The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West
by Mark Lilla
Knopf, 352 pages
After the seemingly endless stream of jump-on-the-bandwagon accusations of "American theocracy," after the mindlessly discussed potshots of the so-called "new atheists," the reading public deserves some sane, nuanced writing about religion and contemporary life. Breathe a sigh of relief. Published within weeks of each other this past September, Charles Taylor's Secular Age and Mark Lilla's The Stillborn God challenge some of the most recent drivel about religion that has flooded bookstores of late by ignoring it. In lieu of polemic, here is scholarship. Taylor's work is a monster study of the makings of our secular world that has been widely praised as the crowning achievement of the political philosopher's long career. But, at a thousand pages, it is unlikely to end up as the selection of your average discussion group. This is exactly what makes Lilla's book perplexing, exciting, and likely to be widely read. Lilla is both a Columbia professor of Humanities and intellectual journalist par excellence—and his book shows the influence of both of these perspectives. Clocking in at just over 300 small pages with a generously-spaced typeface, this tidy little study of the history of political theology is palatable for even the busiest Barnes and Noble shopper—perfect for planes and trains. Yet, it sacrifices no theoretical depth, discussing Rousseau, Hume and Kant where most books in its niche would discourse on Coulter and Falwell. In sum, it is the sort of thing our culture deserves.
Lilla begins his book with a thorough and simple—though woefully un-footnoted—overview of the basics: what political theology is (an attempt to order public life on the basis of divine revelation), the possible forms it has taken, and why Christian theology makes for an especially problematic political theology (an inherent tension between immanent and transcendent pictures of God). This all leads up to the book's big bang: the religious wars of the Reformation and the ensuing "Great Separation" between political thought and theological speculation.
Thomas Hobbes saw a way out. Universally remembered for his intensely pessimistic view of human nature, a view that mandated a powerful monarchy in order to keep the peace, Hobbes is revived by Lilla as a hero—the man who realized that we could conceive of political thought in a way that asked questions about the nature of man rather than about the will of God. In doing this, Hobbes set up the tradition of modern political philosophy such that questions about how to best order the public sphere must remain separate from questions about the religious purpose of the universe. This strain of thought was transformed in the writings of Enlightenment thinkers like Hume and Locke into one which endorsed the liberal democracies and the toleration of private religious beliefs with which we would be much happier to identify; indeed, Lilla points out, this is the only sort of political thought that readily occurs to us Westerners, religious or not.
But, this is not all. Lilla locates another, equally powerful, tradition which questions some of the Hobbesian conclusions about religion. Rousseau was unhappy with the idea that man was moved to religion by darker impulses of fear. Rousseau thought that a public religion, divorced from dogma and revelation, could embody the ideals of the human spirit, and so could be an important motivating force. This idea received perhaps its highest theoretical treatment in the work of Immanuel Kant. Kant too rejected any religion that was outside the bounds of mere reason, but he also took certain theological postulates (an afterlife, for instance) as essential for a truly moral life. Kant, then, went one step further than Rousseau and mandated certain theological beliefs as rationally required.
In Lilla's telling, from here we can only go downhill. Hegel followed in the footsteps of Rousseau and Kant, but endorsed a specific brand of Protestantism as the ideal public religion. Then, along came a new brand of German liberal political theologians who derived a theology from human experience that was at once a somewhat unconvincing interpretation of the Christian tradition and a politically impotent option in its easy identification of Christianity with contemporary social norms. People were left to wonder what difference being a Christian made.
This is Lilla's "Stillborn God"—stillborn and dangerous. The religious endorsement of contemporary culture meant inevitable and chauvinistic endorsements of national interests in the First World War which would look shocking in retrospect. And, impotent religion bred the potent political theological critiques of Karl Barth and Franz Rosensweig which, Lilla argues, threatened to return political thought to a pre-Hobbesian state. The messianic bombshells of these new political theologians spiraled out of their control and were appropriated in support of Nazism and Stalinism. In conclusion, Lilla issues a stern admonishment: don't get lax. Even the seemingly benign liberal political theology paved the way for the full-blown re-establishment of pre-modern madness.
The Stillborn God is a tour de force, intellectual history the way it should be written: clear, crisp and concise—and above all relevant. Lilla has taken a topic so pertinent to our times, so often pontificated about without real moorings, and constructed a solid theoretical framework in which we can understand contemporary dilemmas. Nevertheless, his methodology is problematic. Lilla chooses an unabashedly "great thinker"-directed route. He lets readers know from the outset that he will survey the history of thought about religion, not European history. This means that at its lowest points The Stillborn God reads like a series of potted summaries. This is especially problematic when dealing with the thought of complex thinkers like Kant and Hegel—if you haven't read them before, it is likely you'll come away from this book remembering buzzwords but having little sense of why they thought what they thought in the way you will for Hobbes. But, as far as explaining Kant and Hegel to an uninitiated audience goes, Lilla is as good as it gets. A bit more troubling is the fact that the book is constructed entirely on Lilla's readings of primary texts. There is no engagement with any of the previous historiography of political theology (or if there is, it is not explicit), which leaves one wondering what just exactly Lilla has contributed to our understanding of the West. This lack of engagement also means that Lilla asserts certain points—like the creation of the modern nation state in response to the great religious wars—which have been heavily challenged in scholarly debate. Then, there is the fact that Lilla's great thinkers are by and large Protestant great thinkers. Lilla makes it clear that he will be leaving out Catholic thought for the sake of focus and conciseness. The point is taken, but not without noting the severe limitations this places on his argument. When Protestants invented the modern nation state, Catholics had to deal with it—and not only by sneering at it as Lilla seems to think. Barth and Rosensweig may haven begun a politico-theological revolution, but the attempts of Catholic theologians to deal with democracy in the 20th century spawned some of the most subtle (and outrageous) political theology of recent note. It is a pity that Lilla leaves this out, and thereby sacrifices the nuance it would have given to his argument.
Finally, there is the rather obvious point that when one takes the sort of great thinker route Lilla employs, one largely sacrifices a view of how ideas are deployed in the real world. This is the source of some of my deeper misgivings about the book. Lilla's "Liberalism" is, it seems to me just a tad hegemonic. According to Lilla, since Hobbes and the "Great Separation" we have ceased to think in politico-theological terms in the West. This is true, of course, in mainstream political theory. But, is it true on the ground? The (in)famous Rev. Richard John Neuhaus made exactly this point when he was charged with dealing in divisive political theology—that it is likely that the average Joe endorses "liberalism" with a lower-case "l" (meaning democratic institutions and the rule of law) because he believes them to be mandated by his theistic beliefs. Leaving aside chicken-or-the-egg questions as to how average, theoretically unsophisticated people come to have such beliefs—given they have coherent political beliefs at all—I think it is worth noting that if many people think, for instance, that human rights need a grounding in the notion that humans were created in God's image, then Lilla's standard is somewhat arbitrary. The institutions Lilla wants to preserve have gotten along fine with people making temperate politico-theological assumptions and arguments—and they have been threatened equally by messianic theological critiques, Stalinist plots, and fascist rumblings. This point is, in fact, made in the book itself, when Lilla discusses the case of Ernest Bloch, who appropriated the trappings of revolutionary theology to further his own Marxist goals. Which makes one wonder: what is Lilla's beef with religion anyway?
It hinges, I think, on a theoretical ambiguity in the book. Lilla certainly opposes messianic politics of any kind—and seems to think them all worthy of the title "political theology." If a strain of political thought looks outward for justifications based on ultimate cosmologies, Lilla warns us, it will likely be dangerous. But, this is somewhat different than the advice we often take the children of Hobbes to have given us. The separation of religion and politics means that good liberal democracies do not even entertain theological arguments as legitimate in the public sphere. This vaguely Rawlsian position seems to be the goal Lilla is aiming for—against the recent attacks on the strict removal of religion from politics by Neuhaus in the popular press, and by people like John Milbank and Stanley Hauerwas in the academy—but it is unconvincing in as much as it excludes religion on principle, while ignoring the fact that religion is not the sole locus of extremist political thought. Perhaps Lilla wishes to exclude (or discourage) all thought that urges action based on lofty speculation. But just how difficult this would prove can be brought home by considering how central so-called "cosmological" questions are to the consideration of issues like abortion and euthanasia—and how impossible it is for the religious to separate their theological and civic selves. My guess, then, is that Lilla honestly thinks that theology is a bankrupt enterprise that, tout court, we would be better off without. Many would second that. But, to those who take theology seriously, his insistence on privatized belief will not be convincing. None of this, however, takes away from the great service Mark Lilla has done by saving us from religious amnesia.
Andrew Flynn, The Current's Literary Editor, is a senior philosophy and history major in Columbia College. He reviewed Damon Linker's The Theocons in the Spring 2007 issue.