The Evolution of God

Originally posted July 21, 2009 at

Last Friday night I watched Bill Moyers interview Robert Wright, whose new book, The Evolution of God, was released last month.  What refreshing ideas.  A number of recent books have blamed religion for most of what’s wrong with human society, and with much justification, but Wright’s view is far more positive.  He sees progress occurring over time in human religious thought, and says that the world’s religions are moving toward greater harmony and can be an increasing force for good.

Wright appears to be agnostic in the best sense; he doesn’t know, and he honestly admits that he doesn’t know.  He points out that our human brains were designed for immediate, material-world tasks, finding food and mates and avoiding predators.  We aren’t all that good at thinking about the most abstract ideas; not only do we have trouble clearly conceiving of God, we can’t even manage to understand physical realities like electrons very well.  Wright does not believe in the God that his Southern Baptist upbringing prescribed, but his experiences have given him intimations that there may be some sort of organizing principle or moral order, a Logos, that could possibly be called God.  If such a being or principle exists, he says, the limitations of the human brain probably preclude our ever having much understanding of it.

The concept of the “evolution of God” immediately grabbed my attention.  If God is anything at all, surely It is absolute and unchanging?  Of course, Wright is not saying that God evolves, only that human understanding has developed and progressed over time.  The original conceptions of gods as beings that had ultimate power over humanity and therefore needed to be obeyed and placated now seem primitive to most of us.  The idea of a wrathful, vengeful God has mostly (mostly!)been replaced with that of a loving, parent-like deity.  Wright sees this process as continuing into the future with more and more inclusive and compassionate thinking that will bring people of different faiths closer together and make it easier for humans to cooperate.

But what if, in some sense, God Itself evolves?  I think this could be possible.  I’ve been toying with the idea that God is nothing more or less than the totality of all the consciousnesses in the universe (and any other universes that may also exist).  In our bodies, each cell has its own tiny life, its own agenda, though it lives in close cooperation with other cells.  Each cell is born and dies, but the body as a whole continues through its own life trajectory.  A cell is in a way a tiny animal in its own right, yet that cell, if we can imagine it having little thoughts of its own, would be utterly unable to conceive of the infinitely more complex mind that directs the movements and activities of the entire body.  Concerned only with limited, specialized, survival-oriented tasks, a cell could not imagine fashion, or finances, or word processing.  Yet a cell that could think about its situation might notice that the body carrying it was being somehow moved from place to place, that some force brought it nutrients on a regular basis, that its environment changed from moment to moment.  It might begin to think that some great Power was responsible.

What if, similarly, all the individual parts of the universe together, including the conscious beings like ourselves, make up an inconceivably gigantic consciousness?  What if we are cells in the body of God?  In that case, as we all evolved and developed, the consciousness of the universe as a whole would develop.  God would in fact be able to evolve.

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