The Stillborn God:

The rules of the games

posted by Mark Lilla

stillborn11.jpgIf an author feels misunderstood by one reader, he’s apt to think it’s the reader’s fault. If he’s misunderstood by more readers, and in the same way, the fault probably lies with him. After reading Charles Taylor’s clear and thoughtful critique of The Stillborn God, I’m starting to see that I probably should have said more about method than I did – about how I see the history of ideas, its relation to philosophy, and its relation to history more generally. I resisted this temptation, in part because the book is intended for a wide, non-academic audience, in part because in my experience such methodological excursi become straightjackets for both author and reader. (The example of Quentin Skinner springs to mind.) Taylor’s response makes me think this decision was a mistake, and for the reader’s sake – and for my own, so I’m clearer about what I’m doing – I hope to add a short afterword to the paperback edition that restates just what kind of a book The Stillborn God is. Let me offer the following remarks as a first pass at such a statement, with some side remarks on the useful contributions of David Hollinger and Daniel Philpott.

History of ideas. Taylor sees two books lurking in The Stillborn God: a compelling narrative about modern German thinking on religion and politics, and “a much broader narrative of modernity” that he finds borders on the “fantastic.” David Hollinger, on the other hand, takes my purposes “to be rather more modest than those attributed to [me] by many of the postings” and thinks that I’m only trying to “put before us the core intellectual resources of the modern North Atlantic West.” Hollinger has my aims exactly right. He also takes seriously my skepticism about all narratives of modernity. As I say in the book:

We are still like children when it comes to thinking about modern political life, whose experimental nature we prefer not to contemplate. Instead, we tell ourselves stories about how our big world came to be and why it is destined to persist. These are legends about the course of history, full of grand terms to describe the process supposedly at work-modernization, secularization, democratization, the “disenchantment of the world,” “history as the story of liberty,” and countless others. These are the fairy tales of our time…they make the world legible, they reassure us of its irrevocability, and they relieve us of responsibility for maintaining it.

Taylor, though, voices a common criticism, one that José Casanova also made in his previous post. So clearly I have to say more about the kind of story I am telling. To do that, let me first review what I did say in the book, then expand on it.

In the introduction to The Stillborn God I write that:

[The book] reenacts an argument about religion and politics that stretched over four hundred years in the West…. It is not a comprehensive study of all the major contributions to debates over religion and politics in this period, which would fill many volumes. Instead, it takes the reader through the steps of a particular argument, one in which the confrontation between political theology and its modern philosophical adversary was particularly intense, the disputes vivid, and the stakes clear. This is an analytic but highly episodic history of ideas.

These terms – “analytic” and “episodic” – express my approach to the history of ideas, but clearly need to be unpacked. I take the history of ideas to be a different discipline from that of “intellectual history” as the term is employed today. Recent intellectual history, ranging from Skinner to Foucault, is deflationary. It tries to bring ideas down to earth by returning them to their supposed historical contexts, or looking behind their backs to discover the hidden forces of power that generated, then used, them as ideological tools. While I learn from this literature, I have no desire to contribute to it.

What attracts me is an exercise that forces inquiry in the opposite direction: beginning with ideas as they emerge in different contexts, and are advanced for different reasons, to see what their logic is and how they shape and constrain those who try to use them. What strikes me time and again in studying the thought of the past is not how pliable ideas are to human purposes, but how they resist and even shape those purposes. We think ideas, but ideas also think us. As admirers of Hegel, Taylor and I presumably agree on this. Perhaps then we also agree that the philosophical task of thinking through, and then mastering, the ideas that “think us” requires an exploration of their hidden potential and limitations. We can do that by examining concepts abstractly; we can also do it indirectly by analyzing how they play out on the broader canvas of history. That is what I try to do, both in The Stillborn God and, in a different way, in The Reckless Mind. A cumbersome way of doing philosophy, but there it is.

I am well aware of the mountain of methodological objections to what I have just said, and the many attempts to cope with them, from Lovejoy and his “unit-ideas” to the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe project of the Bielefeld school. I cannot address them here. My point is simply to explain the assumptions behind The Stillborn God.

The rules of the games. To explain why the book it has the shape it does, let me try another approach (with due apologies to Heinrich Böll).

In studying the history of political theology over the past decade and a half, I came to feel that I was watching something like the three-dimensional chess game Mr. Spock used to play on Star Trek. Think of political theology as the game on one board. The game has set pieces, which move in certain ways and are not allowed to move in others. The players know this, but they are free to develop an infinite number of strategies within the rules, so there are always surprises. That is how the game is played. The outside observer (me in this case) does not know the rules, but by watching enough games he begins to see how different pieces move and which strategies are successful. Eventually he begins to infer what the rules must be.

Now imagine that a second board is added, and call this modern political philosophy. Many of the pieces are the same but some are new, and certain powerful pieces from the first board are missing. New strategies are developed, so there is variety here as well, but again there are constraints on the game, so not everything is possible. A strategy that works on the first board may not work on the second, and alien pieces won’t work at all. Again, the observer has to watch a number of games to learn how the new pieces work, which strategies are successful, and what the new underlying rules are. He can now begin to compare the two games and see where they seem similar and where they differ. He can also watch the players and see how, at the psychological level, the structure of each game affects the way it is played.

The Stillborn God begins as a book about these two chess games. Part of the book explains, in all too cursory fashion, how the second chessboard came to be built after a stalemated game on the first board (Christian political theology) descended into violence among the players. But the real drama is in the analysis of strategies on the new board, as David Hollinger has seen. There were of course many such strategies, each having its own background, and one could write a history of how each and every one of them developed, who used them in which historical contexts, and the like. I have not done that. Rather, I have focused episodically and analytically on a few grandmasters whose strategies stand out as having advanced the game and revealed its inner possibilities: Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel. Their strategies developed in a certain order because later masters were aware of the earlier ones, but there was nothing teleological about this development and contemporary players can draw on any of their moves, which are now freeware. The game continues to develop, but also repeats itself.

Indeed, games continue at both levels, even in the West, though the question “which board are you on?” seems less pressing today than it did in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. The building of the second board did not abolish the first one, or necessarily lessen its allure. Which is why, in the wake of the French Revolution, certain players began to raise the following plausible question: can’t the two games be combined? Despite the differences in certain pieces and moves, this was a natural suggestion to make, since the strategies on the two boards shared a family resemblance. (As Charles Taylor correctly suggests, not every piece on the old board had a “revealed” valence.)

So in the early-nineteenth century a combined game (liberal theology) was developed, and for a while it seemed playable. Some, like David Hollinger, still think it is. But it turns out to have two fatal weaknesses, mainly psychological. Those players really interested in the second game tend to think the old pieces just muddy play, and conclude that nothing is lost in removing them from the board. Others feel that combined play betrays the grandeur and seriousness of the old game, to which they long to return. That is why, when stressful circumstances present themselves at a certain juncture (e.g., the Weimar years), there is a return to messianic political theology. But not being trained in the old rules and strategies, the new messiahs are prone to making foolish, dramatic moves that put them in indefensible positions. Their experience with the mixed game makes them the worst players, not the best, on the old board. (The same is true of today’s political Islamists, I’d add.)

So in the end, The Stillborn God is about three games and the logic and psychology of playing them: the old game (political theology), the new game (modern political philosophy), and the failed mixed game (liberal theology). Though these developed in a certain historical order, the book does not aim to provide a “narrative of modernity” or anything of the sort. Its aim is rather, to quote David Hollinger again, to expose and assess “the core intellectual resources of the modern North Atlantic West,” which are drawn from all three games.

The Great Separation. I have no idea whether this playful metaphor of the chess game will help clarify things for my critics. Charles Taylor seems bothered by the different metaphors of separation – rivers, chasms, and bridges – that I used in the book, and he may think I’ve just compounded the problem. But in reading him I sense he is looking for something I had no intention of providing. Had I tried to write a “narrative of modernity” he would be quite right to object that “what I cannot see is a moment of Great Separation” and to ask “is the great separation consummated when we’ve all been converted to mechanistic materialism?” But if one focuses on the development of the game, I do think there was a moment of separation, and that was the publication of Leviathan. On the old board, the aim of the game was to legitimate the exercise of political authority on the basis of a revealed nexus of God, man, and world. On Hobbes’s new board, the aim was to legitimate authority without appeal to such a revealed nexus – indeed, by explicitly ruling out that chess piece. (Which is what made Hobbes’s move more decisive than Grotius’s sly etiamsi daremus non esse deum, which left it in play but without real power.)

Now, though Hobbes built the new board and was the first to play on it, those who followed him developed quite different strategies of play (as I indeed say in Chapter 2 and elsewhere). Some, appealing to neo-stoicism, Grotius, and Pufendorf, assumed a more optimistic anthropology, which led them to different political conclusions. Others, like Locke, played a double game, following Hobbes’s materialistic anthropology in some works and various Protestant dissenters and natural theologians in others. Taylor is right: the history is messy, as were the arguments, both before Hobbes among Christian theologians, and after. But even in retelling ourselves this history we need to distinguish which board different writers were playing on, and when. It is no accident that Locke’s Two Treatises are, in fact, two treatises: one directed at Filmer and other political theologians playing on the old board, the other directed to those already playing on the new one.

(I should add that I don’t quite follow Taylor when he says that I use “political theology” in three different senses. I am pretty consistent – in fact, repetitive, according to one reviewer – in saying that I take political theology to be “a doctrine that legitimates the exercise of political authority on the basis of a revealed nexus of God, man, and world.” I do not really take up natural – i.e., non-revealed – theology, which perhaps I should have. This is a large topic, but my short answer is that in practice natural theology usually depends on revelation at some point. Though St. Thomas distinguishes divine, eternal, natural, and human law, those very distinctions appear to be revealed, not arrived at on the basis of reason alone. Finally, when Taylor says I employ the term political theology in a third sense — “the enframing of our thought about politics and human affairs in some doctrines about God and the world” – I simply don’t recognize myself, or understand what he means by “enframing.”)

Our path. Clearly the largest confusion to which The Stillborn God lends itself concerns the connection between political history and the history of these games. I seem to have opened myself to misunderstanding by not speaking more explicitly about the relationship between the Great Separation in Western political thought and the Sonderweg that our societies currently seem on. This has led many critics (some of whom appear to have relied solely on a synopsis of the book published in the New York Times Magazine) to attribute views to me that aren’t my own.

My silence on this score was intentional. The intellectual Great Separation was the necessary condition of our current understanding and exercise of political legitimacy, but it was not a sufficient condition. Nor is liberal constitutionalism the only political doctrine that the Great Separation has spawned – far from it. A Whiggish history of the modern political thought and practice written, say, in the aftermath of the two world wars might have reached much darker conclusions about the impact of the Great Separation and perhaps brighter ones about the wisdom of returning to political theology. (One book that did was Henri de Lubac’s The Drama of Atheist Humanism, written during the war.)

It was my hope to avoid both Whiggism and triumphalism by leaving open and contingent the connection between the intellectual Great Separation and the way different Western institutions in different countries developed at different times, down to our day. We know where we are now, but recounting how we got there is an enormous task (as Charles Taylor knows better than anyone), and the temptation of historical necessity is ever present. I wanted to stress the experimental nature of what we are attempting, and the strangeness of it, seen in the vast sweep of history. There are historians who can fill in the blanks and I hope they do. I also hope that The Stillborn God will be useful to them, by uncovering the deeper logic of two distinct intellectual programs, or games. Once the distinction is appreciated, I think it will be easier to see how different players at different times developed different strategies of play in different matches.

Even stated this way, though, the aims of The Stillborn God are open to the objection that I have forced the distinction between political theology and modern political philosophy. Some critics have asked: what about the United States? Doesn’t its history show that liberal political theology and liberal constitutionalism can work hand in hand, that there is no aut-aut? David Hollinger and Daniel Philpott offer versions of this argument, which has also appeared in previous posts and in published reviews. Let me take them up briefly here before signing off.

I do not disagree with Philpott when he writes that “the formation and incubation of liberal democracy” in the United States drew from Christian tradition of dissent, which opened up theological space for thinking about the autonomy of politics. That is how things happened on the ground; but once it did, Americans found themselves playing by the rules of the new chess game, and today do not generally make reference to a divine nexus of God, man, and world when explaining to themselves what makes their constitution legitimate. We have kicked that ladder away (Pastor Huckabee notwithstanding). Given the presence of real, and really aggressive, political theology in the world today, we need to keep a sense of proportion about this.

Nor do I deny that Christianity “has continued to sustain and, at vital junctures, to contribute to the expansion of liberal democracy, both in thought and substance.” How could it not? After all, the whole point of liberal democracy is that we are no longer in the business of looking into people’s souls and questioning the grounds on which people have certain political views. There are many American Christians, and their Christianity no doubt inspires their views on a range of issues (for better or worse, let’s admit that, too). But the legitimacy of the constitution does not depend on our accepting or even recognizing the legitimacy of their deepest convictions, only that they can express them, and by and large they accept that. Which means they are playing on the new board, not the old one.

David Hollinger thinks I misunderstand the American case because I focus on Germany, suggesting that the god of liberal theology is still alive and kicking here. Institutionally, this clearly isn’t so: the liberal Protestant churches have been severely depopulated over the past forty years, losing young people either to religious indifference or more ecstatic forms of faith, and liberal Catholicism isn’t doing any better. But Hollinger is referring to something else, I think, which is the prophetic strain in American religion which has done so much to inspire the political liberalism of our time. But this is not “liberal theology” in any recognizable sense, which is an intellectual tradition rooted in the nineteenth-century hope of accommodating faith to the demands of the present. The prophetic tradition wants to bring God’s judgment down on the present, denouncing racism, war, environmental degradation, inequality, and the rest. Reinhold Niebuhr was a political liberal but not a theological one; he admired Karl Barth, and his early work in the churches of Detroit during the depression was inspired by a ferocious Augustinianism, not liberal accommodation. Similarly with Dr. King. We should not conflate the prophetic “social gospel” with liberal theology, which inspires very few today. American politics still makes room for prophets, as it should – so long as they retire to their churches once the ballots are cast. And they generally do.

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3 Responses to “The rules of the games”

  1. avatar Michael Perry says:

    I have been studying, teaching, and writing about American constitutional law for over thirty years, but I am in the dark as to what Mark Lilla means, in his post, by “the legitimacy of the constitution” (which, he says, “does not depend on accepting or even recognizing the legitimacy of their deepest convictions”). Moral legitimacy? Political legitimacy? Something else? (Surely not, of course, legal legitimacy.) So many proper names, so little clarity. Please, can someone enlighten?

  2. avatar Mark Lilla says:

    I recognize the confusion; let me try to identify the source. There was a word dropped in the web version of the sentence he quotes: it should read “does not depend on OUR accepting or even recognizing the legitimacy of their deepest convictions.” Perhaps that helps. My point was pretty simple: I don’t have to accept the legitimacy of my neighbor’s religious convictions to share a constitution with him. We can share it as a legal document, and at the political level it appears to be accepted as legitimate, too.

  3. avatar Ivan Strenski says:

    I have found reading The Stillborn God a persistently puzzling experience. I have concluded that the immediate source of my puzzlement is that the book is really about “theological politics,” while the author writes from the get-go throughout that “political theology” is his subject. To my surprise, there is precious little that might count as talk of “theology” in he book, although a lot about political theory (Hobbes).

    This is not a quibble about words, since it would seem fundamental that we know what arena of life we are addressing. In Lilla’s case, I take that to be how one does politics . Now, after the Great Separation, we do our politics autonomously of religion. Lilla’s fear is that there are those who would undo the Great Separation, have us accept doing politics on religious grounds once more.

    If I am correct, then, the book is decidedly not about how one “does theology,” despite the mention of the occasional theologian, such as Reinhold Niebuhr or Augustine. To wit, note how little is said of Luther (see Casanova’s comment for a partial corrective to this). As such, the book is not about “political theology,” but about the rise of attempts to practice and theorize politics in religious terms.

    My question to Lilla is why he chose to write of “political theology” rather than “theological politics”? I would press this question because selecting the usage of “political theology” over “theological politics” might well make us tend to think about the Great Separation, such as it is, as a matter of changing beliefs. Often enough in the book, such beliefs seem cut free of any moorings in social and political relations.

    But what if the Great Separation, such as it might be, was really a function of institutional changes or arrangements, rather than beliefs, as Lilla at least gives one the impression it is? Thinking about the Great Separation as a matter of religious and political praxis and institutional arrangements (e.g. Church vs Empire) would then require that one named it something more like a “theological politics” rather than “political theology.” So, in effect, does Lilla’s choice of the term “political theology” reflect a mistaken impression of the Great Separation as a crisis of belief, rather than of institutional relations? Following Neville Figgis, Louis Dumont and others, I would be prepared to argue the case for an institutional—not cognitivist—reading of the Great Separation (actually several separations), and may do so in a subsequent comment.

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