London Review of Books, Vol. 33 No. 11, 2 June 2011
Edited by Andy Ross
Saving God: Religion After Idolatry
By Mark Johnston
Princeton, 198 pages
Princeton, 393 pages
Mark Johnston says that all regular adherents of the Abrahamic religions are
idolaters. The genuine spiritual or religious impulse cannot achieve full
expression in religions that mandate belief in a supernatural personal God.
There have been genuinely religious Abrahamists, but both St. Paul and St.
Augustine were brilliant monsters of egotism, and almost all religious
belief is about self.
Johnston rejects Spinozan pantheism, which
identifies God with the universe, in favour of panentheism. He claims that
God is constituted by the natural realm. He takes nature to be the matter of
which God is the form. He finds the universe engaged in a process of
increasingly adequate self-disclosure. He characterises panentheism as "the
outpouring of Being by way of its exemplification in ordinary existents for
the sake of the self-disclosure of Being". He proposes that the Divine Mind
may be construed as "the totality of fully adequate and complete modes of
presentation of reality".
Johnston offers salvation. Salvation is a
matter of "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". It requires achieving radical selflessness, a state for which
Johnston uses the Buddhist term anatta (no-self). One needs to understand
that there is no persisting self. Then "the doctrine of anatta can be seen
to pave the way for the command of agape ... the command to love the
arbitrary other as oneself." Anatta-agape is the way to survive death.
Mark Johnston had a Catholic upbringing up to age 15, then joined the
Columbans, a group he describes as the missionary equivalent of the Navy
Seals, in Sydney. He left for Melbourne University, where he took
simultaneous degrees in philosophy and psychology. He is currently the
Walter Cerf Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University, where he wrote
his Ph.D. under the supervision of Saul
AR See my draft book
Godblogs and my
blog, July 5, 2009.