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If you argue God isn't behind any of this—that the idea of God is merely a human construction—Wright won't disagree. He acknowledges that "if you're a traditional believer" the concept of an evolving god is hardly "inspiring." Traditional believers insist god was born perfect—it's humans who grow to meet his standards. He tells us, though, that it doesn't really matter whether a god implants some idea that expands our tolerance and care for others or we come up with it ourselves. He even admits he doesn't know whether there's a being called God. He does believe, however, that there's some principle in the universe that gives human history a moral
In a way Wright's god resembles the force in Star Wars—a principle of universal energy, quite Eastern—more holy spirit than supreme being. His notion of God resembles that found in 12-step programs or Alcoholics Anonymous: God as the "Higher Power," mediated by our own understanding of the concept.
Wright goes out of his way not to appear dogmatic or prescriptive. He's always temporizing and wrestling with himself, sometimes twisting himself into a rhetorical pretzel in the process. Here's a typical formulation: "Maybe the growth of ÔGod' signifies the existence of ÔGod.' That is: if history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer, then maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose and maybe—conceivably—the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity." That's a lot of maybes! Sometimes reading this book is like reading a transcript of a Gestalt exercise, with top and bottom dogs squabbling for rightful position. That's actually part of the fun and, yes, humanity of it.
Wright is always second-guessing himself, anticipating counterarguments. He knows the history of religion is full of backsliding, because the moral imagination has to be encouraged constantly and "hatred blocks comprehension." But for Wright, the spirit of moral improvement isn't some arcane, perfectionist illusion. The "moral axis of the universe" (a phrase he particularly likes) is idealistic, pragmatic, and in accord with evolutionary theory, he says, because it serves humanity's survival instinct. Call it humane Darwinism.
From small hunter-gatherer clans who fought with each other, to larger, federated political bodies, the circle of trust and even friendship, in Wright's optimistic view, is always enlarging. One-time bitter enemies, like Japan and the U.S., now are intertwined in an embrace of globalism. The ever-cheerful Wright can see the good news even in bad news: "Transnational environmental problems, like overfishing the seas to global warming, are in themselves unfortunate, but at least these negative-sum prospects give humanity an interest in cooperating to head them off."
Reading this book was like participating in my own internal Fight Club, where I was witnessing a battle between my Mr. Reality Principle and my softer, liberal conscience. The wary cynic in me sneers at the backtracking, and reminds me of the bad news that fills our media, families, and personal lives. The more hopeful, "Spirit of History" guy in me is thrilled by the rising tide of optimism I find in Wright. Sometimes, reading him, I want to celebrate (to use Lincoln's phrase) the "better angels of our nature," while something else in me also wants to slap him. So put on your boxing gloves, readers. Wright certainly gives you a moral and spiritual workout.
Richard Handler, M.A., is a radio producer and columnist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada. Contact: email@example.com. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.psychotherapynetworker.org. Log in and you'll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine section.