The Stillborn God:

The last prophet of Leviathan

posted by James K.A. Smith

stillborn11.jpgIt would be unfortunate if Lilla’s The Stillborn God got lost in the shuffle of the burgeoning industry of Theocracy Alarmists, Inc. (fronted by the likes of Chris Hedges, Kevin Phillips, and Randall Balmer)—or even worse, lumped in with the screeds of secular fundamentalists like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Unlike these other hapdash offerings to fawning secularist audiences, Lilla’s book is winsome, erudite, and engaging. Even critics will have to recognize that this is a stunning book.

It is also a handsome book, just the sort of thing one expects from Knopf: stout and meaty in a 5×8 format with a textured dust-jacket and creamy pages—a pleasure to hold and (I have to confess) caress. Only deckled pages would have been an improvement. Such lovely materiality deserves praise.

But back to the first claim: What makes the book stunning is the fact that Lilla, if you’ll forgive the semiotic jargon, is a helluva story teller. Let’s not underestimate his achievement. The Stillborn God is so lucid that it lulls you into thinking you actually understand Kant and Hegel. Giants in German theology like Schleiermacher and Troeltsch are adroitly encapsulated in a few pages, and relatively minor figures like Gogarten or Cohen stride onto the stage as such fulsome characters in the story that one is compelled by their amplified presence. Lilla uniquely weds the analytic skill of an expositor with the story-telling skills of a dramatist. This is as close as Hegel is ever going to get to “creative non-fiction.”

Lilla’s erudition informs a sweeping narrative from late medieval Christendom up to the outbreak of World War II. But it is a tale with a curious narrative arc: the hero emerges early, but the remainder of the story tracks all the ways he is forgotten by later dramatis personae—such that only the narrator (Lilla) seems to honor his memory. The story goes something like this:

We begin with a crisis, the so-called “wars of religion”: awash in the fervor and passion of religious faith, the early modern west finds itself spiraling into the chaotic violence of religious wars which are the result of a toxic mix of theology and politics that Lilla simply describes as “political theology.” Into this milieu of religio-political violence strides our hero, Thomas Hobbes, engineer of the “Great Separation” that sequestered theology (with its claims to divine revelation) from having any role or authority in matters of “politics” (which was to be conducted on the basis of public reason available to and agreed upon by all). Thus was “modern political philosophy” born as the antidote to “political theology.” Hobbes and political philosophy liberated “us” (sic) from the “Kingdom of Darkness” (a phrase that gets repeated just often enough that it takes on a kind of Michael-Moore-ish quality, I’m afraid).

To this point, up to Locke’s liberalization of Hobbes, Lilla’s story is not especially unique. It’s a classic example of what Charles Taylor would call a “subtraction” story of modernity. But things get interesting when Lilla continues to consider the fate of this Great Separation after Hobbes. From this point the story becomes a jeremiad, lamenting the ways that Hobbes’ heirs (Rousseau, Kant, Hegel) rolled back the accomplishments of the father of “modern political philosophy,” giving just enough ground to religion and theology that political theology would once again rear its ugly head right here in the “enlightened” West. Rousseau and Kant both re-admit (an albeit scaled-down, “rational”) religion back into public political discussion. Something about human nature and human morality pressed them to give a continuing though chastened role to religion for even “modern” man. But keeping the door open just a tiny bit was fateful: what began as a toe in the door ends up as the elephant in the room. Thus Lilla plays Samuel to Rousseau and Kant’s Saul: “What’s this bleating of sheep I hear?” Why have you not vanquished every vestige of political theology? Making room for even a “modern” political theology as purveyed by the liberal theology of Schleiermacher or Cohen gives rise to a Frankenstein-ish monster that comes back to haunt “the West” in the form of “German Christianity” (indeed, the book might have been better subtitled Religion, Politics, and Modern Germany).

Admittedly, one of the places where Lilla’s story-telling goes off the rails is his account of twentieth-century German theology, and Barth in particular, upon whom he lays the blame for Nazism. Only someone as deft as Lilla could make such a claim seem even remotely plausible, but at the end of the day it remains a ludicrous charge. But I’ll leave it to the Princeton police to protect Barth.

The lesson Lilla draws from this morality tale is that the “God” that would have issued from the Great Liberal Separation was a “stillborn God”—a superfluous deity easily lopped off by Occam’s razor. After all, just what work does such a god do? What does such a non-interventionist, deistic, distant bestower of human autonomy add to the universe? Why bother? “To the decisive questions—‘Why be a Christian?’ ‘Why be a Jew?’—liberal theology offered no answer at all.” Most people need more than that.

It is perhaps the pronouns that are most telling in The Stillborn God. Throughout the book I found myself wondering: Just who is this for? What’s the point? Why is this story important? For whom? This is hinted at in the opening but clarified in a final coda: the story is intended as a cautionary tale for “us.” “The rebirth of political theology is a humbling story,” Lilla concludes, “or ought to be” for those of us with the intellectual will and fortitude to choose to be “heirs to the Great Separation.”

At this point Lilla turns aside to the small cadre of the Enlightened who see the story for what it is: “Those of us who have accepted the heritage of the Great Separation must do so soberly. Time and again we must remind ourselves that we are living an experiment, that we are the exceptions.” Wavering between insider code and an invitation to join this inner circle of the exceptional, Lilla ends with a manifesto of inverse gnosticism: “We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by the light of revelation. If our experiment is to work, we must rely on our own lucidity.” “We” turns out to be the sect of modern-day Essenes living on the upper West Side, who have vowed to abstain from the illusions of the masses and consigned themselves to the cold, hard desert “reality” disclosed by reason. Lilla and his exceptionalist monastic brotherhood of enlightened “us” have girded their loins in order to make their way in the world without the comforts of faith and revelation (I’m guessing one would bump into Hitchens and Harris in the same rationalist desert after all).

Where does that leave the rest of us—the us not included in Lilla’s enlightened “us?” I, for one, am not persuaded to drop my nets and follow Hobbes.

A first core problem of the book is the very beginning of the story: it buys into the simplistic myth of religious violence and secular peace, resting on the unsubstantiated empirical claim that “religion” (whatever that is) breeds violence whereas institutions of liberal democracy foster peace (current world conflicts in the name of “democracy” not withstanding). Thus Lilla repeats the liberal alarm about religion’s “passion” and “fervor” as the incubator of violence—passions to be curbed by the machinations of Leviathan and, later, the liberal democratic state. But this is a distinction that is untenable for anyone who has ever attended a professional sports event in the United States. It sounds as if Lilla has never witnessed the fervor and passion incited at the opening of a NASCAR race when the dancing colors of the flag are mingled with the iconography of a military fly-over. The opening prayer certainly doesn’t excite the same passions!

In short, the myth of distinctly religious violence and liberal peace is untenable. As the work of William Cavanaugh has demonstrated, the so-called “wars of religion” were primarily about statecraft, and “religion” was an invention of the politiques behind the modern state. While we might not expect Lilla to be a theologian, he is culpably responsible for his ignorance of Cavanaugh’s trenchant challenge to the tired, liberal story about the “wars of religion.” If that story is placed in doubt, then the liberal state is not the savior it pretends to be. Leviathan is more perpetrator than liberator. And Lilla can’t simply plead that he’s “doing history;” what’s at stake is his historiography.

A second core problem is a related distinction between “political theology” and “modern political philosophy.” While he never quite clarifies the nature of the distinction, political theology is seen to be problematic because it appeals to revelation, whereas political philosophy subscribes to a kind of epistemological asceticism that resigns itself to the human all too human. Modern political philosophy is thus more “realistic,” according to Lilla, and in this sense has a leg up on the illusions or dishonesty of political theology.

But this, too, is an untenable distinction. This is not a tension between faith and reason, theology and the secular. It is always already a tension between two faiths, between competing theologies, between rival stories about the world—neither of which can be “proved” but both of which are affirmed by faith. While I think Lilla has conveniently (and irresponsibly) ignored scholarship along these lines (as articulated in the work of John Milbank, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Jeffrey Stout), in fact his own account admits the point. As he observes, Hobbes is not without faith: “On the very first page of his work Hobbes makes an implicit profession of faith: that to understand religion and politics, we need not understand anything about God; we need only understand man as we find him, a body alone in the world.” Not all theologies require appeal to revelation; theologies bubble up from the fundamental, faith-based stories we tell about the world. In this respect, modern political philosophy is always already a political theology. Leviathan is not without its priests and prophets. Lilla’s story about liberation from theology is informed by an alternative theology. That fact calls into question his entire project.

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7 Responses to “The last prophet of Leviathan”

  1. A great review – for which, thank you.

    My question is: I don’t think ‘as William Cavanaugh has demonstrated’ is really true. He makes an enticing alternative reading of the so-called ‘wars of religion’, but he hasn’t really done the historical legwork, that I have seen, to make his claim into a demonstrable lay-down fact in the way you suggest here.

    I wish he had, or that someone would!

  2. Michael: I apologize that the link to Cavanaugh’s HDB piece perhaps gives the impression that he’s “demonstrated” the point there (which, admittedly, he does not). But he argues the case more fully in his book, The Theopolitical Imagination, particularly in the first and second chapters (drawing on a much-cited piece, “A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House,” published several years back in Modern Theology). And we should be seeing a monograph from him on these questions in the next year or so.

  3. I have read quite a bit of Cavanaugh – it is precisely ‘The Theological Imagination’ that I am talking about! I love his stuff for its sheer chutzpah, but TTI is still quite a brief sketch (the whole book is only 100 pages or so) – it falls very far short of a ‘demonstration’. As I say, I want his account to be true, but declaring it to be demonstrated is premature. At best, it is a possible alternative account, for now. I have to say that this is an annoying tendency in RO work – to take the alternative historical reconstructions as having been established when the reality is otherwise.

  4. avatar Avi Bernstein says:

    Regarding James Smith’s remarks on Mark Lilla’s distinction between political theology and political philosophy: I find it odd to find Jeff Stout’s pragmatism invoked in support of eroding the distinction, and adopting a kind of hard relativism in which narrative confronts narrative, faith confronts faith.

    Stout, as I read him, is committed to something quite different. While it is true that a kind of soft relativism animates Stout (i.e. “justification as a contextual affair”), democracy is precisely a practice of exchanging reasons, and citizens are to be praised for getting their own kind of clarity about the place of religion in politics. Some will be Emersonian, with a priority on self-reliance as the first democratic virtue. Others will be Augustinian, much more prone to what Lilla calls political theology.

    Far from being left alone to enjoy their own “faith,” Augustinians should be joined in ethical dialogue by Emersonians, according to *Democracy and Tradition* (and surely Stout is Emersonian himself). In this exchange, Stout certainly hopes for a fusion of horizons, and fully expects reasons to continue to govern the way secularists, religious folk, and those who inhabit the muddy middle narrate the past and construct the distinction between licit and illicit religion in the public square.

  5. In reply to Avi Bernstein: I see Stout refusing Lilla’s tired distinction between “political theology” and “political philosophy” insofar as Lilla’s distinction clings to a notion that the latter is somehow rational and ‘secular.’ Stout, in a way similar to and perhaps indebted to Wolterstorff, rejects such “secularism” precisely by owning up to democracy _as_ a “tradition.” So Stout, I think, rejects Lilla’s picture of “political philosophy” as proverbially rational, neutral, etc. In a way not unlike MacIntyre, Stout concedes that democratic “reason” is “traditioned,” whereas Lilla is still clinging to a kind of Kantian universalism about “secular” reason that administers “political philosophy.”

    Of course Stout is very critical of how other “political theologians” like Milbank and Hauerwas carry out their projects. I didn’t suggest otherwise. (I also think Stout’s critique is mistaken, but can’t unpack that here.) But what’s interesting about Stout’s critique vis-a-vis Lilla is that when it comes to their accounts of “rationality” (and political rationality in particular), it seems to me that Stout is on the side of MacIntyre, Hauerwas and Milbank regarding the conditions of reason. Where they disagree is in determining what this means for the shape of discourse and practice in a pluralist state; in other words, they have very different strategies for pursuing “the common good” (Stout, I guess, would think that Hauerwas, Milbank, et. al. are just not interested in the common good; I think that’s mistaken).

    In short, I don’t think Lilla’s “political philsophers” just neatly map onto Stout’s “Emersonian democrats.”

  6. Ad Jensen 2, regarding Cavanaugh’s “demonstrations” or lack thereof: Fair enough. We’d need a longer discussion about what does or could constitute a “demonstration” regarding historical matters. I, for one, would not buy into your implied distinction between “historical reconstructions” and the so-called historical “realities.” All we ever get our historical reconstructions–though that doesn’t mean our reconstructions aren’t accountable to the phenomena that “push back” on our reconstructions, as it were.

    But beyond that, I would also note a few things: (1) Lilla’s restatment of the old myth of religious violence and secular/liberal/democratic peace seems to be prone to its own selective attention to “the phenomena.” It seems pretty clear that secular, and even liberal/democratic regimes, have been the cause of no shortage of violence and bloodshed in the 20th and 21st centuries. (2) The myth rests not only on matters of historical reconstruction, but assumes a distinction that is difficult to maintain: viz., that one can distinguish a thing called “religion” from other sorts of socio-political phenomena. And it’s not only Bill Cavanaugh that calls such neat & tiday distinctions into question. Consider, for instance, Daniel Dubuisson’s _The Western Construction of Religion_; (3) The religious violence/secular peace myth also needs to contend with sociological phenomena which suggest that religion is also clearly a very concrete motivating force for peace. Are there any secular pacificsts left? In contrast, consider the tireless work of Anabaptist, Quaker, and Catholic peacemaker teams who put themselves in the way of violence for the sake of peace. Perhaps another way of putting this is to say that “religion” is a category so broad as to be meaningless; we ought to attend to particular religionS, and even particular strains or streams within particular religious traditions. Only such fine-grained analysis can help us make sense of how “religion” can inform such different practices. For instance, if one asked whether “Christianity” caused violence, our ‘instrument’ (so to speak) would not be calibrated to see that Southern Baptist Christians are very different from Mennonite Christians. Not even our traditional socioligical categories like “conservative Protestant” or “evangelical” would be fine-tuned enough to register that distinction.

  7. Thanks JKAS, that is helpful. ‘Calling into question’ is a far more modest claim than ‘demonstration’.

    I only nitpick because, as I say, I wish to use the same critique myself! Your point about the religionS is right on the money too. In my own doctoral work on martyrdom it is precisely this distinction I am trying to draw: the ‘authentic’ Christian practice of martyrdom is quite different from the tribalistic and damn-the-lot-of-you versions of religious martyrdom that our secular neighbours are so revolted by.

    There’s a question here of course for theologians to discuss about the ‘ontology of peace’ and so on, but some other time perhaps.

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