Even More Saving God

Back to Mark Johnston's book Saving God: Religion after Idolatry.

Now that I am deep into it (chapters 5-8), I've been asking myself why I'm reading this book. What was I thinking? Now I remember. In the book description Mark Johnston disparages the "new atheists" for being undergraduate atheists who merely dismantle undergraduate theism. He was promising something more sophisticated...and to make it even more enticing, he promised to "save God" from theists as well. The view on offer is "God without the supernatural." I just had to find out what that was about.

Note to Johnston: it might not be the best idea to present religious ideas starting with a boast that they are sophisticated and superior, because it does invite attack and mockery. It's going to take all the restraint I have not to say "so this is the sophisticated stuff?" I will not do that. I swear I will not.

From what I can tell, there's nothing in this book in the way of proof of the existence of God. I think Johnston is addressing himself to someone with a "religious sensibility" and not trying to induce such a thing in people who don't have it. What he's trying to work out is what God is, not whether God exists, and he wants to do so in a way that doesn't make religion "idolatrous"--the worship of something not worth worshiping; and doesn't make religion incompatible with reason and science. The chapters that lay out these goals are clear and interesting.

Johnston wants to move past polytheism, past henotheism (the view that one of the gods is higher than the others--probably the view of the bible), past a sort of naive monotheism, and even past monotheism itself (the view that God is a substance separate from the natural world). He also wants to protection religion against traditional weapons in the atheist arsenal (the argument from evil, for example), by making use of non-undergraduate theological concepts (Thomas Aquinas's notion of analogical predication, for example. Amusing side note: I wrote a paper about that when I was as an undergraduate).

OK, all very interesting. But pray tell, what is God? What Johnston has to offer here is "panentheism". "All in God and God in all." That's got a nice ring to it, but what does it mean? This is a formulation he repeats many times:
The Highest One = the outpouring of Existence itself by way of its exemplification in ordinary existents for the purpose of the self-discosure of Existence itself.
This is glossed using ideas from process theology, Heidegger, and other thinkers. After reading the last two chapters, I will do my level best to explain what he means But my reaction so far is this: at best, panentheism strikes me as an optional (and barely intelligible) layer of poetry that could be added to our more serious and robust views about the world. But I'll wait until I get to the end to reach a final verdict.


My previous posts about the book are here:

1. Saving God...Saving What?
2. Can you know if you believe in God?
3. Saving God
4. More Saving God


s. wallerstein said...

I'm curious how he knows what God is like or what God is. Is there any evidence that God is described by non-undergraduate theological concepts? And, as you point out, do the non-undergraduate theological concepts really describe anything?

Alex Chernavsky said...

Life is too short to read bad books. See, for example:


Faust said...

Well consider the post I made back when you first broached this topic:

"Whatever strategy he uses it seems its going to be highly interpretive and not exactly "scientific" in any traditional sense. I mean, if he's arguing that whatever theoretical framework he's developing is testable and that he has experimental evidence that will be something!

No it's going to involve some kind of philosophical poetization of naturalist ideas."

and also:

"So once you take that seperation out of there (the seperation of supernaturalism) and replace it with non dualistic naturalism then if there is divinity left how could it be anything but some form of pantheism?"

Then consider his preface:

"It [his argument] uses the limited range of literary forms the authero had at his disposal: quotation, argument, exegesis midrash, mythic framing, the via analogica, readings against the grain an dthe interrogation of the reader. (A poem would do so much better; there your man is Hopkins, and before him Rumi.)"

and then a sentence later:

"it is not a work of philosophy."

So. Pretty much what I suggested: philosophical poetry ending in Pantheism (with a bonus EN in there).

Of course some find such optional(and barely intelligible) poetry to be all too frivolous, and not quite tough minded enough for this Serious Age.

Tom said...

Like Jean, I'm now through chapter 8. And while I'm mostly in agreement with what Jean has said, I still think the book is worth reading. So far, at least. If nothing else, it is a very brave work since almost no one will agree with its conclusion or even the general perspective from which it comes.

I will say, though, that I find his conclusion (okay, what I take to be the conclusion he will come to) to be really outrageous: for it implies that the following situation is possible: that God exists and yet that the only ones who aren't idolaters are a handful of process theologians and a philosopher at Princeton.

Faust said...


When you write:

"I will say, though, that I find his conclusion (okay, what I take to be the conclusion he will come to) to be really outrageous: for it implies that the following situation is possible: that God exists and yet that the only ones who aren't idolaters are a handful of process theologians and a philosopher at Princeton."

I would suggest that he thinks that idolatry is something that is part and parcel of being fallen (as defined in chapter 6)...that he makes a connection directly between idolatry and sin (or in a softer vein spiritual materialism). The suggestion that he believes that "only process theologians and Mark Johnston are saved" is a pretty...um...I'll say uncharitable reading of the book.

In any case even assuming you have the right of Johnston's position is it more outrageous than:

God, a Being outside Space and Time entered the space-time approximately 2000 years ago? That God himself walked the earth and then allowed himself to be sacrificed for our Sin?

Or that God, a Being outside Space and Time, entered the space-time continuum approximately 1400 years ago as God's (at long last) FINAL dispensation, revealed to Muhammad over some 23 years?

Or that God...etc etc etc.

I think I'd like to know a bit more about where to draw the line between reasonable and outrageous in this milieu.

Tom said...

Hey Faust,

Thanks for responding.

Maybe I am being uncharitable. But for the record I didn't say that MJ thinks that only process theologians & MJ are 'saved.' I only said that his view seems to imply that they are the only non-idolaters. (My theology would make a pretty hard distinction between salvation and accurate belief about the nature of God.) Christians are wrong in thinking that the Holy Trinity is God, Muslims are wrong in thinking that Allah is God, and Jews are wrong in thinking that Yahweh is God (and it seems pretty clear that MJ holds the various monotheisms in somewhat greater regard than he holds the other religious traditions--as I type that, I'm wondering if others have the same impression). So all of the billions of monotheists have not only false but idolatrous understandings of the divine. Apparently, you have to be really, really smart and well educated to figure out what God is like (even a little bit and even with the various revelations).

What I find outrageous about this is neither its general rationality cred nor the fact that the view entails that billions of people have it wrong. Rather its the claim that there might be a God (i.e., a Highest One) who would reveal him/itself--or allow himself to be understood--only by a very, very few highly trained academics. Talk about the God of the Philosophers.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, his god is very much the God of the Philosophers...to an extreme.

On the other hand...one of the intriguing things about the book is how much Johnston seems to wants to find insight in traditional religious sources. He finds the worry about idolatry in all three monotheisms. He finds insights in speeches of the pope, Thomas Aquinas, etc.

So in a way he's saying--OK, I respect the religious tradition you're coming from. But let's see where it really leads, if we think it through. It leads beyond itself (he thinks).

I admit, I got impatient once I got to the positive part of the book. All that work, and we wind up with the outpouring of existence, etc. Sigh. But I will persevere. Maybe it will get clearer.

Faust said...


Ok thank you that's quite a bit more clear.

First I don't have the feeling at all that he feels that way about the "other religions," whatever they might be, just as one example he rather approving quotes from the Tao Te Ching. In general he simply seems unconcerned with analyzing other religions within the context of this particular book. I suspect given that he thinks Existence Itself is the Highest One then I am fairly confident his logic could be easily applied to Hinduism for example with similar results (Hinduism is filled with Idolatry etc). But perhaps not.

In any case "billions of people having it wrong" is precisely what each and every religion teaches no? Christians say the Jews are wrong, Jews say the Christians are wrong, Atheists say they are ALL wrong, "the religious" say the atheists are wrong (or just undergraduate) etc.

So I don't see Johnston's claims as being all that unusal, just one more person offering up an account that says "here's a better way to think" which is pretty much what everyone inside an identifiable cultural life form is doing.

I suppose you are right that his assertions are particularly AGGRESSIVE insofar as he is taking a core idea of monotheism (idolatry) and turning it against its master, and that in this respect he is just a very sophisticated atheist, by which I mean: very sophisticated A-supernaturalist. I suppose then your complaint might come down to the problem that he's really just an atheist in sheeps clothing.

Or maybe I'm not on the right track there. You do say that your problem is that he's picturing a God that can only be understood by the few, an elite class, a new priesthood of academics. So is that the problem? That he's imaging an elitist God?

Alex Chernavsky said...

I haven't read Johnson's book, so maybe my comment isn't quite fair, but I do think that something like the following criticism (though it was directed at a different book & author) applies here:

Like almost all great defenders of religion, Eagleton specializes in putting bunches of words together in ways that sound like linear arguments, but actually make no sense whatsoever. [...]

I listened to this argument at least five times and at the end still had absolutely no idea what the hell Eagleton was talking about. I thought at first he might be saying that faith does not require certainty, but then again nobody who wanted to say that would bother with all that extra verbiage. Anyway this is the kind of stuff that permeates Eagleton’s work: a lot of masturbatory semantics and naked goalpost-moving buried in great gnarled masses of old-world sneering and unnecessary syllables.


Jean Kazez said...

What you said above about just not finishing books was amusing...

But I have to come to MJ's defense. I would say that 95% of what I have read so far is very clear and well-argued. So he is definitely not an Eagleton-like circuitous, murky writer. I wouldn't be bothering to read this if he didn't have a reputation as an excellent philosopher.

But he's trying to do something immensely tricky--define God as something non-supernatural. When he gets to the point in the book where he's doing that, I do think we are no longer in the land of the clear and straightforward. I'm going to finish up those chapters today and hopefully post about them soon.

Faust said...

Funny article from Taibbi. Of course, you could change a few words in that article and extended to slamming pretty much all professional philosophers. e.g.:

First of all, why is that no professor alive can make it ten feet from his front door without sticking an a priori into a sentence? Is there some kind of subterranean lair where academics are beaten with whips and clubs until they learn to write alliterative book titles (”Pus, Primates, and Pessimism: Jane Goodall’s Descent into Septic Shock”) and lard up perfectly good sentences with epistemological catch-phrases? Weird.

On that count MJ is no exception!

Parrhesia said...

I have to say I'm not very impressed with Panentheism either (I read the SEP article on it). It's not just new and improved Pantheism, IMHO it commits the same flaw most theology does: it starts from the presumption that god exists, and then moves to show how (albeit in an interesting and kind of fruity way). I find myself still drawn to naturalistic pantheism as the most useful way to describe my feelings about the universe and our place in it. Interesting little detour though, thanks Jean.