My thanks to all those who have taken the time to respond to The Stillborn God, with sharper comments than I’ve received so far in published reviews, and to The Immanent Frame for organizing the discussion. I’ve already posted a separate comment on José Casanova’s thorough remarks, to clear up some misunderstandings. Here I’ll try to respond first to the overlapping concerns raised by Winnifred Sullivan, James Smith, and Elizabeth Hurd in their generous contributions. (Nancy Levene’s arrived too late to be included for now.) My Columbia colleague Gil Anidjar’s “review in three parts” is different in tone, and needs special treatment. So I have two responses: one in narrative mode, the other in mock-lyrical mode.
First Response (narrative mode)
In reading Casanova, Sullivan, Smith, and Hurd I can see that a more explicit treatment of method in The Stillborn God might have forestalled certain objections, though not all. So let me begin by saying a little more about how I approached the themes in the book, and then get to the main worry they express, which concerns “triumphalism.”
When I use this term I mean the legitimation of political authority on the basis of a divine revelation. I’m well aware that others use this term differently; this is how I use it, and for several reasons. My interest, which outstrips the scope of this one book, is to understand an alternative between what it might mean to live – individually and collectively – under divine authority, and what it might mean not to. This is an exhaustive disjunction, which is not to say that it exhausts everything that might be said about living one’s life. In this book I explore more narrowly the logic of political theology by examining a particular story: the revolt of early-modern political philosophers against the long tradition of Christian political theology, and the revolt of later modern thinkers against those early moderns, which resulted in a revival of political theology. That seemed to me an interesting and particularly instructive exercise. To repeat, this has to do with political authority and how it is justified, not the “secularization” of society more broadly conceived – a term I avoid, given how much misunderstanding it engenders. The justification of authority tells us something of crucial importance about societies, though it does not tell us everything we need or want to know about them.
But what general lessons can be drawn from such a parochial story? That question seems behind many of the responses, and it gets at a certain ambiguity in the book, which really has two focuses: political theology and how we govern ourselves now. (More about “we” in a moment.) Yet to my mind these subjects are linked because of the political ambitions shared by the architects of the Great Separation. Although their proximate adversary was Christian political theology, they in fact did devise an alternative to political theology as such – to the Christian divine right of kings, to Jewish halakha, to Muslim sharia, to the Laws of Manu, to the many emperor and kingship cults the world has known. They devised a novel way of legitimating political authority without any appeal to divine authority. This is not to say that it is the only alternative to political theologies. There have been nations and civilizations without such theologies that knew nothing of the Great Separation, and in the future there may be more. But it is an alternative, intellectually at least, and given the contemporary rhetoric of democratization and liberalization it appears to be a live alternative everywhere today. (I think that’s an illusion, but more on that, too, in a moment.) Understanding how that alternative came about, what its achievements and limitations are, seems to me a pressing undertaking today.
“Episodic history of ideas”
I say in the book that this is what I have written, though it’s clear now I should have explained more what I meant by that. My aim was to use the history of Western political thought and theology selectively to bring out the underlying intellectual potential of the different alternatives. For example, Chapter 2 investigates how the Christian conception of the Messiah opens and forecloses certain theological possibilities for conceiving of political authority. I spend a long time with Hobbes because he lays out most clearly a new foundation for political thought, with new potentials, but he was hardly alone. Rousseau is just one example of the modern yearning to restore dignity to the religious impulse after Hobbes (Schleiermacher is obviously another); Kant and Hegel then developed the potential in that new position. As for the liberal theologians and their messianic rivals, their writings show, surprisingly to me, that there was a theological-political potential hidden in Rousseau’s rebellion. This is not to say that any of these intellectual moves were inevitable, let alone that they somehow caused major historical events in the wider world (as James Smith took me to be saying). The Stillborn God mounts no argument about how these ideas directly shaped our world – as José Casanova points out, that would be a different undertaking – only about how they make us see the world. Karl Barth, for example, opposed Nazism and did nothing to encourage it; but his ideas did prepare others to see in it the Second Coming.
So who is the “we” in The Stillborn God? Another good question. For my purposes it is those nations whose political institutions were developed, and are today justified, on principles enunciated in the Great Separation and in explicit rebellion against the political theologies that justified the institutions of Western Christendom. On this point Gil Anidjar and I agree: the Great Separation was an event within the Christian (though I would say Western Christian) orbit. What distinguishes the political institutions and reigning political ideas of the modern West is that they were forged in a polemical struggle with Christian political theology, yet aspired to offer an alternative to all political theology. This put us on a Sonderweg.
There is an understandable reluctance to use the first-personal plural pronoun promiscuously, but I do think we need to get over our “we” anxiety. I frankly am not impressed by books purporting to reveal the creation of a “discourse of othering,” to use Elizabeth Hurd’s phrase, and I’m baffled by how uncritically they are received in the academy today, given that the charges they make are neither falsifiable nor to the point. Yes, concepts make distinctions and concepts have histories; let’s live with that. And let’s also recognize that a concept’s history cannot determine whether it helps us understand the world or not. Either one uses concepts and accepts their history, or one enters an infinite regress of suspicion and is unable to say anything at all. (It is striking how those who worry about such things usually slip in their own unexamined, usually political, concepts somewhere along the way, and then say quite a bit.)
The most surprising reaction I’ve had to The Stillborn God is from those who see in it a Western-triumphalist message. And not just critics: I’ve left several triumphalist interviewers disappointed (and perhaps an editor or two at Knopf!). I see the book as an exercise in self-examination and, in the current political climate, a plea for modesty and humility. It was begun over a decade ago without any thought to political Islam or fantasies of global democratization, though now I suppose it offers some perspective on both. But I undertook the writing originally for the reason stated above: to help me understand something about what it might mean to live under divine authority, and what it might mean not to.
That said, yes, I do believe the modern West is on a historical Sonderweg. But exceptionalism does not mean superiority, by any stretch of the imagination. Hobbes and thinkers like him set us on a certain path, hoping to escape certain perennial political problems within Christendom. To the extent that they succeeded – never completely, and with plenty of backsliding – they also failed, since our institutions and our understanding of religion have ever since been tethered to their polemical struggle. In trying to solve one problem for ourselves, we have created others; Rousseau understood that perfectly well, which is why he is as much a hero in the story as Hobbes is. Hobbes understood something about violence, and about how messianic religion can feed into it; that is a lesson worth preserving. But Rousseau’s understanding of religion, its psychology and social implications, was infinitely deeper. What we in the West have never managed to do is reconcile and retain the lessons of both these thinkers. Instead, we shuttle unsteadily between them. The Great Separation was an exceptional achievement, but it brought with it exceptional problems, caused mainly by yearnings unfulfilled. And it did nothing to solve other perennial problems of politics: as James Smith and others have pointed out, the most appalling crimes of recent memory have had nothing to do with political theology. An achievement is not a triumph; after the Separation we’ve simply been making our way. But it is our way for the foreseeable future, and we can continue down it wisely and with self-awareness, or foolishly and with illusions about the available alternatives.
Seen in this light, it is hard to imagine that our unusual political development would provide any sort of map or user’s manual for nations that have not been touched by the struggle over Christian political theology. It may not even have much to tell us about alternatives to other traditions of political theology, such as the Islamic one, since the kind of political crisis that sparked the Great Separation in the West is unimaginable there. This is not to say that other nations might not adopt features of our political institutions, or that they won’t develop good, different ones on their own (and have something to teach us). It might be that a transformation within a tradition of political theology, such as the Islamic one, could provide political decency and justice – and also give us something to think about. Many things are possible. But in politics it is best to keep one’s eye fixed on the likely things, and for now focus our minds on shoring up the achievements of the Great Separation. For politics, like religion, is prone to fantasy.
Which brings us to Prof. Anidjar.
Second Response (mock-lyrical mode)
Mon cher collègue, quelle mouche t’a piqué? “Disingenuous,” “noxious,” “smug,” “carpet-bombing style”!! Yes, those words came to mind in reading your contribution too. I actually enjoyed this coquille St.-Jacques, though; it reminded me of being on the rue d’Ulm, where many years ago I used to go watch a performance artist do conjuring tricks every week. Mondialatinisation! Bravo – an excellent imitation!
But, really, climb down from that little folding chair and let’s talk seriously. This is serious business. And you are on to something.
What is it about Christianity? You ask the right question. The other questions – can we really say there are universals, or perennial alternatives? – don’t interest me so much, either because I’ve addressed them above, or because they are so old I’ve forgotten the answers. Yes, we could discuss whether political theology as I’ve defined it covers Egyptian and Mesopotamian kingship, the Edicts of Ashoka, the Laws of Manu, the Chinese and Japanese emperor cults, and the like, but I’m guessing the discussion would devolve into whether the modern “discourse” of “religion” “invented” all these phenomena. Quel bore. But the Christianity question: now that’s interesting.
Again, what is it about Christianity? Could it be there is something to the hoary Christian claim that it was something new under the sun? Where does it stand in the history of religions (assuming you think there is such a history)? Where does it stand in relation to Judaism (assuming that’s not just an invention of modern discourse, too)? And, of course, what does the post-Christian West owe to Christendom – or is it still just Christendom in another form? This will surprise you, but I agree: those are momentous questions.
But how to answer them? Here, I confess, I don’t follow you, in your post or in your article on “Secularism” in Critical Inquiry, which kept dancing around the Christianity question without ever quite coming to the point (you should work on that). Maybe it’s too soon, but I do look forward to reading what you’ll say on this, since I know a battle is brewing.
(For the folks at home whose subscriptions to Critical Inquiry may have lapsed, here’s the background. For years, advanced thinkers schooled in the ways of systematic suspicion turned up their noses at the very idea of “the universal.” Then, stunningly, a very advanced thinker – so advanced he’s still a Maoist – by the name of Badiou stood up to defend the cause of universalism by defending the Christian St. Paul!! Imagine the shock! Not wanting to be left behind in that fashion-forward world, other advanced thinkers – Agamben! Žižek! – rushed out their own thoughts, usually favorable, on Paul and the Christian legacy, mixing in a little Carl Schmitt, a little St. Jacques, a little Jacob Taubes, à votre goût. But now that’s gotten tired; people want change. And it looks like they’re going to get it, in an attack on Christianity as the source of all our malheurs, intellectual and political. “We have met the enemy and he is us!” So it turns out we can speak of “we,” but only with enmity. Je m’en doutais! Still, it should be a fascinating competition. A little like Project Runway, only with professors.)
I wish you luck in the competition. One bit of advice, though; it has to do with “speaking truth to power.” That’s a tall order, since it requires defending something as truth, which I really would like to see you do, and then conducting a careful investigation into the nature of power. I worry about the second bit: when I reread your post to see what you had to say about power, all I could find, apart from the usual cui bono stuff, was one reference to the “military-industrial complex.” I’m afraid you have a long way to go, mon cher. Besides, I’m not sure quoting Dwight D. Eisenhower is going to cut it at Critical Inquiry. You might just try speaking truth, which would be more than enough to shock its readers.
Bonne chance et bonne année!