Monday, 1 February 2016
DOES GOD EVOLVE?
This was the topic discussed at our January Philosophers' Cafe. The following contains the text of my opening presentation. - C. Marxer
God has evolved right along with humans. Like us, his precise origins are lost in the fogs of prehistory. His lineage can be dimly traced back through many generations of animal ancestors and nature spirits, worshipped by ancient hunting/gathering clans and tribes. When people invented farming, the nature spirits were replaced by more anthropomorphic deities. These tended to be power gods bent on outdoing competitors and helping their tribes or chiefdoms conquer territory, enslave enemy peoples, and set up permanent kingdoms. Our God was one of those. Let’s begin with his first appearance in history.
Apparently God—called El or Yahweh in the old days—was born into a dysfunctional family of Mesopotamian deities about 4000 years ago. He grew up in a tough neighborhood. In order to protect his Chosen People, called Israelites, and receive the worship to which he felt entitled, he had to do some terrible things like wipe out a few tribes and kill the firstborn of Egyptian families. As a result of all that nastiness, he developed some unfortunate character traits: narcissism, jealousy, impulsive anger, bossiness, misogyny, sexual prudishness, and a fondness for murder and genocide. His early career was marked by many triumphs and humiliating defeats at the hands of other gods.
Finally sometime in the sixth century BCE, Yahweh became the chief god of the Jews and the only one whose existence they would acknowledge. After a few more decades, Yahweh became fed up with the stresses of his job and decided to let the Jews fend for themselves. As usual they made a mess of things, so God decided to intervene one more time. He sent his only-begotten son Jesus to set things right, but that didn’t work out very well, either. So the Heavenly Father recalled his son, quit the earthly life altogether, and retired to heaven to become the One and Only transcendent God of the whole universe. Good career move.
God is acknowledged as the One Supreme Being today by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. He no longer meddles in human affairs or performs miracles to prove how awesome He is but prefers to rule from an infinite distance through the laws of nature and the instructions of the various priests, preachers, prophets, popes, and imams who serve as His ministers on Earth.
Philosopher and filmmaker Woody Allen once allowed that God is not evil, that the worst you could say about him is that he is an underachiever. I disagree. I think God is a case of arrested development. His evolution from polytheism to monotheism indicates a certain gain in maturity, but he seems to have exited the world before attaining his full potential. So we must ask: what kind of a god is God these days? Is he the best that he can be, or is he still a work in progress? What would his psychograph look like? Does he need therapy?
Like that of humans, God’s psychological development, has been uneven.
For example, the level of humanity’s cognitive development is very high. Literacy rates worldwide are at record levels, and among the intellectual elite we have advanced logic, mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, technology, and Scientology. The level of God’s cognitive development is also very high (according to some, he knows everything).
On the other hand, the level of humanity’s moral evolution is unimpressive - approximately that of an average 14-year old with anger management problems.
God, too, has evolved morally to about the level of a 14-year old, but with precocious power (some say He’s omnipotent). Anger management problems are the least of his disorders. I mean, look at what he allows to go on around here: massacres, genocides, suicide bombings, American imperialism, and Donald Trump. God apparently still hates pagans, unbelievers, idolators, homosexuals, transvestites, masturbators, fornicators, birth controllers, African Americans, Syrian refugees, Palestinians, and Muslim women. In fact, he seems not to think very highly of women in general, ever since that minor transgression in the Garden of Eden. He just can’t get over it. Also, although he is supposedly pro-life, he aborts millions of unborn humans every year in procedures called miscarriages.
Here’s another of God’s adolescent traits. The Heavenly Father is more like a Heavenly Voyeur (some say he knows and sees everything.) He seems to enjoy watching us screw up. He also likes to watch humans and animals suffer so-called natural disasters such as falling from high places, sinking in quicksand, being eaten alive, suffocating in sandstorms, drowning at sea, burning to death in fires, succumbing to horrible diseases, and fatally ingesting peanuts.
However, God is not entirely disengaged from his creation. Just as humans love board and video games, God is obsessed with planetary games, usually of a violent sort, such as whipping up monstrous storms, earthquakes, tidal waves, floods, plagues of locusts and pine beetles, species extinctions, and global warming. One of his favorite games is World of Warfare, which now looks to become as eternal as he is. He’s saving his absolute favorite for last, called the Rapture, which He wins by destroying the world.
This is all pretty immature. Like us, God has a long way to go.
* * * * *
This somewhat cheeky account elicited a wide range of challenges:
- “Ideas about God change, but God Himself is eternal and unchanging.”
- “God doesn’t exist; ideas about God change in response to changing social, economic, and political conditions.”
- “What about other gods in other traditions?”
- “What about the God of the heart or feeling?”
- “I have conversations with God every day, so this topic is irrelevant.”
- “God is not necessarily a ‘He.’”
Surprisingly, no one accused me of shortstopping the story with the death of Jesus, the Son of Yahweh. What about Jesus’s legacy? What about Christianity? What about the good news of universal salvation in the Gospels? What about the Social Gospel and Liberation Theology? Isn’t God now the loving Heavenly Father and, being so, has he not achieved full maturity in his moral development?
I confess to the crime. God’s biography does not end in the first century CE. Jesus corrected the bad reputation his father had acquired over the centuries, proclaiming that God actually loves people and has prepared a new destiny for them: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John: 3:15, New International Version) Jesus further announced that the old, severe Mosaic law was to be enhanced by a new law of love extending even to one’s enemies. We can justly call this a considerable leap forward in moral maturity.
Unfortunately, Jesus had preached a mixed message. Yes, he enjoined his followers to love God and to love their neighbor as themselves and even to love their enemies, but he also said he came not to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34). Furthermore, those who rejected him, he warned, would suffer eternal hellfire, a terrifying doctrine much emphasized by the Christian Church which took Jesus literally in his comment about that “sword.” Crusades and inquisitions followed a few centuries later. So this new God was not so different from the old boss God. He still demands exclusive obedience and faith and continues to allow the horrors I listed above (and many others).
As I said earlier, this God still has a long way to go. My Christian critics are right about one thing, though: there is a larger story to tell about the evolution of God, but what many don’t yet recognize is that the Abrahamic God represents just part of it. Developmental psychology, anthropology, and spirituality tell us that over some 200,000 years human cultures and their God(s) have evolved through at least 6 identifiable stages or structures, each of which represents an advance over the previous stages while retaining the most important features of those stages. In the following brief summary, I will continue to use the name ‘God’ as convenient shorthand for the various stages of spiritual development and to stress the underlying unity of the evolutionary story.
The overall pattern of the evolutionary story is that of thesis, antithesis, synthesis; or emergence, crisis, transcend-and-include. All cultural stages—the archaic, the magical, the mythic, etc, eventually encounter problems that can’t be solved at their level of consciousness. A higher level then emerges along with changes in technology and social organization. The God of the earlier stage is replaced by a more adequate God who helps the society to stabilize itself at the higher level. Magical God evolves to mythic, mythic to rational, rational to pluralistic, and beyond.
First to appear (emerge) in humanity’s spiritual story is the magical God of the survival clans of ancient times. It was perceived as nature and ancestral spirits which could both harm and benefit the group. Shamans exercised supernatural power through visions, rituals, curses, and spells. Eventually, crises of various kinds, e.g. population growth, required God to exercise more power.
With the emergence of larger tribal societies and chiefdoms comes the magical/mythic God, still polytheistic but more anthropomorphic and more powerful. He/she required worship and sacrifices in return for protecting the tribe from enemies, demons, dragons and other horrible beasts, and natural disasters. The young Yahweh was just such a god, a warrior god, as we have seen, endowed with great magical power over people and nature. Again crises forced God to adapt and vanquish rivals.
Next to appear is the mythic God, often portrayed as Creator and Ruler of the world whose Sacred Power and Absolute Law is revealed in scriptures or through prophets. His plan for the salvation of all is administered—often brutally—by emperors, kings, or religious authorities who claim to rule by Divine Right. This God was virtually unchallenged for hundreds of years until the myths began to crumble under the assault of a new, naturalistic engine of truth—science.
The modern era saw the rise of a rational God who relies on the scientific method as the sole source of truth about the world. This God is dismissive of magic and myth, which are seen to be literally false. He prefers rational discourse to religious command as a means of achieving cooperation in human affairs. Salvation in the form of endless Progress is promised by the God of reason and technology. This structure dominates in today’s globalized civilization, but is now facing multiple serious crises.
A few decades ago, a pluralistic or holistic God appeared, taking a broader perspective than the analytic and materialistic rational God, who was perceived to be shot through with gender, racial, and ethnic bias; its economic system guaranteed to produce gross inequalities and class conflict. Rational God was also oblivious to its destructive effects on the environment. The new pluralistic God identifies itself with the Great Web of Life, seeing all things and people as interrelated and interdependent. Relativism, tolerance, diversity, multiculturalism, feminism, truth and reconciliation, environmentalism, animal rights, consensus decision-making, and emotional sensitivity are among its principal values. All positive and noble in theory. Unfortunately, pluralistic God’s political correctness, extreme relativism and deconstruction, narcissism, and contempt for all other Gods seems now to a growing number of thinkers to be an obstacle to the more radical approach needed to effectively address the various crises the world now faces.
In response, just emerging now among a small but growing number of individuals worldwide is an integral or holistic God that discovers the patterns that connect the previous stages with one another in a coherent, global evolutionary process. He/she/it preserves all of the life-enhancing traits of earlier Gods, while critiquing those aspects of the mythic, rational, and pluralistic Gods that lead to environmental destruction, military and culture wars,etc, blocking solutions to the wicked problems we face in today’s world. Integral God uses information from all major cultures, traditions, and academic disciplines and fully honors all higher spiritual levels and states of conscious development. He/she/it is taking the first steps toward a Theory of Everything that has wide applicability to the problems faced by a fragmented, broken world.
If this story is accurate, we can see that God has indeed evolved, not really with us, as I said initially, but rather in us. The history of God is our history. It should be clear by now that I have been extending the name ‘God’ far beyond the Yahweh or Allah of the Abrahamic religions. If ‘God’ makes you uncomfortable, you can substitute ‘Spirit,’ ‘Consciousness,’ or some other term that feels better to you.
Whatever term you use, the story will be the same, the story of an evolving universe that seems to have put humans at the cutting edge of creative advance where the next stage will emerge. Will God have a central role to play in the coming transformation? If so, which God?
* * * *
For more on Yahweh’s moral development from an atheist perspective, see Robert Wright, The Evolution of God.
Good introductions to Integral Philosophy can be found in Steve McIntosh, Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution and Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything.
Crossroads: Labor Pains of a New Worldview is an award-winning documentary featuring comments by 15 scholars, journalists, and philosophers on why a radical new vision for the world’s future is needed. It can be viewed free at http://crossroadsfilm.com/.