I suppose it would sound somewhat bigoted of me to say that readers should be suspicious of journalists with an appetite for Large Ideas, but I intend no insult. The journalist’s chief vocation is to elucidate, simplify, and synopsize—to reduce a story to its most elementary logic. All of which is admirable where matters of plain fact are at issue. But when writers begin to touch on matters of more abstract frame or cosmic scope, then the valuable answers are those no less complex than the questions that prompted them. And at that point, the journalist’s passion to establish “the real story” becomes more a hindrance than an aid to understanding.
Robert Wright is not a man wanting in intellectual ambition or in admirers. His older books—especially The Moral Animal and Nonzero—received wide praise and were all driven by the kind of amiable brashness, not so much unreflective as overly eager, that inevitably results in huge, comprehensive theories and huge, comprehensive conclusions. Couching his work in a breezy demotic style and wrapping it in an atmosphere of good-natured enthusiasm, Wright seems a hard man to dislike. And there is something beguilingly counterintuitive in his (for want of another term) Darwinian optimism: the conviction that the logic of natural selection involves a sort of non-purposive purpose. History, he thinks, is governed by the dynamics of non-zero-sumness (his phrase for mutually beneficial interdependency), which results in an ineluctable social development toward ever greater “moral truth.”
There are, however, two large problems with his books. The first is that one will find them compelling in directly inverse proportion to one’s familiarity with the topics they address, because they make sense only when all the nagging questions that relentlessly wear away at careful scholars—whether historians, evolutionary biologists, philosophers, social anthropologists, psychologists, ethicists, biblical specialists, or whatever else—have been ignored. And the second is that his arguments seem coherent only because they are so perfectly circular.
Both of these problems are present, with strikingly unfortunate consequences, in his most recent work, The Evolution of God (Little, Brown, 576 pages, $25.99). The title, obviously, refers to the evolution of the human concept of God over the centuries. By his own admission, Wright gives a thoroughly materialist account of how religious and cultural images of God have developed, one that takes for granted the somewhat Marxist presupposition that ideas are the epiphenomena of material conditions. God has evolved, Wright likes to say, as “facts on the ground” have dictated, according to a complex interplay of personal interests and fortuitous benefits, social needs and political calculations, with the unpremeditated but utterly inevitable result that God has over time—in obedience to the need for cooperation among peoples—become a more moral and more universal God. And this is, in the main, a good thing that should go on happening.
Up to a point, Wright’s history of religion is unobjectionable, even if it is often simplistic. Like Hume, he too easily assumes that the gods of primitive societies arose as explanations for natural phenomena (a view few anthropologists of religion would endorse), but he correctly notes the broadly amoral nature of many tribal cults and their often exclusive concern for ritual purity. In small tribal communities, he opines, religion chiefly provides social cohesion; there is little need for religious codes of morality, as the benefits of social cooperation are so immediately obvious.
When, however, the circle of desirable cooperation widens—in agrarian, and then urban, and then national, and then imperial cultures—religion necessarily begins to assume moral dimensions: local at first, but more universal as the pressures of politics and commerce force peoples to find a transcendent warrant for profitable amity. Self-interest, it soon emerges, is advanced by benevolence, and non-zero-sum relations slowly give rise to a morality of universal fraternity, under the kindly gaze of a single universal God.
It is within this frame that Wright unfolds his history of monotheism in the “three Abrahamic faiths”; and this part of the book provides an excellent lesson regarding the crucial difference between being broadly informed and being deeply learned. Simply said, Wright lacks the expertise to discriminate among the sources he has consulted. At first, the damage is limited. On the development of Hebraic religion from the patriarchal to the Second Temple to the Hellenistic periods, for example, he manages—despite a few missteps—to provide a fairly uncontroversial précis of the status quaestionis, as it has taken shape since at least the time of Wellhausen: Jewish monotheism emerged gradually out of native Canaanite polytheism and did not clearly become monotheism in the proper sense until a few centuries before Christ, and the canon of the Hebrew Bible is a conflation of various Elohist and Jahwist traditions, through which—even after the supervention of priestly redactions—the fissures of polytheism are still resplendently obvious.
Even here, however, there are matters of scholarly disagreement of which Wright seems simply unaware. Moreover, where he begins to wax speculative, and to impose his non-zero-sum template on the story—arguing that the movement from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism, and from a more tribal to a more universal ethics, was impelled by the concrete history of political amalgamations and conquests—he purchases explanatory neatness at the cost of vast oversimplifications of the historical record.
In the case of his treatment of early Islam—since the story covers so concentrated a period and so particular a cultural and geographical setting—his abstractions seem only slightly intrusive. He ventures out into some of the more exotic contemporary theoretical currents concerning the genesis of the Qur’an, but not very far or for very long, and ultimately needs only to call attention to what even most Muslim scholars happily concede—the difference in tone between the earlier and later suras of the text—to make his case for the absolute priority of “facts on the ground.” Some of his assumptions might give offense to pious Muslims, but at least they are not historically incredible.
In the case of his treatment of the New Testament, however, Wright’s confidence in the explanatory power of his Darwinian model of social development has disastrous consequences. Here he has wandered (to all appearances quite innocently) into areas of such notorious complexity and interminable warfare—always blanketed in impenetrable fogs of ideology—that even the hardiest specialists tend to proceed with the utmost caution.
Caution, however, is not a tool that Wright carries in his box. As he holds forth on the true “historical Jesus” or on the career of the apostle Paul, the suppositions and confusions begin to crowd in intolerably. He obviously does not know how to sort out the more plausible from the more implausible critical reconstructions, and a cursory survey of his bibliography is enough to confirm how narrow is the range of New Testament scholars he has consulted and how varied the assortment (spanning the whole spectrum, from John Dominic Crossan to N.T. Wright) of those he has not. The result is that he feels free, again and again, to advance as proven such endlessly contestable claims as the assertion that Christ probably never said, “Love your enemies.” (As it happens, he almost certainly did.)
Frankly, the mistakes Wright makes at this point in his argument are not only plentiful, but often a bit silly. He is guilty not only of casual assumptions (such as his ascribing to Paul a belief in eternal torment for unbelievers, despite the absence of any such notion in Paul’s letters) but of confusions of the sort created simply by uncritical haste. For instance, having noted that Mark’s is the earliest of the canonical gospels, he concludes without any ambiguity that it is therefore the most historically reliable. This is already a problematic claim, as it largely passes over the issue of the relative weight of Mark’s framing narrative of the ministry of Christ and the logia traditions on which the other synoptic gospels draw. Still more problematic, though, is Wright’s surmise that the strange absence of any real account of Christ’s moral teachings in Mark is evidence that those teachings were later inventions, derived in large part from Paul (and this, to compound one argument from absence with another, he deduces from Paul’s failure dutifully to invoke the name of Jesus every time he pronounces a moral counsel).
So heedlessly does Wright blunder across this terrain that he even suggests that Jesus’ cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in Mark is more “unvarnished” and therefore more historically accurate, than Luke’s “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” But, of course, neither version of the story is the documentary account of an eyewitness; both are theological statements about who Jesus was and about the meaning of his death. If Wright is aware that Mark here is invoking Psalm 22, or that there were quite profound reasons why the evangelist would want to draw a connection between the crucifixion and that psalm—which is, after all, a hymn both of lamentation and of triumph—he gives no evidence to that effect.
It is in his remarks on Paul, however, that the essential crudity of Wright’s reasoning becomes impossible to ignore. Here the pressure of his largely mechanical view of social evolution overwhelms common sense altogether. For Wright, Paul was a kind of religious “CEO” attempting to create a vast multinational organization upon the emerging “platform” of an empire desperately in need of the correct vehicle for those “memes” most conducive to universal fraternity. The order of causality, as far as Wright is concerned, is almost entirely unilinear, proceeding inexorably from the environmental to the special to the individual. Material conditions, in other words, created the possibility of a new kind of organization, with interests of its own, and only then, at the end of the process, did the particular moral contents of that organization coalesce, as the “facts on the ground” demanded.
This is banal. One really must—if one insists on casting grand theories of historical development—know when one’s metaphors are, in fact, metaphors. While it is no doubt good as an occasional bracing intellectual exercise to look at social evolution in terms analogous to those of biological evolution, the habit becomes a vice as soon as one begins to forget all the differences between human history and biological phylogeny. Material conditions may induce material results in the realm of nature, but human culture also subsists in the realm of consciousness and intellect. And this realm admits of an order of causality at times entirely contrary to that of nature; for, in relation to the horizontal course of material causality, human consciousness exists in a state of perpetual obliquity. Language such as Wright’s, enchanting though it is, proves impotent to make any sense of historical contingency, or historical novelty, or individual motivation—which means that, as a theory of history, it is practically useless.
For one thing, taken simply as an explanation of Paul’s career, Wright’s story is utterly risible. At least, it cannot be wholly insignificant that, for Paul himself, the order of causality went in quite the opposite direction: from the astounding and life-altering experience of the singular novelty of the Christian message (including its already well-established moral content), to a new consciousness of the universal significance implicit in it—suddenly, catastrophically, annulling all differences between times and peoples—to the enucleation of a new paradigm of human history and culture. And Paul’s experiences are themselves “facts on the ground” that the historian must make an effort to understand, and that cannot intelligibly be treated as obviously secondary to some larger process.
Admittedly, one could argue that an evolutionary process always seems to exhibit different causal priorities at its more macrocosmic and more microcosmic levels, but this still would not make sense of the absolute inversion of order that would exist (if Wright were correct) between the general and the particular. As any deep familiarity with the pertinent texts irresistibly urges, the contents of the Christian development radically altered the existing patterns of social and moral expectation. This is why the genially atheistic French philosopher Alain Badiou sees Paul as the supreme exponent of “the event”—a sheer singularity, irreducible to its prior causes, a new beginning that reorients and recasts historical consciousness in its essence.
Wright is so bizarrely oblivious to the power of novelty in human history—the unpredictable power, that is, of human consciousness—that he even argues that, had there never been a Jesus of Nazareth, another vehicle for the meme of interethnic amity would in all likelihood have been found: perhaps, he muses, Apollonius of Tyana.
Even as vacuous determinisms go, this is a bit on the unsophisticated side. But, really, Wright has left himself little room for subtlety. He is, after all, attempting to enunciate a general law regarding historical development without the luxury of being able to adduce any two adequately analogous cases of that development. (What other large multiethnic empire, for instance, incubated a Christian morality?)
More to the point, he is attempting to interpret the past by a method that involves an epistemological impossibility. This is why I spoke of the circularity of Wright’s arguments. From the present, everything past can be made to seem inevitable; the retrospective gaze will always discern continuities, even within discontinuities. If a truly disruptive event occurs within human affairs—a new form of thought, for instance, coming from above or below or beyond the normal course of social causality—it will of necessity determine the shape not only of the future but of the past; for, if it has any large effect on history, it becomes the filter that discriminates between those prior developments that will be preserved and those prior developments that will come to nothing.
Every event, no matter how original or purely contingent, will exhibit an organic continuity with the history in which it is placed. For that reason, what can never be demonstrated when we look back at the events that have shaped our societies is that we were ever destined to arrive where we are now at all. Social evolution simply cannot be likened—except very vaguely—to the regular algorithmic sequences of biological evolution. Human history, being human, abounds in irruptions, novelties, retreats, saltations, spontaneities, detours, and new beginnings. In some respects, it would be better to employ the metaphors of quantum theory here than those of evolutionary science.
Perhaps the most important complaint to be raised in regard to Wright’s story, however, concerns its almost chirpy metaphysical Whiggery. The circle of Wright’s logic closes on itself, with absolutely hermetic finality, at the point where he offers his moral interpretation of the narrative he has related. There may not really be a God beyond the world, he reasons, though then again there may. But whatever the case, the chronicle of God’s evolution is the chronicle of human moral progress toward greater cooperation and moral truth. Perhaps this, he argues (in a faintly Hegelian way), is the true Logos of nature and history, the design—whether conscious or unconscious—that natural selection unfolds.
It is hard to know what to do with any language of purpose in relation to an avowedly materialist account of social development. But it is not hard at all to know what to do with talk of moral truth. From the perspective of the present, our moral prejudices will always seem more advanced than those of earlier generations, because they are ours, now, and so they must be . . . well, better. All changes in morality in the direction of what we now believe are, from our vantage, phases in a progress toward a higher ethics.
In a purely materialist calculus of social evolution, however, my decision to cooperate with my neighbor rather than to eat him is not a matter of moral truth, but a matter of practicality and convention. Which makes it almost touchingly silly for Wright, after offering a picture of social evolution that logically renders all moral values relative, to conclude by exhorting his readers to take comfort from the thought that moral development is the deep underlying truth of human history.
It is even more absurd for him to end his book with a plea that the great religions—recognizing the higher good of non-zero-sumness and the contemporary imperatives of globalization—continue to mature in the direction of ever greater interethnic and interreligious cooperation. This is the worst kind of hortatory banality, on a par with “Be nice to everybody” or “Think well of all and hope for the best.” It is Wright alone who has decided that non-zero-sum cooperation is the true good that religions serve, in abstraction from their creeds, and he offers no compelling reason why anyone—whether convinced by his story or not—should take that good as a proper end in itself.
The pity of all of this is that Wright might have written a good book if he had undertaken a more modest project. Certainly it is true that conceptions of the divine have changed over the course of human history, from culture to culture and from age to age. And those changes have been closely connected to social, political, economic, and cultural developments. He could have chronicled many examples of this, without presuming any exact order of causal priority in the process, to great effect.
This would have meant, however, eschewing too many Large Ideas about how human society “inevitably” works, or about purpose in history, or about “moral truth.” Of course, such a book would have been about not the evolution—but only the history—of God, and that is a book that has already been written many times.
David B. Hart’s most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.