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Religion, Politics, and the Modern West

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List Price: $11.99


On Sale: September 23, 2008
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-47271-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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A brilliant account of religion's role in the political thinking of the West, from the Enlightenment to the close of World War II.

The wish to bring political life under God's authority is nothing new, and it's clear that today religious passions are again driving world politics, confounding expectations of a secular future. In this major book, Mark Lilla reveals the sources of this age-old quest-and its surprising role in shaping Western thought. Making us look deeper into our beliefs about religion, politics, and the fate of civilizations, Lilla reminds us of the modern West's unique trajectory and how to remain on it. Illuminating and challenging, The Stillborn God is a watershed in the history of ideas.


Chapter One: The Crisis

The kingdom of God is among you.
—LUKE 17:21

My kingdom is not of this world.
—JOHN 18:36

The revolt against political theology in the West was directed against a Christian tradition of thought. It began, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as a local dispute involving a particular faith and a few kingdoms in a small corner of the globe. Yet its implications proved far-reaching, for the West and for any nation that has tried to absorb Western political ideas in the modern era. Something unprecedented happened in the polemical battle between Christian political theology and its modern adversary; an authentically new way of treating political questions, free from disputes over divine revelation, was born. What was it about the Christian tradition that provoked such a profound intellectual challenge to the way societies had always conceived of political life? That is the first question we must address. However progressive our modern political ideas may appear, they were forged in a backward looking struggle against an archaic tradition of political thought stretching back to the dawn of civilization. Christian political theology was just one expression of that tradition, and a uniquely unstable one.

God, Man, World

Why is there political theology? The question echoes quietly throughout the history of Western thought, beginning in Greek and Roman antiquity and continuing down to our day. But generally it has been interpreted in terms of another question, which is why human beings believe in gods.

Western theories about the genesis and nature of religious belief are numerous, and we will have occasion to examine some of them in detail. Yet we need to recognize that they address the question of political theology only obliquely. Religious faith is a necessary but insufficient condition for the development of political theology. It is possible for an individual or entire civilization to hold beliefs about God without those beliefs being translated into political ideas. Just as there are religions without theologies, so there are religions without political theologies. So we must ask ourselves: Why do certain religious beliefs get translated into doctrines about political life? What reasons do people give for appealing to God in their political thought?

Understanding reasons is the key to understanding political theology. Most theories of religion, ancient and modern, have adopted a third-person perspective on belief: religion is something that happens to human beings, arising out of ignorance and fear or as a mythical expression of a society's collective consciousness. But political theology is a way of thinking; it is an activity, not a psychological state. Subjectively viewed, religion is a choice, perhaps even a rational choice, for individuals and societies. We all face the implicit alternative between living in light of what we take to be divine revelation, or living in some other way. Infinite choice is not actually available in every historical circumstance, this we know. But we also know that since time immemorial human beings have speculated and argued about the divine; that they have changed their beliefs and their societies on the basis of those arguments; and that at certain junctures they have confronted intellectual alternatives to theological argument. We do not live in an iron cage whose bars are inherited ideas, rituals, and representations of the divine; nor are we being swept away by some historical process that began in a world with religion and is now ending in a world without it. From a subjective standpoint, we sense ourselves to be thinking, critical creatures considering the alternatives before us. And therefore we are.

If we permit ourselves to take such an internal, rather than external, view of ourselves, we begin to see that the question of God can present itself to any reflective mind, at any time. And once that question is posed, many others flow from it, including all the traditional questions of political theology. Political theology may not be a feature of every human society, but it is a permanent alternative to reflective minds, to which other alternatives can be opposed.

Let us consider how some traditional theological-political questions might arise, for anyone. Once a human being becomes aware of himself, he discovers that he is in a world not of his own making, a whole of which he is a part. He notices that he is subject to the same physical laws affecting inanimate objects in this world; like the plants, he requires nutrition and reproduces; and like the animals, he lives with others, builds shelters, struggles, and feels. Such a person can remark his differences from all these natural objects and creatures, but he will also recognize what he shares with them. He does not observe the world from without, as an external object of contemplation; he views it from within and sees he is dependent on it. The thought can then occur that if he is ever to understand himself, he will need to understand the whole of which he is a part. If man is imbedded in the cosmos, knowledge of man will require knowledge of the cosmos.

It is when we find ourselves posing questions about the cosmos that we can then find ourselves considering answers having to do with God. This, too, makes sense. The cosmos in which we find ourselves has unknown origins and appears to behave in a regular fashion. Why is that? we wonder. We know that the things we fashion ourselves behave in a predictable manner because we conceive and construct them with some end in mind. We stretch the bow, the arrow flies; that is why they were made. So, by analogy, it is not difficult for us, when considering the cosmic order, to imagine that it was constructed for a purpose reflecting its maker's will. By following this analogy, we begin to have ideas about that maker, about his intentions, and therefore about his personality.

By taking these few short steps, the human mind finds itself confronted with a picture. It is a theological image in which God, man, and world form an indissoluble divine nexus. The picture also tells a story, about a God who created or shaped the cosmos of which we are an unusual part, sharing some characteristics with his other creatures and having others unique to ourselves (or perhaps shared with him). Such a picture can appear before any mind that begins reflecting on its surroundings. How this or that particular theological picture actually develops is a historical question. Yet even an arbitrary picture inherited from the tradition or society in which one lives can be given rational structure and rational justification. The believer has reasons for believing that he lives in this divine nexus, just as he has reasons for thinking that it offers authoritative guidance for political life.

How that guidance is to be understood, and why believers think it is authoritative, will depend crucially on how they imagine God to be. If God is thought to be passive, a silent force like the sky, nothing authoritative may follow. We know there is something divine out there, and knowledge of it might help us understand our environment, but there is no reason why it should necessarily dictate our ends. Such a God may be considered part of the structure of being, or beyond being, but in neither case does he determine how we should live. He is a hypothesis we can do without. But if we take seriously the thought that God is a person with intentions, and that the cosmic order is a result of those intentions, then a great deal can follow. The intentions of such a God are not mute facts, they express an active will. They are authoritative. And that is where politics comes in.

Political life revolves around disputes over authority: who may legitimately exercise power over others, to what ends, and under what conditions. In such disputes it might be enough to appeal to something in human nature that legitimizes the exercise of authority, and leave the matter there. But as we just saw, any reflection about human experience has a way of traveling up the chain of causes, first to the cosmos, then to God. If we conceive of God as the shaper of our cosmos, which displays his purposes, then the legitimate exercise of political authority might very well depend on understanding those purposes. God's intentions themselves need no justification, since he is the last court of appeal. If we could justify him, we would not need him; we would need only the arguments validating his actions. In this line of reasoning, God, by creating, has revealed something man cannot fully know on his own. This revelation then becomes the source of his authority, over nature and over us.

Not all civilizations have entered into this logic. In ancient China, for example, the emperor himself was thought to be divine and the gods were there to comfort the populace in the face of his power. In ancient Greece, some imagined a first cause or "unmoved mover" without personality who embodied divine law, which philosophers could contemplate to understand the cosmic order and man's place within it. Other Greeks entertained thoughts about a panoply of deities with conflicting personalities but whose natures were still intelligible to human reason. Such gods were never thought by the Greeks to exercise revealed political authority because they created man and the cosmos--and perhaps that is why political philosophy was first able to develop in ancient Greece. In any case, the ancient Greeks seemed to believe that only men exercise political authority over men, though wise ones will reflect on the eternal, unchanging divine law and keep a wary eye on Olympus.

Yet in countless other civilizations, revealed political theologies developed to explain and justify the exercise of political authority. The number of gods they imagined were many, as were the political arrangements they justified. But there is an underlying structure to this vast array, and a place within that structure reserved for Christian political theology.

Picturing God

Political theology is discourse about political authority based on a revealed divine nexus. It is, explicitly or implicitly, rational. But because political theology develops within religious traditions, it also relies on simple pictures of that nexus, which the traditions then present to their believers. All religions, even the most archaic, face a common challenge: to make the relations among God, man, and world simultaneously intelligible to simple souls and coherent to reflective minds. To the simple it offers pictures; these pictures then give rise to puzzles the reflective must unravel.

God is at the center of all such pictures, and depending on how we conceive of him, our images of man and world can change. The picture itself revolves around the presence of God, where he is and where he can be sought in space and time. Spatially, we can picture God walking among us; we can imagine him at an infinite distance from the world; or we can conceive him as being in heaven, gazing down on his creation, within earshot. We can also imagine God in relation to time, existing temporally with us; as having existed once in the past but no more; or as existing beyond time, though with some relation to our temporal existence. These alternative pictures give rise to a large number of theological possibilities and each one can be the source of very different conceptions of political authority. For our purposes, it will suffice to explore three abstract pictures of God and consider the kinds of arguments political theologians have often based on them.

One way of portraying God is to see him as an immanent force in the world, spatially and temporally. In this picture, the world is a chaotic place where the forces at work—divine, human, and natural—are all a jumble. Spirits, nymphs, ancestors, shamans, amulets, even stars and dreams shape our destiny because the immanent gods are working through them. The good gods make the rain fall, cause the crops to grow, make cattle fertile. They protect the nation in battle and against the malignant gods who bring conquest, plague, drought, disease, and death. The world is permeable and we must share it with divine beings who use it, and us, to their own purposes. The key to living in such a world is to keep the good gods happy and the bad ones at bay, through flattery and bribery if necessary.

Pushed to an extreme, the notion of an immanent God can be taken to mean that the whole of nature, perhaps we ourselves, emanate from the divine. This is the God of the pantheists.* But it is not clear that there has ever been a nation of strict pantheists, one living as if literally all things were "full of God," since that could imply a principle of strict equality among all beings. Instead, nations with this picture of an immanent God appear to assume that some beings are more equal than others. They have traditionally turned to heroes, noble families, or castes whose proximity to the divine was thought to give them authority to rule. In some civilizations these theocratic rulers were portrayed as incarnations of the divine, in others as children of the gods, in others still as priests or deputies of the Most High. In ancient Egypt, for example, Pharaoh was conceived as one of the gods, who then acted for the Egyptians as intermediary with other divinities. For the ancient Mesopotamians, it seems, the king was a hero who could be filled with the divine on occasion, though he remained a mortal.

With an immanent God, the divine becomes an active temporal force whose relations with the nation are mediated by the ruler, who can double as priest. The ruler's role is doubly representational: he pleads the nation's cause before the divine, much as a lawyer would, and he also acts as God's advocate on earth, translating divine decrees for human ears. Such rulers are expected actively to defend the nation against hostile enemies and nature, and their fate will depend on their success in conjuring up the power of the immanent God here and now. For rulers of pantheistic nations, divinization is the master political science.

* Strictly speaking, there is a distinction between pantheism, which equates God with the cosmos, and panentheism, which sees the cosmos as contained within God, who remains greater than it. For our purposes, we can consider both doctrines as pantheistic.

From the Hardcover edition.
Mark Lilla|Author Q&A

About Mark Lilla

Mark Lilla - The Stillborn God

Photo © Elena Seibert

Mark Lilla is Professor of Humanities and Religion at Columbia University. He was previously Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. A noted intellectual historian and frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, he is the author of The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics and G. B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern. He lives in New York City.

Mark Lilla is represented by the Knopf Speakers Bureau (http://www.knopfspeakersbureau.com).

Author Q&A

Q: How would you define the term political theology?
A: A political theology describes the nature of the good society, based on a divine revelation.  It can be contrasted with political philosophy, which does without revelation.
Q: Explain the importance of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the dialog of religion and politics in Western thought.
A: Rousseau's importance lies in his argument that human beings have a defensible need for religion, and that when religion is rationally and morally reformed it ennobles us, rather than debases us.  This thought convinced many in nineteenth-century Europe that reformed religion could be reconciled with modern politics, and played a necessary role in the functioning of the state. 
Q: Tell us why you call America’s relationship to religion and politics a miracle?
A: There simply is no other example of a healthy, powerful democracy whose citizens are not only believers, but believers in messianic, ecstatic faiths.  Their faiths give them ample reason to ignore the limits of constitutional government, and even resort to violence, but somehow we remain within the bounds of our system of government.  
Q: Why were the Founding Fathers of this country so hopeful to assert that a theory such as ours could work —in your opinion does it work, will it work in the future?
A: The Founders made a wager that if Protestant sects were given a constitutional right to assemble they would not want to risk that liberty by imposing their faith on others.  They hoped for a general disarmament, and they got it.  What the Founders could not anticipate was the influx of Catholic immigrants in the 19th and 20th century, nor that eventually they, too, would accept the bargain.  Nor could they have anticipated Muslim immigration. 
Q: Do you think the events of September 11th have changed our relationship to religion in this country?  
A: It obviously has, but perhaps not enough.  We remain terribly provincial about the challenge of political theology, exaggerating the danger in the US and underestimating its power in the rest of the world.

From the Hardcover edition.



"Sophisticated and compelling. . . . Could not be timelier."—The Wall Street Journal“Introduces the reader to one of the most important chapters in modern history.”—The New York Sun “A lucid book of great learning and shrewd insights into political and religious psychology.”—The Boston Globe"Provocative. . . . Adds nuance and complexity to the intellectual account we tell about the West's thinking on religion and politics."—The New York Times Book Review

  • The Stillborn God by Mark Lilla
  • September 23, 2008
  • History
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9781400079131

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