Most professors of religion seem content to stay in their ivory tower. They stand above popular-level religious debates and so have little to do with them. However, Mark Johnston (Princeton University) has decided to sully his hands by engaging the ongoing “theism/atheism” debate in Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). Calling popular atheist writers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens “undergraduate atheists” (apologizing to undergraduates who may be offended), he argues for an understanding of God free from the naiveté of undergraduate atheism and the superstition of fundamentalism.
Johnston sees undergraduate atheism and fundamentalism as almost colluding together in distorting religion in two ways. First, they reduce it to superstition. At this point, the undergraduate atheists merely have to show how scientism is more rational than superstition. However, as far as Johnston can tell, they have posed no serious challenge to true religion at all.
Second, undergraduate atheism and fundamentalism insist that religion inherently is supernatural. Unlike the reduction to superstition, many believers may agree that religion must be supernatural. Johnston strongly disagrees, arguing that supernaturalism (the belief in spiritual beings who can intervene with the laws of nature) is idolatry. He defines “idolatry” as any attempt to resist, domesticate, or manipulate the Divine. Why is supernaturalism idolatrous? Because it leads to “spiritual materialism” and servility. By “spiritual materialism” Johnston means religious belief without any fundamental change. Supernaturalists may appease their gods, but at the end of the day they remain essentially the same people. By contrast, true religious devotion implies a core change in the worshipper. God has been domesticated and resisted for the Divine’s demands cannot be reduced to appeasement.
On the other hand, supernaturalism can have the opposite effect: servility. Supernaturalists will blindly conform their will to their god’s will simply because their god possesses terrifying power. They forfeit their responsibility as human beings and their selves in exchange for whatever their god promises. Rather than truly worshipping God, supernaturalists worship otherworldly power. In the end, they reduce the true God to a carrot on a stick and thus also lapse into a domesticating idolatry (some even go so far as to try to persuade and thus manipulate God to expend power on fulfilling personal wants).
Consequently, the concept of an afterlife becomes idolatrous. An afterlife simply promises the pleasures and luxuries of this Earthly life, but this exemplifies spiritual materialism! Such a person looking forward to streets of gold has not undergone any real transformation whatsoever. Johnston understands original sin as self-desire plus a “ready-to-wear” way to live (i.e., simply conforming to the culture – a form of spiritual materialism). The promise of an afterlife feeds original sin, while the denial of an afterlife jumpstarts the process of living like Christ.
What, then, of God? Are the undergraduate atheists ultimately right in thinking God does not exist? Hardly. Johnston defines God as “the outpouring of Existence Itself by way of its exemplification in ordinary existents for the sake of the self-disclosure of Existence Itself.” This dense definition requires explanation. Johnston starts with Thomas Aquinas’s definition of God as Existence (or Being) Itself. All existents participate in Existence Itself. From here, atheism makes little sense, for the atheist must either argue that existents do not participate in Existence Itself, or that something greater than Existence Itself exists in which Existence Itself and all existents participate. All of the new atheists completely miss this, the very crux of Thomas’s theology.
That accounts for the “Existence Itself” bit in Johnston’s definition, but, since his definition does not end there, he parts ways with Thomas. Unlike Thomas, he reasons that God must be complex not simple, for a God with no parts leads to a paradox: God is God’s attributes, and thus God is an attribute. Wanting to preserve God’s aseity (i.e., ontological self-sufficiency), Johnston argues that God may be composed of parts, but that all of those parts depend on God rather than vice-versa (like a tooth depends on the whole body, not the body on a tooth).
This move opens up the door for a God who changes. As such, Johnston can say that God outpours Existence. More than that, Johnston insists that the God who outpours Existence more closely aligns with the Biblical God of love than the God who is statically Existence Itself. The outpouring of Existence Itself occurs in existents by definition, and this outpouring occurs for the sake of Existence Itself. In short, Johnston argues for panentheism over classical theism, viewing God as an activity rather than a substance.
Johnston brilliantly exposes undergraduate atheism as a movement dedicated to attacking strawmen rather than theology. His argument against supernaturalism completely overturns conventional wisdom: science depends on theology for a naturalistic worldview. Only theology can provide a case for metaphysical naturalism (because it safeguards against idolatrous supernaturalism). Left on its own, science can only assume it a priori.
The linchpin of Johnston’s panentheism rests on the idea that God can be complex without violating God’s aseity. While he provides examples where the part depends on the whole rather than vice-versa, none of his examples demonstrate that every part of a system can depend on its larger whole. His tooth example works fine, but does every part of the body depend on the larger whole, or does the body as a whole depend on some of its parts? It seems that the latter rings true. The body depends on the heart, lungs, and stomach, but doctors can preserve these organs independently of the body. If so, then it remains far from clear how every part could depend on the whole but not vice-versa, and thus how God can be complex and retain aseity.
Theological debate aside, Johnston still provides a compelling case for the relevance of religion. However, the biggest question is, “Provides a compelling case for whom?” Unlike the undergraduate atheists, Johnston’s writing would most likely be impenetrable to a reader without a higher education. Johnston describes his ideal reader as an “intelligent young person” struggling with religion, but his actual audience will be much narrower. Johnston deals a coup de grace to the undergraduate atheists; unfortunately, too few will be able to appreciate it.