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In this book, Mark Johnston argues that God needs to be saved not only from the distortions of the "undergraduate atheists" (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) but, more importantly, from the idolatrous tendencies of religion itself. Each monotheistic religion has its characteristic ways of domesticating True Divinity, of taming God's demands so that they do not radically threaten our self-love and false righteousness. Turning the monotheistic critique of idolatry on the monotheisms ...
In this book, Mark Johnston argues that God needs to be saved not only from the distortions of the "undergraduate atheists" (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) but, more importantly, from the idolatrous tendencies of religion itself. Each monotheistic religion has its characteristic ways of domesticating True Divinity, of taming God's demands so that they do not radically threaten our self-love and false righteousness. Turning the monotheistic critique of idolatry on the monotheisms themselves, Johnston shows that much in these traditions must be condemned as false and spiritually debilitating.
A central claim of the book is that supernaturalism is idolatry. If this is right, everything changes; we cannot place our salvation in jeopardy by tying it essentially to the supernatural cosmologies of the ancient Near East. Remarkably, Johnston rehabilitates the ideas of the Fall and of salvation within a naturalistic framework; he then presents a conception of God that both resists idolatry and is wholly consistent with the deliverances of the natural sciences.
Princeton University Press is publishing Saving God in conjunction with Johnston's forthcoming book Surviving Death, which takes up the crux of supernaturalist belief, namely, the belief in life after death.
Some images inside the book are unavailable due to digital copyright restrictions.
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2010
"The non-fiction book I most enjoyed this year might be a stocking-stuffer for both atheists and believers (it is slightly more likely to appeal to the former, but would certainly intrigue believers willing to think about their belief). It is Saving God: Religion After Idolatry (Princeton University Press), by the Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston. This book demolishes, with far greater precision and elegance than anything by Richard Dawkins."—James Wood, New Yorker
"Outstanding."—Alan Wolfe, National Interest
"This accessible, sophisticated, and thoughtful work will be an important addition to collections of both philosophy and theology."—Choice
"[A]n astonishing book. . . . [A] daring blend of human depth and philosophical originality."—Tony Coady, Australian Book Review
"Saving God is a rich and provocative book. . . . I found Saving God to be original, complex and insightful. However one reacts to Johnston's naturalistic reinterpretation of Christianity and the other monotheisms, one may still applaud his rejection of idolatrous uses of religion to serve human ends."—Lynne Rudder Baker, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
"This witty and philosophically subtle book is . . . very Maimonidean in its thoroughgoing rejection of superstition and idolatry as an offense to true religion."—Menachem Kellner, Jewish Review of Books
"Surviving Death and Saving God both provided me with intellectual pleasure of a high order, even though I found many of the author's conclusions false and some morally repugnant. Johnston is the kind of atheist it's good for Christians to read, because he is intelligent, intellectually energetic, and serious about what he engages, and because he shows very clearly just where fastidiousness leads."—Paul J. Griffiths, Commonweal
"Saving God: Religion after Idolatry is a brilliant book: erudite, intriguing and inventive. Anyone interested in the concept of God and the relationship between religion and naturalism will want to read it."—Allen Stairs, Philosophy in Review
"[Surviving Death and Saving God] constitute a remarkably thorough and convincing treatment of two extremely important religious issues, those of the perennial allurements of idolatry and the deeply menacing fact of death, to say nothing of the books' endorsement and defense of an arduous but richly inspiring ideal of the religious life. The books are a welcome corrective for some of the most seductive and prevalent distortions of religious thought and practice. I heartily recommend them to the reader who relishes a bountifully laid, religiously nourishing, and deeply satisfying philosophical feast."—Donald A. Crosby, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion
Believing in God
God is God.-Karl Barth
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. God is transcendent; that is, God can come into view, if he comes into view at all, only as a result of his self-presentation. One consequence of this is the difficulty of knowing whether even as a believer you believe in God.
What is it to believe in God? Believing in God is not to be reduced to believing in the truth of the proposition that God exists. No doubt the Devil, if there were a Devil, would fully accept the proposition that his sworn enemy, God, exists; but nevertheless the Devil is a paradigm case of someone who does not believe in God. Believing in God is standing in a relation of faith and trust to the being who is God. Set aside for a moment the question of belief in the proposition that God exists. Consider instead this question:
"Do you believe in God?"
It is a question that many people, amazingly, are ready to answer affirmatively just by voicing or inspecting their own inner convictions. Yet relying on a purely subjective basis for answering, "Yes, I do believe in God" is odd, and perhaps disturbing. For it shows that the one who answers so quickly does not understand the question, and so does not understand just what it is to believe in God.
Suppose you look into your heart and see that there is a god, that is, an object of conventional prayer and worship, which you do believe in. How does that show that you believe in God? No amount of inspecting your own psychological state can itself determine whether you believe in God, as opposed to a god.
Indeed, we shall soon discover that you could believe that there is a God, and believe that your god is God, and believe in your god, but still fail miserably in believing in God. The first three conditions you can determine by looking into your heart; the fourth is, in a certain way, beyond your immediate ken. It requires a certain success in hitting the correct target. Or, more exactly, it requires the arrow of God to have had you, or your religious tradition, as its target.
There is, then, a question as to whether your god is really God. This is an objective question that transcends what is settled by your own psychological state, your introspectible state of belief in and devotion toward any particular god made salient to you by this or that religious tradition.
Here is an induction from past cases which must worry anyone who supposes that he can just announce that he believes in God. There is a confused syncretism that identifies Yahweh with the Holy Trinity (or one member of it) and also with Allah, despite the overwhelming scriptural evidence to the contrary. If we set that confusion aside, then, for the reasons articulated at various points in what lies below, whatever one's monotheistic persuasion might be, one must recognize that many subjectively sincere "believers" who announce that they believe in God, do not in fact believe in God. For, as the unconfused Christian would say, it is the Holy Trinity, the Triune God, at once Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who is God, and these people believe in Yahweh or Allah. Or, as the unconfused Jew would say (if he could but speak the name "Yahweh"), it is Yahweh alone who is God, and these people believe in Allah or the Holy Trinity. Or, as the unconfused Muslim would say, it is Allah alone who is God, and these people do not believe in Allah, but in Yahweh or the Holy Trinity.
We may summarize these charges and countercharges like this: "These people may be utterly sincere, but their god is not God. When they announce that they believe in God, they are indeed sincere, but they are mistaken. You cannot tell whether you believe in God, as opposed to a god, just by looking into your heart."
The charge echoes back on those who make it: "How do you know that your god is God? Clearly, no amount of inspecting your own subjective psychological state, and giving voice to your belief in and devotion toward any particular object of conventional worship and prayer will settle that question."
This simple point is obscured by a widespread syncretistic theology that automatically identifies the gods of the major theisms. I shall argue that the reasons against this identification are manifest and clear, even a cursory glance at the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam shows that the children of Abraham have come to address themselves to different gods. And it is a point of logic that at most one of these could be God.
Nevertheless, a syncretistic confusion dominates modern theology because of a kind of wishful thinking, a form of thinking in which a technical theological claim (the numerical identity of the gods of the monotheisms) is the illegitimate offspring of decent and widely held desires. All decent people want to avoid sectarian violence; all decent people want to respect others, and that means respecting their deeply held beliefs, and all decent believers want to cooperate with people of other faiths in the midst of the great challenges that face us all. These are very important ends. Still, our intense desires for these worthy ends do not in any way justify the belief that "we all worship the same God."
What could or would justify that belief is a cold, hard look at what we do worship. One reason why that is a difficult thing to do, one reason why reflex syncretism is so comforting, is that taking a cold, hard look at what we do worship would leave us with the anxious questions: Do we really believe in God? Is our god really God?
As we shall see, the major monotheisms originally defined themselves in part by denigrating the gods of others. The charge of idolatry, of worshipping a false god, is part of the self-defining rhetoric of monotheism. It is the charge one makes against others because they do not worship one's own god, who (one supposes) is God. Monotheism without the charge of idolatry is a bit like Othello without Desdemona. There would be little there to move the plot along.
To begin to understand the question "Do you believe in God?" we need to understand this charge of idolatry, and its role in the self-defining rhetoric of the major monotheisms.
First, however, it may be helpful to dwell a little on the meaning of "God."
On the "Names" of God
If we are to understand the question "Do you believe in God?" and so understand what it would be to believe in God, the first thing to understand is that "God," if it is a name at all, is not an ordinary proper name like "Judas Maccabeus," "Samuel Johnson," or "Kurt Gödel."
As the philosopher Saul Kripke established, we can use ordinary proper names perfectly competently even when we have quite false ideas about the bearers of those names. It is not part of being a competent user of an ordinary proper name that we associate some true description with the name, a description that the bearer happens to satisfy, and satisfy uniquely. To take Kripke's example, all I may take myself to know of Kurt Gödel is that he proved the incompleteness of arithmetic; but if in truth he plagiarized this proof from a certain Fritz Schmidt, who was the one who actually proved the incompleteness of arithmetic, then I still have, and this needs some appreciation, a false belief about Kurt Gödel, not a true belief about Fritz Schmidt. The descriptive content I associate with the name "Kurt Gödel" does not make that name pick out Schmidt in the imagined situation, even though in the imagined situation that descriptive content is true of Schmidt and not of Gödel.
Just as I get to refer to Gödel by "Gödel" even in a state of ignorance or confusion about who exactly Gödel is, I also get to refer to a particular man by "Judas Maccabeus" because that name is a transformation of an original Jewish name that was used to dub a particular human being at a particular time, and was passed down through a certain lineage of use, a lineage of use where the common intention is to employ the name "Judas Maccabeus," or its original Hebrew form, to refer to the man who was originally so dubbed. I can connect to that lineage of use of the original name by way of using the English transformation of the name. I thereby refer to the man Judas Maccabeus, even though I might have thoroughly false beliefs about him.
Imagine, for example, that I confusedly think he is the same man as Judas Iscariot. Even so, the content of my confusion would be that Judas Maccabeus is Judas Iscariot. I could not be confused in that way unless I was still referring to Judas Maccabeus by "Judas Maccabeus" despite my confusion about the facts.
Considerations akin to these have been widely taken to establish at least this: in order to be competent with ordinary names, you need not be the master of some specific descriptive material that the bearer of the name uniquely satisfies. What you need to do is intentionally connect to a chain of reference that leads back to an original use of the name in question, a use in which the name was given to its bearer.
Could it be like that with "God"? Could you refer to and think about God, the true God, even if the descriptive content of your associated beliefs were not true of any being in particular, or true of something other than God? The syncretistic theology mentioned earlier seems to assume just that, and in doing so, this standard syncretism appears to treat "God" as on a par with an ordinary proper name like "Kurt Gödel" or "Samuel Johnson." If "God" were an ordinary proper name, then the various monotheisms might succeed in referring to, addressing, and worshipping the same God, despite their very different and inconsistent collective beliefs about his nature and intentions. For ordinary proper names are forgiving in just this way, as Kripke showed. Gödel's mother and a logic student who hears about him for the first time will have thought about Gödel in utterly different, and perhaps even disjoint and inconsistent ways. Still, it is Gödel they are thinking of.
On this model, all the adherents of the different monotheisms would need to do is intend to connect with a chain of reference that leads back to some primordial dubbing of some being with some original, say Hebrew, form of the name "God." Then they could think about the being who is God in very different, and even confused and false, ways.
However, that is not how "God" works. In the scriptures, no one actually turns up and says anything like "I am to be called by the name 'God.'" No one says anything like "I hereby introduce the name 'God' as the name of THIS very impressive being." There is no original dubbing of someone or something as "God," a dubbing that we now can hope to fall back on. When the English translations of the scriptures refer to a being as "God" (the title associated with the Hebrew terms el, elohim, elohay), the point of the texts they translate is not to use "God" as the proper name of some very impressive being, but to convey something about the elevated status of that being.
To be sure, there is one dramatic act of divine self-naming in the Hebrew scriptures, but the name in question is not "God" or any name of which that is the translation. Exodus tells us that a divine being presented himself to Moses and dubbed himself "Yahweh," a nature-revealing designator often translated as "I am" or "I am who am":
"But," said Moses to God, "when I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The god of your fathers has sent me to you,' if they ask me, 'What is his name?' what am I to tell them?" God replied, "I am who am." Then he added, "This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you ... This is My eternal name, and this is how I am to be recalled for all generations." (Exodus 3:14-15)
Even if, as the passage asserts, Yahweh is in fact God, the name "Yahweh" does not mean the same as "God." For it is coherent to doubt, as the second-century theologian Marcion did, whether Yahweh is in fact God. Marcion also doubted that the god who appeared to Abraham was God. If Marcion was wrong about this, then his mistakes were not about the meanings of words. They would be mistakes as to the theological facts of the matter. This itself entails that "Yahweh" does not mean "God," and that "God" does not mean "the god who appeared to Abraham." If those were equivalences in meaning, then there would be no room for the relevant factual mistakes.
In fact, it is quite unclear whether "God," as we now use it, is a name at all, as opposed to a compressed title, in effect something like "the Supreme Being" or "the Most High." Notice that the so-called Names of God that appear in the Hebrew scriptures are more like titles or honorific descriptions intended to highlight aspects of the nature of the god of Israel. The first such godly "name" appears in Genesis 1:1-
In the beginning elohim created the heaven and the earth.
-and elohim is just the plural form of a Hebrew root with a meaning that is something like "divine might" or "supremacy." Throughout the Hebrew scriptures elohim, along with its cognate elohay and its simpler form el, is used to mean "god" or "the god of" as in the following:
elohim kedoshim, the holy god elohay elohim, the god of all gods elohay kedem, the god of the beginning elohay yishi, the god who provides salvation el elyon, the most high el echad, the one god el shaddai, the almighty god
These are clearly intended as either titles or honorific descriptions, whose point is in part to distinguish el yisrael, the god of Israel, from other, lesser gods.
If "God" as we now use it is a name in any sense, it clearly does not function like an ordinary proper name. In its function, it is closest to what philosophers call a descriptive name, a name that in some way abbreviates a description and so is tied to that description for its meaning. Perhaps this was true of the name "Hesperus" (or rather the name for which it is a transliteration) as it was originally introduced. "Hesperus" was introduced more or less as an abbreviation for a description like "the actual thing that appears in the night sky as the brightest heavenly body, after the moon." For a while after the introduction of that name in that way, you couldn't have been competent with that name without being disposed to treat that description, or something like it, as the criterion for determining the reference of the name. Then we may suppose that the connection to the original description faded away so that only those who call to mind the Latin and Greek roots of the name would explicitly associate the description with the name. The name "Hesperus" ceased to be a descriptive name and became more like an ordinary proper name.
Here is a fact about descriptive names: you can't use such a name with its ordinary meaning without being disposed to use the description associated with the name to determine the reference of the name. And here is an even more relevant fact: you don't get to refer to something by a descriptive name unless the thing in question actually satisfies the associated description. During the period when "Hesperus" was a descriptive name, if in truth it had been that Mars was brighter in the night sky than Venus, then "Hesperus" would have denoted Mars, not Venus. You don't get "forgiven" for making crucial factual errors in the case of descriptive names, for the reference of such names is just that of their semantically associated descriptions.
Excerpted from Saving God by MARK JOHNSTON Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Chapter 1: Is Your God Really God? 1
BELIEVING IN GOD--ON THE "NAMES" OF GOD--THE MEANING OF "GOD" AND THE COMMON CONCEPTION OF GOD--WHAT IS SALVATION?--SALVATION VERSUS SPIRITUAL MATERIALISM
Chapter 2: The Idolatrous Religions 18
THE BAN ON IDOLATRY--IDOLATRY AS PERVERSE
WORSHIP--GRAVEN IMAGES AND THE HIGHEST ONE--IDOLATRY AS SERVILITY--THE RHETORIC OF IDOLATROUSNESS--THE SAME GOD?--THE PHARISEES' PROBLEM WITH JESUS--COULD WE BE IDOLATERS?
Chapter 3: Supernaturalism and Scientism 37
SCIENTISM AND SUPERSTITION--SUPERNATURALISM--LEGITIMATE NATURALISM--SCIENTISM VERSUS SCIENCE--THE ARGUMENT FOR NATURALISM FROM TRUE RELIGION
Chapter 4: The Phenomenological Approach 53
THE METHOD AND THE QUESTION--YAHWEH'S USE OF THE METHOD--A CRITERION, OR AN ENCLOSED CIRCLE?--YAHWEH'S CRITERION APPLIED TO HIMSELF--FORGIVINGTHE GOD--A REPLY TO YAHWEH'S ANSWER TO JOB
Chapter 5: Is There an Internal Criterion of Religious Falsehood? 70
THE POPE'S CRITERION OF RELIGIOUS FALSEHOOD--A CONSEQUENCE OF THE POPE'S CRITERION--RELIGIOUS AND SCIENTIFIC FALLIBILISM
Chapter 6: Why God? 80
DOESN'T SUBSTANTIVE REASONABLENESS SUFFICE?--THE FALL--HOMO INCURVATUS IN SE--THE REDEEMER?
Chapter 7: After Monotheism 95
THE HIGHEST ONE--THE TETRAGRAMMATON--THE PARADOX OF THE HIGHEST ONE--SPEAKING OF THE HIGHEST ONE--EXISTENTS AS DEPENDENT ASPECTS OF EXISTENCE ITSELF--AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE THOMISTIC
INTERPRETATION OF THE HIGHEST ONE
Chapter 8: Process Panentheism 115
THE GOODNESS OF THE HIGHEST ONE--THE ANALOGY OF LOGOS--PROCESS PANENTHEISM--THE SELF-DISCLOSURE OF EXISTENCE ITSELF--THE PROBLEM IS WITH THE PANTHEON
Chapter 9: Panentheism, Not Pantheism 126
DISTINGUISHING PANENTHEISM AND PANTHEISM--PRESENCE--PRESENCE AS DISCLOSURE--IS BEING ALMOST ENTIRELY WASTED?--UBIQUITOUS PRESENCE--AGAINST NATURAL REPRESENTATION--REPRESENTATION AND "CARRYING INFORMATION"--CAN CAUSATION ACCOUNT FOR ABOUTNESS?--WHAT COULD REPLACE THE REPRESENTATIONALIST TRADITION?--A DIAGNOSIS OF THE REPRESENTATIONALIST'S MISTAKE--A TRANSFORMED PICTURE OF "CONSCIOUSNESS" AND REALITY--CONFIRMING THE SURPRISING HYPOTHESIS
Chapter 10: The Mind of God 152
THE OBJECTIVITY OF THE REALM OF SENSE--HOW THE STRUCTURE OF PRESENCE MIGHT IMPOSE EVOLUTIONARY CONSTRAINTS--OBJECTIVE MIND AND THE MIND OF THE HIGHEST ONE--THE DOUBLY DONATORY CHARACTER OF REALITY--DOES GOD EXIST?--THE HIGHEST ONE
Chapter 11: Christianity without Spiritual Materialism 160
RELIGION AND VIOLENCE--THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO GIRARD--WHERE IS ORIGINAL SINFULNESS?--ORIGINAL SINFULNESS AS SELF-WILL AND FALSE RIGHTEOUSNESS--CHRIST DESTROYS THE KINGDOM OF SELF-WILL AND FALSE RIGHTEOUSNESS--THE AFTERLIFE AS AN IDOLATROUS CONCEIT--AGAINST "MAN'S QUEST FOR MEANING"--THE AFTERLIFE AS RESISTANCE TO
CHRIST--NATURALISM'S GIFT: RESURRECTION WITHOUT THE AFTERLIFE