The Stillborn God:

A cautionary tale?

posted by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan

stillborn11.jpgThe Stillborn God passionately asserts and defends the doctrine of separation as the solution to the threat of messianic politics. My position on the nature of this threat aside, the book was a lot of fun to read. What’s not to like about a book willing to make big world historical arguments in a clear declarative style that invites rebuttal at every turn? I was drawn in and energized by the points on which I agree only to be brought up short by those with which I disagree. Cleaning up my own views for presentation became obligatory.

Lilla masterfully describes the problem posed for all would-be Christian political theorists and some of the various efforts made over the centuries to solve it. Christianity was not originally a religion for government; the inherent instability in the Trinity is a troubling foundation for a political order; and the Christian god’s movement between immanence and transcendence causes constant tension. Lilla delineates the arguments of some very smart people who worry about the problem. His passion and clarity make this book good to think with.

But there were several points that troubled me.

First, Lilla tells us that he was originally motivated to explain the revival of messianic political theology in interwar Germany. He says that he came to see the liberal Christianity that set up this revival as a product of the previous nineteen centuries of experiments in creating a Christian political theology, and its failure as, in a sense, foreordained. Having begun this project as one of genealogy, though—an effort to explain the failure of German liberal Christianity—the book seems to have been written in reverse so that the failure of German liberal theology is made to seem the inevitable outcome of any Christian political theologizing. Beginning on a world stage with three types of religion structuring a comparative treatment of political theology, Lilla ends with the very particular story of post-Hobbesian/post-Rousseauian/ post-Kantian German Protestant Christian theology. What might be convincingly explanatory from a genealogical viewpoint becomes startlingly parochial and alarmist, even Huntingtonian, in this reverse treatment.

Secondly, what Lilla calls “the human condition” turns out to be the condition of one strain of protestant theology. Protestant Christian political theology is made first uniquely triumphal in its creation of The Great Separation and then uniquely corrupt in its underwriting of the Holocaust. Other religions—indeed, other Christians, Protestants and otherwise—are virtually absent. That others have also experimented politically with the built–in tension between immanence and transcendence—as well as with other creative tensions present in other religious cosmologies—is patent. To write of comparative political theology in the twenty-first century without so much as a nod to other Christian and non-Christian political philosophies is surprising, to say the least.

Thirdly, the book makes copious use of the first person plural. It is not at all clear who “we” are. All moderns? All Christians? Or all Americans? To the extent that he is speaking to the latter, it is important to note that American Christianity—and European Christianity outside of Germany—is different from German Protestantism. With respect to the U.S., German liberal theology is exemplary only for U.S. university trained theologians, not for most American Christians. For most American Christians, the accommodation between evangelical Protestantism and U.S. civil religion, while arguably complicit in extending the lives of various unjust legal structures, is also arguably far less dangerous than the German messianic variety has been in the past. American Christianity is moralistic and pietist, but it is also tempered by a common sense pragmatism and endless division.

Lastly, this book is written as a cautionary tale, urging us to have the courage—and the will—to maintain what Lilla terms “the Great Separation” in order to avoid a fall into the temptation of messianic politics. It is Lilla’s view that the heirs to the Great Separation, an experiment he terms a unique adventure in truly secular politics (a politics built on Hobbesian psychology) are at a crossroads, a crossroads where they must choose the hard road of separation rather than the soft, seductive—and potentially disastrous—road of a new political theology, one of comprehensiveness and assurance. He has a lot of company today in those who warn of an impending return to “theocracy.”

Lilla writes: “Political rhetoric in the United States, for example, is still shot through with messianic language, and it is only thanks to a strong constitutional structure and various lucky breaks that political theology has never managed to dominate the American mind.” I disagree. While there is real evidence from time to time of “the paranoid style” in American political life, there has never been a serious danger of messianic politics. And it is not just the Constitution and luck. American religion, generally reflecting American associational life, is too fissiparous and lacking in institutional infrastructure to stage a takeover.

It would have been enough for Lilla to frame this book as an explanation of the genealogy of bourgeois protestant German Christian liberal political theology and the long shadow that it casts over the post-enlightenment world order. To see that theology as inevitable and as uniquely significant as a diagnostic for comparative political theology undercuts the very conversation Lilla begins with, one that is well worth having—a serious comparative study of political theologies, one that acknowledges that separation is also a political theology.

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