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Look Out Below

Religion remains the opiate of the masses, according to Mark Lilla.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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The Stillborn God

Religion, Politics, and the Modern West

by Mark Lilla

Knopf, 352 pp., $26

Mark Lilla could be said to be the anti-Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama's premise, expressed in his The End of History and the Last Man (1992) and numerous subsequent books and essays, is that modernity, individual liberty, Western-style free-market democracy, and a thoroughly (or almost thoroughly) secularized civil society constitute the logical final fate of every nation on earth, and if this does not currently appear to be the case in some of those nations--such as, oh, say, Iran or China or Venezuela--that is merely because powerful groups frightened of modernity, be they religious or Marxist-ideological, have constructed a few temporary, but only temporary, bumps in the road to the inevitable.

Lilla, formerly a professor in the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought (whose late Allan Bloom was, ironically, also one of Fukuyama's professors at Cornell during the 1960s) takes quite the opposite stance in this book, based on the Carlyle Lectures he delivered at Oxford in 2003. Lilla argues that such "grand ideas" as the inevitability of modernization, democratization, liberalization, and secularization are "the fairy tales of our time," comforting but utterly false, even for the West, much less for the rest of the planet. In fact, says Lilla, the chief hallmark of the modern Western worldview is its "fragility."

He writes: "The West does seem to have passed some kind of historical watershed, making it unthinkable that theocracies could spring up among us or that armed bands of religious fanatics could set off a civil war." Yet, as Lilla argues, although modern Western political philosophy can create societies marked by unprecedented material comforts and personal freedom, its studious avoidance of a religious grounding (which would be incompatible with Western liberalism, Lilla implies) fails to satisfy deep human longings for assurance and comprehensiveness, whether concerning the nature of ultimate reality or the nature of their obligations to God and to each other.

This means that religiously agnostic Western societies, far from being durable and universal paradigms for the modernizing non-West, are by their very nature highly unstable, ever vulnerable to collapse as their inhabitants, yearning to make sense of the world around them, constantly yield to the temptation to turn to "political theology"--which Lilla defines as "discourse about political authority based on a revealed divine nexus"--as a substitute for the God-neutral political philosophy of the modern West that (at least on paper) allows people of disparate beliefs and moral values to live together in peace, but cannot speak to the questions that are most important to them.

This is a fascinating, if not exactly original, premise, and Lilla attempts to substantiate it with an equally fascinating historical case study: The birth, life, and death of liberal Protestantism and Judaism in 19th- and early 20th-century Germany. Progressive-thinking German theologians in both religions (Friedrich Schleiermacher, Ernst Troeltsch, Adolph von Harnack, Hermann Cohen, and the like), Lilla maintains, undertook to make their faiths compatible with secular liberalism by "reforming" them, typically by getting rid of all that claimed to be transcendent (such as the divinity of Christ or the fearsome, lawmaking God of the Hebrew Bible) and all that smacked of appeals to an authority higher than the mores of comfortable, prosperous, socially progressive, and intellectually skeptical 19th-century Germany.

The liberal experiment in equating one's being a good Christian or Jew with being a productive citizen of secularized German society failed spectacularly in the trenches of World War I and the charnel house that was Europe during World War II. Such was the brief history of what Lilla calls the "stillborn God," the "liberal deity" who proved "unable to inspire genuine conviction among those seeking ultimate truth." Liberal religion could not resolve this conundrum: If that is all there is to Christianity or Judaism--no truth claims, no sovereign Lord--why bother professing either faith?