Eternal Life for Atheists

In these two closely connected volumes, the Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston argues for the following conclusions. First, that refusing to identify God as an idol requires one to reject the central claims of most versions of Christianity (as well as Judaism and Islam). Second, that there can be no coherent account of the resurrection of the body or of most versions of personal immortality. Third, that the hope for personal immortality is inextricable from an idolatrous understanding of God. And, fourth, that there is nevertheless a sense in which good people “are also able to literally survive death.” Johnston argues for these conclusions not with the purpose of demolishing Christianity, but in order to provide comfort to, and inspiration for, an imagined “intelligent young person who is religious, but who feels that his or her genuine religious impulses are being strangled by what he or she is being asked to believe.” Johnston wants to save what he takes to be the essence of Christianity from its deformations—to save God from idols. This is an ancient concern, one that almost invariably leads, as it does here, to a rejection of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

It might seem from my brief summary of his arguments that Saving God and Surviving Death should be categorized with the New Atheist tracts produced in the last few years by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and their acolytes. That is not the case. Those works are ignorant of what they argue against, always unsubtle, usually incoherent, and invariably motivated by an unseemly hatred of what they reject. Johnston, by contrast, can discuss the thought of Karl Barth and Thomas Aquinas with precision and understanding, and he has thought deeply, if not always well, about what it means to believe in, pray to, and worship a God who is not a being among beings. He admires many things about the Christian and Jewish traditions. And the arguments he makes show a high degree of subtlety, elegance, precision, and passion for the truth. This is fitting for a philosopher who works in the Anglophone analytic tradition and was trained by David Lewis and Saul Kripke. Most of Johnston’s work until recently has contributed in a fairly technical way to such topics as color-identification, identity and individuation of particulars, and intentionality. Saving God and Surviving Death appear to be his first foray into what might be called philosophical theology.

Those who think as Christians about the Lord may usefully be divided into two groups. The first are those who worry about idolatry: they want, more than anything, to approach the Lord in address and thought in ways that guard against identifying him as an idol, a particular being among other beings; for no such being could really be the Lord in whom all particular beings participate and who brought everything that is into being ex nihilo, out of nothing. These are the conceptually fastidious, and their errors, when they make them, are exactly those of the too-discriminating: they find it difficult, even impossible, to identify the Lord as one who has become incarnate, and so they ignore Jesus and find those who don’t distasteful and crude—idolaters of the flesh and of the local. The second group are those who become uneasy about any theological thinking that does not start from, and return to, Jesus. Idolatry doesn’t worry these people; they’re more likely to be concerned about any philosophy that refuses to bend the knee to Jesus and pretends to have some autonomous capacity to discriminate idolatrous from nonidolatrous thought about the Lord. They are lovers who find theory unattractive because it tends to corrode love for Jesus. Their errors, when they make them, are exactly those of the undiscriminating: they make Jesus in their own image and end by adoring a local god. Christian thought, talk, and practice should embrace the worries of both groups and hold them in tension, using each to correct the errors of the other.

Johnston, unconstrained by the authority of the tradition, doesn’t have to worry about this tension within Christianity; and so he can be what he is, which is a thinker of the first kind, so concerned about idolatry that the Lord’s fleshly presence is hidden from him, as is the Lord’s scandalous election of a particular people as his intimates and witnesses. The first step in his method is to “bracket questions of existence, in order to understand what God would be if there were a God.” He is concerned with the logic or inner structure of the idea that there is a Lord who is not a particular being among beings, not a local deity with particular powers, but rather the maker and sustainer of all that is, seen and unseen.

When we speak of such a Lord’s characteristics, whether as lover or giver or knower, then we must be speaking analogically. The Lord’s love is not in every respect like ours, for if it were, he would be a creature like us—and by definition he is not. We cannot, then, speak of the Lord’s love and ours univocally; to do that would be to make him an idol. But neither can we speak equivocally of his love and ours, for that would mean that they have nothing at all in common, and then our talk of the Lord would be emptied of meaning. The third option is analogy: according to this view, our love is like the Lord’s in some ways and unlike it in others. Analogy permits us to make true positive statements about who the Lord is and what the Lord does, without reducing him to creaturely status.

This is Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine. Johnston understands it well and expounds it carefully. He also understands—but doesn’t accept—the doctrine of divine simplicity, according to which the Lord is not to be separated from his love as if he were its possessor; he is identical with his love. The “is” in “the Lord is love” is like the “is” in “four is twice two”; it is not the “is” of predication, as in “Barack Obama is the husband of Michelle.” If the Lord were one thing and his love (power, wisdom) were another, he would be internally complex and contingently related to his love, as we are—he would be conceivable as a nonlover, just as Barack Obama is conceivable as not Michelle’s husband. But if the Lord is not to be an idol, that can’t be right: he must be his love. This is what Thomists mean when they say that the Lord’s existence and his essence are not separable.

These are difficult concepts. They do not occur in this form to most Christians, or even to most Catholics, even though they are as close to being Catholic dogma as anything at this level of abstraction. They represent the conclusions of the conceptually fastidious about the Lord. Johnston does not accept them, mainly because he takes the doctrine of analogy, which belongs to the order of predication and understanding, to be incompatible with the doctrine of divine simplicity, which belongs to the order of being. Why? Because, according to Johnston, the claim that there is an analogy between my goodness and the Lord’s, when coupled with the claim that there is an analogy between my existence and the Lord’s, requires the conclusion “that God’s goodness is not identical to God’s existence, for different things stand in the relation of analogy to them.” That conclusion is required, he thinks, because the analogy that holds between my existence and the Lord’s must be different from the analogy that holds between my goodness and the Lord’s. Otherwise the meaning of “existence” and “goodness” as applied to me and as applied to the Lord will have to be radically different, and that would ruin the analogy.

The problem with Johnston’s argument is that it misconstrues the nature of the relation between any good of mine and the Lord. That relation can best be indicated by the term “participation”—a word that scarcely occurs in Johnston’s treatment of the Lord’s nature, though it is one of central importance to the Christian tradition he treats. One can formulate this relation in various ways, but the following seems good to me: Any good I have participates in the Lord as its criterion. This is true of my goodness, my existence, my love, and so on. The Lord is the criterion—the test of excellence, the standard or norm of goodness—for all particular goods. He is this just in virtue of being the Lord, the one whose existence is his essence; and each particular good is what it is just in virtue of its (degree of) participation in the Lord. The particular, differentiable goods I have are what participation in the Lord looks like for a being of my kind. And, likewise, the Lord’s simplicity is exactly such that my creaturely participation in it will consist of differentiable goods.

The rule here, which Johnston seems not to see, is that, in the orders of predication and knowing, we begin from what we know of our own goodness and knowledge and so on. Where else could we begin? But in the order of being the direction is reversed. The doctrine of analogy requires the doctrine of participation, and taken together they permit—indeed, require—the assertion of both divine simplicity and analogical likeness.

Johnston’s view that the classical Augustinian-Thomist position on the Lord’s nature doesn’t work leads him to an alternative position. This is a variety of panentheism, according to which an account of the natural realm provides an exhaustive account of everything there is, and the Lord, here called “the Highest One,” is “wholly constituted by the natural realm.” All particular beings—all creatures, as a Christian would say—are constituents of the Highest One, which should be understood as “the outpouring of Being by way of its exemplification in ordinary existents for the sake of the self-disclosure of Being.” Spinoza would have been pleased with this formulation, and this is an ancestry Johnston recognizes. It follows from this formulation that there are no “cosmic interveners,” no beings (or being) external to the natural realm who alter its course. It also entails that there can be no incarnation as Athanasius or Aquinas would have understood that idea: the Highest One does not take flesh, is not crucified, and, therefore, cannot be resurrected. None of that makes any sense within Johnston’s fastidious reading of Christianity as a form of panentheism. Neither does the idea of an afterlife. That idea is, according to Johnston, at once idolatrous and spiritually materialist: the former because it turns the Highest One into a cosmic intervener; the latter because it advocates worship of the Highest One with an eye to the impossible reward of eternal life—a reward that Johnston thinks cannot be had and should not be sought. Johnston strikingly calls the doctrine of eternal life the real despoilment of Christ; and he reproduces part of El Greco’s El Expolio on the dust jacket of Saving God to drive the point home. This is a nice derangement of the image.

Space prohibits any detailed treatment of Johnston’s arguments against the idea of personal immortality. They are interesting and powerful, and right about a number of things, not least the impropriety of detailed imaginings of the afterlife. Johnston is quite correct that the concept of personal immortality, an eternal life with the Lord, is substantively incomprehensible—like the idea of a noncarnivorous leopard. That is not to say, however, that it is false: we Christians have good warrant for thinking both that there will be noncarnivorous leopards (see Isaiah 11:6) and that we shall live forever. We just have no substantive idea of what either will be like. And Johnston is at his most interesting when, in spite of his rejection of almost everything that constitutes orthodox Christianity, he reconstrues central Christian ideas. About immortality, for example, he writes that the good, those who have a good will, “survive death, living on in the onward rush of humanity.” By this he means, roughly, that the truly good, the best among us, are such in virtue of proclivities and passions (“self-directed irony…endless playfulness…capacity for forgiveness”) that project outward without boundaries. They love everyone; they are altruistic; they are good philosophers (yes, really); and so they “have become something that is present whenever and wherever embodied individual personality is present.” That is the immortality of the good, and the only immortality available.

It also appears to be the kind Johnston expects for himself, because the virtues he thinks are rewarded by such an immortality are those his books exemplify. 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.

Johnston also shows an astonishing, misplaced, and serenely unargued confidence in the capacities of argument to deliver the truth, identify error, carry conviction, and provide comfort. In fact, argument about matters such as those addressed in these books, even when it succeeds in delivering the truth and identifying error, almost never carries with it firm conviction that it has done so. For this reason, it almost never provides the kind of comfort and inspiration Johnston intends his books to offer.

Published in the 2010-10-08 issue: 
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Paul J. Griffiths, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, is the author of several books, including Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar, and, most recently, Christian Flesh (Stanford University Press).

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