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Saving God: Religion after Idolatry Hardcover – July 26, 2009
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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.
( Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews )
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 )
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 )
From the Inside Flap
"This book is a brilliantly conceived contribution to natural theology. Taken together with Johnston's forthcomingSurviving Death, it constitutes the most interesting and provocative elaboration of religious naturalism since Santayana."--Jeffrey Stout, author ofDemocracy and Tradition and Ethics after Babel
"This is a remarkable, fascinating, and important book, one that exhibits rich philosophical erudition--which it wears lightly--and startling philosophical insight. It is, at its core, a work of natural theology, a distinctly philosophical endeavor, but the book neatly sidesteps all the dead ends that such a project has created for itself in the last couple of centuries."--James C. Edwards, author ofThe Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism
"This is one of those rare works in philosophical theology that presents a complex, novel view in a manner accessible to the general reader. This is an exciting book."--Andrew Chignell, Cornell University
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Many without philosophical training may find sections of the book tough going, even though the book does not aspire to full philosophical rigor and Johnston tries to avoid jargon. However, for those with some background I would hold this up as a paragon of style. Even if you don't agree with the overall conclusions of the book, there are valuable insights to be gained in every chapter. I myself found much of it quite compelling and plan to re-read many chapters in it.
Johnston critique's the "idolatrous" or supernatural view of God in favor of the panentheistic notion of God as "Being-Itself" or "Existence" from which all existences flow from to manifest the ultimate existence. God, in the Tillichian sense, is the Ground of Being for Johnston. Such a God is not only a source of existence, but also a source of transformation for the believers who desire to transform their lives rather than fulfilling their hedonistic pleasures. Johnston's view of God was in part influenced by Aquinas, whom most scholars of medieval philosophy would not regard as Panentheistic (John Dun Scottus, however, could be panentheistic).
While Johnston rightly criticizes the "spiritual materialism" in conjunction with the anthropomorphic view of God that many believers (though not all) cherish, Johnston seems to assume that the problem would vanish if believers were to believe in the panentheistic view of God. Why is this so? Augustine, Aquinas, John Dun Scottus, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swineburne, Charles Hartshorne, Hegel, Spinoza, and other philosophers and theologians from Classical Theism (including Medieval philosophy) to Modern Theism (including Process Theology of Alfred-Whitehead) have proposed variety of views of God that could arguably be coherent (this could be disputable though). Why believe in Johnston's God rather than other notions of God espoused by different philosophers and theologians? Furthermore, many of these believers make similar claims: my God guarantees a transformative spiritual life. So, the reason to believe in Johnston's God cannot be because of spiritual transformation because other theistic philosophers and theologians make similar claims.
Johnston's argument that Panentheism is consistent with Naturalism (more speficially Methodological Naturalism) is not very convincing. The whole point of methodological naturalism is to postulate any hypothesis or theories that can help explain variety of the phenomena in the natural world, and such hypothesis or theory has to be both testable and falsifiable. Johnston's Panentheism maybe consistent with Methodological Naturalism, but such consistency from the perspective of Methodological Naturalism (or Naturalism as a whole) may be deemed superfluous and unhelpful since such panentheistic being could be easily construed as unfalsifiable ad hoc postulate that cannot be tested.
Johnston went in the right direction as he critiques on anthropomorphism of God and spiritual materialism, and the idolatrous implications of these tendencies of many believers; to believe in a cosmic sky-father who interferes with human affairs to make their lives more fascinating and happier is a fairly idolatrous and anthropomorphic belief, especially when the Abrahamic God in the old-testament displays a lot of human-like qualities in regards to attitude and emotions. His phenomenological analysis of God is also interesting. Despite these positive assets to this book, Johnston's panentheistic notion of God is merely a belief as any other beliefs to an outsider like me.