More Saving God

Back to Mark Johnston's book Saving God: Religion after Idolatry. 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
I find this a very surprising book. The first surprise is that it was written at all. It is not the narrow, excruciatingly careful sort of book you'd expect from a Princeton analytic philosopher. In fact, Johnston says it is not exactly a work of philosophy at all. In the preface he writes, "The work is offered simply as the expression of a certain sensibility. I give expression to it, at whatever risk, only because I hope that it has not entirely passed from the world."

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.


Faust said...

Good prep for Kierkegaard :)

s. wallerstein said...

I have nothing against people getting together to find existential meaning through rites and sharing the reading of ancient texts (or through blogging), but where does God come in? Johnston calls the Highest One "God", but isn't he simply making a god out of his ideals or ethical principles, a god who probably voted for Obama and supports gay marriage? Why call one's ideals "God"? It seems more courageous to assume the fact that one creates one's ideals, often through collective creation. Sartre would say that Johnston is in bad faith, and I would agree.

Jean Kazez said...

"Where does God come in?"

We're not there yet. This book's structure reminds me of a certain type of riddle.

You say: it's striped, it has four legs, it has a red nose...etc etc. What is it?

Up to chapter 4, we know a bunch of stuff:

1. God is the highest one.
2.Yahweh does terrible things.
3. Yahweh is not the highest one.
4. The highest one would not ask us to believing anything incompatible with scientific discoveries.

Etc. Etc.

So what is "the highest one"?

We don't know yet. Johnston hasn't told us. So he can't be criticized (yet) for making a god out of ethical principles or being "in bad faith." Can he?

s. wallerstein said...

We'll stay tuned for the next chapter.

Jean Kazez said...


Parrhesia said...

Great! I've been waiting for this kind of thing to come up. I've been flirting with scientific Pantheism a bit lately . . . it seems to value feelings of awe and love for the universe, as well as wonder and curiosity at the brute unexplainable fact of existence, and recognises that the application of reason is, for many, a route to this feeling (it is for me).

I also agree with the Pantheistic naturalist, materialist ethic: if all we have is one life, and if our only real significance is to each other, than it just makes how we treat each other (including other species) all the more important, not less. I don't understand why it is people feel the need to supernaturalise ethics.

But Panentheism? I've heard the term in passing, and I'm intrigued.
I'm really looking forward to your next post on this, Jean. In fact I might even buy this book you're talking about. I'm feeling more inspired than I have in ages.

Meanwhile I think I'll schlepp on over the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and see if they've got anything on Panentheism . . .

Parrhesia said...

They do: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/panentheism/

Jean Kazez said...

I am intrigued too. Panentheism seems simultaneously to be an ultra-rational view and a mystical view. There are connections to issues about consciousness that interest me too. So I need to get on with this book and get to the punchline! Soon....I hope.

Parrhesia said...

Jean, you might find this interesting too, as judging from my cursory glance, Dichotomism seems to be a fundamental element of Panentheism: