The Stillborn God begins as a book about 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.
The Stillborn God
Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God feels like two books, oddly yoked together. One is a fascinating study, which traces a post-Enlightenment tradition of theorizing about religion starting from an anthropocentric focus. Religion is to be understood from the human desire or craving or need for religion. The originator of this way of thinking is Rousseau, but he rapidly acquires followers in Germany: Kant, the German Romantics, Schleiermacher. […]
The idea of modern liberalism depends decisively on a jettisoning of theology as a source for arguing about politics: If there is one claim to which Lilla returns again and again from different angles, this is it….But in fact, ample evidence exists that traditional political theology has contributed vitally to incubating, sustaining, and expanding liberal democracy, in thought and in practice, before, during, and after the early modern religious wars.
Lilla alludes to the fact that “in the Anglo-American orbit, a liberal theological outlook could grow up alongside a liberal politics whose principles derived from Hobbes’s materialism,” but this crucial part of his story he covers only with the cryptic observation that it was made possible by “a strong constitutional structure and various lucky breaks.” At issue is more than a historically accurate understanding of liberal Protestantism. At issue, too, is the role that liberal Protestantism can play in today’s struggles over religion-and-politics.
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. […]
Just what, or who, or where is religion for Lilla himself? Is the problem really the Bible—that, in addition to being modern, “we are heirs to the biblical tradition”? This seems so profoundly to beg the question. For what makes the Bible the Bible, if not the passion (“the forces unleashed”) that would so obviously survive its exile? What makes revelation (the divine light) different from lucidity (the natural light) if not the thing they precisely share: the appetite that drives human beings towards at once hedgehog-like commitments to the whole and fox-like commitments to the piecemeal and the plural. Reason and revelation are names for human desires, but from neither of these desires, then, can there be any separation.
Lilla turns aside to the small cadre of the Enlightened who see the story for what it is….“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 […]
“The world of today is torn asunder by a great dispute; and not only a dispute, but a ruthless battle for world domination. Many people still refuse to believe that there are only two sides, that the only choice lies between absolute conformity to the one system or absolute conformity to the other.” What Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind was calling “a great dispute,” Mark Lilla calls “The Great Separation.” With this phrase, The Stillborn God presents itself, like its predecessor, as an account of the world, “our world, the world created by the intellectual rebellion against political theology.”
For Lilla, Westerners are the exception because we live on what he calls “the other shore.” Civilizations on the “opposite bank” puzzle us because we have only a distant memory of what it was like to think as they do. They are, moreover, unlikely to follow our path because to successfully navigate the hazardous shoals of political theology as we have done would require a difficult excavation of theological resources….contra Lilla, could it be that we are all on the same shore, struggling with questions of transcendence and immanence in different languages and traditions?
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.
One should be suspicious of any argument that presents the multiple alternatives facing contemporary societies around the world today as a simple binary choice between theocratic political theology (i.e., religious fanaticism) and secular political philosophy (i.e., liberal toleration). To present such a dichotomous alternative, as “the two ways of envisaging the human condition,” not only ignores the many other complex ways in which Western and non-Western societies have envisaged the human condition, but it views societies as individual actors facing existential choices, a rhetorically dramatic but rather problematic conception of human history and of the human condition.
On the shelves for only a handful of weeks, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is already receiving at least some of the attention it well deserves. The book has been reviewed in the pages of The Economist and The Wall Street Journal, and two short excerpts were recently published in Commonweal. Taylor’s massive tome—it’s just shy of 880 pages long—was even held aloft and glossed earlier this month by a young denizen of youtube. […]