The American Interest

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The Theotropic Instinct

The temptation to mix religion and politics springs eternal.

Published on March 1, 2008
The Stillborn God:
Religion, Politics, and the Modern West
by Mark Lilla
Alfred A. Knopf, 2007, 334 pp., $26

More than a century after Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God, the Old Boy not only lingers on but has yet to enter palliative care. No one languishing in a truly moribund condition could possibly attract so many enemies. Consider, for instance, the American commercial book trade’s answer to the Three Tenors: the Three Atheists—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Sure, we’ve heard it all before, but legions of readers still can’t get enough of it.

None of these enemies of God, however, is remotely as sophisticated—or as ambivalent—as Mark Lilla. One may find his title, The Stillborn God, repellent and the ambition of his subtitle, Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, presumptuous, yet this is one of those rare books that repays careful reading. It has much to teach about where we of the West are today, and the strange journey by which we have arrived here. There is no comparison between this highly erudite and demanding work, which originated in a set of academic lectures, and those of the aforementioned popular screedists.

Which raises the question of the sanity of the publishers at Knopf. The Stillborn God consists almost exclusively of abstruse accounts of Christian theology, on the one hand, and the ruminations of Great Modern Thinkers, on the other. It contains not one light or easy moment. Did those corporate honchos really think that somewhere there lurked a general audience for such a book? And wouldn’t it be heartening if they were right?

The Great Separation

Lilla’s theme is what he calls the Great Separation and its consequences, intended and not. Americans are familiar with this development as the separation of church and state. According to Lilla, however, we take this arrangement so much for granted that we no longer grasp its significance. The Great Separation wasn’t primarily a matter of institutional accommodations; it constituted a fundamental transformation of the Western view of the world and the role of religion in it.

The key notion to grasp is political theology, the central event being the West’s rejection of it. For most of the world’s peoples throughout history, and for many non-Western ones still today, the ultimate ground of political authority has been the will of God, as interpreted by those human beings held to be licensed by Him to do so. While this cast of thought may strike liberal Westerners as benighted, this merely confirms (says Lilla) how much we have forgotten about our own past and how cavalier we are inclined to be about our possible future. Nothing is more natural, Lilla stresses, than for the religious impulse to shape the whole of the human world, including its politics. The notion that God rules the world but that we rule ourselves, thus assigning the ultimate political authority to laws and institutions of our own making, must strike any traditional believer as utterly bizarre and impossible.

An impressively succinct writer, Lilla begins by surveying the varieties of political theology. He sketches three kinds of deity—immanent, remote and transcendent—each of which implies a different type of political theology. The Christian God, however, poses unique problems of classification. There has never been a God whose relation to the world was more complex, or whose implications for politics were murkier. For it is in the very nature of the doctrine of the Trinity (and its attendant narrative of Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection and eventual Return) that the relation of Christianity to politics should be endlessly problematic and unstable:

All the implicit tensions in the idea of a transcendent God became explicit . . . in the Trinity. That is why it has proved possible in the history of Christian theology to develop [ultimately irreconcilable] pictures of God that stress either his transcendence, or his immanence, or his remoteness. And each of these pictures has spawned in turn whole schools of Christian political theology.

This problem had dogged Christianity from the beginning, but it reached its crisis in the wars of religion attending the Protestant Reformation. If, as those brutal conflicts suggested, there could no longer be agreement among Christians as to God’s laws or whose right it was to interpret them, then there could not be peace among human congregations either. The only way out of this dilemma was to cut the Gordian knot by rejecting political theology as such. The Great Separation, then, was that of politics and theology. No longer would God and his presumed vicars exercise political authority: “Discourse about political authority based on a revealed divine nexus” was out; merely human or rational deliberation about such authority was in.

The protagonist of this first part of The Stillborn God is Hobbes, whom Lilla presents with vigor and sympathy. Hobbes advocated not separation and tolerance but, in effect, the subordination of church to state and of religious opinion to political surveillance. Yet this first stage of the Great Separation, precisely because it involved not separation but a new and reversed subordination that turned the tables on theology, disclosed what was really at issue here: not the emancipation of religion from politics, but that of politics from religion. Hobbes could not refute Christianity but, as Lilla puts it in one of his finest turns of phrase, “he did something more ingenious: he changed the subject.” This “changing of the subject”—from what men’s dependence on God required of them to how they could independently establish peace and good order among themselves, and from religion as divine revelation to religion considered as a merely human phenomenon—proved decisive for all that followed.

Now, it is true that this demotion of religion also lent itself in due course to quite a different institutional arrangement, less repulsive to Christians than the Hobbesian one and amenable to quite a different spin. This was “separation of church and state”, which unlike Hobbes’ statist theology, implied the equality of the two realms rather than the inversion of the previous order of subjection. The classic proponent of this arrangement was John Locke.


This arrangement did indeed shield the churches from coercive interference by the state, but it did so only on the condition that each church renounced its claim to be the church—that is, the one true Church that had the right to direct the state in coercing the other (false) churches. The churches had to become tolerant of one another as the condition of the state’s tolerance of them all. Locke thus deployed subtler and more seductive means to achieve the end he shared with Hobbes. Religion might persist and even flourish in its new guise, but this new guise required it to recognize the autonomy of secular ends and of the new representative forms of government charged with all decisions concerning them.

Lilla rightly presents the Great Separation as a sublime achievement, and his sympathies are clearly with Hobbes and Locke despite occasional criticism of them. The problem as he sees it is not that this separation occurred, but rather that it has proved unstable. True, in successful liberal democracies like those of England and the United States, religion has largely acquiesced in its new truncated status. For precisely this reason, Lilla’s focus then shifts to the Continent.

Rousseau, Kant and Hegel

Rousseau, Kant and Hegel accepted the rejection of political theology in its traditional sense as founded on claims of divine revelation. They accepted the shift of focus from revealed truth to analysis of the religious impulse conceived in psychological terms. Yet while Hobbes and those who followed him had sought to debunk that psychological impulse, Rousseau and company sought to rehabilitate it.

The difficulty, as they saw it, was that the corrosive skepticism to which their predecessors had subjected religion had also subverted morality. This grave practical error had reflected a crucial theoretical one. In their erstwhile moral realism and their explicit or implicit materialism, the early moderns had succeeded in producing a brilliant caricature of man, but not a convincing portrait of his inner life. Presenting him as a bundle of worldly passions and religion as a mere offshoot of these, they had failed to account for human dignity and for that moral seriousness with which it is inextricably linked.

Properly understood, then, man now emerged as inherently religious, not primarily (as Hobbes had thought) because he is a fearful, ignorant and ambitious being, but because he is a moral one. Morality is incomplete without God, for only He can guarantee free will and so the possibility of moral choice; only He can promise that the happiness of human beings will be proportionate to their moral worth. So while theoretical knowledge of God is beyond our ken, “practical reason” requires us to suppose His existence. Kant went beyond Rousseau (who had argued for the natural goodness of man) by positing a principle of radical evil, the overcoming of which required a muscular form of religiosity far more akin to traditional Christianity than the rational deism promoted by Rousseau.

So Rousseau and Kant each sought to do the moral/religious impulse justice—but without repudiating the Great Separation itself. Hegel, their critic and heir, went still further. For him, all knowledge was ultimately the mind’s knowledge of itself, and he recast religion as a necessary aspect of the development not only of morality but of this evolving self-knowledge. He thus repealed the Great Separation, even while accepting that religion was a merely human phenomenon, if one second in profundity only to philosophy.

Hegel’s view implied a radical elevation of the status of religion. As the mode of understanding by which ordinary human beings grasped the world and themselves within it, religion was primary for every society. The history of successive human civilizations was one of ever increasing clarity of self-understanding, culminating on the philosophical level in Hegel’s system of “absolute knowledge”, and on the religious level in liberal Protestantism. The latter thus enjoyed Hegel’s endorsement as the final, perfected stage not just of Christian religion, but of human religion as such. The perfectly rational society thus viewed itself in the mirror of the perfectly rational religion.

According to Lilla, this sanctification of liberal Protestantism proved a dubious blessing. He titles the chapter in which he discusses it “The Bourgeois God.” Hegel’s allegedly perfect reconciliation of religion and society yielded a version of religion too acquiescent in secular modernity to satisfy the human longing for redemption. Lilla offers a rich account of the century of German theological speculation following Hegel, both Christian and Jewish, with emphasis on Friedrich Schleiermacher, David Friedrich Strauss, Adolf Harnack, Ernst Troeltsch and Hermann Cohen. All in their different ways preached harmony between religion (now understood wholly humanistically) and secular liberal culture in general, German culture in particular. One result was that all of those still alive in 1914 proved avid apologists for the German war effort.

The obvious poverty of this approach provoked a reaction in the early 20th century in the form of the aggressively non-political, intransigently eschatological Protestant theology of Karl Barth and the Jewish theology of Franz Rosenzweig. Yet as Rosenzweig himself divined, even an anti-political messianism such as he interpreted Judaism to be always threatened to spill over into political life; such hopes, once fostered, were not easily contained. In this respect there was a closer kinship than first appeared between Rosenzweig’s anti-political and therefore non-Zionist Judaism and the deepest hopes animating Zionism. More to Lilla’s point, and to Barth’s deep mortification, even members of Barth’s own circle would sense the theological end of days in the rise to power of a certain Austrian-born corporal.

You may never have heard of Friedrich Gogarten and Ernst Bloch, theological apologists for Nazism and Stalinism, respectively. Lilla entitles his treatments of them “The Messiah of 1933” and “The Messiah of 1917”, respectively. They were second-rate thinkers at best. For Lilla, however, they embody the tangled and tormented legacy of the Great Separation. Having renounced the aspiration to shape politics in its image, religion is likely to fall into a sterile political conformity, on the one hand, or (by way of reaction against this) to succumb to the far more dangerous longing for redemption through politics, on the other.

“The Messiah of 1917”: Ernst Bloch [credit: © dpa/Corbis]

Lilla offers a brief conclusion summarizing his argument, and ends on a cautionary note: We disregard at our peril the fragility of the solution to the political-theological problem represented by the Great Separation. The religious impulse to remake the world is simply too strong for us to pronounce any bulwark against it entirely secure.

The early reception of The Stillborn God has been almost unanimously respectful. Christopher Hitchens himself, writing in Slate, accepts it as friendly to the cause of atheism. He mostly praises Lilla’s historical analysis but opines that he has underestimated the progress we’ve made in shaking off our godly impulses. So, similarly, Rebecca Neuberger Goldstein in the New York Times Book Review. While praising Lilla’s “illuminating historical analysis”, she muses that he might have understated his case. Noting his own continued allegiance to the Great Separation, she suggests that his emphasis on the historical contingency and specificity of this outcome has led him to underestimate its promise for human societies generally. Both Hitchens and Goldstein, then, appear closer to the Enlightenment confidence that Lilla’s “theotropic instinct” can be tamed than to Lilla’s own anxiety that it cannot.

Of the early reviewers the most challenging was George Weigel in the November 2007 Commentary. A leading conservative Catholic thinker, Weigel begins by placing the book in its polemical context, the debate over the role of religion in American public life. While acknowledging Lilla’s superiority to the Three Atheists, Weigel follows Hitchens in locating Lilla in their secularist camp.

For his part, Weigel much prefers Remi Brague’s recently translated The Law of God. Brague’s competing historical account blurs the lines drawn by Lilla, in effect denying that modernity rests so much on the Great Separation. Weigel follows Brague in casting modernity not as secular but as a blend in which Christianity predominates. Weigel denies that modernity signifies a radical rupture with the premodern and, thus, that modern (liberal, tolerant) Christianity is essentially different from its predecessor. Presenting the modern liberal doctrine of rights as the authentic voice of Catholic Christianity, he nominates Thomas Aquinas, not Thomas Hobbes, as the intellectual patron of liberal democracy.

This presumed perfect harmony between Christianity and liberal democracy would be nice work if you could get it. Lilla’s account of modernity is far more persuasive than Weigel’s. Confronted with modernity’s profound transformation of Christianity, Weigel offers the unconvincing claim that the genuine implications of Christianity had been modern all along.

In truth, St. Thomas Aquinas was neither modern, nor liberal, nor tolerant, nor egalitarian, and he was none of these things for good (premodern) Christian reasons. He remained (as Lilla correctly discerns) within the tradition of political theology. This wasn’t the least reason why the early moderns so despised both him and Scholastic philosophy generally, and why the Church clung to both for so long. Only when political theology had sunk with all hands did the Church clamber gingerly aboard the triumphantly cruising ship of modernity.

Somehow we in America have managed to clip religion’s political wings without lapsing into secularism. This is another of Weigel’s arguments, one echoed by both Peter Berkowitz and Adam Kirsch in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Sun, respectively. In his New York Times Magazine essay of August 19, 2007, Lilla describes the American balance between politics and religion as a “miracle”; as Weigel points out, it’s actually an achievement.

But is it a solid or a shaky achievement? At least one reviewer, Laura Miller in Salon, has suggested that the theological impulse, in the form of evangelical Christianity, poses the same sort of threat in America today as it did in 1930s Europe. She wonders why Lilla doesn’t press this issue. But in fact, Lilla is on firm ground in holding that America faces no such imminent threat from any Christian source. The last thing that Evangelicals seek is the repeal of the Great Separation. If there’s a plausible candidate for the erstwhile eschatological penetration of politics in the West, it’s not evangelicalism but environmentalism. It’s the Great Awakening of our day, and Al Gore is its prophet.

One of Lilla’s most eloquent passages, which in a sense summarizes his argument, comes not from The Stillborn God but from the previously mentioned New York Times Magazine piece:

Rousseau was on to something: we seem to be theotropic creatures, yearning to connect our mundane lives, in some way, to the beyond. That urge can be suppressed, new habits learned, but the challenge of political theology will never fully disappear as long as the urge to connect survives.

There’s more at stake here than even religion. Plato, while innocent of Christian theology, had a name for this “urge to connect.” It was­ eros, the longing for that relation to others and to truth that is inseparable from our intuition of the possibility of happiness. Lilla appears to agree with Plato that this “urge to connect” is both fundamental to us as human beings and expressive of what is highest in us. To be human is necessarily to aspire to drink from the wellsprings of being. If this urge is barred from the outset from finding legitimate satisfaction in modern liberal politics, isn’t this a powerful objection to such a politics?

Lilla feels the force of this argument, hence his sympathy with those German thinkers who, following Rousseau, Kant and Hegel, tried to reintroduce the longings and concerns that ordinarily express themselves as political theology. They tried to do so, however, through the back door, “humanistically”, without returning to political theology in its premodern sense. But “the stillborn God of the liberal theologians could never satisfy the messianic longings embedded in biblical faith, so it was inevitable that this idol would be abandoned in favor of a strong redeeming God when the crisis came.”

Where, then, does Lilla himself stand? Evidently, still with modern Western rationalism. Should we feel the “theotropic” urge coming on, we should just lie down until it passes. Yet on Lilla’s own evidence, it is not the kind of urge that one can nap through. “If our experiment is to work, we must rely on our own lucidity”, he advises. And even then our success at avoiding the allure of a “strong redeeming God” would depend on our society continuing to avert major crises. In other words, there are no Great Separationists in foxholes.

From a theoretical standpoint, the great lacuna in Lilla’s book is his silence concerning the most powerful critiques of that modern rationalism with which he wants us to stick. In this respect, while his argument lives at a much higher level than the shrill neo-Enlightenment posturings of Hitchens and company, it is vulnerable to a similar objection. Modern theology has always been parasitic on modern philosophy, yet Lilla charts this dependency only through Hegel and his successors, not beyond. As he well knows, the resurgence of eschatology under the Weimar Republic went hand in glove with a broader repudiation of modern rationalism as such. That repudiation retains its force today; we know its bastard progeny as postmodernism. Nothing so subverts the self-confidence of liberal secularism as the incessant reminder that its pretensions to intellectual solidity lack all foundation. Yet the three greatest critics of modern rationalism—Nietzsche, Heidegger and Leo Strauss—are all absent from The Stillborn God. In this respect, anyway, his very fine production is Hamlet without the three princes.

Clifford Orwin is professor of political science at the University of Toronto and distinguished visiting fellow and member of the Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.