacher and Hegel, Bellah wants to avoid the promotion of a uniquely Christian vision of the religious essence of man. He is weary of a cheap religious syncretism that ignores the real differences of belief and practice among the ancient religions. In the end, then, he decides for the multicultural option: The essence of human religion is not identified comprehensively by any one tradition but is refracted to us through a multiplicity of traditions. Each offers partially convergent, partially incompatible visions of the meaning of reality. The search for a universal ethics characterizes them all. Each of the axial religious traditions narrates after its own fashion a social life governed by moral norms. But we cannot distill an essence. The universality of the Axial Age cannot be separated from the particularity of its religious embodiments.
The diversity among religions should not lead us to despair, his analysis suggests, but to study and conversation. Our public culture should provide space for respectful religious inquiry and discussion. Something like “religious studies,” conducted with a spirit of intensive immersion in the thought world of religious traditions, needs to revitalize our religious imaginations. Bellah finishes his sprawling narrative of ancient human religiosity with an appeal to Immanuel Kant’s ethics of universal peace.
Here again this seemingly untheological book is theologically resonant. Bellah’s proposal is emblematic of both the nobility and the inner agony of the liberal Protestant tradition. Its nobility stems from its catholic aspiration to universal knowledge. What is the “natural law” inherent to all human, religious cultures? Why does man incessantly search for the absolute? How does the study of cosmology, evolutionary theory, and the history of religions either challenge or promote a broader understanding of this religious dimension of the human person? When we ask such questions, no legitimate claimant to the truth should be ignored.
No truth except that of divine revelation, as well as metaphysics, the mode of reflection that the Church long ago recognized as the intellectual handmaiden for a theology that speaks about God. And herein lies the hidden misery of liberal Protestantism, built in from the start. The price for admission to the Enlightenment university club was the agreement to check at the door all appeals to dogmatic, supernatural revelation. Religion without revelation. The problem with this is: It’s not rational.
Consider that human history exhibits a fascinating range of religious behaviors and beliefs but that the same complexity invites us naturally to inquire after the absolute truth. What, in the end, is the case regarding the nature of reality and the truth of religion? To a certain degree, Bellah offers his own covert answer. In his concluding remarks, readers begin to sense that he regards the capacity for critical reflection and prophetic witness as the deep truth about religion, and it’s the university and its academic culture that now nurture this genius.
Consider further that the interminable confusion and complexity of human religious behavior suggest another idea, one of equal consequence: that by our own powers we cannot finally resolve all the questions. The meaning of human religiosity remains enigmatic. Then can we not rightfully ask: What if God has revealed himself to humanity? If God has revealed himself, Christ and the biblical covenant are the lights that ultimately govern the nations, inviting all real but partial truths into a deeper unity, one purified from the dregs of human ignorance and error. In this case, divine revelation is not the enemy of human reason but is the intelligent answer given to the many ages of human religious question-asking. Final truth speaks to something deep within us but is itself a gift, not something conquered by the unique lights of human investigation.
What, then, is our human religiosity? It is a sign of our latent desire for the truth about God, but it is also a sign of our confusion and fallenness. Religion without grace remains precarious—and even pernicious. Bellah underscores the prevalence of human sacrifice in a diversity of ancient religions, East and West: obscure sacrifices made to obscure powers. The life of grace, meanwhile, is something distinct from the religious acts of our fallen humanity even when it is acting at its best.
Contrary to the thinking of liberal Protestantism, which sought to build theology only from the bottom up, true religion is established not through the evolution of human culture but by the charity of the God-man and the infusion of his grace. Contrary to the thinking of Barth, however, human religion is not abolished in Christ and his members. Rather, it is healed, purified, and elevated by divine charity. The fragments of a true human religiosity previously refracted in the various religious traditions of man are regathered in a new form, illumined from within by the light of Christ.
Religions don’t just come to be, develop, and evolve. They also die. Bellah gives many examples of religious cultures that came and went throughout antiquity. Many of the greatest representatives of these religions arose, as he notes, at times of crisis, when their traditions were on the verge of extinction. Ironically, Bellah himself may be an instance of this phenomenon. For, like Hegel, he has offered a profound master narrative of human history, one that shows the power of modern Protestant intellectual life and of the university culture that it inspired. But unlike Hegel, Bellah writes at a time after the decline and eclipse of mainline Protestant culture and its quest for an Enlightenment universalism that made room for faith. If religion is evolving in the world today, it does not seem to be headed in his direction.
Traditional Christians should mourn the loss of such compelling interlocutors, especially in a post-Christian world where religious literacy wanes. Barth reacted to the cosmopolitan aspirations of liberal Protestantism with a cosmopolitan dogmatism of his own. The Church Dogmatics is a vast attempt to talk about virtually everything from a christocentric point of view. In one sense, Barth was unquestionably correct: Without commitments to christological absolutes, Christianity folds, and it is those absolutes that give us ultimate perspective.
At the same time, a dogmatic religion, even if entirely true, should give an account of itself in the public square, speaking to public reason. This entails not only proclamation but also explanation. How does the revelation of Christ relate to natural reason in the domains of modern science, philosophy, ethics, and the history of religion? Bellah challenges us to consider our answers to these questions in profound ways. He also provides us with a great deal of historical material to think about toward this end.
Christians should be willing to learn from both Barth and Bellah as we move forward in the evolution—or, better yet, organic development—of a unified, Christian view of reality. Doing so will require the continuation of dogmatic thinking that is distasteful to our post-Enlightenment neighbors who can see in dogma nothing but dogmatism. But it also requires that theology engage deeply the modern sciences and that it process in a critical way the intellectual, moral, and religious patrimony of human culture, whether it is Eastern or Western, archaic or modern, secular or religious.
The catholic aspiration to seek the truth underlying all things is not utopian. In a real sense, the fullness of the Truth has already become manifest: the Wisdom who became flesh and dwelt among us. The revelation of Christ is a shock to our myopic religious leanings, as well as to our provincial secularism. He speaks to what is best in us, which is often hidden from our own eyes. He also challenges and reproves what is old and outdated, tearing down our idols and letting in new light.
Even if it lacked the fullness of proclamation, here the liberal Protestant tradition was right, and Robert Bellah’s ambitious universal history of humanity can provide a proper theological inspiration. He who was crucified and who rose from the dead, the Alpha and Omega of the human race, fulfills and perfects our native religiosity. Working in the light of his grace, our religious cultures can become simultaneously human and divine, evolved from the basic conditions of biological life and a supernatural gift. In Christ we can acknowledge rightfully the union of revelation and reason, grace and nature, God and man. This too is “evolution,” though one of a radically new sort. It is the beginning of a new life, the inevitable future of all true human religion.
Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is director of the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.