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?

This, too, is highly promising material. The problem lies in Lilla's execution. To begin with, there is his unstated and unexamined fundamental premise: that political theology--the effort to build and govern human societies according to the principles taught by one's faith--is a Very Bad Thing. And by "political theology" Lilla specifically means Christian political theology. His use of that politically loaded word "theocracies" (with its behind-the-scenes specter, Bush the Evangelical Bogeyman) is the giveaway. Lilla never bothers to engage any actual works of Christian political theology: not Augustine's City of God, not Thomas Aquinas's disquisitions on natural law, not the "mirrors of princes" that proliferated during the Middle Ages, not Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms, not even Calvin's Institutes, which formed the basis for some of the very few genuine theocracies in the long history of Christianity.

Instead, Lilla combines broad and dubious generalizations about inherent contradictions he sees in the Christian religion that make it particularly susceptible to bad political thinking and, hence, violence--Christ's entering, and then abruptly leaving, the world, engendering dangerous apocalyptic longings for his Second Coming; a plethora of complex doctrines about the Incarnation and Trinity that generated a plethora of heresies and heresy-hunters; and the paradox that Christians are supposed to be not of this world yet, after the rise of Constantine, became the world's rulers--with potted history. (Like Fukuyama, Lilla tends to confuse the history of philosophy with actual historical events.)

In Lilla's historical scheme, the "conflicts rooted in the deepest ambiguities of Christian revelation" came to a head in the religious wars of the Reformation and its aftermath. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Lilla avers, "Christians hunted and killed Christians with a maniacal fury once reserved for Muslims, Jews, and heretics alone." (This is a sentence worth unpacking for its revelations about its author's prejudices, since Christian violence against Jews was real enough but quite sporadic, and as for "Muslims"--a religious group with a distinct "political theology" that is mostly ignored in this book--it was Islam that, having systematically obliterated the Christian civilizations of the Near East and North Africa, constituted the single most aggressive threat to the survival of Christian Western Europe from the seventh through the 17th centuries.)

At any rate, ignoring the efforts of at least some Christian rulers and Christ-ian societies during and after the Reformation to devise policies that would stanch the sectarian bloodshed--the Peace of Augsburg, the Edict of Nantes, the Swiss Federation, the North American colonies with their religious freedoms--Lilla writes, "The greatest lesson was that entering into the logic of political theology in any form leads into a dead end, and that none of its twisting paths issued out into a decent political life for human beings."

And so we come to (and if you took Political Science 101 in college, you have already guessed it) Thomas Hobbes, godfather of the modern secular state. Hobbes had little use for religion in any form and believed that human beings were chiefly motivated by desire for pleasure and fear of calamity, and so they invented gods and then one God to be supplicated so as to avoid the latter and maximize the former. Hobbes was the author of what Lilla calls the Great Separation: the idea that political philosophy could be divorced from religious claims and cater strictly to human psychology and its pleasure-pain nexus. Once Hobbes spoke, and influenced a variety of other political theorists, including Locke, Montesquieu, the authors of the Federalist Papers, and Tocqueville, Lilla argues, the Great Separation became a permanent and unbridgeable divide between Western modernity and the credulous, premodern past.

Later thinkers, chiefly Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, while firmly on this side of the Great Separation (that is, disbelieving in the Christian creeds, divine revelation, and the irruption of the supernatural into ordinary life), were more sympathetic toward faith than Hobbes and tended to view religion, or at least the religious impulse, as a benign psychological and cultural force. Hegel, in particular, argued that the human mind craves "absolute knowing," and that the history of religion in the West is actually a history of Western culture itself, with its various religious myths and rituals serving as reflections of a constant human striving toward deeper self-understanding.

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.

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