Mark Johnston

Saving God: Religion after Idolatry


Review by Stefani Ruper (2013)

Review by Stefani Ruper (2013)

Saving God: Religion after Idolatry, by Mark Johnston. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009, 198 pp, $24.95.

Mark Johnston’s Saving God: Religion after Idolatry is in many ways a spoonful of caviar offered to a starving man: while a long awaited balm for his hunger, and while complexly flavored and sophisticated, it is ultimately limited in its ability to satisfy him. Make no mistake: this is not the tired critique of inadequate existential comfort that theists perennially level against natural theologies. Instead, the real dissatisfying edge of Saving God is a direct result of its richness: logically coherent, philosophically powerful, and Christian to a T, Saving God executes in tandem two actions that the contemporary religious landscape begs to be coupled: the rigorous deconstruction of “traditional monotheist” supernaturalism and personal theism on one hand, and the construction of an alternative religious worldview on the other. Unfortunately, Johnston fails to fully address how suffering and value fit into his “religious sensibility.” For this reason, Johnston’s self-proclaimed jeremiad is a thought-provoking delight, but remains tantalizingly shy of exultant satisfaction.

Johnston dedicates the first half of Saving God to the deconstructive task, which he levels on two fronts. First, Johnston brings the traditional monotheist charge of idolatry to bear on its own traditions. In this effort he parallels the critiques of men he calls “undergraduate atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. From cultural familiarity with these arguments -- as well as with a rich tradition of iconoclasm from within the traditional monotheisms, which Johnston ignores -- we find ourselves unsurprised that Yahweh is condemned out of His own mouth. What is a religion to do with a God that preaches peace but practices violence? Scriptural incoherence on this point makes idolaters of traditional believers.

The second prong of Johnston’s attack on traditional monotheism is based on wholesale rejection of supernaturalism. Supernaturalism begets “servile idolatry and spiritual materialism,” (51) says Johnston. In a uniquely pernicious way, supernaturalism yokes believers to the will of their deity. It also enables individuals to champion their own selfish ends in the name of deities. These supernaturalist perils are real. However, it is possible to be a supernaturalist without being idolatrous in this regard per se, particularly by refusing to yoke one’s self to the will of discarnate entities. Accusing supernaturalism in itself to be essentially idolatrous is an unfair charge. It is also unfair to presume supernaturalist beliefs for all traditional monotheists, another one of a few typically “undergraduate atheist” conflations present in Saving God.

Against supernaturalism, Johnston posits that the appropriate worldview is “legitimate naturalism.” Here the undergraduate atheists act as a foil to Johnston: whereas they ground their deconstruction of traditional monotheism in the scientistic belief that science is the only means by which knowledge can be rightfully obtained, Johnston relies on a naturalism characterized by fallibilism and empiricism. This allows Johnston to expand the realm of what is real beyond reductive science and to posit notions of ultimate reality. Many naturalists if pressed may cede the validity of this point. What they would not do is demand, as Johnston does, that an individual’s worldview be salvific as well. Scientism is flawed according to Johnston because it conflates the “historical, supernaturalist expression of religion with its salvific core.” (46) Traditional monotheistic faiths have erred in idolatry. But they are right: they should be religious. Human beings need salvation, and naturalist worldviews should account for that fact. As such, we reach a unique ray of hope folded within the pages of Johnston’s jeremiad: can we deconstruct our idolatry, and then construct in its place an idea of God that still manages to deliver salvation? Can we really have our cake and eat it, too?

Johnston believes that we can, though the path is not for the faint of heart. This complexity is evidenced in Johnston’s very first move: he contrasts the transcendent Actus Purus of Thomistic theology with a notion of God that is “more inclusive.” This makes the Thomistic God inferior to Johnston’s version: Aquinas’s God is not just “sterile” in its impassibility, but it also fails to include within its essence all of creation. A panentheistic God that is both the ultimate being as well as “inclusive” of the actual world it begets is in fact the highest being that can possibly exist, Johnston’s “Highest One.”

Johnston then makes a stunning series of moves. In each of them, Johnston posits an argument that situates the Highest One not just as coherent with legitimate naturalism, but also as capable of playing religious roles left vacant by the deconstruction of traditional monotheism. Commitment to the Highest One is accounted for by the Highest One’s ultimate nature as supreme being. The centrality of love in the world is accounted for by analogizing the self-emptying, “self-giving” act of the Highest One. The intelligibility of the universe is accounted for by Johnston’s association of the Highest One with the ordering of the universe as well as an arduously argued anti-representationalist philosophy of presence. The notion of a divine plan is accounted for by the way in which modes of presentation may constrain biological evolution and the generation of human beings and life. Religious enlightenment is accounted for by mastery of the relationships between these presented states and human consciousness. Salvation, defined as “the grace of finding a way to live that keeps faith with the importance of goodness and love even in the face of everything that can happen to you” (178) is accounted for by living by the Highest One’s example of infinite self-giving. Last but not least, immortality is accounted for by the dissolution of one’s self into the world via self-giving love.

It is in these exercises that we witness the true aim of Johnston’s endeavor: he is not staking a truth claim with a capital T, much as he is concerned with preserving a defensible notion of the Highest One. Instead, Johnston discerns a real, practical need that humans have for the religious life, and he purifies it. Johnston may not manage to convert individuals accustomed to personal theism to his view, but that is not his goal. His true goal is to offer a sensibility to those who “feel that his or her genuine religious impulses are being strangled by what he or she is being asked to believe.” (x) Johnston’s constructive speculations on representation, sense, and immortality in light of this goal serve as philosophical tools and toys with which his readers can explore the naturalized Christian life.

To Johnston’s credit, he closes the book with a nod to how incomplete the vision is at this point. Nonetheless, if Johnston is going to promise a religious sensibility that is special because it accounts for the problems of evil and suffering in a way traditional monotheism never can (15), a discussion of the mechanisms by which this happens would be helpful. Johnston dedicates a whole chapter to elucidating the causal relationship between traditional monotheism and violence. But in contrast to how most process theology takes great pains to address suffering, Johnston never explains how his view is supposed to uniquely succeed at accounting for evil, or how it might provide comfort in the face of suffering.

Saving God also left me unsatisfied by its failure to account for love and value. Love is perhaps the central piece of all of this for Johnston, but it is an explicitly analogical love. This means that the Highest One’s self-emptying is not really love: instead, Johnston maps the human penchant for love onto the Highest One’s kenosis. This begs the question of how Johnston justifies this move. Where is love grounded? And why should we believe in it? There appears to be no ground of value in Saving God, which is, just like the problem of suffering, especially puzzling because process thinkers, including the pre-eminent Alfred North Whitehead, usually go to great lengths to locate value in the world. I understand that Johnston may be wary of ascribing values to the Highest One for fear of voluntarism or servitude, yet he still must somehow account for them. This is especially important in light of the fact that practitioners are supposed to be saved by love and its attending values, a mechanism we are left pondering in light of this question.

Perhaps the best answer to the question of “why love” for Johnston is “because humans appear to need it.” This may expose some leaps in Johnston’s argument, such that Johnston’s religious vision ultimately falls short of both philosophical and practical completeness, yet the arguments he articulates are bold, important, and a delight to engage. Johnston deconstructs what needs deconstructing, and he constructs a natural alternative. Hopefully Johnston’s vision of this religious life as an “open-ended, collection of cultic practices that provides existential strength” (44) is forthcoming in a sequel. As it stands, Saving God charts thought-provoking paths by which salvation may be salvaged from the wicked arms of servility and egotism—a feat worthy of acclaim by any estimation.