Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mark Johnston’s Saving God: Religion After Idolatry

Saving God: Religion After Idolatry (2009, 198 p.) is an extended essay by Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston. Johnston's book provides a well-written and tightly argued understanding of God in the Western monotheistic tradition. His conclusions are not orthodox, but his insights create a deeply satisfying and challenging work. While a small portion in the latter part of the book involves some rather dense (but not inaccessible) philosophical argument about the existence of God(reaching a panentheist conclusion), the better part of the book addresses the understanding of God in the three great monotheistic religions based on the Bible and their respective traditions. Because this book is so well written, insightful, and persuasive (to my mind), it's difficult to review it. In fact, I read it twice; once through initially, and almost right away again with my pencil handy, marking and annotating, like a 49'er who stops sifting through dust and finds something that merits a pick-axe and a toothbrush.

The title of this book happened to grab me because of its reference to idolatry. I wondered for some time about this issue of idolatry, worshiping a false god or a false image of god. My own sense was that all religion consists of a form of idolatry, perhaps necessarily, as a part of human fallibility. This seemed to me true despite the stark Biblical injunction against idolatry. Johnston argues that asking favors of God amounts to a form of idolatry. There is, however, in Christianity (and I think in Judaism and Islam, as well) a tradition of the via negativa, a tradition of not attempting to attribute qualities to God, or attempting to define God, because God is sui generis. Think Pseudo-Dionysus, The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart, and more recently, Paul Tillich's conception of God as the Ground of Being. Johnston does not explore this tradition. However, I think that this tradition bolsters his argument. (I think a good deal of Johnston's perspective originates in Spinoza, the incredibly insightful 17th century Dutch philosopher.)

To close, and to give you a better sense of Johnston's perspective and insight, I offer the following extended quote comparing the death and example of Jesus with that of Socrates. This follows in the book shortly after my recent posting of a Johnston quote to celebrate the Easter season. Johnston writes:

    And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. (Luke, 23:48)

    This is the sense in which Christ destroys the Kingdom of self-love and false righteousness. Of course, it is not that the psychological power of self-love and false righteousness is actually diminished by the Passion and Crucifixion. Instead, self-love and false righteousness—that is to say, the central elements of the characteristically human form of life—no longer make up a defensible realm.

    Contrast the death of Socrates. He also asks for it. He is a victim of those who would police the Athenian conception of respectability, an averaged-out conception of pious virtue. But Plato romanticizes the death of Socrates; his death is a fearless and noble suicide. Socrates talks philosophy until the very end; he is full of arguments, for the soul, and even when he is not relying on these (bad) arguments, he remains convinced that release from the body remains a very desirable thing, something that philosophy prepares us for. Socrates accepts the hemlock as a healing balm for the sickness that is life.

    But suppose instead that he had to anticipate being stripped, beaten, and hung from a tree; how would the pose of nobility and fearlessness have held up then? Is there not something decadently twee about the death of Socrates as Plato presents it? And is this not connected with the calming doctrine of the afterlife, and with the corresponding idea of this life as a sickness that death heals?

    Crucially, Plato's Socrates recognizes the legitimacy of the Athenian state; he accepts its claims upon him and does not flee even in the face of an unjust sentence. In this way the death of Socrates secretly valorizes the false righteousness of Athenian respectability, by showing that even someone who really understands virtue will bow to this false righteousness in the end. Human ways of going on are secretly redeemed by Plato's Socrates. The Kingdom of self-love and false righteousness remains legitimated.

    The ordeal of Christ's Passion and Crucifixion is not at all like this. There is nothing noble or "humanly redeeming" about it, beginning as it does with his desperation in the Garden and ending with his despair on the Cross. It is not a cathartic tragedy. It leaves us at a total loss. We can return to human ways of going on only if we forget what happened. If we do not forget, we need to find a way to live that is not some form of self-love and false righteousness. In addition, if we do not forget, we know that we cannot find this in ourselves. Then, and only then, are we prepared to take the two commandments, the salvation from without, seriously.

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