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Saving God. Religion after Idolatry.
Princeton-Oxford: Princeton University Press 2009. XIII, 198 S. m. Abb. gr.8°. Geb. US$ 24,95. ISBN 978-1-4008-3044-2.
Mark Johnston carries on in the long tradition of defending religion by responding to its critics that what they despise is, after all, not religion. He warns us at the beginning that what follows is not properly to be considered a work of academic philosophy, nor of theology. It is an essay that employs a variety of argumentative and rhetorical styles, and is »offered simply as the expression of a certain sensibility« (preface). That sensibility is, namely, that the supernaturalist conception of the world's three monotheisms is itself idolatrous and should be abandoned on religious grounds. If he is right, contemporary (new) atheistic critics of religion miss the mark altogether. From J.’s perspective, it is as if these ›undergraduate atheists‹ and fundamentalist religious believers have colluded in their attempt to link supernaturalism and religion.
The final chapter, »Christianity without Spiritual Materialism«, is perhaps the best of the book, and seemingly the point Johnston was driving toward all along. Here we find J.’s account of Christianity, devoid of the idolatrous entanglements of supernaturalism and, especially, without any notions of a conscious afterlife as an extension of this one. Yet J. concludes, »There is another world – it is this world properly received« (postscript). Through Christ our identity is reconstituted, no longer self-centered but such that we view both ourselves and others objectively. In so doing, J. believes, we become present wherever any human being is present; we »live on in the onward rush of humankind and acquire a new face every time a baby is born.« Naturalism helps us in this regard by forcing us to »(re)discover that there is no self behind our mental func- tioning« (185). For those interested in a sustained philosophical argument against the idea of a conscious afterlife, J. directs us to his more academic work, Surviving Death.
Of course, the claim that supernaturalism and belief in the afterlife are idolatrous must be argued for, and J. does so in first half of the book. J. argues that, whatever else the three monotheisms may disagree on, they at least agree on a common belief in idolatry. Of course, this charge is most often leveled at »the other« religions, and to those religious practices and forms of worship that are alien to one’s own. Moreover, each religion seems to have an internal measure of religious falsehood, which can in principle be leveled not only to other religions but to one’s own religion. Thus we find the Hebrew prophets, for instance, negating the very religious ordinances that were ostensibly decreed by their own tradition. J. be-lieves that this and other examples show an antecedent religious conception of the »Highest One«. That is, prior to any revelatory event or exposure to a religious tradition, any reasonable human being can be expected to possess the concept of a greatest or highest possible being. Ultimately, it is this antecedent concept of the »Highest One« that J. believes triumphs over the idolatrous, anthropomorphic gods of the world’s religions. Unfortunately, whe- ther or not an antecedent concept of the »Highest One« makes sense at all is one of the »philosophically interesting pathways« which J. declines to pursue. One might also point out that this antecedent concept is itself an example of an idolatrous god for many religious believers.
J. could have stopped here. So far I have only mentioned his argument that supernaturalist readings of religion miss the point, for both internal and external reasons. As an alternative, he offers a compelling retelling of Christianity devoid of these idolatrous and confused trappings. In going beyond this, however, it seems to me that J. gets off track and commits himself to metaphysical positions which have no bearing on the religious points he wants to communicate. In the second half of the book (excluding the final chapter), he argues for a process panentheism metaphysics to replace what is for him an untenable classical theism. J. seems to take it prima facie that a robust metaphysical account must be offered to support his religious sensibilities. Process panentheism is supposed to provide us with a metaphysical picture of God that meets the minimum threshold of our antecedent conception of the »Highest One« and makes sense of the religious notion that God is love. But I do not see why we must replace one metaphysical picture with another. The attachment of God to a human metaphysical system is itself one source of the idolatry J. attacks earlier in the book.
In any case, Saving God is an entertaining, relatively easy to read book that raises interesting questions and often gives provoking answers. Those interested in natural theology generally and process panentheism specifically will find much in common; others will find much to spark a lively conversation.