Reflection: The Evolution of God
This reflection was initially prepared for my course Introduction to Christian Theology in Winter 2011.
In this week’s readings I was particularly interested in the discussion of how the idea of God has evolved over the centuries. Earlier this summer, I read the book The Evolution of God by Robert Wright and it really challenged my thinking about the “unchanging” nature of God. From what I’ve studied, which isn’t a lot but also more than just that one book and this week’s readings, there is really no doubt of this concept of the idea of God changing in fairly significant ways over the past 4000 years. The most drastic may be the well-established shift from monolatry to monotheism after the Babylonian Exile. Since these shifts are undeniable to any honest scholar, it leaves a few options for the Christian theologian.
One option is to ignore it. Those who remain in the classical thinking of God as unchangeable see their viewpoint as a higher source of revelation than the work of historians who can trace this evolution. To me this is analogous to the rejection of the biological process of evolution simply because a literal reading of Genesis disagrees. Under certain premises, like a literal reading of the Bible or God always revealing himself the same at all times, it makes perfect sense. In both of those cases I would reject the premise, but I also would not attempt to argue that it is a “wrong” theology.
The other extreme is to conclude that we then don’t know anything about the real God… if there even is a real God. It would be fairly easy, especially in the hard postmodern mindset, to conclude that since the supposed knowledge about God has not been consistent, none of our current ideas can be trusted either. Perhaps God doesn’t even exist, because really all of our ideas of God came out of our circumstances. Not surprisingly, this is a common argument for atheism. Again I would find it challenging to try to argue this position as wrong, but to me it is not really the goal of postmodernism. To me the real goal is to bring various facets or opinions of truth together to learn from each other rather than to abandon efforts at truth.
The third option, and the one I would take, would fall somewhere in between. A key idea to me is the principle of accommodation, which says that God reveals himself in ways that can be understood by the people he is revealing himself to. Thus, during the old covenant, God revealed himself as a national god, because that was the only type of god which made sense to Israel. While I believe that God revealed himself most strongly in Jesus, I don’t think that this means that there is nothing left to learn about God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) from revelations past, present, and future.
I propose that this evolution has been a meaningful and intentional act of God revealing himself to us. Within the relational-God paradigm rather than the unchanging-God paradigm, it is not only possible that God would reveal himself differently to different people over time, it is necessary. As humans, we have evolved. I don’t just mean biologically, although I believe that too, but we have evolved in many ways as societies, in some ways good and in some ways bad. It makes sense that not only has that caused us to perceive God differently, but that it has caused a relational God to reveal herself differently.
Being offended at this concept of an evolution of God comes out of an insistence of God being static. I believe God’s character does not change: he remains above all else love. Yet love, just as it does with love from a parent to child, or spouse to spouse, or friend or friend, or any other relational construct, does require showing our attributes to each other in different ways. I can still be me, loving my girlfriend, and me, loving my mother. Those look very different but are both honest expressions of me. Similarly, my theology is not the same as monarchic-period Israel, or the Enlightenment church, and it is not likely to be the same as the church 300 years in the future. In my opinion, that is a good thing, showing God’s relational transcendence over vastly different circumstances.