Saving God: Religion after Idolatry by Mark Johnston (Princeton University Press) £18.95/$24.95
Mark Johnston offers us an account of what he regards as “believable” religious belief which is well worth the effort required to grapple with it. Johnston notes that each of the three major monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – has accused others of idolatry: worshipping false gods. But, he claims, the charge of idolatry can also be directed at these religions, so that perhaps no religion has yet succeeded in giving an adequate description of the Divine. “Popular” atheists such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have failed to understand that what they reject is not God, thus delaying still further a plausible account of the Divine.
Johnston suggests that “God” is either a title or a descriptive name meaning something like “the Highest One”. A partial understanding of its nature “might come from a widespread, if underdeveloped, religious sense of things, and the refinement of that sense by reflection, including reflection on the history of religion.” We recognise that Psalm 82, in which the deity suggests that any god who is indifferent to justice is not divine, expresses the character of the Highest One because we have a prior “religious sense”. But, when we reflect on the violence of the deity portrayed in many other passages of the scriptures of the three monotheisms, we understand that the gods of these religions “are not God, or they are God, but seen only through a very, very dark glass.”
The purpose of religion, for Johnston, is salvation, understood as a new form of life in which we are reconciled to what he calls “the large-scale structural defects of human life”, including “arbitrary suffering, ageing … our profound ignorance of our condition, the isolation of ordinary self-involvement, [and] the vulnerability of everything we cherish to time and chance, and, finally, to untimely death.” In order to achieve this, we have to overcome the self-concern which is portrayed by the myth of the Fall, and the Highest One functions as a redeemer, a source of grace on which we can draw.
Johnston suggests that belief in the Highest One is best understood as a form of “process panentheism”, according to which the Divine is partly constituted by the natural realm because his activity can be seen in natural processes. The Highest One is the source of existence and continuously discloses himself in the universe throughout history. This contrasts with pantheism, which claims that God and the natural realm are identical.
Since our language has evolved to describe the natural realm, we must use analogical language to speak of the activity of the Highest One. Thus, the Highest One loves in the sense that it is being outpoured in ordinary existing things, its Will is its self-disclosure, its Mind is the totality of accurate descriptions of objective reality, and its Power is the totality of the laws of nature. “In these respects,” Johnston says, “the Highest One has by analogy the characteristics of a person, but a person far removed from ordinary personality.”
Our human task is therefore not to attempt to placate a deity in the selfish hope of attaining an imaginary afterlife in which the “structural defects” are removed, but to struggle to conform ourselves to the Divine Mind and thus to live the religious life, a life which is ethically more demanding than that of ordinary virtue. Christ showed us how to live the religious life. In his suffering and death, he exposed the false righteousness of the religious and political authorities and “conquer[ed] death on our behalf by ideally exemplifying agape, and stimulating it in us.” Thus, in living the religious life, the “structural defects … are somehow finally healed or addressed or rendered irrelevant, so that faith in the importance of goodness not only remains but is strengthened, even in the face of these defects.”
Johnston is aware of the objection that his interpretation of religious belief might be meaningless for “ordinary people of faith”, but suggests that it is implied in their religious practice since, like Job, they retain their faith in life and the importance of goodness, despite the lack of divine intervention in response to their prayers. But, on Johnston’s view, much of their faith is presumably idolatrous, and it is not always clear how we would put his panentheistic alternative into practice. How are we to “attend to the self-disclosure of Being”, for example? Here he does, after all, seem to allow that we can see glimpses of the Divine in the scriptures of the monotheistic religions, especially in the life and teachings of Christ as we find them in the gospels.
There is also, perhaps, a tension between Johnston’s claim that the religious life should be devoid of self-concern and his claim that religion overcomes the “structural defects” of human life. And yet, since Johnston allows that we can love ourselves as our neighbours, perhaps it is not inconsistent for him to offer us at least this perhaps rather limited form of consolation.
Elizabeth Burns is a lecturer in philosophy of religion at Heythrop College, University of London