By Galen Strawson
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

Surviving Death
By Mark Johnston
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 Kripke.

AR  See my draft book Godblogs and my blog, July 5, 2009.