The Evolution of God

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Conceptions of the Ultimate, the manner in which world religions understand the divine. Today’s article reflects on a portion of Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, raising several questions concerning the viability of his presentation of Christianity.

The Evolution of God (Wright)In the third part of The Evolution of God, Wright traces the development of early Christianity and its contribution to growing love and toleration within the Abrahamic traditions, arguing that the Apostle Paul, and not Jesus of Nazareth, produced the thinking and methods of inclusive incorporation into Christian communities that laid the foundations for the tradition’s latter success. However, in order for Wright’s summary of Christianity to fit into his overarching thesis concerning the evolution of God, he makes several claims concerning the historical Jesus, claims that I wish to briefly problematize in this reflection. Each of these considerations touches on an important question regarding Wright’s presentation, namely, does his view adequately address the criterion of historical dissimilarity regarding Jesus?

First among these claims involves Wright’s portrayal of arguments surrounding the historical Jesus. Whatever one’s personal theological convictions, the sheer mass of historical Jesus positions and arguments that have been produced within the past century suggests that making overly simplistic arguments about who Jesus was and what he did does not constitute an informed academic discussion of the historical Jesus.[1] Thus, when Wright asserts that Jesus was an “apocalyptic prophet” following the thought of Schweitzer (261), such a claim provides an adequate starting point for thinking about the historical Jesus, but falls far short of an adequate conclusion. Wright at least attempts nuanced claims throughout the rest of this book, but this chapter fails to take into account any of the conclusions (or even positions) from the second and third quests of historical Jesus scholarship. A second concern, and latent within this dismissal of serious historical Jesus scholarship, is Wright’s perplexing use of sources. Within scholarship, the conclusions we draw are indelibly shaped by the sources we draw upon, and Wright takes a radical minimalist position on source material that is unmatched by mainstream historical Jesus scholars. Even Funk, Crossan, and the Jesus Seminar admit vastly more material than Wright does in his development of the historical Jesus. This of course feeds right into Wright’s minimalist claims about the historical Jesus, though his “pick and choose” method concerning which materials to consider from the Gospel of Mark is also somewhat problematic.

The Evolution of God (Comic)Third and again touching on our primary question, we must ask what is unique about Jesus for Wright. I don’t mean this in any overtly theological sense, only that in a section that begins with a discussion of the criteria of dissimilarity, there is shocking little dissimilar about Jesus, at least as Wright hopes to portray him within the linear evolution of monotheism. There are reasons that many scholars understand Jesus as someone with a unique and powerful message that was subsequently modified and corrupted by his followers, but this position Wright inexplicably avoids. Instead he presents Jesus as a creative combination of apocalypticism and progressive politics (262) and then fails to explicate how this vision was either immediately successful enough to gain followers or was credibly modified during subsequent generations.[2] Even his shift of the “growth” in Christianity to Paul is problematic in terms of uniqueness, and that without considering his views on the historical Paul.

These concerns are worth noting for several reasons. First, Wright’s claims seem to seriously undermine broadly historical claims concerning the early Jesus Movement. The casual manner in which he makes his arguments to a general readership comes across as almost uninformed on mainstream views, which I see as a serious problem. As previously noted in class, the lack of specialization within an audience does not mean sloppy scholarship is acceptable. I fear that these problems hint at Wright’s underlying motives, which seem committed to a pattern of linear evolutionary development within the monotheistic tradition, rather than offering readers an example of genuine historical inquiry. Second, we must ask if Wright’s claims may problematize the possibility of dialogue between specialists and generalists. By this I mean that if Wright’s generalist position in the way in which other generalists hope to speak across specializations, then specialists will likely have some problems with the relatively haphazard manner in which their fields are treated. At this point, I am inclined to problematize Wright’s specific generalist perspective rather than the entire enterprise, though I do feel the continual need to consider this relationship. It is concerns that Wright must clarify (and build upon) before his argument in The Evolution of God will be entirely satisfying.


[1] That he does not address the most important Wright, Tom, on the historical Jesus or even reference his position is perhaps most vexing of all.

[2] One almost gets the impression that Wright feels that, in order to convince monotheistic religions that they must radically transform themselves in the future, he must show them how little their growth has been in the past.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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