Saturday, October 24, 2009

Religion: Evolving or Unnameable?

Did religion evolve along with our more childlike looks, our thinner skulls, our success in mating? Are we moving towards a less-assertive, more-moral theology, or one that admits we cannot define the Divine in human terms? Jack Miles, author of "God: A Brief History" and the inevitable follow-up on His Son, reviews Robert Wright's "The Evolution of Religion" & Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God." Wright argues that religion tamed us; Armstrong promotes "apophatic" or "not-speaking" notions of accepting we cannot talk truly about God. They provide opposing views on how we've grown to accept more nuanced, less primitive notions of the Creator.

I excerpt with my comments parts of the L. A. Times review "Faith and Belief". (The same issue has a review of R. Crumb's illustrated Book of Genesis.) Miles, a former Jesuit seminarian, before getting to a rather truncated critique of Wright (negative on his positive view) and Armstrong (positive on her negative view), diverges intriguingly into our own prehistory and biology.

Explaining "DNA-aided recovery" from human fossils, he cites Nicholas Wade on "gracilization" i.e., "a worldwide thinning of the human skull." Around 40,000 years ago, long before agriculture, our bones kept getting lighter and our skulls smaller. We followed what happened as wolves became dogs-- "pedomorphism." It became more appealing for us to find partners and engender offspring less threatening, more docile.

A fifty-thousand year old process still happening-- as in my own current bedside book, Helen Fisher's "Why We Love" about brain chemistry and mating patterns. She claims how New Guineans would pick out as would we as beautiful the same symmetrical faces. Jutting cheekbones and firm jawlines for males show lots of testosterone; a 70% ratio of female waist to hip also signals good genes from strong childbearers. We have encoded in us, it seems by now, these instinctual preferences for attraction.

Miles goes on to glance at Gilgamesh, who bedded many women in the city while wild man Enkidu had to make do with one prostitute in the fields, as a provocative lesson from our oldest recorded tale of how myths encode too our own social and cultural mores. He wonders:
Perhaps the "Epic of Gilgamesh" crystallized memories of the long human self-domestication that Wade writes of, but of equal interest is the possibility that rather than merely recalling the change, this and kindred myths may have contributed to it. If such a literary work were recited repeatedly, honored as supreme truth, taught to the young and this over centuries of time -- if, in short, it were turned into sacred scripture, then could it not create social pressure, then behavioral changes and, finally, over a sufficiently lengthy period, even genetic modification?

Miles places then Wright's "The Evolution of God," within this same general thesis, for later West Asian and Middle Eastern scriptures. I'd heard of this book last summer, but I put off reading it when I found lukewarm reviews. Miles, too, finds that Wright makes a weaker case than he should have for his notion of how, for the three major Western faiths, "despite the frequent violence of this three-stranded history, Wright discerns a vector tending distinctly toward unity and away from division. Globalization, for him, is the culmination of this process."

Wright, however, strays away from this path into connecting natural selection with cultural evolution, without apparently going beyond what theologians call "the argument from design," that God as in Thomistic and scholastic terms "First Efficient Cause" or "Prime Mover" set up the whole intricate machinery that finally produced us. Wright streamlines the process to show how complex societies manufactured moral progression; Miles asserts that Wright fails to show how scriptures served this goal.

Apparently Wright claims that "God" became a term akin to "electron" for scientists: the handy term invented to describe what Miles finds really not an evolving God but "rather a constant, the C-factor without which human evolution does not compute." But, because it falls back on the argument from design, Miles remains unconvinced.

The reviewer in this October 11, 2009 article then moves on to the former nun Armstrong, no stranger to popularizing theology within history; I reviewed on my blog and Amazon US her Penguin Lives entry on the Buddha. She favors in her new book a God apart from evidence we can summon, whether from biology, morality, or history.

Rather than Wright's God emerging from social and moral progress, Armstrong advances "an ancient way of talking about 'God, Brahman, Dao, or Nirvana.' For her, these are conceptually different names for the reality that exceeds human comprehension and escapes human language, including all human predication of existence or nonexistence." She recovers what in the West the ancient Christians suggested and the medieval Church explored. As Miles sums it up-- for he fails really to cite either author under review hardly at all in a review that takes half its time to get to either book under review:
Apophatic theology -- the theology of the original, Greek-speaking Christian church -- was "naysaying" theology, a kind of religious language whose difficult task it was to acknowledge in human language the very inadequacy of human language. Whatever it said, apophatic theology immediately took back, and then it took back the taking back. Ordinary language -- the language of evidence and inference, of instance and generalization -- was fine for ordinary matters. But to confess the universal human experience of a final failure in this language is to take back the confession. It is to lose the game before it begins.

I use then his concluding paragraph, for Miles sums up Armstrong as well as I could without having read a book I now will mean to read:
Armstrong writes the history of how apophatic theology was forgotten in the late Middle Ages; how rational and then quasi-scientific Newtonian theology rose to replace it in early modernity; how, when others were recognizing this as a mistake, fundamentalists tightened their embrace of it; and how, in the wake of the passing of modernity and the failure of both its theism and its atheism, postmodern theology may point toward the recovery of what was lost. A god whose existence you can prove is a god to whom you cannot pray, postmodern theology argues, and prayer -- not proof -- is where religion rises or falls. Armstrong's very considerable service is to show how this novel idea is a very old idea newly recovered.

Why did I bold-face that phrase above? I perused this in my chair as my wife readied dinner last night. By the way, I had set the table already and have clean-up duties. My usual tasks. She's the skilled labor. I'm the unskilled bus-boy and pearl diver.

Well, I was stunned by Miles' summation of apophatic theology. I read this out loud to her. I averred that this was my kind of belief. If you'd like to find a blog that in far fewer words than mine presents this style of faith, turn to my friend Bob's blog here, a long-standing fixture under my suggested links: "The Cloud of Unknowing".

Image: Hard to get an illustration for negative belief. I borrowed my own. Googling "apophatic" images my blog's #4. And this cloud's the same one on Bob's page, in turn on another blog with the URL "cloudofunknowing"-- Bob's had to take a Greek term for its domain. As I can say as "Fionnchú," it's amazing what gets snapped up-- I was unable to use my "net" moniker on AOL & Yahoo where it'd been already taken. But as for "apophatic," still an unknown commodity: rubricized by the master red squiggler here.

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