Skip to content

Mark Johnston’s Saving God

August 5, 2009

This new book, published by Princeton UP, apparently criticizes atheism and theism, and proposes a “naturalistic” theology without supernaturalism. Can anyone tell me, what’s the point? Why talk about God if you don’t believe in any gods? I don’t get this, any more than I get the “death of god” theologians or the postmodern theologians (like Jack Caputo, for instance).

This is a serious question: why do people want to continue to talk “religiously,” so to speak, after they’ve given up all the trappings of religion?

A more serious question is this: since this is, at best, propaganda rather than scholarship, why does it get published by Princeton? [Why do I think it is propaganda? Because it likely advances particular normative agendas by mystifying or naturalizing certain religious authorities rather than showing how the process of mystification works—which is what I think scholarship should do.]

Advertisements
17 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2009 5:45 pm

    “This is a serious question: why do people want to continue to talk “religiously,” so to speak, after they’ve given up all the trappings of religion?”

    Colin Wilson says that there is a proportion of the population who are just kinda mad like that. They have a natural inclination to religiosity to a greater degree to others, they can’t help it. It doesn’t matter if they believe or what, it’s just the way they think.

  2. August 5, 2009 7:45 pm

    Why is it propaganda, and not, say, fiction?

  3. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 5, 2009 8:18 pm

    Nathan, I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not. Help me out!

  4. August 5, 2009 8:25 pm

    I’m not.

  5. August 5, 2009 8:38 pm

    I guess my point is this. I’ve never read this book, so I can’t comment on it, but my reaction to the “death of god” theology was that it was a kind of elegy and that it should be understood as a kind of rhetoric that’s more like poetry than like traditional theological writing — an expression of desire and a sort of ironic self-consciousness. Not that that necessarily makes it less tedious. I wonder if that might be true of this as well.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 6, 2009 9:47 am

    “it should be understood as a kind of rhetoric that’s more like poetry than like traditional theological writing”

    I don’t know about this book for sure—I haven’t read it—but I definitely see that in the pomo theologians, for instance. For them, it just seems neater to say stuff like “God is the impossible.”

    That in itself wouldn’t bother me. What bothers me is that I think some of what is going on is trading off of the authority of the Christian tradition, in which case they’re also reinforcing that authority as well (at least for some readers). I mean, it’s no fluke that their “ironic self-consciousness” is about God and Jesus, not about Ahura Mazda and Zoraster.

    So, do you like the death of god stuff? I used to LOVE that stuff–I spent a lot of time in graduate school reading Mark C. Taylor and friends. But at some point I decided 1) I desired actual clarity in my work, and 2) I wand to refuse rather than reproduce the authority of Christianity.

  7. nbr permalink
    August 6, 2009 11:32 am

    I don’t exactly like it — but I do find it kind of interesting as a primary source, if you know what I mean. I know this is kind of a long shot, but have you ever come across the work of Phillip Homans on the theme of “mourning” in religious studies? I really like this article – http://bit.ly/5Gvwc

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 6, 2009 11:45 am

    Oooh! That’s a really interesting article. I’m going to have to read it in its entirety …

  9. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 6, 2009 1:52 pm

    Hmm. I have to say that the quotes you pulled out were about the only thing I liked about the article.

    It’s probably my prejudices against psychoanalysis of religion that are to blame, however. I really like Freud, but I think his social theory is really unsophisticated. It’s interesting that this author notes that psychoanalysis can’t produce a worthwhile theory of culture. However, since I think that religion is mostly about culture, this means that I don’t look for psychoanalysis to help me understand it.

    But to return to your main point: I think it is reasonable to assume that these sorts of theologians we’re talking about may well be mourning the religion of their childhood by writing their theology. But that doesn’t make it okay to me: I want to ask what the social effects are from their theologies, who benefits, who does not, etc.

  10. August 7, 2009 9:24 am

    “But that doesn’t make it okay to me: I want to ask what the social effects are from their theologies, who benefits, who does not, etc.”

    Surely there is room for diversity in academia? Why does everyone need to be interested in the same questions as you?

  11. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 7, 2009 1:26 pm

    Of course there is room for diversity in academia. That’s why, even though I don’t really get much out of psychology of religion, I’m still all for it.

    But I think we should draw the line at discourses that advance agendas through the means of mystification, and I reserve the right to ask whether my colleagues’ work is doing just that, and whether or not the agendas they advance would be persuasive if they weren’t mystified.

    In my book, “God says we should” should never be admissible as a legitimate claim in the academy (for similar reasons that it shouldn’t, for instance, be admissible in the courtroom). And that extends to all similar remarks …

  12. bradcorban permalink
    August 12, 2009 7:18 pm

    MfM: “I think we should draw the line at discourses that advance agendas through the means of mystification, and I reserve the right to ask whether my colleagues’ work is doing just that, and whether or not the agendas they advance would be persuasive if they weren’t mystified.”

    Yes, I like this. I suppose this is why I read your blog.

    Looking for the agenda a particular ideology supports feels like a key tool for analysis.

    Also, your comments unsettle me in ways that I tend to enjoy: I now how to wonder if I’m co-opting “God” to serve my own ends, and if I’m doing so in such a way to conceal my ideological commitments (conscious or unconscious). And to what degree am I buttressing the authority of ALL people who claim to be Christian if I myself give it some authority (and benefit, to some degree, from its present ideological domination)?

  13. Rob Flynn permalink
    August 17, 2009 12:03 pm

    “Discourses that advance agendas through the means of mystification” could describe theoretical physics, maybe even economics. In your view should all theological discussion take place outside of the academy? I find it interesting that no one has read the book under discussion. If someone is ready to push something out of academia before reading it, perhaps that’s a signal that one should assess one’s own assumptions and biases. Thanks

  14. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 17, 2009 12:14 pm

    Theoretical physics or economics? I’m sure that there is mystification in all academic disciplines, even the sciences. However, I believe it is something that should be avoided, and something that scholars in religious studies are much more guilty of than people in the sciences.

    Yes, I don’t think theology (at least most of what is called theology) is actually academic in nature. I think it is tantamount to propaganda.

    I’m not interested in reading the book—I’ve got better things to do with my time. But if you’ve read it or know someone who has, I’m definitely willing to hear criticisms that my view misrepresents the type of theology created, or that my view isn’t sophisticated enough to deal with this particular type of theology, or whatever. I can’t imagine it is all that different from other sorts of progressive theology I’ve read (and I’ve read lots), but I’m definitely open to the possibility that I’m completely wrong about that.

  15. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 17, 2009 12:19 pm

    FYI: A great example of mystification or reification in the sciences was in eugenics, which mystified the social construction of racial categories so that they seemed natural rather than socially produced. However, I think that sort of mystification is A BAD THING, and, where found, should be rooted out of the academy.

  16. August 24, 2009 9:24 am

    Hey,

    I’d just like to say I think your comment, “Why talk about God if you don’t believe in any gods? I don’t get this, any more than I get the “death of god” theologians or the postmodern theologians (like Jack Caputo, for instance)” is rather unqualified, which is understandable considering you have not at the time of posting it.

    In Saving God, Mark Johnston certainly believes in God. He rejects supernaturalism, but this does not inter alia imply rejecting belief in God. The whole point of his natural theology (process panentheism) is to suggest a way of how belief in God can be separated from belief in the supernatural. Surely, attempting to accommodate God within a naturalistic framework does not logically entail giving up one’s belief in God. It is at least a lively possibility that a reconciliation of belief in God and faith in naturalism is compatible, and that seems to be Mark Johnston’s good point.

    Second, I would also like to disagree with your statement: “A more serious question is this: since this is, at best, propaganda rather than scholarship, why does it get published by Princeton? [Why do I think it is propaganda? Because it likely advances particular normative agendas by mystifying or naturalizing certain religious authorities rather than showing how the process of mystification works—which is what I think scholarship should do.] ”

    I agree that it is very worthwhile to look into the “processes of mystification” – in other words, the genealogy of religion – and this is surely an academic task. Daniel Dennett, for example, does a good job on this. But it does not follow that anything besides that is mere propaganda. Philosophers, for example, are very careful to make a distinction between the (say, psychological) process by which a belief is acquired, and the *content* of that belief. The articulation of content is an equally substantial philosophical task; it just does not logically follow that this must be mere mystification. The idea that the only thing to explain is genealogy or process, and that there is no task of explaining content, is very heavily criticized in academic circles. Take, for example, psychologism, the view that all there is to explain in logic is not its content, but which psychological processes bring it about. This view has been considered quite ridiculous (in the popular academic circles I know) since Frege and Wittgenstein. The problem with focusing on processes and genealogy is that the inquiry remains descriptive, whereas an articulation of content can reveal its normative dimensions – of why one should believe in the content. There is an is-ought divide here, but the ‘ought’ part is certainly not mere propaganda. Perhaps your view on how academic inquiry in general, and philosophy in particular, works, is a bit too simplistic.

    I think the term ‘advancing an agenda’ is too strong to apply to Mark Johnston’s book. If you read his preface, he writes that he is merely trying to express a certain sensibility, lest it has already passed over in the world. And articulating sensibilities – always looking at different ways to view the world – is, at least to me, an endlessly admirable task.

  17. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 24, 2009 5:36 pm

    Hi Clement! Welcome, and thanks for commenting!

    Knowing that this is process theology rather than atheist theology makes more sense of it to me: it’s not like Jack Caputo’s work after all. Johnson does believe in a god. The “naturalist” language is what threw me; most people who use the term “naturalism” mean something close to “atheist”—I should have remembered that process philosophers call their view “naturalism” as well.

    About the other point: I don’t think that all scholarship should be “demystification,” and that nothing else counts as scholarship. However, I do think discourses that mystify are not scholarly. As you rightly point out, I went off half-cocked, so to speak, since I haven’t read the book, but I wonder if some of the discourses he uses are mystifying. I find it hard to believe that that’s not the case: I’ve never read any talk about gods that don’t try to mystify a social agenda. However, it’s entirely possible that there are some out there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: