The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West
reviewed by Mark Winter
Some books are actually two books, the one starkly at odds with the other until one emerges scarred but victorious. Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God is such a book: a stimulating if very general history of ideas that careens into broad polemic, but instructive for its failures as well as its merits.
According to Lilla, professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, the history of the West is in large part the history of political theology: that is, the practice, with roots in the ancient world, of claiming divine and theological sanction for political arrangements, and even drawing political arrangements out of theology itself.
He believes Christianity is an especially difficult faith for political theology because it combines the usually separate notions of an immanent God, a transcendent God, and a hidden God. Further, because of its ambivalence about political life and its messianic emphasis, an unstable conception of God makes Christian peoples especially prone to political instability and violent religious enthusiasms, often of a millenarian kind.
After more than a century of religious wars associated with the Reformation, the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes inaugurated what Lilla calls “the Great Separation” that stabilized the West: He insisted on treating religion as a purely human thing born of material need, fear, and ignorance, with revelation rendered as a dubious human claim to knowledge rather than a disclosure of God’s nature and promises to his creatures.
This “Great Separation” allowed secular politics to take hold in Europe, and, with the writings of Spinoza and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, allowed for the possibility of egalitarian secular politics. Yet for Lilla, Hobbes failed to take into account authentic spiritual curiosity, hope, and desire (he admits that Hobbes’s “religious psychology” is “simpleminded”).
Tacitly acknowledging this problem, eighteenth-century thinkers like Rousseau and Kant reintroduced the positive need for religious faith, even as they accepted the earlier critique of any discrete revealed religion, and made religion an affair of the heart whose supreme licit expression must be a universal morality. The German philosopher Hegel subsequently developed a historical trajectory according to which it was the vocation of Christianity to spill itself out into an ethics of the modern citizen.
This philosophical deposit underwrote nineteenth-century liberal Protestantism, with its emphasis on a kind of slimmed down, minimalist political theology preoccupied with ethics, social reform, and human progress made visible through the actions of “advanced” nation-states or “civilization.”
Yet whatever its apparent compatibility with modern life, this theological liberalism could not answer the deepest questions and desires of human beings. At the outset of the twentieth century and especially after the great shock of the First World War, political theology became resurgent among Christians and Jews alike.
Karl Barth, Martin Buber, and others called upon the language of crisis, messianism, eschatology, and decisionism to separate faith from the complacent theological compromises of their elders. Lilla believes their rhetoric played a crucial role in the general appeal of extremist movements, above all Nazism.
He concludes that the Great Separation is never final and that political theology is always a possibility, even in late modern or postmodern culture. In an age of renewed religious violence, he warns his readers, we must appreciate the fragility of secular politics, and in the future “we must rely upon our lucidity.”
It is a useful warning, and readers will learn something worthwhile from Lilla’s account of the reassertion of religious experience into an increasingly atheistic account of the human person in European thought in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and its aftermath. His engaging and often insightful account of how religious hope was both psychologized and politicized by philosophers like Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel is most instructive.
The Polemical Lilla
Sadly, there is also the other book in The Stillborn God, the book of Lilla the secular polemicist.
The account of early Christian thinking about the nature of God and about Christianity and politics is unremittingly glib, free of any rigorous engagement with patristic theology, evident in his casual use of terms like “immanence” to describe Christian thought about the Incarnation and his occasional references to an “absent” God to describe the period between the Ascension and the Parousia.
Furthermore, like many secular apologists, he appears to believe that the posthumously named “Wars of Religion” were only about theology, not long-standing political conflicts reflecting the emergence of the modern nation-state. He repeatedly suggests that savage war and concomitant reprisals appeared with unique savagery in the Protestant and Catholic Reformations—and for religious reasons alone.
At the simplest level, his readers can reflect upon the history of savagery elsewhere that has nothing to do with Christianity in particular or religion in general, but is about human beings’ depressingly general capacity for violence. And he might at least acknowledge the fact that the effort to limit the violence of war was for a very long time an overwhelmingly Christian enterprise, from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to the Christian humanist Fénelon. Some secular Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire also denounced the profligate destruction of war, but to do so, they relied upon many centuries of Christian thought.
Lilla’s book avoids other obvious truths in order to press home his point about an unstable Christianity producing an extended, exceptionally violent bloodbath from which the West was saved only by an uncompromisingly secular politics. He consistently soft-pedals or simply denies the extent to which the emergence of democracy, the separation of church and state, and religious toleration were the direct consequence of developments within Christianity, rather than simply a reaction to Christianity’s (or Europe’s) political crises.
For example, he acknowledges that modern secularism was able to come into being, in large part, because religious authority and secular political power have generally been separate categories in Christian theology, but he claims that they are so only indirectly, as an ominous contributor to political ambiguities conducive to religious violence and not as a direct, positive part of the solution to such violence. (The awkward fact that, on the other hand, Hobbes was a notorious champion of unifying religious and secular authority is sheepishly admitted while its implications are ignored.)
His reference to democracy suffers from a similar limitation: The idea that democratic republicanism owes its life entirely to the labors of philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza but nothing to, say, Presbyterianism, beggars credulity.
In general, the Christian faith and its thinkers are often robbed of their importance or given over to caricatural mutilation. Catholic thought on faith and politics is almost entirely absent. Individual thinkers are often very roughly handled indeed.
The great Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal, for example, is wheeled away from his sickbed to admit his terror of silence in infinite spaces—which Lilla, completely without evidence, assures us is the true basis of his conversion to Christianity—and immediately wheeled back again before his coruscating humor and his principled denunciation of all forms of religious coercion can unduly complicate the story of early modern Christianity ominously torn between asserting its old and bloody prerogatives and wanly accommodating itself to the emerging secular regime.
A Nazi Genealogy
For over half a century, the Grand Prize of polemic has gone to those who can best respond to the following challenge: How can I blame the movement or ideas to which I am opposed for the emergence of German National Socialism and the Holocaust?
With unsettling alacrity, Lilla presents what he admits is an impressionistic, fragmentary genealogy of Nazism, one that insinuates heavily that it ultimately sprang from or was sustained by eschatological, messianic, decisionist rhetoric that itself relied upon Jewish and, above all, traditional Christian sources locked in a tortured relationship to liberal Protestantism.
It is a singular account of Nazism’s intellectual antecedents and inspirations that entirely ignores or devotes only passing attention to Nietzsche, Spengler, Heidegger, Sorel, Jünger, and others, but lavishes attention upon eschatological and decisionist ideas in the young Karl Barth (himself, as Lilla acknowledges, a resolute opponent of Nazism) and Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig (Jewish thinkers with no sympathy for National Socialism).
Lilla is forced to rely upon the idea that these religious thinkers released language into the stormy air that seeded the cyclone that followed, or to rely heavily upon the early, temporary support for National Socialism of Friedrich Gogarten, one of Barth’s students but a student Barth repudiated. At times, this argument is so selective in its emphases and omissions that it borders on the ludicrous.
Yet the argument is not quite entirely ludicrous. Nazism owed an incalculable debt to secular nihilism, to abiding convictions about the decadence of an allegedly dying Christian civilization, to a fascination with technology in the service of neo-pagan ideas about a primal violence in nature and in the exultation of domination for its own sake.
But the rhetoric of Nazi enthusiasts also relied upon notions of a final crisis, an apocalyptic confrontation that required a fundamental decision that would forever define not just the individual who made it but also the outcome of a more general struggle in history. This dimension of Nazi political language descends from and parodies Christian eschatological and soteriological language (note that it descends from Christian language), replacing the transcendent God of love with the blood idols of race and nation.
In this way, Lilla does an unintentional service to his Christian readers, allowing them to recognize the dangers that attend the perversion of Christian truth in history, and pointing to how the promises of Christ can be twisted to serve evil by subordinating these promises to what is not God. The devil tempted Christ in part by quoting Scripture, and Christians do well to reflect upon how often evil makes precisely that move in relation to Christ’s followers.
An Anti-Pascalian Wager
Lilla’s solution to this problem, however, is not to commend the importance of charity, humility, and spiritual lucidity. He frankly acknowledges the superficiality of a thoroughgoing secularism, only to claim that only this superficial, thoroughgoing secularism can save us from the inevitable violence of political theology.
Though he claims to leave room for private faith, given the pernicious consequences he attributes to everything from the Social Gospel to Barth’s neo-orthodoxy, this faith must itself be chastened to the point of being neutered, a kind of liberal Protestantism that dare not speak of any City other than the City of Man.
In his conclusion, he turns to the decisionism he previously denounced, even announcing a “wager” that secularists must make, betting that it is better to live without any notion of transcendence or of faith as a horizon for human action in return for meeting basic human needs and preserving the peace.
Peace is a great good, and nonbelievers should be free to make their own decisions about religious belief. But Lilla’s talk of wagers recalls another wager, and not to his advantage. From his sickbed, Pascal wrote that a rational human being should wager on God’s infinite love and goodness over the merely finite goods of this world—and in the end, by opting for God’s love, one gets all that is good in this world, too.
To put this world first and exclude anything beyond it will result in the reverse of the result of Pascal’s wager. Instead of getting the infinite and, with it, all that is good in the world, winning Lilla’s wager will bring neither these finite goods nor the infinite ones, since a finite world closed off from any opening to the infinite will be a cramped and frustrated place—itself a powerful precondition of violence.
Lilla offers the West the prospect of an expansive spiritual desert, and such a place must struggle mightily to be at peace.
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“Secular Polemics” first appeared in the April 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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