The Evolution of God
At least this is the argument set forth by Rodney Stark in his Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief, which I'm currently reading. I can already see that I have some differences with his approach; nevertheless, this is one of those books I wish had been available when I wrote mine, since he has some very important things to say that would have helped me to fine-tune my vision.
In particular, it helps me to more clearly elucidate my differences with Schuon over the question of whether time is spiritually entropic or leading in a positive direction. If Stark is correct, I don't see how it is possible to maintain that cultures of the past were intrinsically superior to ours just because they were closer in time to this or that revelation. The unspeakable barbarism of the past is difficult for me to overcome.
This will be a multi-parter. Also, in case it's not obvious, this will be one of those exercises that is more for me than for you, as its purpose will be to discover what I think. In other words, I'll be thinking out loud and you'll be eavesdropping, so don't complain if the results are half-baked while they're still in the oven.
One factor that immediately sets Stark apart from other attempts to understand the basis of religion is that he is not contemptuous of believers, nor does he assume at the outset -- as sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, and materialists in general must do -- that God is simply the name we give to a collective delusion implemented for the purposes of genetic survival.
In other words, for a materialist, religion cannot really be "about" God, since God does not exist. Rather, there must be some hidden benefit to this massive and universal self-deception, say, group cohesion, or fear-management.
Stark summarizes the situation by noting that "this entire body of recent work is remarkably inferior because so few authors could restrain their militant atheism." Indeed, if "atheist" is just a name we give to people who, for whatever reason, have a spiritual impairment that prevents access to the transcendent, then nothing they say about God is of any value whatsoever, as it's simply a "negative hallucination," or confabulation, designed to paper over an ontological hole in their vertical perception.
Everything else about man is subject to development, why not his understanding of God? In this regard, man's "discovery" of God is not fundamentally different than, say, the discovery of fire, or electricity, or gravity. The discovery is just the initial "containment" of a real phenomena, but that's not the end of it, only the beginning.
But as we learn more, the cognitive container undergoes transformations, as is true of any knowledge. As Stark writes, "Jews and Christians have always assumed that the application of reason can yield an increasingly more accurate understanding of God" -- in other words, that our understanding evolves. Jesus makes reference to this in explaining his use of parables to the masses, as does Paul in his allegory of giving milk to spiritual babes but meat to the grown-ups.
This in no way detracts from the truth of revelation, which no human being could "contain." Again, what transforms is the human container, which changes both quantitatively and qualitatively. In other words, our spiritual holding capacity doesn't just get "larger," but more "multi-dimensional." You might say that the circle doesn't only expand, but gradually becomes a sphere as well. Indeed, you could say that exoterism involves growth of the circle, whereas esoterism pertains to growth of the sphere.
Again, as Stark notes, "from the earliest days it has been the conventional Christian view that although the Bible is true, its meaning often is uncertain" and subject to diverse and vertically layered interpretations. Thus, to reduce revelation to a literal reading is to attempt to cram the sphere back into the circle, when the whole point is that the circle is the residue of the sphere, not vice versa.
A key concept is divine accomodation, which maintains that "God's revelations are always limited to the current capacity of humans to comprehend" (Stark). In other words -- and how could it be otherwise? -- "in order to communicate with humans, God is forced to accommodate their incomprehension by resorting to the equivalent of 'baby talk.'"
If this is correct, then revelation itself should reflect changing perceptions of God, as God instructs a slowly developing mankind. And indeed it does reflect this growth (e.g., Jews occasionally backsliding into idolatry and other offenses, or Peter's gradual understanding), not just within official scripture, but if we stand back and take a cosmic view.
This is the approach I adopted in my book, and which Stark has already helped me to fill out in certain areas. That is, if we think of history itself as salvation history, then what we call official "salvation history" (i.e, the chronicle of Divine-human contact in the Old and New Testaments) is a subset of the former.
Or, better yet, it is like a fractal of the whole, since no one person could ever wrap his mind around the whole existentialada. But with God's help -- through revelation -- we are given the means to do just that, to grasp the whole through the quintessential fractal known as revelation. For any "part" of God is paradoxically the whole, both in space and time -- e.g., the Son is both distinct from, and yet at one with, the Father. And the Word was -- and is -- there at the beginning, so that to know the Word is to know the beginning and end, i.e., Alpha and Omega.
Stark quotes some of the early fathers such as Irenaeus, who wrote that "the written revelation in inspired scripture is a veil that must be penetrated. It is an accommodation to our present capacites... [that] will one day be superseded." Or, Thomas Aquinas, who agreed that the "things of God" are "revealed to mankind only in proportion to their capacity; otherwise, they might despise what was beyond their grasp...."
This implies a corollary, that men might come to despise the things of God if they regard them as beneath their grasp, which I believe is the situation postmodern man finds himself in. Thus, is it possible for God -- using the same scripture and identical revelation -- to accommodate these lost souls?
You tell me. It is certainly one of the missions of both my book and this blog: to demonstrate day-in and day-out that God's revelation will always be "ahead of its time." You can call yourself "post-modern," but you are still pre-Ancient of Days, for "before Abraham was, I AM."