The God of all times

The God of all times

Lead review

The God of all times

invincible The presence of God.

Imagine God reincarnating as a reader and library-hopping. He’d be stunned by the things humans have had to say about Him, right from the time they thought of (thought up?) a higher entity. The ayes and nays, the in-betweens, the philosophers, historians, sociologists, theologians, speculators and pontificators have come and gone, and it’s time for a summary. Time for Wright’s ‘Evolution’.

A fat thesis at 488 pages (followed by extensive notes, bibliography and index), it goes to great lengths to substantiate, balance and illustrate his statements. He writes with caution, but his tongue-in-cheek style lights up reams of historical and sociological trivia. And thus is God born, nurtured and evolved, reflecting the political and moral progress of man. What’s that again? Well, it’s the chicken-and-egg fix all over again. Did God actually make man, or vice-versa? Do the workings of mankind reflect the plan of God, or vice-versa? Wright’s right to speak rests on the fact that though he isn’t a believer, he’s not a scoffer either, so he has the distance, scholarship and empathy to comment and occasionally judge. He has the humour to ripple the sobriety of an investigation into religion.

“Primitive religion broadly…can give us some idea of the ancestral milieu of modern religions.” So, he catalogues the times of the ‘hunter-gatherer Gods’, shamanism, religion during chiefdoms, and of the ancient states, and then the slow journey to monotheism. The latter is made to seem like giant mergers, with a God grown gigantic eating up smaller Gods and imbibing their qualities, emerging as the supreme God. After conquests, Gods of the vanquished people were subjugated or absorbed into the victors’ pantheon. “The melding of religious beliefs or concepts — ‘syncretism’ — is a common way to forge cultural unity in the wake of conquest, and often...what gets melded is the Gods themselves.”

It’s a roller-coaster ride.

The early sections on polytheistic societies are amusing, dwelling on the eccentricities and random-sounding proclamations of God through their priests and administrators. Their punishments and appeasements seem outrageous to us. A Polynesian chief grovels before his late predecessor, “I eat 10 times your excrement.” A family could put a taboo on their trees and fruits, and the Gods would punish thieves with death or illness. But Wright proposes that these early systems were a framework for discipline and control. And if the priest or ruler failed, they weren’t indispensable either.

His view of the Old Testament in which God’s nature changes according to the state of the nation is actually his take on a God born of necessity, a God that both reflects and directs the lives of humankind. Wright sees history itself moving us forward in an affirmative, morally strengthening direction. This prompts him to think that perhaps there is some higher purpose to our existence. Is this divinity? Is this what the believers make it out to be, or is it just a historical collective movement that has arbitrarily been placed under the jurisdiction of a fabricated God?

When he gets to the New Testament, Jesus is a man of his time, advocating love among the Jews, his own people. “Love thy neighbour” is confined to the Israelites, it doesn’t extend to the world. The Christian ideals of universal love and brotherhood came later, pieced together by the apostles, in fact Paul. Islam, though it isn’t descended from the Abrahamic religions, says Wright, “is firmly rooted in the Abrahamic lineage.” Mohamed didn’t get the Word from Moses, he had his own “direct line to God”. Mohamed is “a political leader who deftly launched an empire”, and used a “combination of war and diplomacy to expand his turf”. The concept of Jihad against the infidels crept in only after his death.

Wright’s book treats God and religion as any self-respecting atheist would. He analyses and tells stories, he uses logic and historical perspective to deconstruct the origins of religion and religious thought. His canvas includes Abrahamic monotheism, Christianity and Islam. There was a moment when I thought it would be interesting to see his take on the eastern religions (which he briefly refers to), especially Hinduism, but there’s the problem of taking things too literally.

Wright only “concedes” Godhood in the moral inevitability of humankind’s progress, the movement towards the moral horizon. The details are explained away. (“According to the Book of Genesis, ‘God created man in his own image.’ According to Aristotle, ‘men created the Gods after their own image’,” Wright roots for Aristotle.) It’s interesting to imagine what he would make of the abstractions, poetic symbols and metaphors of our eastern religions that could sound outlandish to an alien investigator (probably in the manner we dismissed the old Polynesian chief).

If he did make that study, however, he’d find himself with a kaleidoscope that shows different things to different seekers.

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