Past ages have accepted the preeminent power of faith, and argued over what to believe, not over whether to believe. We tend to wonder whether the passion of belief isn’t a danger, perhaps the danger to be overcome.
A recent book by Mark Johnston, Saving God: Religion after Idolatry, revises Christianity to make it is less dangerous. A philosophy professor at Princeton, Johnston thinks we need a view of God that allows us to believe, but does so without over-stimulating our religious passions.
Johnston focuses on the problem of idolatry as a way to revise Christianity. In the Bible, idolatry involves devotion and service to a false god or gods. It is our religious desire wrongly satisfied. For this reason, the Jewish and Christian traditions have put a great deal of energy into polemics against false gods, seeking thereby to guide our religious desires toward the one true God.
Johnson, however, shifts the meaning of idolatry. Perhaps unconsciously echoing Erich Fromm’s notion that human beings are constantly tempted by a desire to “escape from freedom,” he observes that we are afflicted by an “existential anxiety” that seeks resolution by way of loyalty to inherited “truths.” Instead of facing the question “How am I then to live?”—a question he presumes we must answer for ourselves—we take refuge in authoritative dogmas. This turn to dogma—letting God answer the question of the meaning of life—is by Johnson’s reckoning the essence of idolatry.
Johnston’s redefinition of idolatry as an obedient faith rather than a false faith recapitulates the basic moves of modern, skeptical Protestantism: The anti-Judaism, the antinomianism, the false truism that St. Paul “invented” Christianity, the transformation of Jesus’ crucifixion into a pattern of inclusive love. It’s a familiar line of thinking. Decades ago, Paul Tilllich provided a similar analysis, calling for a more thorough application of the “Protestant Principle,” which he understood as the categorical imperative to critique any and all authoritative dogmas. Bultmann did the same with his program of “de-mythologization.”
In fact, as David Yeago explained in a seminal article in pro ecclesia almost two decades ago, “Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology,” a great deal of modern Protestantism has reconfigured the old criticisms of Catholicism as a form of idolatry into a modern ideal of critique, a shift from idolatry as false believe to idolatry as any form of confident, life-governing belief.
Nevertheless, Johnston sees, as did Tillich and others, that we are made for loyalty, and we must give ourselves away in love and worship. Our religious desire—which incorporates into itself all our desires for truth—needs to find satisfaction. Therefore, the main thrust of his book involves outlining a view of God whom we can serve, but do so without believing too much. We need a revisionist theology, thinks Johnston, not an anti-theology.
I won’t bore you with the arguments, which are so full of false dichotomies that they would be tedious to present. It’s enough to recount Johnston’s conclusion: God is not a supernatural being (whatever that means), but instead “the outpouring of Existence” (whatever that means). Calling into service the notion of kenosis (self-emptying) that St. Paul uses to explain God’s solidarity in Christ with our fallen humanity, Johnston suggests that if Christians correctly understood their own theology, they would recognize that “the Highest One” denies his supernatural status, pouring out his power of existence in the form of the cosmos. Put simply: God is the world, “the way things are,”
Therefore, he argues, a true Christian faith believes in this “God” and thus assents to the way things are. We give our selves over to reality—death, for example, which is the end of our existence. This view, thinks Johnston, satisfies our religious passions. We’re talking about “God” after all. But this God isn’t transcendent, and so we’re not inclined to get too uppity.
Johnston’s effort to temper our passion for truth, especially for transcendent truths, seems attractive, so much so that it’s widespread these days. For example, the relativism one regularly encounters (“All our truths are relative to historical context or point of view”) is rarely presented as a philosophical doctrine. Most advance this view as a form of therapy.
If we let relativism soften our convictions, then we’ll be more modest and less ardent, less likely both to be disappointed or hurt and to disappoint, or even hurt, others. Like a God who is just the world as we experience it, a truth that is only relative does not agitate and disrupt.
The same holds the emphasis that postmodern academics place on critique. All the talk about meta-narratives or the metaphysics of presence is juxtaposed to alterity, difference, and various gestures toward individuality and spontaneity. If we will but see that our efforts to give ourselves away in loyalty to transcendent truths are misguided or slavish or oppressive, then we will be released from our compulsive need to serve transcendent truths.
Life will be easier, or at least less agitated. We’ll reconcile ourselves to the diverse and complicated and mundane reality of everyday life. Finally peace—affirmation and acceptance of “the way things are.”
Christians, however, are called to be the salt of the earth. Our role is not to help people settle into life, helping them accept “the way things are.” Nothing about the Gospel encourages us to reconcile ourselves to death. There is a disruptive quality to the sweep of the biblical witness. God called Abraham: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1).
The Word of God is like a giant crowbar that levers us out of “the way things are.” His message works on our hearts, inflaming us with a desire for something more, for a holiness that transcends the world, a participation in the divine life that can be ours. St. Augustine saw this desire as so powerful that it will find satisfaction, even the false satisfaction of perverse and false worship.
This is why the sorts of revisionist theologies put forward by Tillich and Johnston are dead ends. If we are denied the transcendent God of Israel who deliver us from sin and death and calls us into his household, we will erect idols to serve, not the least of which is the idol of “the way things are.”
False worship lies at the hand of human wickedness, as the Old Testament teaches us. But the answer to false worship is not less worship. Rather, the answer is the true worship that captures our souls and ravishes our hearts.
R.R. Reno is a Senior Editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
David Yeago’s Gnosticism, Antinomianism, and Reformation Theology.
The Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology.
The Center’s journal Pro Ecclesia.