“In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” – John 1:1.
There is no story there, things were final from the very beginning, everything else flows from that fixed point in the universe. Unless… there is a story, but it’s not so obvious.
In his book, The Evolution of God, Robert Wright tells that story, which began millennia ago with the primordial faith that many things, not just people, have souls. In 1871, Edward Tylor, founder of social anthropology, called “animism” the “infant philosophy of mankind” created by “ancient savage philosophers” who, like today’s thinkers, were trying to explain why good and bad things happened, and if there was a way to predict and influence those forces for the better.
Ever since, people have tried to make sense of the world around them, and they have adapted and changed their understanding of the gods based on the facts on the ground. When an army was defeated in war, that meant something about the patron god of that army. When ancient astronomers discovered that solar eclipses were predictable, that meant that the stories about feisty heavenly creatures snatching the sun were just stories.
The story of God begins tens of thousands of years ago with the hunter-gatherers who had at least five types of supernatural beings: elemental spirits such as the winds and the moon, strange creatures controlling parts of nature, organic spirits hidden in animals, ancestral spirits, and also, a high god who might have been a creator, but not a manager or a moral god.
“In the hunter-gatherer universe, the problem of evil isn’t so baffling, because the supernatural doesn’t take the form of a single all-powerful being, much less a morally perfect one. Rather, the supernatural realm is populated by various beings that, as a rule, are strikingly like human beings: they’re not always in a good mood, and the things that put them in a bad mood don’t have to make much sense.” – The Evolution of God, p. 21
The hunter-gatherers didn’t worship their gods, they haggled with them and tried to cheat them at times. Gods were good for explaining unexplainable things, but the moral part of religion as it is today was not with the gods, but with the small and tight communities where all the bad things—cheating, stealing, killing—got punished and deterred due to humans’ tendency toward kin selection (family) and reciprocal altruism (friends).
“If you live in a hunter-gatherer village, most of the people you encounter fit into one of these two categories and so fall naturally within the compass of your decency.” – The Evolution of God, p. 25
From the very beginning, leaders emerged who claimed to have access to the supernatural—the shamans. If their track record was good, they could live long enough to establish their line as wise men. From among them emerged the first rulers, and, in the age of chiefdoms, 7,000 years ago, these rulers competed for regional power. Once city-states appeared during the third and second millennium BCE, such as in China, Egypt and Mesopotamia, managing large numbers of people who weren’t friends or family became the responsibility of the city rulers and they got help from the priests who worshipped gods who began to have ethical and moral concerns (The gods invested the king “to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers.” – Hammurabi’s Code, Ancient Babylon, 18th century BCE). And once cities got in contact with each other through trade and war, they had to assess and decide how to treat each other’s gods.
“Suppose you are king of a city and you want to trade with another city’s king. You know that his local stature is tied to the stature of his city’s chief god; as king he maintains the god’s temple, which is thus a kind of showcase for him as well as for the god. What’s more, the temple’s priests are major economic players, and may control some of the intercity trade you’d like a piece of. So the last thing you want to do is start disrespecting that god, and the first thing you want to do is embrace it. Thus theological open-mindedness can boil down to economic self-interest. Because both parties in a trade can benefit from it—because economic interaction is “non-zero-sum”— two once-alien gods may find common ground. So too with military alliance or any other non-zero-sum game that one king wants to play with another: interfaith harmony can emerge from enlightened self-interest.” – The Evolution of God, p. 81
Gods coalesced into a pyramid of powers that shifted and changed based on the facts on the ground. And it wasn’t long until some kings wanted to streamline that pyramid when it became too unwieldy. Marduk, the chief god of Mesopotamia, absorbed all the other gods for a while and became the ultimate explanation for all natural forces. Pharaoh Amenhotep IV of Egypt raised the sun-disc Aten to the top of the pyramid, then got rid of all the other gods and their inconvenient priests, and became the sole ruler Akhenaten (“Helper of Aten”).
The Hebrew Bible also tells the story of an evolving god. Yahweh starts as a hunter-gatherer god who has physical form and supernatural, but limited powers, a warrior god who smashes the armies of the Pharaoh and whose people acknowledge the existence of other gods, but aren’t allowed to worship them or else—a state of affairs called monolatry, not monotheism.
While the Bible was edited throughout the ages to reflect the final word on God, scholars can read traces of Yahweh’s transformation in the text as we have it. In Psalm 82, God takes his place in the divine council and addresses the audience with “You are gods.”
“Over the past century, artifacts unearthed in the Holy Land have clarified the biblical story. In fact, “clarified” is a euphemism. The story as told in the Bible has in some cases been obliterated by the facts in the ground.” – The Evolution of God, p. 106
Archeology indicates that Israelites didn’t conquer the Canaanites to take over the Promised Land. They were Canaanites themselves, who, in the twelfth century BCE, at the beginning of the Iron Age, gave up their nomadic life to grow crops and raise livestock. The Canaanites had a high-god called El, and a powerful storm god called Baal. But reading these things in the Bible and in archeological finds is a painstaking task that takes decades and is always open to interpretation.
“In other words: cultural evolution is fuzzy. Simple questions—such as whether Yahweh consists more of El or of Baal—may not have an answer, much less an answer visible through the mists of antiquity. Still, the matter is worth pursuing: How did El, the cerebral chairman of the board, ever get mixed up with Baal, the terrifying storm god who is described by one scholar as a “virile dim-bulb”? 108 And how were their identities finally reconciled in one God? However elusive the answers, seeking them is the first step toward appreciating the great contribution made by Israelite religion to the evolution of God.” – The Evolution of God, p. 126
The closer to the present the story gets, the harder it is to set side by side all the competing claims and the passions that boil up with them. Paradoxes abound, such as the result of the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile of 586 BCE, after which the Israelites concluded (after decades of debates and soul searching) that Yahweh had punished them with defeat by wielding the largest empire on earth as his punishing mechanism—which makes Yahweh the biggest god of all. Actually the only one. Killing all the other gods was Yahweh’s ultimate revenge on the Assyrians who plundered and the Babylonians who destroyed His temple.
This is just part of the story of God—and there is a story here—a story that matters in a globalized world where people of all faith and no faith must coexist.
“…there is at least one thing we can already say about monotheism and violence. A premise shared by all who commit violence in the name of the Abrahamic god is that this god is special—the one true god. And most of these people would say his specialness was manifest in his mode of appearance: more than three millennia ago, he showed up suddenly, announced his presence, and rejected the pagan polytheism of the day. If you ask them how they know that, they’re likely to say that the scriptures told them so.” – The Evolution of God, p. 129