The Stillborn God:

Our historical Sonderweg

posted by Mark Lilla

stillborn11.jpgMy 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.”

Political theology
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!

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5 Responses to “Our historical Sonderweg”

  1. I truly loved the Stillborn God and heartily embrace its central claims. In particular, I find it very useful to concentrate on the issue of political authority instead of the muddled problem of secularism. However, I would welcome a much more thorough explanation of why the secular talk should be left out of the picture. It is undeniable that it plays ambiguous roles, but this is not a sufficient reason to silence it altogether, given that it does play such a prominent role in public debates concerning the nature of political authority.

    If analytical power advances us in something it is precisely in the task of mapping all the central concepts and clearly pinpointing where they can play a role and where they can’t. The Stillborn God warns us against diving in the waters that divide us from the realm of political theology, but does not tell us much about the realm inhabited by the secular forces. Perhaps this is simply the object of another book. But I would love to hear more about what place you would carve out for the notion of secular.

  2. avatar Michael Perry says:

    My friend Chris Eberle, author of the acclaimed Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics, sent me this message, which I want to share with readers of The Immanent Frame:

    I haven’t read Lilla’s book — so I have nothing but a few blog entries from The Immanent Frame to go on. But I found the following statement astounding:

    “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.”

    “We” are “those nations”? But don’t “we” in “those nations” disagree about the role of divine revelation in justifying political decisions? Isn’t that what the Rawls/religion/Public Reason discussion is about — at least in significant part? To me it’s obvious: the folks who actually live in “those nations” disagree on the very topic about which, apparently, Lilla takes “us” to agree — whether or not we should legitimate political authority without any appeal to divine authority. When he refers to “we”, he must, in fact, be referring to the advocates of one position in a very contentious debate about political authority in liberal democratic polities.

  3. avatar Michael Perry says:

    After reading Lilla’s post today, I’m still persuaded that Damon Linker’s criticism of Lilla is on the mark. Linker wrote:

    Lilla appears to have been led to [his] extreme and unconvincing position … by his desire to place the United States, along with the world’s other liberal democracies, firmly on the opposite shore from political theology. . . . The reality, however, is more complicated than this. Not only does the United States need to cope with the political theologies that dominate the Islamic world. Americans who engage in political reflection without reference to religion also need to come to grips with the presence of political theology right here at home–with the fact that millions of their fellow citizens are perfectly comfortable making theological assumptions about the political foundations of the nation, its principles, and its institutions.

    Damon Linker, “Political Theology in America,” Cato Unbound

  4. avatar Kaveh Hemmat says:

    Any claim that “the west” is, right now, on a historical sonderweg should not be taken seriously if it is not supported by extensive, substantial references to the history of other regions of the world—I am thinking particularly of the Islamic world, but other religions and regions are no less important. Lilla is right to circumscribe his claims to the Christian or post-Christian world in his response here. His essay which was adapted from The Stillborn God, in the New York Times—its editorial pages home to many a Muslim-baiting columnist—could have used such modesty.

    To take one fairly basic issue, is it at all accurate to say that Islamist political movements are participating in a messianic politics, in Lilla’s sense? The comparison between the messianic politics of Germany and the Iranian revolution of the 1970s is far from straightforward. First of all, many, maybe even most of their supporters are probably pragmatic ones, lacking any strong conviction in the parties’ religious ideologies. Colonialism and resistance to foreign military occupation or intervention are crucial players in the history of Islamist politics in nearly every Muslim country where Islamists hold sway–Iran, Algeria, the occupied Palestinian territories, and Iraq, to name some obvious ones. There and elsewhere, Islamist parties succeed because the (to most people) more desirable secular movements are persecuted out by the powers-that-be. This is the case with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the extremist Islamist parties in the rural areas of northwest Pakistan–in the case of Pakistan, extremist parties have never won more than a tiny percentage of votes in general elections. In Iran right now, Ahmadinejad is probably not all that popular, but one thing he does have going for him is his macho language against the American threat–it makes his jingoism seem not-entirely-insane, to some. This dynamic should be familiar to Americans from the “war on terror”–the belief that our leaders may have flaws, but at least they will protect us from “them”. In short, it would be wrong to take the success of Islamist movements as evidence that a large segment of the Muslim world has rejected the “great divide”. The divide was a fait accompli at least since the first European-style universities were established in the Ottoman and Qajar states.

    In fact, the distinction between religious law and the law of the ruler (and the supremacy of the latter) goes back further, to the Ottoman Empire in the time of Suleiman the Lawgiver, certainly, or even earlier, to the Seljuk period. The term “political theology” is a very bad fit for Muslim rulers, with a very few exceptions including the caliphs and the Safavid emperors. Islamic jurisprudential and political thought simply does not grant a lot of special legitimacy to earthly rulers, apart from acknowledging that it is important to have a ruler, rather than anarchy, and that rulership and government have a legitimate place in the world. This is hardly political theology! Islamic theologians, jurists, etc., simply have not taken much of an interest in influencing the affairs of the government, beyond trying to make sure that it does not interfere with the operation of the shari’a’s sphere of legal authority. The idea that religious beliefs should have a hand in deciding who governs the country is a very new (or very recently renewed) phenomenon in the Islamic world.

    I have not carefully studied parties like the AKP in Turkey and the MMA and MQM in Pakistan, but I suspect these terms are not applicable to them at all. Rather than wanting to remake the state in a divine image, I suspect that Muslim parties like the AKP are more interested in simply accommodating what they see as certain demands of Islamic law. This is not nearly an ambitious enough agenda to justify the word “messianic”.

    In the end, I think that this factor, which was perhaps crucial to the viability of a _modern_ messianic politics among Germans in the 1930s, is the very thing that makes it much less viable for modern Muslims. That is the sense that modernity was a “native product” of protestant Christianity, that it was part of the natural evolution of rightly-guided societies, at the height of their Imperial hubris, defined in opposition to Others such as the Catholic and Orthodox Christians of the Mediterranean, Muslims, Hindus, et al. The doctrine of American neoconservatives seems to me to have much more in common with political theologies and messianic politics than do the AKP, MQM, etc.

    The temptation of exceptionalism that bedevils secular as well as religious political ideologies among people who believe themselves part of “the West” is simply not as strong for Muslims. Political theology does not succeed in the Muslim world except under hothouse conditions, in places like Saudi Arabia, where ideologies that may genuinely be called “political theology” are given exclusive access to the ideological apparatuses of the state, or in places like Gaza, the West Bank, Iran under the Shah, Egypt, and northwestern Pakistan, where their competitors are eliminated or put at a strong disadvantage.

  5. avatar Avi Bernstein says:

    Marc Lilla reflects that he was less interested in the effective history of the idea of the Great Separation than he was in its “intellectual potential.” In this he almost seems to achieve a kind of immunity from scrutiny about the diversity of attitudes to political authority and its grounds in liberal societies. But (wait) he maintains as well that his “history of ideas” has a clear reference to the societies whose political institutions are clearly bound up with the idea of the Great Separation. In asserting this it would appear that much more is at stake for him than a mere history of ideas.

    Lilla is clearly engaged in an act of self-interpretation. We do know who ‘we’ are (so he suggests). ‘We’ are the object of this act of self-interpretation, where history of ideas has become a key hermeneutical resource.

    If all of this sounds rather familiar, it should be no surprise to readers of The Immanent Frame. This very same set of issues (e.g. who are ‘we’, and what could ‘history of philosophy’ possibly have to do with achieving greater clarity about it) bedeviled Charles Taylor in the years after the publication of his magisterial Sources of the Self.

    To Taylor’s credit, he has attempted to answer his critics, and at length. Indeed, as many of the readers of this blog are aware, we could do far worse than call Professor Taylor a phenomenologist, who, in his words, seeks to use the history of philosophy—together with much else—to determine layers of consensus beneath the many great disagreements of our age (and always with a nod to geographical specificity). We have Chapter 12 of Sources in this connection (“A Digression on Historical Explanation”); and more incisively, “Philosophy and its History” in the Rorty, MacIntyre, and Skinner volume, Philosophy and its History. (It is unclear to this reader, still—like many—slogging his way through the engaging new book by Taylor, how it will add to or amend the case the Professor has already made for history of ideas as data for social inference).

    It would appear, as Professor Lilla is modest enough to concede, he owes his readers more methodological reflection. Taylor’s career exemplifies the kind of scholarly conscience and methodological ambition to emulate—however imperfect the result.

    Avi Bernstein
    Hebrew College
    Newton, MA

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