A few years ago I heard Bishop John Shelby Spong say the Bible is the story of pre-scientific, tribal people who lived before it was known that germs cause disease. He wasn’t denigrating the Bible. He was emphasizing that context should be considered when we read scripture. Obviously, context affected how people viewed the supernatural and ultimately how they understood and defined God, and much more.
Simple as it is, it’s a significant challenge. It raises the question: How does context influence understanding of the sacred, of God? And, of course, the writing of sacred text? Is religion merely a projection of human hopes and fears? What is the basis for our beliefs?
The question is being discussed today in interesting and relatively new ways in popular media outside the classroom. Robert Wright offers a masterful, comprehensive case for the evolution of belief about God. His thesis is mechanistic. "Scripture is obedient to facts on the ground," he writes in his book The Evolution of God .
As societies evolve, they define the deity from within a complicated mix of culture, politics, commerce and intellectual reflection according to Wright. He reminds us that Aristotle said, "Men create gods after their own image, not only with regard to their form but with regard to their mode of life."
I suppose some will consider Wright’s thesis a threat to faith. I don’t. While there is a significant difference between apprehending the mystery of the divine and believing the divine is created out of human apprehension, the rabbinic tradition of on-going conversation about religious perception and teaching provides for a fluid understanding of belief. The conversation occurs over centuries. Rabbis probe teachings, add to, suggest nuance and substantiate or clarify. This makes faith a living stream nurturing thought and practice. And through it teaching about the divine changes.
In the Christian tradition another stream of thought says on-going revelation alters our perception of the divine mystery. It’s about our ability to apprehend the divine. One starting place is textual analysis but it is complemented by philosophical and theological dialogue. And contextual analysis.
These neither refute nor support Wright’s thesis. Nor do they address the persistence of humankind’s search to explain and believe. Wright acknowledges that religious thought is resilient and universal but it is unlikely the result of a "God gene." He rejects an anatomy of belief for the terrain of belief.
Viewing scripture through this lens and considering how the original context shaped what was written or conveyed through oral tradition does not negate faith but it challenges the basis upon which we believe. That’s not a bad thing. It opens us to examine the contours of belief and to ask how our context contributes to, or leads us away from, belief and to what result. In an era of rapid change, globalization, narrow nationalism and fear it’s necessary to think deeply about faith and to disconnect it from partisan ideology.
At a personal level, it presents a challenge to discern how our own biases, perceptions, cultural context and daily experiences illuminate or distort an understanding of the great mystery we call God.
Wright says when commerce makes it more amenable for us to cooperate than fight we are are also more respectful of the beliefs of others and religion contributes to social cohesion. That’s a twist on the common criticism that religion is divisive and harmful to the social fabric.
In an interesting survey of the evolutionary perspective this Sunday, Nicholas Wade asks if this approach could result in detente between religion and science. And he points out that it might not be religion per se that results in good or bad ends, but the way it is used by leaders and others in the society.
Given the fact that we are now coming to the awareness that we are interdependent and our destinies are bound together on this small planet, social cohesion is a great step forward. If Wright leads us to think reflectively about the role of religion in this context, he will have given us a great gift.
(Revised for clarity Nov. 21, 5:33 pm)