The book is carefully reasoned, yet obviously not an effort to win over a skeptic. In fact, Johnston presupposes a religious reader: "One kind of ideal reader would be an intelligent young person who is religious, but who feels that his or her geuine religious impulses are being strangled by what he or she is being asked to believe, on less than convincing authority, about the nature of reality." (I have to say, "intelligent" is an understatement. Johnston does not coddle his reader.)
His ideal reader's "religious impulses" grew in the soil of scripture: he wants to worship "the highest one" and reject idolatry, as the bible tells him to. But how can Yahweh be the genuine "highest one," considering all his moral depravities?
(It happens that I went to a bat mitzvah last Saturday. The unfortunate 13 year old had to contend with Deuteronomy 13-16 as her Torah portion. How do you find an inspiring lesson in a passage that says Yahweh wants you to kill your friends and relatives if they start worshiping other people's gods? It's very, very tricky...)
Anyhow, the book is a meditation on the true nature of "the highest one". I'll quote from a passage (on pg. 44) that strikes me as encapsulating much of Johnston's thinking
Religion, for its part, is a complex and open-ended collection of cultic practices from which the practioners derive, or hope to derive, "existential strength," that is, a deepened capacitiy to deal with the manifest, large-scale structural defects of human life.Think, for example: bar/bat mitzvah. Structural defect? Kids change. The ritual helps everyone cope with it.
To say that is not to indulge in noncognitivism about religion, the reductive treatment of religion as a mere practice with a set of associated virtues.That seems to be the view of popular religion writer Karen Armstrong in her new book The Case for God. I agree with Johnston: it's not plausible that any religion has ever been just a practice, not a set of beliefs (however imprecise or amorphous).
The development of existential strength will involve believing in other things and other people, and may include believing in God; and that will involve associated belief in many distinctive propositions.And now here's the (surprising) passage I really like:
But it is just unskillful to develop existential strength by believing propositions that encroach on the domain of science, thereby making one's path to salvation hostage to future scientific discoveries. And the Highest one could not ask this of us."Just unskillful"! Johnston is going to show that the Highest One is nothing supernatural or the least bit incompatible with science. What we're going to to be told, as the book continues, is what a wholly rational but existentially useful religion would look like.
Another surprise. Panentheism. Never even heard of it. Stay tuned. I'm going to post about the book again soon.