The Magazine

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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In Hegel's grand and optimistic historical design, the 19th-century German state, with its prosperous and cultivated middle class and its theologically liberal German Protestantism focused on the cultivation of virtues beneficial to life in the here and now, represented a kind of culmination of social and individual progress.

Lilla's discussion of the works of these three philosophers, while lucid and eloquent, is quite detailed--indeed, far more detailed than it ought to be for essentially preliminary material. As Lilla slowly works his way through a lengthy summary of the Critique of Pure Reason to a lengthy summary of the Critique of Practical Reason, the reader might be forgiven for thumbing through the pages ahead, groaning at the prospect that the long chapter on Kant will be followed by an equally long chapter on Hegel, and wondering when on earth Lilla will cut to the chase. It is not until page 226, in fact, that Lilla finally gets to the ostensible subject of his book: those liberal German theologians of the 19th and early 20th centuries who were profoundly influenced by Hegel.

Those theologians are grossly understudied these days, which is unfortunate because the theories about the Bible and Christian history asserted by Troeltsch and Harnack, in particular, became, and in some ways still remain, standard theological fare in mainline Protestant seminaries throughout the West, especially in America. Lilla, however, running out of space in a book with only 309 pages of text, can spare just 25 pages for the whole lot of them. He also tends to slight other influences upon liberal theology besides Kantian and Hegelian philosophy, namely the twin rises of scientific rationalism and the German research university, which conferred great prestige upon German thinking but also made it seem necessary for every academic discipline (including theology) to become a form of Wissenschaft.

At any rate, Lilla argues that the liberal Germans of the 19th century resurrected political theology (albeit in a "weak" and "complacent" form) from the grave in which it had lain since Hobbes effected the Great Separation. As Lilla writes in one of his most eloquent and perceptive passages:

The God of the Old Testament moved mysteriously over the deep and called the nations to repentance; the liberal God shuffled methodically through human history, re-arranging things as he went. The Jesus of the New Testament did not bring peace, but a sword; the liberal Jesus brought books and sheet music. The Christian Redeemer died on a cross; the liberal one survived as a good Bürger reconciled to modern German life.

Liberal Protestants assimilated their beliefs to the mores of the cultural elite, while liberal Jews assimilated their beliefs to liberal Protestantism.

Eventually 19th-century liberal religion proved to be thin gruel even for progressive-minded Germans (the counterreaction, contra Lilla, actually began well before World War I, with, among other things, Albert Schweitzer's evisceration of the pallid Christology of the liberals in his Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906). It is here, with a discussion of two towering forces in the 20th-century counter-movement, the neo-Orthodox theologian Karl Barth on the Christian side and the existentialist/mystical philosopher Franz Rosenzweig on the Jewish side, that Lilla's argument becomes most tortured.

His premise is that the 19th-century liberals, in resuscitating political theology, opened a Pandora's box out of which eventually flew all the evils of religious passion that Hobbes had identified and sought to suppress and that liberal Protestantism had deemed passé: messianic longings, eschatological violence, desire for immediate redemption, and so on. In other words, Lilla argues, the blame for those twin political nightmares of the 20th century, National Socialism and Marxism-Leninism, can be laid squarely at the feet of--Christianity, or rather, theologians who believed that the Christian Bible was more than a collection of uplifting platitudes.

Lilla does realize that this argument contains some problems. Barth, after all, drafted the Barmen Declaration of 1934, which invoked distinctly unliberal grounds (the sovereignty of Jesus Christ) to condemn the Protestant churches' acquiescence to state-sanctioned anti-Semitism, and Rosenzweig was resolutely apolitical, writing of the Jews as "the eternal people" in their witness to the law of God. Furthermore, it was the liberal German churchmen, with their feeble theology, who went along with Hitler's promise to restore prewar German glory, and a Barmen signer, Dietrich Bonhöffer, who was martyred by the Nazis. Nonetheless, Lilla is eager to demonstrate that the rise of 20th-century totalitarianism was somehow connected to a "backsliding" into "political theology," so he casts about and manages to come up with two theologians (or quasi-theologians) to shoehorn into his paradigm: Friedrich Gogarten, an antiliberal German Christian intellectual who actually did support Hitler, and the ethnically Jewish Ernst Bloch, an atheist and Marxist who believed that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures presented a blueprint for Communist revolution.

Clearly implicit in this book is the premise that we, too, in the 21st-century West, face the ever-present threat of "backsliding" into religiously driven totalitarianism--especially, although Lilla is too sophisticated a writer to say this, with You Know Who at the American presidential helm.

"We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible's messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good," writes Lilla.

Well, maybe, if you are a secular political liberal who thinks that there is nothing scarier than believing Christians at the ballot box. There is, indeed, a live and worldwide threat of a religious totalitarianism that seeks to engulf the West and obliterate its civilization, but unfortunately for Mark Lilla, it does not come from those who believe that the Bible is the eternal word of God.

Charlotte Allen is the author, most recently, of The Human Christ.