As part of a discussion group, I have been reading Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. My group isn’t anywhere near finished (the “heart” of the book focuses on the three major Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — yet we’ve only finished through the part on Judaism that sets the stage for Christianity), but as I blogged about on my personal blog, I already have concerns about the arguments that Wright presents.
Some of my comments, however, may not necessarily apply to Mormonism. For example, Wright seems to rely on this idea of a God that can evolve. The big issue is that many believers are constrained to believing that God is constant and thus ineligible for evolution. However, Mormons — through ideas like eternal progression — may not have that reservation (depending on whether or not eternal progression is “in” or “out” of the theology du jour.)
So, what does Wright say?
This isn’t anywhere near comprehensive for Wright’s position, but one thing that reached out to me (on page 214):
What might qualify as evidence of a larger purpose at work in the world? For one thing, a moral direction in history. If history naturally carries human consciousness toward moral enlightenment, however slowly and fitfully, that would be evidence that there’s some point to it all. At least, it would be more evidence than the alternative — if history showed no discernible direction, or if history showed a downward direction: humanity as a whole getting more morally obtuse, more vengeful and bigoted.
Or, to put the point back into the context at hand: To the extent that “god” grows, that is evidence — maybe not massive evidence, but some evidence — of higher purpose.
And also, on page 221, after Wright introduces the concept of the logos as a kind of “algorithm” for the universe from God:
…Some say Philo believed a kind of direct contact with God was somehow possible; others talk about a union with “the divine” that falls short of communion with God himself.
But, however direct the connection, the first step to making it was to try to understand God and God’s will. Thus deciphering the Logos could bring enlightenment not just intellectually but spiritually. “The logos was meant to guide the human soul to the realm of the divine,” writes the scholar Thomas Tobin.
And what we also know is that “Logos” as an idea later landed in a little book testifying about a guy named Jesus…”In the beginning was Logos, and Logos was with God, and Logos was God.”
Matt Evans at Times and Seasons wrote about eternal progression as a necessity for a benevolent theodicy a long time ago.
I guess there are several possible directions to go with this. Obviously, Wright’s full position may not go in the direction we need to fit it with eternal progression, and these snippets don’t even truly grab the essence of the position. But…going with Wright, for some reason, somehow, history shows a trend of things getting better. This is indicated through a number of things — our general prosperity (despite ‘hiccups’ like financial crises and wars, we have accumulated great wealth and great scientific advancement), or our general ability to get along with each other, for example (think about Europe. Hundreds of years ago, a union would have been laughable. Now, it is a reality.)
But even more interesting is the way that our ideas of God and morality evolve as the rest of our society does. So, Wright points out that we have moved from an idea of a vengeful god to a glorious understanding of on who is benevolent in novel ways (in Mormonism, our exaltation includes eternal progression). Additionally, whereas even a hundred or two hundred years ago, rights for certain minorities would not have been on the table, today we can and do have discussions on prospects of egalitarianism (even if we don’t feel we as a society are in an ideal point, the important point is that somehow, we have started to feel that there is an ideal point).
Wright argues that this may be sign of some higher purpose.
Now, I have countered that using such an analogy doesn’t necessarily go as far as Wright needs it to. For example, in biological evolution, things appear to get “better,” but really, there isn’t a “forward” or “best.” There isn’t a “best species” that everything is moving toward. Rather, there are adaptations that are more successful to the given environments and adaptations that are less successful. Adaptation toward a better fit to the environment doesn’t necessarily show a higher purpose.
But…with eternal progression, we might avoid that. As long as there is knowledge and experience, shouldn’t our “environment” always be flexible…and if this is the case, shouldn’t we be always able to adapt to this environment? So, we don’t need to imply a “best” to recognize that progress itself, successful adaptation itself is the focus. As Ray points out on his blog, with eternal life, we yet have opportunity to progress in post-mortal life. At some point, our progress will appear so advanced (to us non-advanced peons…probably not to us when we’ve gotten there) that we will be able to do seemingly novel things (like, say…create worlds beyond numbers? — remember, we don’t have to be constrained to “ex nihilo”).
But to progress, we must discover and seek the correct principles — as Ray highlights, and which compare well to Logos — and so these principles too call for our change in order for us to grow.
I don’t think Wright argues that God evolves; he argues that “God” evolves. That is, the human concept of “God/gods” has changed over time (“evolved”). His speculative teleology also refers to changes in human thinking, not to changes in the nature of “God/gods” as actual beings.
For reals? My advice, finish the book before writing a post about it. (Hint: you are wrong about what Wright ultimately is suggesting.)
Wright basically demonstrates via the history of religion that the attributes assigned to God by humans generally adapt to the most convenient configuration for the survival and prosperity of the people. Sort of like God changes in a similar process to natural selection. If it helps a group more for God to promote brotherly love, then we start to see the descriptions of God change to paint him as a loving God. etc.
Primarily, Wright is conveying an idea that God is only a reflection of the moral evolution of human beings. As we get better, God gets better. Even interpreted most liberally, its a very Agnostic approach, but its a little more Atheist than Agnostic. Wright does kind of muse on the concept that perhaps if the man-made God keeps getting better, thus demonstrating that humans are getting better, then perhaps that might mean there is something out there guiding this evolutionary process. (yet, even that musing doesn’t really give any support to the particular concept of God in the Abrahamic traditions) But according to Wright himself, its only a musing, not the primary point of his book.
That’s what I argue on my site. HOWEVER, he seems to confuse these things several times, so it’s unclear whether he is *only* talking about the idea of God evolving (e.g., “god”) or an actual god evolving (God without quotation marks).
I was afraid of a comment like that. I guess that kind of kills the discussion.
Sorry for wasting everyone’s time!
I’ve read much of the book and have to agree with #2. I don’t think the premise is really that God evolves or that God somehow directs our society to be more moral or change it’s concept of God to be “more correct”. I think it presents a very agnostic viewpoint at best. Since very, very few people have actually claimed to have seen God in recorded history (JS being one of the few if we exclude potential appearances of Christ (ie. God to Moses)), most people’s concept of God is therefore completely dependent on their mind. This concept is influenced by many things: the society in which we live, the family in which we were raised, the experiences which we have had, etc. I think if examined closely, our personal thoughts on God are likely as unique as our DNA or fingerprints.
In my reading, the viewpoint of the book is basically that – that people and societies have changed their viewpoint of what “God” means as their societies have evolved. Looked at it this way, it almost takes God out of the picture completely, leaving “God” as a society-defined concept that helps achieve some greater societal goal.
I do think Andrew raises an interesting theological point for LDS theology. This idea that eternal progression doesn’t mean evolving toward a “best”, but instead means evolving to adapt to circumstances, is an appealing one if only for the reason that it resolves the paradox of evolving infinitely toward a finite “best”. And the idea also might explain why God appears to be one way in the OT and a different way in the NT– although by flattening salvation history into one long “Christian” narrative maybe Joseph Smith has done away with that problem already. Anyway, these ideas don’t have to be what Wright actually argues to be intriguing ideas.
I agree with Christopher. Although the main topic of the post is a bit of a misfire (sorry Andrew), the idea that “eternal progression” could actually mean “adaptation to a changing environment” is an intriguing one.
The interesting thing, guys, is that that really was my thought too, throughout reading. That is, that Wright does seem to be focusing more on the idea and concept of God and doesn’t seem to be making strong leaps to an objectively existent god. So, for example, I do agree with Mike S re 4.
However, I talked myself out of all of that. But that really was for naught.
Thanks Chris and kuri for trying to salvage things. I think I’m just unqualified to discuss any further, however.
Wait, guys! I just got here! Am I too late?
*crowd disperses, party streamers strewn on the ground*
*Arthur swipes the champagne before walking out*
Why should the discussion end just because Robert Wright is an agnostic whose idea of the evolution of God doesn’t necessarily fit with LDS doctrine? Eternal progression is a fascinating topic and I doubt Joseph Smith said everything that could be said about it before his death. So far as I know, no later prophets have said much on the topic.
Ken Wilbur, a thought-provoking non-Christian philosopher, has developed Integral Theory, a theory of human individual and social progression. His conclusion that each human being must start individual and social development at ground zero explains why human progression has occurred with the speed and direction of an amoeba.
This life is part of eternity. Why shouldn’t Mormons join the discussion of human social progression and the progression of human concepts about the nature of God?
I see the discussion around the original post seems to have come to a close, but I thought I’d share my view of how I reconcile eternal progression with the perfect nature of God (if anyone cares).
I have faith that God is perfect in every way I can conceive, and that He does not continue to develop in knowledge or learn new things…otherwise, I could not have faith in His commandments today because they might change tomorrow when He learned something new.
No, I think He is a resurrected man who is omniscient and omnipotent and omnibenevolent, and that His continued eternal progression is the increase in Glory He continues to grow in as He saves His children in all the worlds He’s created. His growth is in glory, not in character.
I think that is the basis of faith…that one can believe in a God that is the same yesterday, today, and forever. That His teachings on how to find happiness and Eternal Life are constant.