Isn’t it obvious that God, or at least our idea of God, needs saving as much as we do? He—forgive me if necessary for saying “He”—has been run through the mud by terrorists, televangelists, New Atheists, and grandmothers’ guilt. The rest of us are supposed to have a relationship with this guy? Or even just live in His universe? Ugh.
Here’s philosopher Mark Johnston to the rescue, with Saving God: Religion After Idolatry, a book published last year by Princeton University Press. It has met a warm, unusually wide reception; in The New Yorker James Wood called it “the non-fiction book I most enjoyed this year,” and it’s slated to wrangle an award at the American Academy of Religion meeting this November. In the elegant, one-page preface, Johnston spells out what we have to hope for, which tantalizingly coincides with what so many of us need:
One kind of ideal reader would be an intelligent young person who is religious, but feels that his or her genuine 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.
What follows, true to his promise, speaks to the best features of the late-adolescent imagination, the mind of that crucial time when many people end up forming their lifelong religious commitments, hardly ever with the care and prudence such commitments might seem to call for. Somewhere between an academic monograph and a manifesto, Saving God alternates from epic, not-quite-substantiated pronouncements to obsessively-precise tangents. Either it’ll change your life or (to use Johnston’s words, not mine) waste your time.
The gist is this: most of what goes by the name of religion is really idolatry—especially the appeal to supernaturalism. The only kind of God that satisfies the ancient claim of being the “Highest One” is a God of this world, offering no selfish fantasy of paradise in the next. This God is perfectly in tune with the immanent, Carl Sagan-ite account of science, yet one can also find information about Him in scriptures and religious traditions, selectively read. It’s a God that calls to mind, for instance, Spinoza’s “God or Nature”; J. N. Findlay’s 1948 paper claiming that the object of the ontological argument for God’s existence must be something higher than the God of religion; and sociologist Philip Rieff’s critique of the gods we invent to serve our own desires—religious, clinical, and otherwise. The second half of Saving God features a series of technical moves that, as best I can gather, is an attempt to squeeze some kind of Heideggerian phenomenology into the back door of analytic philosophy, which in turn makes room for introducing a close-to Hegelian view of God as Being’s self-disclosure to beings in history—yada, yada, yada.
All this is to say (and here I am imitating Johnston’s alternating rhetoric referred to above) that God is here and now, not beyond. Inscribed in all the fluff and error of religion—even in the story of the Christian Passion—there are basic truths about the universe and the Mind that pervades it which philosophy, fortunately, has the means to extract.
I noted recently the use of this strategy of “truth-ing mythology” by Aristotle in the Metaphyiscs, the use of popular religious tradition as a bearer of hidden truth. Aristotle takes the belief that the planets and stars represent the eternal gods of myth to be the relic of a truer, ancient knowledge that the stars are actually eternal godlike orbs—not capricious Zeus and Hera, but geometric and impersonal. It’s a plausible conclusion for the fourth century BCE, though one rendered utterly false by modern astronomy; the stars are old, we now know, but they’re not eternal. Close, Aristotle, but no cigar.
It raises a troubling question for any such attempt: how can we be sure where mythology ends and true philosophy begins?
I’d like to carry this point forward with Johnston’s book further than I did before (distracted as I was by a reverie on the mythology of war). This same move of Aristotle’s is deeply-seated in the history and habits of how liberal-minded scholars study and think about religion today; Saving God is only the latest example. I previously mentioned the Eranos set: Eliade, Jung, and Campbell. But then there’s also Thomas Jefferson clipping away at his Bible, Ludwig Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity, and Paul Tillich’s God as Ultimate Concern. Each took religious tradition as a thing which now needs to be translated and, most of all, extracted from. Each, in retrospect, can look rather silly and shortsighted—if not quite with the flat wrongness of Aristotle’s astronomy, at least as a mythology in its own right. If Jesus were just Jefferson’s moral teacher, everything else he said would’ve made him a lunatic. Feuerbach’s ideas took hold nowhere more than in the doctrines of Marxism. And Tillich’s eloquence aggravated and empowered the populist anti-modernists he meant to supplant.
One can see the appeal of going with Aristotle, with Johnston, with a reinterpretation by philosophy. I’ve done so myself sometimes. It offers both freedom of mind and the resources of tradition. It holds out the possibility of a necessary about-face, a brilliant and startling move that can change everything, saving God enough that God might be able to save us. But it’s not as easy as it looks. A few generations can pass and you’ll find yourself in error like Aristotle, or spouting mythology in your own right like Jung. Plus, philosophy is nearly always the occupation of but a few, who run the risk of losing track of what religion really is and means for most people in the rest of society.
If one is to take these risks, though, it’s hard to find an attempt that better satisfies the pressing need to reconcile science, human responsibility, and our debt to religious heritage than the brand of transcendence Johnston outlines here: “this world properly received.”