Perhaps it was inevitable in a symposium organized by First Things that all three commentators fault my book for not taking the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ as the center of my story, when the fact of the matter is that my book didn’t reach chronologically to the life of Jesus. That’s because Religion in Human Evolution, large as it is, is a fragment. I had originally intended to bring the book up to the present, but when in 2010 the manuscript had become so tall that it could almost tip over I realized that it must go to the publisher with the hope for another (inevitably smaller) book to complete what I had originally hoped to do. I rationalized this decision on the grounds that it did achieve, I hoped, one major point that was central to my argument: By looking at where religion came from rather than where it was going, I could avoid what I thought were the major defects of most previous efforts to account for the evolution of religion—namely, determinism and reductionism.
It was precisely in an attempt to defeat efforts to reduce religion to deterministic and reductionist biological causes that I undertook at my advanced age a fairly serious education in biology so that I could show that those accounts could not be substantiated in biological terms. I was then also concerned to avoid sociological or economic determinism by showing instead that religion, from the earliest forms to the great transformations of the Axial Age, had its own inner dynamic and creativity, which made it impossible to treat it as a “variable” determined by its social environment, however much it interacted with and responded to that environment.
So I wish my critics had focused more on what I did do than on what I didn’t do. But under the circumstances, that was understandable. Theologians will be theologians, I suppose.
Francesca Aran Murphy, in her emphasis on freedom, comes closest to getting at what I was most trying to do in this book, and her criticisms are off the mark only by a little. She and I share a great admiration for Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, which has been central in both of our lives. However, she sees Huizinga following Plato when he, in the Laws, wrote that “man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him,” but she does not see me doing so. Why does she imagine that I don’t affirm Plato as Huizinga does? Nothing in what follows the Plato quote in Religion in Human Evolution indicates any disavowal on my part. And the fairly long and largely ecstatic treatment of Plato in the chapter on Greece in the Axial Age would certainly suggest to most readers that I am a Platonist.
She comes to her conclusion in part because elsewhere in the book I quote Kant with approval and so must believe, as she thinks Kant does, that freedom is purely negative, “freedom from,” rather than “freedom for the fulfillment of our natures.” But of course, Kant specifically thinks of the freedom at the basis of the categorical imperative as positive—that is, the freedom to treat oneself and all others as ends in themselves, thus producing a “kingdom of ends,” which is the ideal society. Plato and Kant arrive at their conclusions in very different ways, but both see freedom as for something.
After largely agreeing with my argument, Murphy writes, “It is quite impossible for an orthodox Christian theologian to buy into Bellah’s narrative taken as a whole.” That raises the question of what “Bellah’s narrative as a whole” really is, something that bedevils all the contributions to the symposium (and preoccupied much of the discussion at the seminar last December as well). But for now, let’s leave aside “my narrative” and take up the issue of what is and isn’t possible for orthodox Christians. Murphy is attentive to my references to Huizinga and then to Plato, yet she ignores my reference to Blaise Pascal, who makes a rather surprising appearance in a chapter on my very lukewarm account of “religious naturalism.” There I quote him affirming not the God of the philosophers but God incarnate in Jesus Christ. Perhaps Pascal appears where he does to make a point not entirely incompatible with “orthodox Christian theology.”
While I am honored by Thomas Joseph White’s assertion that Religion in Human Evolution is “the greatest work of liberal Protestant theology ever,” I nonetheless would like to decline the honor. I wrote my book as an example of one possible kind of contemporary social science, interdisciplinary even to the point of including natural science along with social sciences and the humanities. Still, I believe that all our categories overlap, and so my book does not require excluding revelation and metaphysics but is, on the contrary, open to them in a variety of ways. A book can address topics of theological import without being a book of theology.
That said, it is probably “liberal Protestant” that gives me more trouble than “theology.” I consider Paul Tillich one of my three great teachers. I know he is often categorized as a liberal Protestant, but he doesn’t fit. He was a critic not only of liberal Protestantism (for just the reason White cites: It had liquidated itself into secular humanism) but also of Protestantism itself. His book The Protestant Era was first proposed as The End of the Protestant Era?, but his publisher didn’t want a question mark in the title; he then titled it The End of the Protestant Era, but Protestant friends felt that seemed to suggest he was becoming Catholic, so he ended up with the title we know.
Tillich’s criticism of Protestantism itself, which was very deep and led to his feeling that he lived at the end of “the Protestant era,” was based on his understanding of Christianity. He consistently affirmed “the Protestant principle,” which is in essence prophetic religion that calls everything on this earth into question relative to a transcendent conception of God. However, the Protestant principle also requires what he called “Catholic substance,” in the absence of which the Protestant principle turns into sheer criticism, which finally turns on itself and becomes nihilistic. For Tillich, the essence of Catholic substance is sacramentalism, and it is exactly that which Protestantism abandoned. First, orthodox Protestantism proclaimed the Word and the Sacrament; then it became the Sacrament through the Word; and then it became just the Word. For example, when Karl Barth said the Word of God did not contain the sentence “Thou shalt light candles,” he made Tillich’s point. Even more crushing was Tillich’s claim that Protestant theology had abandoned love as the central theological virtue in place of the all-consuming emphasis on faith.
For me, accepting Tillich’s criticism of liberal Protestantism, and of Protestantism itself (though not the Protestant principle), meant that I could only be a small-p protestant. Through my decades of involvement in the Berkeley Graduate Theological Union, where I was an adjunct professor from the time I first came to Berkeley in 1967, and especially owing to my close collaboration with faculty and graduate students at the Jesuit School of the GTU, I lived in a heavily Catholic atmosphere even in so secular a place as Berkeley. Though I had been raised as a Presbyterian I ended up an Episcopalian, where liturgy and the Eucharist in particular met my need for a sacramental religious practice. So I ended up a small-c catholic (or Anglo-Catholic) as well as a small-p protestant. For all these reasons, I don’t want to be called a liberal Protestant theologian, however great.
To the extent that I’ll accept the honor of being called a theologian, it’s along the lines of what Tillich himself described in a talk to the Harvard Overseers of 1959. He said that all academic study in the humanities, and especially in religion, must combine detachment or distance with participation: “All detached knowledge remains hypothesis. It is preliminary; but participation brings the subject matter into us or us into it. Such participation produces the eros and the passion which inspire the teaching without destroying the scientific soberness.” In the empirical cases I treat in my book, revelation and metaphysics are not parked at the door.
On the contrary, several have significant existential meaning to me. “Nothing is ever lost” became my mantra. In the case studies of my book I sought the passion of participation that Tillich rightly recognized must complement detached analysis. My treatment of the biblical Hebrew prophets in my chapter on ancient Israel takes me back to my high school church experience, when I first read them and where they indelibly formed in me a social Christianity that I have never abandoned. I especially identify with Jeremiah, with his terrible burden of being called by God, though he dearly wished God had chosen someone else. Through much of my adult life I have been reading Plato and Aristotle, Aristotle long before I read After Virtue, but with increasing understanding after that. I first read Confucius and Mencius in classical Chinese in my first year in graduate school, where I was combining a degree in sociology with East Asian languages. They have never left me. In my research on ancient India, where I was completely a novice, I met the Buddha of the Pali Canon for the first time, despite my long familiarity with Mahayana Buddhism in East Asia, where the “historical Buddha” is completely overshadowed by the Bodhisattvas. I was entranced with what I found: such wonderful, wise, and often amusing dialogues. Even in the chapter on tribal religion, I noted how much the Australian Aborigines, especially as described by the Australian anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner, and the Navajo, as described by my own undergraduate teachers at Harvard, have meant to me.
So I don’t entirely deny that there is theology in my book—indeed, what would it be if there weren’t? And perhaps White will insist that I’m being too ingenious in my use of Tillich to parry the liberal Protestant label. I’m willing to concede that it’s the theologian’s prerogative to define theological categories. But I’d like to challenge White’s sociological assumptions about theological traditions.
He notes the irony of my remarkable achievement of a liberal Protestant theology just at the moment when liberal Protestantism is in eclipse. I think that is more of an open question than he does. The “eclipse” may be due to the triumph of liberal Protestantism. By so invading secular humanist culture that it lost its own distinction, it won, after all, by transforming secular humanist culture itself. There is more than a little evidence that most Americans, for example, would assent to unmarked liberal Protestant beliefs more often than to unmarked orthodox alternatives, and that this would be true not only for most mainline Protestants but also for most Catholics and even most Evangelicals.
I joked in our seminar that liberal Protestantism had died and been reborn; it is called “religious studies.” Religious studies is not a homogeneous field, but I think there is more than a little truth in what I said, and that the replacement of theology departments with religious studies departments in most American universities (and now in Europe and Asia too) is a sign that liberal Protestantism as White envisages it is alive and well, being taught to tens of thousands of students every year.
There are other signs of triumph. Many have noted the process of “Protestantization” of the “world religions” (the very term is a liberal Protestant invention). Reform movements in Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, even Islam, with Reform Judaism being a vivid example, all exhibit this process. Some have seen Vatican II in this light. It may seem that radical fundamentalism has won the day, but in sheer numbers the fundamentalists are probably eclipsed in most traditions by liberal reformist alternatives, who are quieter but more numerous. The emergence of a vigorous human rights agenda in global civil society is another partial offshoot of liberal Protestantism. And what the growing number of religious “nones” in America believe is far less likely to be atheism than some residual form of unorganized liberal Protestantism. One can find liberal Protestantism inadequate, though not without redeeming qualities, as I do, without presuming it is near death.
Paul Griffiths has some nice things to say about Religion in Human Evolution, but he soon begins the process of demolishing my book by questioning its entire substance on two grounds. First, he believes there is not enough evidence for such a story. At moments, it seems Griffiths is so skeptical about the adequacy of our knowledge of the things I try to cover in my book that he thinks no one could ever write a coherent account. Second, he claims I use what evidence there is willfully to suit myself. He argues that I am arbitrary, that I am telling “a story I like the sound of.”
Here, all I can say in my defense against the first criticism is that I did the best I could. Like any scholarly book, certainly any history book, it will be quickly outmoded in its details because of new scholarship. But in the thirteen years I worked on my book, I sought the most reliable accounts I could find. My book is deeply collaborative. I consulted not only basic texts where they were available (relying mainly on translations, though with key texts in more than one translation), but also on the classic secondary literature, as well as on the state-of-the-art secondary literature at the time of writing.
In many cases I consulted specialists, some of whom are at Berkeley but most of whom are scattered all over the world. (I have my doubts about modern information technology, but I have to say I could not have written this book without e-mail.) I sought and largely obtained readings that told me where I was wrong and helped me to get things right, or at least defensible, in area after area where I was not a specialist or, in the case of India, had no background at all.
If Griffiths wants to believe there is no objective basis for the stories I tell, he can of course do so. But I’m less of a skeptic. Scholars sometimes have to venture synthetic judgments, especially if we want to have something informed to say about large-scale questions of the sort I try to answer, however tentatively, however fallibly, in my book.
His second criticism turns on what I can only describe as a monomaniacal approach to metanarratives. He believes a metanarrative is “a narrative that, in the eyes of its users, frames and explains all other narratives and can be framed and explained by none.” When I take up the discussion of metanarratives in my second chapter (I have to wonder if he even read that chapter) I outline an entirely different view. I am concerned with many metanarratives and indicate that none of them can subsume all the others. For example, I say that “there is one story about origins that, at least among educated people, has a kind of priority today, and that is the story as told by science: in terms of the universe, scientific cosmology; in terms of life, evolution.” I go on to say that, although this is a story I can’t avoid, “that does not mean it is the only story. In the course of writing this book, which is a history of histories, and story of stories, I have become involved with many of the stories I recount to the point of at least partial conversion.”
In other words, although I take the scientific story as a necessary framework, I reject it as an adequate religious myth, though some people have proposed to do so. For example, the astute reader will note that Teilhard de Chardin, a favorite of those who want to fuse science with religion, is not mentioned once in my book. I engage in critical exegesis of such efforts and show what is wrong with their approach. Thus, if Griffiths had read carefully, he would know that the scientific story is to me only a convenience for exposition and not my myth. I call the religious interpretation of the scientific story of cosmology and biological evolution a “myth” not in a pejorative sense but to indicate that using that story for religious purposes has moved out of the realm of science.
I attempt to reclaim the use of the term myth that allows for pluralism, rather than the monism Griffiths presupposes, when I write: “Myth can be true, but it is a different kind of truth from the truth of science and must be judged by different criteria . . . . I would argue that the myths told by the ancient Israelite prophets, by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, by Confucius and Mencius, and by the Buddha, just to stay within the purview of this book, are all true myths. They overlap with each other and with [the scientific myth], but even in their conflicts, which are sometimes serious, they are all worthy of belief, and I find it possible to believe in all of them in rather deep but not exclusive ways.”
I know that this opens me to the charge of relativism from Griffiths (with which I will deal later), but it shows decisively that I have no mono-myth designed to replace all others. I criticize and disavow the use of the modern cosmological and evolutionary myth as an adequate religious story, and I certainly do not use it as “my story.” To the extent that Griffiths thinks that I do, and Murphy and White seem to indicate that they agree, they have all failed to read carefully enough. So when Murphy writes that as “an orthodox Christian theologian” she “cannot buy into Bellah’s narrative taken as a whole,” I wonder what narrative she is talking about. It is not my conscious intent to offer such a narrative.
When I move beyond biology to the realm of culture, I am leaving behind the scientific narrative that “all educated people accept.” I am developing insights from Merlin Donald, Jerome Bruner, and others to try to understand aspects of cultural evolution. Here I move into contested territory, since some scholars think that the idea of evolution applies only to biology and not to culture, and others believe that cultural evolution is defensible but have a different view from the one I adopted. I’m fully aware of the lack of scientific consensus on these issues. Still further, I am not so foolish as to imagine that the two issues I raise at the end of my conclusion—namely, the danger of ecological catastrophe and the necessity of sympathetic understanding of all human traditions—command anything like universal agreement. Here I am doing exactly what Griffiths thinks I should be doing: agreeing that “the metanarrative one has is one candidate among many.” I am not offering one more triumphalist metanarrative.
I find the charge bizarre. Triumphalist narratives usually offer a final stage that is a “fulfillment” of all previous stages. Yet the few hints I give about where the story I tell seems to be headed lead to exactly the opposite conclusion. I have profound doubts about the modern project itself, which has significant achievements but seems headed toward self-destruction. I argue that the theoretic, which modern culture tends to exalt, is not the final culminating stage that can dispense with everything before it. Yes, it is powerful in some ways compared with its predecessors, the mimetic and the mythic, but it is also vulnerable to great dangers precisely when it becomes disembedded from bodily practice and narrative.
Thus, when it comes to religion understood as “a conception of a general order of existence,” as Clifford Geertz puts it, I prefer Plato’s to that of modern science used as a religious myth. In fact, I think all the Axial myths are preferable to that latter alternative. I believe in multiple metanarratives, in many histories and many stories, and therefore I cannot accurately be accused of asserting a single triumphalist story, and especially not the one modern science has on offer. “Metanarratives don’t brook rivals,” Griffiths writes. His might not, but I find that claim a theoretical abstraction. As I show, during the Axial Age, world history did offer rivals—and it still does. One of the major points of my book is that we should avoid using a triumphalist scientific metanarrative by subsuming or resolving or domesticating this rivalry.
Griffiths takes up two positions that I find profoundly shocking. One is his casual acceptance of a future of mass extinction for humans and probably most multicellular life. He writes that “major extinction events are a regular feature of our planet’s life, with or without human involvement.” Here he is simply wrong. All previous extinction events have been caused by physical occurrences such as collisions with comets or meteorites or massive volcanic eruptions. Only this one is caused by humans, and only this one can humans do something about. I thought Catholics were especially concerned about life. How can Griffiths be so complacent about passively accepting the death of millions, or billions, or very possibly all human lives?
I have recently reread Gaudium et Spes and noted that, while it warns us against the illusion that flawed human beings can bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, we are not to use that as an excuse not to do all we can to bring our present world as close as possible to that end. Human weakness is rejected as an excuse for inaction in the face of worldly evils. I am certain that humans can still do a lot to mitigate the environmental disasters already beginning (how often in history has lower Manhattan been underwater?) but am not optimistic that we will act effectively in time. In this case, Kant’s “can” surely means “should,” and I can’t imagine Griffiths’ complacency in so serious a matter.
The other thing that shocked me was Griffiths’ horror at the idea of a world civil society, which he believes “would mean the end of the Church and, I think, of most other religious traditions.” Why on earth would he think that a global civil society would mean the end of the Church? History suggests otherwise. Freedom of religion is the very first commitment of civil society, going back to its origins in the eighteenth century. All the other freedoms that civil society requires, such as freedom of speech, of the press, of association, and so forth, are extrapolations from that one central freedom, the freedom of religion. For a long time the Catholic Church supported the idea of an established church and was doubtful about religious freedom, but several of the central documents of Vatican II indicate a strong affirmation of religious freedom. A world civil society of the sort I hope (as does a major strand of modern Catholicism) will flourish is therefore more likely to mean an end to religious persecution than the end of religion.
Jürgen Habermas and others also support the idea of a global civil society. We have a global economy that transcends and intimidates all nations, but we have nothing above the nation-state to mitigate the dangers of the unconstrained use of national power, even for genocide. Further, nationalism is one of the greatest dangers in our world today, especially since the two most powerful nations in the world, the United States and China, are its two most nationalist. The idea of a war between China and the United States is not inconceivable as things are going at the moment, but that would be disastrous and could lead to the same consequences as environmental disaster.
In any event, a global civil society open to pluralism is already beginning to show its head. I was in China twice in 2011 and saw the hope young intellectuals there had that such a development could mitigate the authoritarianism of their own country and lead to a genuine engagement of China with the other leading nations of the earth. These young Chinese wanted a civil society with no state ideology—not Marxism, not Confucianism—but rather the open discussion of all the alternatives, in which a chastened Confucianism would have a voice, though only in dialogue with the traditional religions of Buddhism and Daoism, as well as with Christianity, a growing religion in China and the faith, as these young intellectuals well knew, of many Chinese dissidents.
Whether it is an all-consuming “metanarrative” or the supposed anti-Christian consequences of a world civil society, Griffiths consistently suspects that I am offering some kind of mono-myth that would swallow up everything else: “If Bellah’s metanarrative is true, this Christian one must be false—because his account requires Christians exactly not to offer this narrative as a metanarrative.” The non-relativistic pluralism that I espouse is simply incomprehensible to him, as it was to many of the symposium participants. When I recite the Nicene Creed in church I think I am asserting a metanarrative not so far from his, although he can’t imagine that I could seriously believe it. But I do. I wrote Religion in Human Evolution not as a narrow professional undertaking but as a work of social science that I value existentially, because it tries to bring into clearer focus what role religion has in the development and flourishing of the human animal. And I’ve studied Navajo religion, which evokes in me insights I cherish rather than a demand that I reject it as a competing “metanarrative.”
As I read Griffiths’ commentary, I have to wonder, has he really read my book? The last thing I am arguing for is “generic sociological and historical categories, not theological ones, that [will] inform the self-understanding of the citizens of the hoped-for world civil society.” What I believe is exactly the opposite, as I affirm in the crucial quotation from Thomas McCarthy, Habermas’ leading American interpreter, in the penultimate paragraph of my book: “The conceptual point is this: By their very nature, the universal cannot be actual without the particular, nor the formal without the substantive, the abstract without the concrete, structure without content.”
And so it follows that “from our present perspective, it is clear that the irreducible variety of hermeneutic standpoints and practical orientations informing interpretive endeavors, however well informed, will typically issue in a ‘conflict of interpretations’ and thus call for a dialogue across differences.” Our religious convictions will make vital contributions to any world civil society that is fit for actual human beings.
Griffiths finally finds my book pointless. Thankfully, the other commentators to some degree seem to think that I succeeded in fulfilling the two goals I set for myself. First, a serious look at the present state of work in evolutionary biology shows that it by no means requires an absolutely determinist and reductionist view. Many leading biologists recognize the sentience, creativity, and participation of organisms in their own evolution as being there from the beginning and believe that genetic mutation is only one part of the story, not its absolute foundation. Conserved core processes are able to defend themselves from genetic changes that would destroy them, while encouraging changes that might enhance them. For these and other related reasons, attempts to use biology to explain culture need not have grim reductionist consequences. We’re spiritual by nature, as it were.
Second, in my chapters beginning with tribal religion right up to the Axial Age, I argue that religion involves a quest for comprehensive meaning that has its own internal motivation. It occurs within and interacts with other spheres of society and culture, but what it produces can never be reduced to those environing spheres. I reject the older, often taken-for-granted economic determinism in the long story I tell, and I also reject the newer turn to power determinism that is so popular among the postmodernists. Thus, in terms of both biological and cultural history, I argue for freedom and creativity rather than determinism and reductionism. This is surely of some help to those students of religion who already intuit that to be the case, as Murphy suggests most of us do.
Beyond that, I take every case on its own terms, affirming revelation and metaphysics where I find them, and also the claim to the truth of their own metanarratives, which can never be subsumed into “my metanarrative.” I believe there is truth in all of them, including the tribal ones. All of them deserve our respect. That does not mean all of them are to be believed as equally true, which I have never affirmed. But it does mean we can learn from all of them.
Robert N. Bellah is Elliott Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley.