Divine politics

In "The Stillborn God," a history of the separation of church and state, Mark Lilla urges the West to remember the religious fanaticism in its past -- or risk its return.

By Laura Miller
Published September 24, 2007 3:00PM (UTC)
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An alternate title for "The Stillborn God," Mark Lilla's new history of the separation of church and state in the West, could be "How Soon They Forget." Take an example from our own lifetime, something titanic like Sept. 11. Remember how it seemed so inconceivable, so unprecedented, that terrorists would blow up the World Trade Center? Yet it had already happened -- in 1993, when a group affiliated with al-Qaida tried to do just that, with a car bomb, killing six people. Somehow, the fact of that bombing never seemed to stick in the public's mind; until the towers actually came down, spectacularly and on national television, and thousands died, an Islamist terrorist attack on American soil remained "unimaginable."

Small wonder, then, that we also have a hard time remembering the religious fanaticism in our own history. Westerners now talk blithely about the need for a "reformation" in Islam, apparently oblivious to how bloody and traumatic the Christian Reformation actually was. Lilla finds this situation perilous. As long as we refuse to acknowledge the madness of the religious wars and persecutions of the 16th century, he argues, we remain in danger of loosening our grip on "the Great Separation" (of church and state) that resulted from it. By not understanding how easily any politics infused with any religion can drift in the direction of fanaticism and terror, we put ourselves at risk of drifting that way ourselves.


If we think the West is way beyond lapsing into that kind of insanity, Lilla (a professor of the humanities at Columbia University and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books) begs to differ. "Intellectual complacency," he writes, "nursed by an implicit faith in the inevitability of secularization, has blinded us to the persistence of political theology and its manifest power to shape human life at any moment." Political theology, what Lilla defines as "discourse about political authority based on a revealed divine nexus," takes its beliefs about how society should be run and how power should be distributed from what it considers to be the word of God -- the divine truth revealed to man through scripture.

This way of thinking about politics isn't merely a holdover from our evolutionary past, destined to dwindle away like the appendix. It is "a primordial form of human thought and for millennia has provided a deep well of ideas and symbols for organizing society and inspiring action, for good and ill."

Political theology, as far as Lilla is concerned, comes with being human. Human beings have always speculated about metaphysics and the possibility of the divine. Once someone decides that they believe in a deity with purposes and intentions, it's a short step to the idea that such a god would have definite ideas about how human societies should be run. (But not an inevitable step; as Lilla observes, the Greek gods managed to create humanity and meddle perpetually in its affairs without especially caring how we govern ourselves: "Perhaps that is why political philosophy was first able to develop in ancient Greece.")


Contemporary Westerners often live under the illusion that modern political philosophy -- that is, the habit of "thinking and talking about politics exclusively in human terms, without appeal to divine revelation or cosmological speculation" -- is as predestined as Karl Marx believed the proletarian revolution to be. We think that, once set in motion, secularism cannot be rolled back, and once established, it cannot be overthrown. Lilla calls this a "fairy tale." He would like us to remember that our view of politics is relatively recent, an experiment of sorts that is still ongoing.

The triumph of modern political philosophy is not a done deal. As time goes by, we increasingly forget "why it was begun and the nature of the challenge it was intended to meet. Yet the challenge has never disappeared." The threat posed by our short memory is twofold. Political theology remains an appealing alternative to many, many human beings and societies, and when we stop understanding why that is we become unable to understand them. At that point, too, "it is no longer certain that we understand ourselves."

"The Stillborn God," meant to correct this deficiency, is a history of ideas, specifically the ideas of the Western philosophers who struggled with the separation of religion and politics. Lilla describes the long arc of this effort, beginning with Thomas Hobbes and concluding with some German thinkers of the 1930s and '40s. His premise is that even at what we think of as the upper echelons of Western thought, the potential for "messianic passion" lurks. This is why people who ought to have known better succumbed to the allure of the murderous messianic political movements of the mid-20th century. We must remain vigilant against the ever-present tendency to infuse political life with "spirituality" because it can, despite the best intentions, so easily turn bad.


At the same time, we have to recognize that "Political theology ... remains a live alternative for many peoples today." Our own political philosophy was devised as a remedy for a specific historical situation, and it isn't necessarily going to work for everyone else in exactly the same way. When we accept the fact that even we -- who think of ourselves as well beyond it -- remain susceptible to the allure of political theology, with its certainties and absolutes, we'll be better able to live on the same planet with people who don't share our investment in the Great Separation.

Lilla is a marvelously concise and lucid writer, and "The Stillborn God" covers this material in an impressively short 300 pages. The earliest sections are the strongest -- having endured a Catholic religious education to the point of confirmation, I've never encountered a more comprehensible explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Lilla traces what he regards as the inherent instability of Christian political theology to this doctrine. Because, through the Trinity, the Christian God has multiple, incompatible relationships to the world he created, it's been difficult for Christians to get a clear fix on how they should feel about that world (and its political institutions), too.


Most gods are either immanent (divine but also part of and active in the world, like the Greek gods); remote (completely removed from the material universe like God of the Gnostics) or transcendent (apart from the world, although occasionally intervening in its affairs, like the God of the Hebrew Bible). The Christian God is all three, depending on which moment in history you're talking about. In the form of the Father, he is a remote god. In the form of the Son, the incarnated Christ, he is immanent, a presence in the world for the 33 years of Jesus' life and at some point in the future when he will return. He is also transcendent/immanent in the Holy Ghost, who, after the resurrection of Christ, infused all of creation in the form of God's grace.

According to Lilla, while this theology covers all the divine bases, it results in an unclear stance on the part of God toward his creation. Some Christians believe the world is essentially good and man should glorify God by making it better, by participating in government and other activities. Others regard the material universe as inherently fallen and corrupt and advocate withdrawing from worldly concerns and relying solely on God's grace for salvation. Or, conversely, if their instincts are apocalyptic rather than ascetic, this same school might urge doing whatever is necessary to achieve a kind of divine insurgency that will precipitate the complete transformation of the fallen world into the Kingdom of God.

It was the clash of all these conflicting (yet equally valid) Christianities that inevitably led to the horrific religious wars of 16th century Europe. Exhausted and appalled by the spectacle of Christians hunting and killing each other over arcane doctrinal disputes, the early modern philosophers began to question the very premises of political theology. Thomas Hobbes, whom Lilla regards as the father of this line of thought, made the revolutionary suggestion that we stop asking what God wants from us and start asking what people want from religion.


This was a radical switch in perspective for Christians. Hobbes didn't manage to sway many believers over to his own (apparent) atheism, but he shifted the focus. He speculated on why humans might choose to believe in God (to find solace in a harsh, unpredictable universe, he said), and this in itself introduced the possibility that human interpretations of divine intentions might be distorted by our own fear, ignorance and greed. Hobbes didn't advocate the separation of church and state -- he believed an absolute temporal and spiritual sovereign was the only way to secure the peace -- but the Enlightenment thinkers who inherited his ideas did.

Hobbes' intellectual heirs, John Locke and David Hume, devised many of the precepts on which our model of liberal democracy is based: "an order where power would be limited, divided, and widely shared; where those in power at one moment would relinquish it peacefully at another, without fear of retribution; where public law would govern relations among citizens and institutions; where many different religions would be allowed to flourish, free from state interference; where individuals would have inalienable rights against government and their fellows." Locke and Hume shared (roughly) the belief that religious fervor would fade away once people got used to the benefits and independence of mind that flourish in such a society.

A different school of modern thought that Lilla dubs "the children of Rousseau" then emerged. Although they wanted to retain the separation of church and state, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and those he influenced thought that the Enlightenment philosophers had thrown out the baby with the bath water. Religion was not just a sop against the cruel universe and a tool of power-hungry priests; it spoke, in Rousseau's opinion, to something important and valuable in the human spirit even if its "truth" was only metaphorical. If philosophy dismissed religion as Hobbes did -- as merely a destructive, superstitious fetish -- then "by failing to account for what was best or highest in human beings, it would encourage what was lowest in them."


Thus, the Romantic idea we call "spirituality" was born. Rousseau championed the individual conscience, what he called "the inner light," in each human being. This personal voice, if we can learn to listen to it, tells each of us what is right and what is wrong. Which doctrine you espoused doesn't matter as much as the spirit in which you approach it. (The popular contemporary notion of being "spiritual but not religious" owes a lot, if not everything, to this strain of Western culture.) Immanuel Kant worked up a disciplined, systematic version of this concept of an internal moral compass. This eventually led him to insist that everyone ought to join a church, whether or not they technically believe in its doctrines, because such communities offered essential support to those trying to pursue "the highest good."

Once Lilla follows this line of thought into German Idealism and Romanticism, he sees an ever-increasing flow of religious sentiment back into political philosophy. G.W.F. Hegel also believed that religion expressed something glorious in the human spirit, and then he went further, insisting that the Bible could be read symbolically as an account of the process of the human spirit coming to understand itself. Not only was the Second Coming a valid vision of the future, it was nearly here, and would arrive when humanity realized that it was itself the manifestation of what we once called God. The nightmare of religious violence that led up to this realization was the necessary result of our natural resistance to this knowledge. The old wars were the birth pangs of the revelation of our own divinity.

Lilla finds the terminus of this way of thinking in German liberal theology, which followed Hegel in assuming the German Protestant bourgeois society was somehow the embodiment of the highest moral life. Almost everyone in this chain of thinkers rejected the idea that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, revealed to mankind. They seemed to have mostly viewed it complexly, as a beautiful, symbolic approach to understanding the human spirit. They thought Protestantism, specifically German Protestantism, was the culmination of a long process of evolution, nearing its summit. Obviously, this apotheosis deserved a role in public life in a way that older, more primitive and violent faiths did not.

World War I destroyed this complacency, and in the aftermath, many theologians called for a return to a humbler view of man's relationship to God; let man be man, and let God be God. Lilla argues that some of these thinkers, like the "neo-orthodox" German theologian Karl Barth, were not in fact as orthodox as they're made out to be. They may have believed in a God above man, but they weren't claiming that the Bible was literally true, either. Their writings were, Lilla thinks, "the first postmodern works of theology." This was blood-and-thunder, prepare-yourself, millennial stuff, and a few of the acolytes of these theologians (some Christian, some Jewish) would go on to embrace the wild-eyed messianic political movements of Nazism and Stalinism.


At this point, however, Lilla has worked his way down to figures like Ernst Bloch and Friedrich Gogarten, men who even he admits were "minor prophets of major political idols." Possibly, their examples point to an ongoing danger that a few intellectuals might get carried away by religion-infused politics and sign on to fanatical ideologies as a result. But seducing that sort of intellectual was not especially significant to the rise to power of either Stalin or Hitler. And besides, most of the disciples of Barth and co. opposed both forms of totalitarianism. Lilla never makes the case that Nazism and Stalinism amounted to varieties of religion (though others have) and so it's not especially clear how, say, the German inclination to allow religion to affect politics somehow contributed to Nazism in general. Plenty of Germans who believed in all kinds of things got sucked into fraternizing with the Nazis. Since communism is explicitly anti-religious, Bloch mostly just seems an eccentric exception in his conviction that Jesus was the prophet of Marx.

In the end, contemporary readers searching for insight into today's politics are left to fend for themselves in "The Stillborn God." I get the impression that those obscure Germans were what Lilla really wanted to write about and someone persuaded him to take a big-picture approach he wasn't entirely comfortable with.) "The Stillborn God" doesn't address the current phenomenon of fundamentalism, Christian or Islamic, because those religions are aggressively anti-modern. Lilla is writing about the potential for irrationality and fanaticism residing even in modern philosophy, which fundamentalists have already rejected.

Lilla recently contributed an essay adapting parts of "The Stillborn God" to the New York Times Magazine, with bits about Muslim fundamentalism tacked on. He suggests that we would be foolish to assume that "liberal" Muslims can provide the solution to militancy just because we feel more comfortable with them. As far as he's concerned, the history of German liberal theology has proven that this qualified kind of religion strikes the faithful as pretty thin gruel, especially when times are tough. Better, he says, to support leaders like Khaled Abou El Fadl and Tariq Ramadan, who offer different interpretations of Muslim texts than the Islamists, but are just as devout. Their public piety might make us uncomfortable, but it speaks more directly to the human needs all religions serve.

I would rather have seen Lilla examine the ways that religion-infused politics have begun to infect this country. True, anti-Bush administration diatribes are thick on the ground, but few trace the links between, say, Ari Fleischer's referring to American energy consumption as a "blessed way of life" and Hegel's idea of German bourgeois Protestantism as the zenith of human spiritual achievement. Of course, all American candidates are expected to make a public show of their faith for the average voters, but have our political thinkers slipped into irrationality, too?


Behind the hubris of the Iraq invasion was a weird mix of literalist born-again Christianity and neoconservative ideology, often professed by Jews, based on the theories of the philosopher Leo Strauss. How does this fit into the history Lilla has so masterfully laid out? That seems a more compelling subject right now than the story of a few German philosophers who, steeped in a bewildering infusion of religion and politics, fell down the totalitarian rabbit hole in the 1930s. The vigilant moderns of today face other challenges, and messianic political cults seem like a thing of the past. On the other hand, my thinking that could be just another example of how soon we forget.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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