I ran across a review by John Cottingham–Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Reading and an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford–over at Standpoint entitled: “It’s Not God Who Needs Saving–It’s Us,” that adds to the long line of arguments and counter-arguments about the verticality of Dostoyevsky’s operating thesis: If God does not exist, then everything is permitted. He reviews two books from self-proclaimed atheists who are trying to incorporate what we would call a “spirituality of the cross” into their naturalistic worldviews. Hmmm… Adding to the ongoing discussion about the Pope’s recent comments at Westminster Hall, comments that build upon his Gespräch with Jürgen Habermas, Dr. Cottingham’s essay is both provocative and timely, particularly as the Western world (following most church bodies, sadly) moves closer and closer to “thus says the Lord” being synonymous with 51%. It doesn’t really lend itself to a digest version, but hopefully these quotes will whet your appetite:

The “undergraduate atheists” have had their day. The spiritually deaf onslaught of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and their ilk has presented such an unfair and one-sided picture of religion that not only has it won few converts, but it may even have aided the cause of faith. If such crude tactics are the best the militant atheists can come up with (many open-minded readers must have thought) then perhaps religion is worth a second look after all.

Of much greater interest, and vastly more intellectual sophistication, are two books, one by the Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston, the other by the French best-selling author André Comte-Sponville, formerly of the Sorbonne. Both are inspired by the achievements of modern science, both firmly reject the traditional idea of a transcendent creator and yet both are sympathetic to our long heritage of spirituality, whose riches they would like to preserve if humanly possible…

And now comes the distinctive twist. There is, Johnston argues, “a religious argument…that we should hope that ontological naturalism is true. For ontological naturalism would be a complete defense against…our tendency to servile idolatry and spiritual materialism.” Spiritual materialism involves retaining our ordinary selfish desires (for security, comfort, success, etc) and trying to get them satisfied by manipulating supposed supernatural forces. Idolatry is similar, placating the gods to get what we want. Authentic spirituality, by contrast, must address the “large-scale structural defects in human life” — arbitrary suffering, aging, our and our loved ones’ vulnerability to time and chance and, ultimately, death. The religious or redeemed life, Johnston argues, is one where we are reconciled to these large-scale defects.

Johnston’s achievement here is to grasp the crucial difference that authentic religion makes to ethics — to the whole question of how we should live. The ordinary secular virtues (self-confidence, fairness, good judgment, etc) “take life on its own unredeemed terms and make the most of it”. By contrast, the theological virtues (faith, hope, love) are “not merely intensifications of ordinary virtue, but conditions of a transformed or redeemed life”. Johnston, unlike the “undergraduate atheists” (the aptly pejorative label is his own coinage), is deeply sympathetic to the resonant insights of Scripture — for example, the story of the Fall, which shows how we are by our nature caught in an oscillation between self-will and the “false righteousness” which conforms to the good out of fear or self-interest.

What Johnston does is to take the authentic moral message of religion to what he sees as its logical extreme. To truly abandon our selfish nature, he argues, would be to give up the specious promise of an afterlife in which our faithfulness is rewarded. For a truly redeemed human being would no longer need an “illusory” arena, in which “we can imagine our acquisitive desires being comprehensively slaked, even after death”. Such supernatural rewards, in Johnston’s eyes, make a mockery of the true sacrifice of Christ. For the salvation Christ proclaimed (and something similar might be said about the message of the best of the Old Testament prophets) was not about placating a supernatural God or about “making it all better”, but rather was about “the grace of finding a way to live that keeps faith with the importance of goodness and love even in the face of everything that can happen to you”.

Johnston is surely right that much of the resonance of the Judaeo-Christian worldview lies in its luminous moral insights and its power to change our lives here and now. But it is surely wishful thinking to suppose that this power can be retained while bracketing off, or deleting, the traditional faith in a loving creator God. Johnston constantly helps himself to terms like “holy”, “grace” and “gift”, to which, as a naturalist, he is not properly entitled. In the end, his naturalism must mean that, despite his sympathy for true religion, and despite his frequent use of the word “God”, and phrases like “The Highest One”, he cannot really believe in anything like the personal God of the traditional Abrahamic faiths. Instead, drawing on Alfred North Whitehead’s “process theology”, he identifies God with “a universal process understood as outpouring and self-disclosure”. Here, God is “no longer in the category of substance, as in traditional theology, but in the category of activity”. Traditional theology (for example in Thomas Aquinas) described the Creator in terms of “pure activity”. But Johnston means something very different; for when his own religious-sounding language is deciphered, all he can really mean by “God” is the natural process itself — the whole flux of activity that is the universe. He asks, perhaps a little wistfully, whether the holiness of the world, instead of deriving from its being the work of a transcendent divine Creator, might not consist instead “just in the sheer givenness of the world — that is, in its existence and disclosure”.

Unfortunately, the short answer, so it seems to me, must be no. . . . . . The spiritual praxis that has enriched so much of our collective history, the practices of prayer, meditation, lectio divina and the whole structure of private and public worship, has been, in the Western tradition, inextricably linked to the Judaeo-Christian idea of our creatureliness — the notion that our very existence is shaped by a creative power, source of all goodness, truth and beauty. This theistic framework is not the only possible framework for spirituality: both the writers under discussion flirt intermittently with the Buddhist notion of anatta — the idea that the self is an illusion and that there is nothing beyond a constant flow of impermanent conditions that arise and pass away. But it is no easy task to graft such ideas on to the ethical rootstock of Western spirituality. For one thing, it is far from clear how a worldview based on detachment and oceanic merging into the impersonal void could support anything like a morality of unconditional requirements that calls us to orient our lives towards the Good.