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Saving God: Religion after Idolatry.

Saving God: Religion after Idolatry. By Mark Johnston. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-691-14394-1. Pp. xi + 198. $24.95.

With a title like Saving God, questions immediately arise. "Why exactly does God need to be saved?" "From whom?" "And is that 'salvation' ultimately effective?" Mark Johnston clearly thinks that God needs to be saved and that his method is effective. Whether the reader will agree is another story. But, however one answers these questions, there can be no doubt that Johnston's thesis and his book will have given the reader much to consider.

That first question above is answered in the very first sentence of chapter one. "Saving God is saving God from us, from our lazy and self-satisfied conviction that our conventional patterns of belief and worship could themselves capture God" (1). I think this is truly at the heart of the book. Each part of the sentence contains something that needs to be examined, from laziness and self-satisfaction, to having a conviction to conventional belief and worship patterns to the very idea of capturing God. It is not too much to say that here it is not the devil but God who is in the details.

Johnston begins with the rather obvious points 1) that "God" is not a proper but a descriptive name that refers to "the most high" and 2) that "belief" in such a God means having an orientation of faith and trust to the most high. Looking

at Judaism, Christianity, and Islam leads Johnston to claim that they are all about "salvation" that cures such things as aging, arbitrary suffering, and untimely death. But all three religions turn out to be forms of idolatry. For, instead of "radical self-abandonment to the divine" (24), each religion turns out to be a way "to use and domesticate the god" (23). Idolatry, then, is all about construing God to fit our needs. Although dismissing the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris as "undergraduate atheists," Johnston uses the term "spiritual materialists" for "idolaters" who utilize religion for their own selfish needs. On Johnston's account, "sin" is self-love and "false righteousness" is the assumption that a group's ready-made moral practices are equivalent to the good.

Yet religious believers can outgrow these old gods and discover a true God. Defining original sin as a violent defensiveness of one's own conception of the Good that self-interestedly ignores ethical obligations to others, Johnston says that we need to overcome our self-interest and idolatry. He uses the phenomenological method to arrive at the "Highest One" defined solely in terms of the natural world, with the result that worship is defined as worship of the whole of reality. Utilizing Saint Thomas' discussion of God's essence as existence, Johnston considers creation to be an expression of Existence Itself. The divine nature is composed of its constituent parts (creation) but not dependent upon them. Thus, the Highest One becomes in effect "the outpouring of Existence Itself by way of its exemplification in ordinary existents" (113). How should we describe this God? While both naive atheism and naive theodicy assume that God should somehow prove "useful," Johnston follows Thomas in defining God's goodness as more completely and coherently desirable. Following the idea of God as logos, God is taken to be the principle of intelligibility. Such a conception of God is not idolatrous because this God cannot be "used" to cope with life's difficulties.

Whereas the God of classical theism is an "utterly transcendent unmoved mover, a being totally complete without creation" this panentheistic God is best described as "God in all, and all in God" (119). Unlike simple pantheism, in which God is constituted by the natural realm, this God is only identified with the natural realm; thus, the panentheistic God is both natural realm and intelligibility. In place of monotheisms claim that "the outpouring of Being by way of its exemplification in ordinary existents is for the sake of the self-disclosure of Being to us," Johnston claims that it is simply "for the sake of the self-disclosure of Being" (157). Simply to exist is already to have been given a great gift; to expect any more--that God is concerned with loving us or saving us for an afterlife--is simply idolatrous. Finally, by analyzing Christ through the lens of Rend Girard, Johnston claims that Christ's self-giving is a rejection of self-love and false righteousness. Instead of demanding an afterlife as a reward for a moral life, the "ex-centric" love that Johnston extols does not expect any reward. On his thoroughly naturalistic account, we "live on" by lovingly identifying ourselves with others.

There are, to be sure, more aspects and detailed analyses in Johnston's book that I have omitted, but these are the crucial points on which his argument hinges. In critiquing such a book, one can consider both the idolatry he so vigorously argues against and also the presumably non-idolatrous panentheism he offers in its place. Let me begin with the former. My comments are offered from a Christian perspective, but it is certainly possible that what I say below could likewise be said of Judaism or Islam.

First, there is the motivation of the idolatry of the monotheisms. Johnston describes it, in turns, as "lazy" "self-satisfied" "domesticating," and dependent upon "self-love" and "false righteousness" I cannot overemphasize my agreement with Johnston about this. Even though I think he plays a bit loose with the term (never providing anything like a carefully defined definition), there can be no doubt that idolatry stems from these factors, though not these alone (and perhaps that complexity explains the lack of a precise definition). It would not be too much to say that believers are all too often lazy about their conceptions of God in the sense that these conceptions are not properly thought through or open to revision. That laziness is definitely coupled with self-satisfaction, for what could be easier than not demanding more rigor of our conceptions of God than the self-satisfied assurance that we truly "understand" God? As to "self-love" and "false righteousness" the Christian tradition is filled with examples. It is not difficult to see that Christianity has been self-serving and controlling and that we have often quite conveniently identified the good with what Johnston at times calls "ready-to-wear righteousness"--our own way of constricting or even reconstructing, the good so that it is to our benefit or else is at least our ease.

Second, despite my having weighed in with such hearty agreement, I can only go with Johnston so far. The presence of selfish motives in Christianity does not mean they are endemic, as he claims. Given that the Christian tradition (from the Bible onwards) is filled with discussions about the proper motives for following Jesus, Johnston could have at least demonstrated recognition that the matter has hardly been settled. This is quite a significant lacuna.

Third, the claim from the first sentence in the book that "our conventional patterns of belief and worship could themselves capture God" in no way "captures" orthodox Christian belief. Instead, what we have is all too obvious caricature. Consider Paul's claim in Romans: "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (Rom. 11:33-34) There is no talk here of "capturing" God; instead, we have a very plain statement that such is simply not possible. It is not merely the negative theologians in the Christian tradition that remind us of our human limitations; it is a theme throughout all of Christian theology.

Fourth, I can't think of any Christian tradition that would accept what Johnston calls "the God of classical theism" defined as "the utterly transcendent unmoved mover" (119). True, Christian theologians have at times come close to saying such things, but a God who loves the world and sent his Son to redeem it can hardly be called "utterly transcendent" or "unmoved." Simply to equate the Christian God with Aristotle's unmoved mover would be nothing short of blatant heresy.

As to the problems with Johnston's own panentheism as a replacement for the monotheisms, let me suggest four concerns. The first is, quite simply, that there is a surprising way in which he can be seen as falling into an idolatry of his own. Of course, it is not an idolatry in which God is seen as an extension of our desires. Yet it is an idolatry in which God ends up looking quite a bit like Johnston. Although Johnston speaks disapprovingly of those who define their belief in God by "inspecting their own inner convictions" (2), it's hard not to see Johnston as presenting us anything different, since his God is a naturalistic God. Sure, his theism is nonsupernatural and non-salvific. But, despite his own convictions on the matter, it's not clear how his version is better. Saying that his "legitimate naturalism" is better because it "arises out of proper respect for the methods and achievements of science" (43) might have gone over well when modernity reigned, but it now sounds quaintly anachronistic. Second, it is far from clear as to exactly what Johnson's God turns out to be. He makes a point of saying that "panentheism should be carefully distinguished from the pantheistic identification of God and the natural realm" and that God's "reality goes beyond what is captured by the purely scientific description of all the events that make up the natural realm" (119). But it is this "more" that is left unclear. It is not clear how Johnston's panentheism really ends up being any different from pantheism. Third, Johnston claims that, if we see reality as "the outpouring of Being itself by way of its exemplification," then we should have "a profound background feeling of gratitude" (156). Yet why should such a manifestation result in our gratitude? It doesn't take much reflection to see that nature gives all kinds of things. Am I actually supposed to be grateful for earthquakes that kill people and animals, or wolves that annually massacre baby turtles? Johnston claims that an appreciation of manifestation can give us peace in the face of such horrors, but such a claim seems just as naive as the kind of theodicy he criticizes.

Let me conclude with one general observation. In an important sense, idolatry isn't something that one is either clearly guilty of or else 100% free from. Anyone who endeavors to talk or think about God must walk a very fine line. For virtually any depiction of God is going to be, to some extent and in certain respects, a reflection of the depicter. Could it be any other way? While I take this to be a basic point, it is a point that is curiously never mentioned by Johnston. And I take that to be a serious omission in a book dedicated to saving God from idolatry.

Bruce Ellis Benson

Katholieke Universiteit Leuven/Wheaton College
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Author:Benson, Bruce Ellis
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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