Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood




We humans like to be scared, even in our reading. Ghost stories, tales of Gothic horror, thrillers—in all sorts of circumstances we like to have ourselves scared. But there is another form of fiction that we don’t normally categorize along these lines, but that I find really scary, or perhaps creepy is the right word. These are books that I recognize as revealing something to me in the now, something about me or my world. Those books that take what seems quite normal and then reveal that the situation harbors frightening consequences. Dystopias of the near future can do this very well. Think of the classics, Brave New World and 1984: what makes them so disturbing? Not any thrills in the plot line, but the familiarity they contain, the plausibility they reveal. Indeed, we can think of dystopian writers as the prophets of today—not in the mistaken sense of those who predict the future successfully. Quite the opposite: you don’t want the prophet’s vision to come to pass. The prophet—exemplified by the Old Testament messengers of God—foretells a future that will arrive if the people don’t turn away from the error of their current ways. A successful prophet’s vision of the future does not come to realization. The successful prophet turns the people away from disaster. Thus, we can label Orwell a successful prophet in the sense (or to the extent) that we don’t live in the world of 1984. (The NSA isn’t reading this, right, Big Bro?) In this century, writers of dystopian visions of the future serve as our prophets, and we must count Margaret Atwood among them. 

Oryx and Crake is the first of a trilogy of books set in the near future. (MaddAddam, published this fall, completes the trilogy.) Atwood sets the story in the near, recognizable future; a future with genetic engineering, gated and guarded compounds, and (continued) international sex trade. The tale deals with how one person, Snowman, once known as Jimmy, arrived at a Robinson Crusoe-like existence from that original, familiar setting. While surviving (one could hardly call it more than that) in this new world, the narration recounts the events that led him to his current circumstance. Crucial in the story are two others, the girl Oryx, first seen by Jimmy on a computer screen, and his friend Crake, a genius who rises quickly in the world of genetic engineering. 

Atwood writes from Snowman’s point of view, alternating between his current dire circumstances and the tale of his life that led him into this new world. Atwood persuasively captures a sense of alienated, somewhat nihilistic teenage boys who turn into alienated, somewhat nihilistic young men. This is one of those creepy aspects of the book. One can believe that a young Jimmy (young Snowman) and a young Crake (the nickname of his friend) exist in multitudes today. How do young men endowed with the awesome power of science, especially with the power of biology to alter life, deal with this power? Might they abuse it? When we think about gun violence, as we all too often must, we realize that we readily allow young males (nearly always the culprits) easy access to guns. Look what happens. What if we allow them access to the ability to create and alter life at the most basic levels? Do you feel comfortable with that thought? This part of the tale is as old as that of Victor Frankenstein, but today we have powers that Mary Shelley would never have dreamed of. Who was the greater threat: young Victor or his creation? 

Atwood also plays with the idea of abundance and scarcity, including the problem of jealousy and violence. Will this new world—perhaps not so brave as Shakespeare hoped and not so soporific as Huxley mocked—still engender violence and jealousy? Will the abundance of computer porn and accessible “sex workers”, along with genetic engineering, alleviate the violence created by male rivalry and quests for status? In this aspect of the book, the character of Oryx, a young woman brought to the world of Jimmy and Crake from the sex trade of south Asia, provides an enigmatic key. A wisp of a woman, she remains a mystery of sorts, even to the two men, Jimmy and Crake, with whom she becomes involved.

Atwood’s tale moves fast. Her imagination streams quickly from here to there in a light, deft prose that keeps the tale moving while describing this new world and the characters in it. Atwood doesn’t ruminate. She keeps the plot moving, but the lively pace of events allows Atwood to shine her high-intensity flashlight into as many aspects of these worlds as she can. She doesn’t need to explain; the spotlight of her imagination reveals enough.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Why Priests? A Failed Tradition by Garry Wills


Garry Wills once again takes on the Catholic Church, of which he is a life-long member (nearly eighty years now). This is an important point to remember, because many traditional Catholics—at least those aware of his many works on the Church—are prepared to drum him out. Wills includes a list of what he believes in, from God to the Communion of Saints, but some of trappings of the faith held by others don't make the cut. Suggesting that priests are unnecessary and not a part of the earliest Church will certainly not endear him to those who hold a strong attachment to the priesthood. 

It's somewhat ironic that Wills should write a book of this title. As he reminds us, not only is he a devout Catholic, but he studied for the priesthood (Jesuit), he dedicates the book to a priest, and he counts many priests among his friends and confidants. Indeed, Wills doesn't expect priests or the pope (about whom he's written as well in Why I Am a Catholic) to go away despite his withering criticism of the hierarchy. His criticisms include the betrayal of the faithful in many of the sex abuse scandals and the arguments (quite separate) set forth in this book. But in this book, the argument—and its importance—goes well beyond the office of the priesthood.

Wills argues that priests—at least during the time of the writings of the New Testament—didn't exist. Many offices receive mention by Paul and other writers, but only one, the author of The Letter to the Hebrews, really pushes the idea of a priesthood. Wills argues that Hebrews is an anomaly in the New Testament corpus, at once more sophisticated in its writing style and more confusing in its theology. Hebrews gives us the argument that Jesus acted as a priest in the tradition of Melchizedek (a fleeting figure in the book of Genesis) and that Christ's death served as a sacrificial offering to the Father. Neither of these two contentions receives support from other New Testament writings, and both are central to establishing the priestly office within Christianity and to establishing the Eucharist as a sacrificial offering. 

At the time of St. Thomas Aquinas in the High Middle Ages, the idea of transubstantiation become the norm for Catholic theology, using Aristotle's metaphysics as a tool for establishing the concept. This overturned an earlier Augustinian tradition that saw the Eucharist as a remembrance and sharing and not as a sacrifice. Wills, an admirer, biographer, and translator of Augustine, argues convincingly that the Hebrews tradition that created the priestly office misleads and misinterprets the tradition and sets up a concept of the Eucharist that requires priests. 

Wills not only argues that the priestly tradition via Melchizedek isn't well supported, but the whole idea of Christ's death as a sacrifice to the Father is bad theology. Wills asks "Who Killed Jesus?" and he finds the usual arguments unconvincing, including the widely accepted argument of Anselm that the perfection of God required the supreme (perfect) sacrifice of the Son. The better question (and one implicit in Wills' question of "Who killed Jesus?") is "Why did Jesus have to die as he did?". In this, we can compare Wills argument that Jesus died to share in our humanity to Mark Johnston's argument (which I reviewed here) that Jesus died as he did to break the spell of false sacrifices and false righteousness. Both authors take important points from Rene Girard's understanding of Christ's death as a break from false sacrifices. 

Wills concludes that priests, if believers see the Eucharist as something other than transubstantiation based on Aristotelian metaphysics and more as a remembrance of Christ with the believers and among them, are not so important or necessary. The Eucharist becomes a remembrance and not a sacrifice. And with no sacrifice, no need for a priest to conduct the sacrifice. 

In a time when the number of priests is dwindling and the faithful cannot assume that a priest will be readily available to conduct priestly offices, Wills' book provides some serious points for consideration. Even if one doesn't accept all of Wills' arguments, his scholarship and concern for detail are very impressive. He also cares deeply about the Church and the world. For these reasons, his book requires some serious consideration by all Christians and those affected by Christianity. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

I and Thou by Martin Buber (2nd edition, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith



My recent reading of Bonds That Make Us Free, along with a chance encounter in a bookstore (a gift of grace that rewarded my browsing of disorganized Indian bookstores), finally led me to read Martin Buber’s I and Thou. I’ve known of it for a long time, but it has a well-deserved reputation as a challenging work. The reputation is well deserved, but the effort proved worthwhile.


The premise of Buber’s work isn’t difficult. We encounter Nature, other humans, and even God in either an I-It manner or in an I-Thou relation. (Some suggest “You” a better choice of words than the archaic “Thou”.) Indeed, an I-It relation isn’t a relation at all. The “I” experiences as subject and the “It” is just an object. I-Thou, on the other hand, is the essence of relationship. The relationship is the thing, so to speak. 


Buber’s book takes this basic framework and explores the details and repercussions that flow from it. Buber, a great Jewish-German thinker, published this in 1923 in German. Much of his language proves challenging to us, even in translation. Sometimes I felt as if I was reading lightning bolts: impressive, enlightening, and fleeting. I marked a great deal of the book to come back to. 

When in high school and early college I saw many copies of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet or posters celebrating his work. I read The Prophet, and I can recall that it said some nice things about love and life in an aphoristic style. Buber’s work, which contains an aphoristic aspect, reminds me of Gibran’s work, only I think of The Prophet as greasy kids’ stuff compared to Buber’s masterpiece. This is The Prophet for adults (if any comparison is legitimate). 


Think about the consequences of Buber’s idea. What if we considered everyone we encounter as a “You” with whom we are in a relationship? Each Other is a person with whom we relate and not a thing that we use. Consider how we would treat the natural world if we considered flora and fauna as a “Thou” with whom we experience a relationship not subject to simple manipulation and calculations as things. And what if we considered God—however we might understand God—as a relationship of the greatest importance and magnitude and not as a thing for us to manipulate through various forms of spiritual materialism? If you follow Buber very far, you realize how deeply you can go in this direction. 


I’ll have to return to this book. I feel I’ve only skimmed the surface, and as to living this book (the greatest compliment one can give to a book), I’m not sure how to monitor my progress in doing so. If you’re ready for the deep end of the pool, this is a good place to dive in. 

Product DetailsP.S. In my next attempt, I’ll try the Walter Kaufmann translation, which some prefer. Given the obvious challenges in translating such a work, the benefits of reviewing both translations seem obvious.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Wolves Eat Dogs: An Arkady Renko Novel by Martin Cruz Smith



Product DetailsSometime, not too long after its publication in 1981, I read Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. Set in Cold War Moscow, it introduced Arkady Renko, a Moscow police detective. As I recall, this was the first book by Smith. It proved memorable. In some ways, Renko was like other cops: overworked, under-paid, and with plenty of personal problems. To this extent, he wasn’t unique among fictional police detectives. However, he worked in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, in the heart of the system. But the system didn’t work as the textbooks and propagandists said it did. Like everywhere else in the world, there was an underside, and Renko plunged into it. 

So now, all these years later, for reasons I can’t justify other than my standard “so many books, so little time”, I rejoined Renko in Wolves Eat Dogs. In this installment of Renko’s career the ground has shifted. The Soviet Union is gone. Oligarchs now run Russia. And the remains of a failed nuclear plant at Chernobyl create a deep scar in the Ukrainian steppe. A fall from a seventh story window by one of the “New Russia” oligarchs leads Renko from Moscow to the forbidden (but not uninhabited) land of radioactivity created by the greatest nuclear disaster ever. Renko is nothing if not dogged, even if it takes him to this eerie land of death and fleeting life. 

Like Ian Rankin, whom I recently reviewed, Smith creates a character and milieu that draws the reader in. Like Rankin, Smith’s prose creates enough literary quality to keep the reader careful without slowing the pace. Good detective fiction must walk the line between prose too easily parodied and prose too demanding of the reader. While other types of fiction can wander around with words and leave us wondering here and there, writers of detective fiction can’t afford this luxury—plot and resolution are too important. Smith, like Rankin, walks the line just about perfectly. In doing so, American and other readers get a sense of the Russian and Ukrainian land and culture in which Renko operates. This concern with scene on the part of good detective fiction heightens the enjoyment of this genre. 

So Renko again? Definitely. I have some catching-up to do.  

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Saving God: Religion After Idolatry by Mark Johnston--Yes, Again





I've reviewed this book here, and I've quoted from or or referenced here, here, and here. If you get the impression that I think this book worthwhile, you'd be right. I recently completed reading it again. I was into thinking more deeply about our human dilemma, our finiteness, our cussedness. This book addresses this problem. Indeed, it's at the heart of the work. Below are quotes from the books which you can use as little meditation pieces, a sort of lectio divina for meditation on what the great monotheisms are about. So whether all at once, or in pieces, here you go.

Saving God is saving God from us, from our lazy and self-satisfied conviction that our conventional patterns of belief and worship could themselves capture God.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (p. 1). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.  



The best thing a believer can say in response to the question “Do you believe in God?” is “I can only hope that I do. I can only hope that I actually stand in a tradition in which God has genuinely revealed himself.” Think of this essay as an exploration of how things look when that hope seeks understanding.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (p. 10). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.



So, for example, when Baruch Spinoza in the Ethics calls the one substance that is the Cosmos “Deus sive Natura,” that is, “God or Nature,” this is not idle because Spinoza finds within the Cosmos a definite path to salvation, a condition that he calls the intellectual love of God, a condition in which one experiences freedom from the bondage of destructive emotions and inadequate ideas. Otherwise, Spinoza’s appropriation of the term “God” would be a forced addition to his philosophical monism, the thesis that everything is a manifestation of the one substance.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (p. 12). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.



. . .  the three monotheisms— Judaism, Christianity, and Islam— are essentially religions of salvation history, religions whose revelations purportedly show God in search of humanity, in order to save that peculiar creature. Monotheism is in part the extraordinary idea that we matter that much to the Highest One. The very idea of salvation history is thus extraordinary; in fact it is utterly shocking, and so it is clearly not guaranteed by the idea of God as such. That God is our salvation is monotheism’s shocking and very substantial claim, which is to say that it does not follow from the meaning of “God,” the title or descriptive name whose meaning is best understood as given by a description like “the Highest One.”

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (p. 12). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.


In offering a first pass at a neutral account of salvation, we might begin with the idea of spiritual materialism. “Spiritual materialism” is a term from the sixties, used then to denote the consumerist attitude of self-described “seekers” who were always on the lookout for the latest, most fashionable guru or meditation technique or method of self-transformation. The implied criticism was that the spiritually “materialistic” seekers had undergone no fundamental change in their orientation to life but had simply taken up the hobby of self-improvement, with its endless opportunities for self-worship. The ordinary unredeemed self remained at the center of things; the same lust for advantage and desire for power that drive people in ordinary life were simply projected onto the supposedly spiritual realm disclosed by LSD or Zen or Vedanta or Buddhism or Transcendental Meditation. It was a charge of religious fraudulence in some ways akin to the old charge of idolatry made by the monotheisms as they defined themselves against their own polytheistic and henotheistic origins. What makes one religious orientation fraudulent and another authentic? In the context of monotheism the primary conception of religious fraudulence has centered on idolatry, that is, worshipping the wrong god, or the right god in the wrong way.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (pp. 14-15). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.


Genuine or true religion must be genuinely directed upon what religion is for. There are certain large-scale structural defects in human life that no amount of psychological adjustment or practical success can free us from. These include arbitrary suffering, aging (once it has reached the corrosive stage), our profound ignorance of our condition, the isolation of ordinary self-involvement, the vulnerability of everything we cherish to time and chance, and, finally, to untimely death. (Yes, death can be a release, but only when suffering or corrosive aging has already undermined the goods that an untimely death would have otherwise destroyed.) The religious or redeemed life is a form of life in which we are reconciled to these large-scale defects of ordinary life.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (p. 15). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.


[S]till, the idea of salvation says that even in the face of such things there must be a way to go on, keeping faith in the importance of goodness, and an openness to love. Now there are certain virtues (i.e., beneficial dispositions of character) that religious practice deepens. The virtues in question somehow reconcile us to the large-scale defects of human life. Herein lies the distinction between the “ordinary” and the so-called theological virtues. Ordinary virtue— self-confidence, flexibility, openness, self-directed irony, perseverance, fair-dealing, moderation, and good judgment— takes life on its own unredeemed terms and makes the most of it by way of these dispositions of character often so beneficial in ordinary life. By contrast, the so-called theological virtues change the terms of life. Thus, in the Christian tradition, faith, hope, and love are cited not merely as intensifications of ordinary virtue, but as the conditions of a transformed or redeemed life. That might help us understand the charge of spiritual materialism, even as it applies outside the theistic religions. The spiritual materialist is inauthentic in his engagement with religion, and with his spiritual quest or search, precisely because he simply turns his ordinary unredeemed desires toward some supposedly spiritual realm. However intense his experiences, they do not deepen in him the theological virtues that constitute the change of orientation that makes for a new life. Salvation, understood as the goal of religious or spiritual life, is a new orientation that authentically addresses the large-scale defects of human life, and thereby provides a reservoir of energy otherwise dissipated in denial of, and resistance to, necessary suffering. Salvation, so understood, is not the mere feeling or conviction that you are “saved.” It is a new form of life.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (pp. 15-16). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition. 



Belief in God is not a matter of believing in the proposition that he exists; it is an orientation in which the Highest One comes into view, with salvific effect.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (p. 16). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.



If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Nothing? The immanent and heroic form of first-century Christian life is nothing? Yes, nothing, zero, a waste, if it is not animated by agape. Are we not here reminded of the guiding rule for serious thought about religion, the rule so well articulated by Karl Barth, when he wrote that religion is faithlessness; or, as we might put it, that religion’s natural character, even at its humanly heroic best, is to be a form of substitution of the inessential for the essential, the god for God? As Barth puts it, “true religion” is like “redeemed sinner”; even after redemption the sinner remains a sinner, and even if a religion is true, it will be naturally filled with the inessential and the false. If there is any religion that is true, then this is because of something wholly extraneous to it, namely, God’s activity in animating the religion. 1

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (p. 19). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.


Where it is not simple worship of lifeless idols, idolatry is an attempt to domesticate the experience of Divinity, to put it to some advantage in a still unredeemed life. And then the true God slips away.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (p. 20). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.  



There is a massive consensus, across the major religions, that salvation crucially requires overcoming the centripetal force of self-involvement, in order to orient one’s life around reality and the real needs of human beings as such. Given the strength of the centripetal force, it is too easy to invent objects of worship that instead serve as echo chambers for our individual self-worship, or for the collective self-worship of our nation, tribe, or religious group. So the idolater, in declaring fealty to his idolized god, is typically persevering in his own willfulness.
Idolatry is, then, invariably the attempt to evade or ignore the demanding core of true religion: radical self-abandonment to the Divine as manifested in the turn toward others and toward objective reality.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.



[T]he very ideas of religion as essentially supernaturalist, and of God as essentially a supernatural being, are idolatrous conceptions. The idolatrous religions degrade their putative experience of Divinity by entirely wedding it to the passing and adventitious worldviews of their founding fathers. So the hard work of reexpressing the experience of Divinity within a more plausible worldview does not get done, because elements of the outdated worldview have come to provide crucial secondary compensations for those who would use their religion as a venue for spiritual materialism.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (p. 39). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.



The idea of the Fall, the idea of original sin, is minimally the idea that there is something deeply problematic that comes with the condition of being human. Yet in falling, Eve exhibits just two faults, a certain self-will, manifested in her disobedience, and a longing for wisdom— knowledge of good and evil— from the tree. Why does that combination entail her, and our, expulsion from Paradise? What moralists sometimes call “self-love” or “self-will,” the tendency to seek premium treatment for oneself at significant cost to others, has its roots in the very structure of consciousness. One’s own consciousness, the arena of presence and action in which and out of which each one of us lives our lives, presents itself as a fundamental context for the worldly happenings that make up the details of one’s life. So long as we are alive, we ourselves are always around; every time we wake up in a chair or in bed, there we are, coeval with the appearance and reappearance of the world. And so we operate as if the world just wouldn’t be the world unless we were HERE, as it were, at the center of it. In this way it can seem as if we are the fountainhead of the very reality we inhabit. To probe a little more into this: each one of us finds him- or herself at the center of an arena of presence and action. This arena can be thought of as a composite psychological field, consisting of one’s perceptual field, the field of bodily sensation, and the field of imagination and thought.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (p.82- 83). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.



Let us now consider the question of the Fall. What happens when that peculiar thing, the human animal, makes its appearance on earth? What happens when an extended capacity for self-consciousness, an extensive symbolic memory, and an impressive capacity for practical deliberation to action are added to this basic orientation of animal consciousness? How do these enhanced capacities interact with the experienced arena, and with the basic evaluative asymmetry between “HERE” and “THERE”? One thing that emerges is a developed sense of one’s own life as extending out of a remembered past into an anticipated future, a future that is sensed as capable of being shaped by one’s practical deliberation toward action. This brings with it a sense of one’s life as something to be lived; that is, shaped according to some conception of the worthy or the good— some conception that would provide at various times in one’s life more or less consistent reasons to continue to live one’s life in a certain way, and so allow for meaningful deliberative effort in life, rather than just living by whim. Such conceptions of the worthy or the good can initially be absorbed only from those around us. They are validated by our community to the extent that those conceptions dovetail with our community’s interests, indeed with the interests of the various communities we inhabit. The conceptions must then be, or appear to be, partly other-regarding conceptions of what is worthy or good; that is, they must be conceptions that represent some putative ways of benefiting others as themselves good, worthy, even demanded. Some sense of the prima facie legitimacy of other-regarding demands— some kind of conscience— is thus a widespread feature of the human form of self-consciousness. This has two notable causes. One is our felt demand to give some direction to our lives, to shape our lives to some degree by some conception (it might in fact be confused or perverted) of what is worthy, a conception that we can consult at various moments of deliberation to action, whatever variation in our whims and fancies might occur across those moments. The second is our initial lack of originality when it comes to such conceptions; we have no choice but to absorb them from the others, and what they have on offer will invariably be conceptions of the good that are to some extent other-regarding.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (pp. 85-86). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.



Psychologically opposed to this, each one’s extended self-consciousness makes explicit the fact that he or she is at the center of an arena of presence. Constantly finding oneself at the center, one finds oneself to be privileged— as something to be protected, as something to be prized. Thanks to our extended self-consciousness and our capacity to articulate what we find, what was in the higher animals merely an organizing form of animal self-protectiveness now becomes something more. It becomes a more or less explicit deliberative theme, a default starting point in one’s practical reasoning: one’s own interests just seem paramount. Hence self-will, the tendency to put one’s finger on one’s own side of the scales, a tendency whose real motto is “I am to be given premium treatment.” The psychological urgency of self-interest sits uneasily with the other-regarding conceptions of the good that one has absorbed. Neither is stably experienced as a wholly appropriate object of the will; and so there is the familiar cycle of self-will, obedience to “the Law,” guilt at failure, effort at improvement, and the inevitable lapse into self-indulgence. One is a secret, or not so secret, betrayer of the very good one has internalized. At the same time “the Law”— the conception of the good one has internalized from the others— is likely to be compromised in fundamental ways. First, it is likely to be “averaged out.” In order to be commonly available from the others and for all, it must prescind from the detailed lineaments of this or that temperament, personality, or character; in the worst case it is a pair of pants meant to fit all, which in fact produces close to universal discomfort. (Or it evades this problem by enormous flexibility, by turning a blind eye to near universal defection in a variety of circumstances, so that those who passed the conception of the good on to us seem either impossibly lax or hypocritical.) Second, the conception of the good on offer from the others is likely to have the unquestionable character of an embedded natural conviction, something that they know to be the right way of going on, a knowledge that each defends by pointing to what is commonly taken as obvious. So it can present itself in the guise of an unquestionable necessity. And third, a conventionally available conception of the good needs to be collectively defended. For it functions as an answer that can silence the question “How am I then to live?”— a question that would be terrible if left unanswered, because then we would have no practical way of responding to the demand that we live our life. Without some such conception, we are left to face the terror that there may be no way to live our life, nothing worth doing between now and the moment of our death. Because adhering to the conception reduces the threat of this terror, the conception will be defended with a certain violent intensity, an intensity that comes not from the reasoned sense that there is after all something to be said for it, but from repressed anxiety: without this way to live our lives there may be no way to live our lives. This terror of conscience, the felt but unanswered need to live one’s life out of some conception of the good, is a kind of existential threat; it threatens the very possibility of our existing as deliberative, and hence as human, beings. Here we have the natural source of the idolatrous element in “works righteousness” or respectability; an adventitious and compromised conception of the way to live is rigidly held to, and treated as an absolute, because of an inability to face the terror that might come from challenging it. One sign of this repressed existential anxiety lies in the violence associated with the policing of the common conception of the good; the stigmatizing of those who have found other ways to live; and the cathartic scapegoating of the transgressors. (About which, more later, in the discussion of RenĂ© Girard’s theme of the cathartic function of symbolic sacrifice.) This means that the common conception of the good, even though it may in fact be a conception of intrinsic goods, things that are indeed worthy of pursuit in themselves, can actually function as mostly instrumental, in that it mainly serves to block a terrible, and still unresolved, anxiety about how to live. So part of our fallen condition consists in the fact that what we rely on to silence the call of conscience, the question of how to live our life, is an internalized adventitious conception of the good that is compromised in at least three ways: in its averageness, in its appearing as a false necessity, and in its functioning as a defense mechanism against existential anxiety. Original sin, the sin that comes with the condition of being human, is thus not just the self-will that resists the other-regarding demands built into one’s internalized conception of the good. It is self-will combined with a covetous and violent protection of the compromised fruit we have plucked from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Here, then, is an interpretation of the myth of the Fall. Paradise is not for us because we are by our natures caught in an oscillation between self-will and false righteousness. Neither is a happy resting place.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (pp. 86-88). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
You can become more respectable without approaching the ethical life any more closely. The ethical life does not consist in the triumph over self-will by way of moral effort directed at the conventionalized good. That triumph is not so much a way of breaking out of the cycle of self-will, obedience to “The Law,” guilt at failure, effort at improvement, and the inevitable lapse into self-indulgence, as a way of locking oneself into one stage in the cycle, obedience to “the Law.” And there is considerable evidence that the triumph of moral effort over self-will— for example, in what is called “the authoritarian personality”— is far from costless when it comes to the virtues of flexibility, openness, self-directed irony, and an appreciation of the festive character of life. (Think of Luther the monk, and his grim and idolatrous religiosity, as he himself confesses it.) That is one sign that the rigorously respectable life is not the ethical life. What of the no doubt attractive, and even to some degree excellent, life of a person who has the ordinary virtues of self-confidence, flexibility, openness, self-directed irony, perseverance, fair-dealing, moderation, and good judgment? Is this not the ethical life? All would have been well with this, it seems, had it not been for the apparently authoritative announcement that the Reign of God is at hand, and the associated commands, expressed for example in Mark 12: 30– 31:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like unto this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
The claim of the life of ordinary virtue to be the ethical life is nullified by such an announcement and such commands, at least if they are truly authoritative.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (p. 89). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.



The truly ethical life is a life in which you encounter yourself as one person among others, all equally real. This means that the legitimate interests of others, insofar as you can anticipate them, will figure on a par with your own legitimate interests in your practical reasoning— that is, in your reasoning as to what you should do and what you should prefer to happen. Inevitably, given that each one of the others counts the same as you in your practical reasoning, the interests of others often will swamp your interests in your own practical reasoning as to what you should do and prefer. For you will find yourself to be only one of the others, the one you happen to know so much about, thanks to being him or her. Here I follow Thomas Nagel in identifying the ethical life with a life whose guiding principle is radical altruism or agape. 8 As many have pointed out, the ethical life in this sense is madly demanding, and one of the things that it puts in jeopardy is the very ability to live a meaningful life, in the ordinary sense of that term.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (p. 90). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.



The closing of the book:


This world, properly seen, is the outpouring and self-disclosure that is the Highest One. This outpouring and self-disclosure, this kenosis or self-emptying of Being that envelops everything, is the site of the sacred. So we are “already on holy ground.” A saved human being is just a finite manifestation of the kenosis, filled with an awareness of itself as such, an awareness made manifest in that human being’s turn toward reality and the real needs of others.

For one who is saved, the glory that is negates the necessity of the glory to come. There need be no next world. There need be no heavenly antechamber where the decisive events of spiritual history occur. These ideas may just be leftovers from the superstitious and idolatrous attempts to placate spiritual powers and principalities. 
There is, however, another world— it is this world properly received.

Johnston, Mark (2011-07-11). Saving God: Religion after Idolatry . Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

As long as this post is, it's only a glimpse of what is in the book. By the way, I really enjoy the way he skewers the "undergraduate atheists".