Mark Lilla’s ‘The Stillborn God’

The question of the theological-political has been a concern in one way or another for every society that has appeared in human history. At the center of the debate has been the complicated relationship between what we now see as the religious and the political domains, specifically to what extent should one influence the other. Mark Lilla’s latest book, The Stillborn God, aims to trace the intellectual heritage of the Judeo-Christian political tradition in our present day Western and liberal values. His overarching aim in this sweeping narrative of ideas is to demonstrate the “fragility of our world, the world created by the intellectual rebellion against political theology in the West” (6). In doing so, he hopes to show that the values which we have come to take for granted – separation of church and state, the absence of divine revelation as a solution to political problems, and a general relegation of the theological to the personal, subjective realm – are a condition specific to the Anglo-American world, inspired by what he calls ‘The Great Separation’ between political and religious questions in the seventeenth century.

At the heart of this book is Lilla’s concern over why “we have trouble letting God be” (302). A suggestion given early and seemingly elaborated upon throughout is the powerful attraction of political theology because of its comprehensiveness. The recurring nature of the theological political question must have something to do with the human need to ground or legitimate the political in an outside source of authority. While this quality has been found in all civilizations, the unique intellectual tradition in the west has developed out of a secularization struggle to separate the two and make divine revelation meaningless for political life. Even so, Lilla believes, there is no guarantee that this matter has been closed once and for all; instead, the theological dimension will reappear at every moment when a political crisis or a general dissatisfaction and disillusionment with contemporary life occurs.

Laying out this complex historical development is no easy task and Lilla makes it clear from the beginning that The Stillborn God is meant to be a narrative of philosophical and religious ideas, and not so much of the social, economic, and political motivations behind them. Nevertheless, for all the breadth of potential topics, the book is masterfully written and does not suffer from a lack of cohesion or clarity. Lilla’s prose is lucid and he displays a knack for paraphrasing the often complex ideas of the thinkers he is discussing. The Stillborn God is a work that deals with a particular academic question, but it does not assume more than the basic amount of prior knowledge in the humanities and would also function as a good introduction to those who are new to theological and political discussions.

However, this is not to say that The Stillborn God doesn’t have a small number of drawbacks. One that came up almost immediately after beginning the book is the lack of treatment of Catholicism and Islam. Regarding the former, Lilla describes it briefly as a belief system that was a reactionary movement for the entire period of European modernity, and so did not engage the theological-political question with any new developments as European Protestantism did. The mention of Islam in a meager few lines dispersed throughout the book, mostly in conjunction with Judaism and Christianity, is even more perplexing because The Stillborn God is primarily a book that attempts to understand what the theological-political question means for western society today. While it can be said that Islam did not have the same amount of direct influence on western Europe as the Judaeo-Christian tradition (the Islamic scholars’ cultivation of ancient Greek philosophy during the middle ages notwithstanding), to speak of the theological-political question today without mentioning the primary ‘antagonist’ to western liberal democracy, not even in a conclusion that reflects on the present, makes it seem like a loose end has not been tied.

This may seem as if I am critiquing Lilla for a book that he should have written, rather than one he actually did. But the narrative that is presented in The Stillborn God raises some questions as well. One is Lilla’s portrayal of Hobbes as the pivotal thinker who first initiated ‘The Great Separation’ between religion and politics by treating the human being materialistically, thereby valuing politics as a means of organizing the atomistic particles within society and relegating religious belief to superstition and fear. This may be true, but it overlooks the fact that Hobbes’ overseeing sovereign is modeled directly on the monotheistic notion of God, with both being actual and symbolic representations of a totalizing entity that ensures social cohesiveness and outside which there is no greater authority. Chronologically too the example of Hobbes is problematic because there was at least one thinker predating him who first implicitly drew a line between Christian ethics and political virtu: Machiavelli (for an excellent analysis of how Machiavelli accomplishes this in The Prince, see Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Question of Machiavelli).

After Hobbes, Lilla moves on to Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, giving them a fairly comprehensive treatment considering the limited space he could devote to each without it overshadowing the general subject of the book. However, when dealing with the reemergence of political theology in Weimar Germany he chooses to focus on a kaleidoscopic arrangement of thinkers: Karl Barth, Franz Rosenzweig, and (briefly) Martin Buber, Ernst Bloch, and Friedrich Gogarten. And yet, no matter how influential these men were to the intellectual atmosphere of their time, conspicuously absent are the two greatest political theologians (and intellectual adversaries) of 20th century Europe: Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin. Overlooking them is perhaps the biggest flaw of the book. Not only was Schmitt the one figure who most resembles a Hobbes for modern politics, but even his most famous work where he elaborates a notion of sovereignty outside the law is titled Political Theology! The exclusion of Benjamin, especially when Lilla begins to discuss Jewish political messianism, is likewise disappointing.

Ultimately The Stillborn God is an engaging, if uneven, intellectual narrative that attempts to answer historically the reason for why the recurrence to the theological dimension has constantly haunted European political thought even after The Great Separation. If Lilla is indeed correct (as he seems to be) that our conceptualization of the religious and political as separate spheres of life is purely a historical contingency, the awareness of this could itself be at least one reason for why the notion of God has been so difficult to remove from politics once and for all.

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