07 June 2009

St. Paul the CEO of Brand Jesus and Other Adventures in Accidental Morality

Wright, an agnostic evolutionary biologist argues that the brotherly love of the Bible was a social revolution arising from utilitarian impulses.

This is a common argument among evolutionary biologists, but Wright puts an interesting spin on it while trying to sell his theory to the religiously inclined.

"And if history naturally produces moral insight—however mundane the machinery that mediates its articulation—then maybe some overarching purpose is built into the human endeavor after all."

It goes on to view St. Paul's preaching in this light.

"Why all the kin talk? Because Paul wasn’t satisfied to just have a congregation in Corinth; he wanted to set up franchises—congregations of Jesus followers—in cities across the Roman Empire. These imperial aspirations, it turns out, infused Paul’s preaching with an emphasis on brotherly love that it might never have acquired had Paul been content to run a single mom-and-pop store"

I think he overreaches in his argument that it wasn't so much Jesus that preached brotherly love, but Paul and other followers who taught it in order to be more successful with the Jesus franchise. It also belittles Paul's profound religious inspiration that the Jewish identity of distinctiveness was not as important as the new Christ spirit which made everbody equal and the community better because of their diversity. The essay eventually leads to his final argument that in today's world, pragmatism should convince people of all faiths to embrace a sense of universal brotherhood.

"For all three Abrahamic faiths, then, tolerance and even amity across ethnic and national bounds have a way of emerging as a product of utility; when you can do well by doing good, doing good can acquire a scriptural foundation. This flexibility is heartening for those who believe that, in a highly globalized and interdependent world, the vast majority of people in all three Abrahamic faiths have more to gain through peaceful coexistence and cooperation than through intolerance and violence. If ancient Abrahamics could pen laudable scriptures that were in their enlightened self-interest, then maybe modern Abrahamics can choose to emphasize those same scriptures when it’s in their interest. And if some people find it dispiriting that moral good should emerge from self-interest, maybe they should think again. At least, the Abrahamics among them should think again. The Hebrew Bible, considered a holy text by all three Abrahamic faiths, sees the pragmatic value of virtue as itself part of divine design."

While I agree with the ends, again, I think it is shallow to present this case as an appeal to more narrow self interests. Humans have the capacity to not just tolerate, but actively embrace those of a different background. I am not here to argue whether these religions were divinely inspired, a result of psychological and social need, or both. But it does seem to me, based upon his argument, that if the current great religions cannot get out of their shell and embrace universal unity in diversity, then either a new pragmatic moral ethos, or a new more progresssive revelation is needed. I believe that they both already exist in a highly coherant framework within the Baha'i Faith.

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