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The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and…
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The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West

by Mark Lilla

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Not what I thought it was going to be ( I thought the Stillborn God was going to be Communism ) ( )
  BakuDreamer | Sep 7, 2013 |
A very interesting history of political theology, and through it of the evolution of at least the Western world's view of and attitude toward religion, religious belief and religious tolerance. Classy book, well written, on an important subject. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
Mark Lilla wrote this book for the heirs of what he calls the Great Separation: the modern West's attempt to distinguish religious questions from political ones once and for all. This is the West's most ambitious political experiment. The trouble, according to Lilla, is that we in the West have forgotten that it is indeed an experiment, that in trying to think through political questions atheologically, the West is the historical exception rather than the rule. Because of this forgetfulness, "we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still inflame the minds of men, stirring up messianic passions that leave societies in ruin. We assumed that this was no longer possible.... We were wrong" (3).

So Lilla sets out to remind us of the long, prestigious, and powerful legacy of political theology in the West. He marches quickly through the rise of Christianity (and its "accidental" acquisition of an Empire) up to the first attempt at the Great Separation by Thomas Hobbes (chs. 1 and 2), then more slowly through a few major thinkers who wrestled with the consequences of that attempt: Locke and Hume (ch. 3), Rousseau and Kant (ch. 4), Hegel (ch. 5), the 19th century liberal Protestants and Jews (ch. 6), and finally the re-emergence of both Christian and Jewish political theology in, above all, Karl Barth and Franz Rosenzweig (ch. 7). In the beginning, Hobbes intended to disavow religion entirely, seeing it as merely an expression of humanity's incessant fearfulness, inevitably leading to violence. But religion gradually regained a foothold in political thought, first in the negative form of "freedom of conscience" and later in the more positive form of an "enlightened" religiosity. After Rousseau, who wrote in Émile about the need for religion (shorn, of course, of any particularistic dogmatism) to encourage the natural expansiveness of the human soul, appeals to the positive social contribution of religion, especially Protestant religion, became much more common.

This renewed (though severely qualified) approval of religion emboldened 19th-century liberal Protestants and Jews in Germany to reassert their religion's politico-cultural significance, while cautiously avoiding any serious social critique. The fatal consequence of this sideways-step back toward political theology, says Lilla, was to have "left the faint odor of revelation hanging over its celebration of modern political and cultural life, implying it had been divinely blessed" (249). Once that social order began to crumble after the First World War, therefore, the condemnation of its "stillborn God" was basically fated also to take religious form. In the overtly theopolitical rhetoric of Franz Rosenzweig and Karl Barth, sharply critical of the liberal attempts to accommodate themselves to late modern German society, it suddenly and disastrously appeared possible once again to urge political decisions on the basis of some perceived revelation. An intensely apocalyptic fervor had been reawakened. Political theology had been reborn. And though neither Barth nor Rosenzweig would ever have countenanced the atrocities of the Nazi regime, their political theological ambitions, on Lilla's telling, only encouraged "a new and noxious form of political argument, which was the theological celebration of modern tyranny" (278).

All this, in brief, is the powerful and terrible intellectual legacy of which Lilla sets out to remind us, lest we lose sight of the immense fragility of the West's grand experiment. We must not take the separation of religion and politics for granted. We must not forget the captivating power of political theology.

Although this book falls victim to the oversimplification characteristic of most all popular histories of ideas, and readers more knowledgeable about a particular figure will find plenty to quibble about (especially, I think, on the theological figures), even Lilla's mistakes can be instructive. He writes with unrivaled interpretive and analytical clarity, all the more impressive given the complexity of the figures he discusses. ( )
1 vote bdhamilton | Apr 6, 2009 |
According to this detailed intellectual history, political thought in Europe, uniquely, is dominated by the “Great Separation”: the liberation of political thought from theology. The separation occurred in the 17th century as a reaction to the destruction of the Thirty Years war. Lilla argues that it was an unusual tension in Christian theology produced by the doctrine of the incarnate God in Jesus Christ that created the conditions necessary for the separation of theology from politics to occur. There is no way of reconciling a god involved in human affairs with one remote and inscrutable, and therefore, no way of assuring interpretation of his will on earth. Without the certainty that God’s will is understandable it is impossible to base political actions on his will. Hobbes and Hume, most prominently, understood God as a creation of the human mind, and therefore did not appeal to God’s law to justify the political system.
The discoveries of natural philosophy undermined religious authority “A cosmos this old and complex hardly seemed crafted with man solely in mind, as a primer in ethics authored by God”. Quoting David Hume, “the whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery” Hugo Grotius and Herbert of Cherbury were modern Stoics, seeing nothing but the operation of natural laws, with God, if existing, a remote clock-maker. Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan (1651) puts the responsibility for religion and morals on man: “Seeing there are no signs nor fruit of religion but in man only, there is no cause to doubt but that the seed of religion is also only in man”. The seed was man’s fears and ignorance.
Rousseau and Immanuel Kant reacted against the separation of religion and morals, Kant arguing that the idea of God served an important function in the operation of reason: “I have found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for fate”. Religion was a reaction to a human need. Eventually, Hegel would argue that the separation of religion and politics could not be sustained, and eventually the state would subsume the functions of religion. The modern state would be the locus of world history “the divine will as present spirit, unfolding as the actual shape and organization of a world”
In the 19th century German theologians began to think that Protestantism and the German state were the final and best state of development of religious thought, and developed a liberal theology that was supposedly self evident to reason (as in the Declaration of Independence - “We hold these truths to be self-evident...”). These theologians thought man to be naturally good, reasonable, and the Protestant religion and ordered state to be the superior enlightenment, blessed by God. Per the author “When blessing begins, thinking stops” This strain of thinking would lead to theological apologetics for the Nazi movement in Weimar Germany, or to Karl Barth arguing that participation in politics is a meaningless game
The author sums the genius of the great separation in this way: “we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands” ( )
  neurodrew | Mar 9, 2008 |
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