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".