Between atheism and fundamentalism: Mark Lilla’s Enlightened political theology

Last year, the New York Times published a fascinating selection from an upcoming book by Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University. The book is called The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West. The article, “The Politics of God,” is an historical look at what Lilla calls “political theology”—by which he means a politics shaped by belief in God, as represented by, say, Christian crusaders or Muslim extremists.

The article is interesting for a number of reasons, but it is perhaps most fascinating because of the way it opens a window into the mind of a post-Christian, atheist/agnostic academic who assumes a post-Christian, atheist/agnostic audience. Consider the following:
This is the language of political theology, and for millennia it was the only tongue human beings had for expressing their thoughts about political life. It is primordial, but also contemporary: countless millions still pursue the age-old quest to bring the whole of human life under God’s authority, and they have their reasons. To understand them we need only interpret the language of political theology — yet that is what we find hardest to do. Reading a letter like Ahmadinejad’s, we fall mute, like explorers coming upon an ancient inscription written in hieroglyphics.
Who is the “we” in this passage? Clearly not practicing Muslims. But it can’t be most practicing Christians and Jews, either. Or really any religious person, for that matter—those who may disagree with the views of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but who still understand the language. Lilla writes to a very particular audience, an audience composed of people like himself and his academic colleagues. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is certainly a very limited perspective. What he goes on to say is very telling:
A little more than two centuries ago we began to believe that the West was on a one-way track toward modern secular democracy and that other societies, once placed on that track, would inevitably follow. Though this has not happened, we still maintain our implicit faith in a modernizing process and blame delays on extenuating circumstances like poverty or colonialism. This assumption shapes the way we see political theology, especially in its Islamic form — as an atavism requiring psychological or sociological analysis but not serious intellectual engagement. Islamists, even if they are learned professionals, appear to us primarily as frustrated, irrational representatives of frustrated, irrational societies, nothing more. We live, so to speak, on the other shore.
What is this “other shore”? Who, again, is the “we”? Apparently, the “we” sees religious societies as “irrational,” in contrast to an apparently “rational West.” The assumption here is that reason and Enlightenment have saved us from the irrational, frustrated tendencies of a religiously grounded politics. (Somewhere, William Cavanaugh is writing a book in response—or already has.)

We cannot stop here. The article keeps going (and going), and there is much to ponder, most of which I cannot discuss here. Lilla begins the second section (“The Great Separation”) with the question: “Why is there political theology?” This is a real question for him. In a preliminary attempt to answer this question, Lilla offers a typical phenomenological, socio-historical definition of theology: “Theology is, after all, a set of reasons people give themselves for the way things are and the way they ought to be. So let us try to imagine how those reasons might involve God and have implications for politics.” Despite the etymology, theology is not necessarily about God, he says. It’s really just about the human search for meaning and understanding in the world, and for some, that just so happens to include God. It seems clear that Lilla does not see any distinction between theology as a discipline and religion as a socio-historical entity. Or, rather, theology is simply an articulation of what takes place in religion. There is no critical distance between theology and religion for Lilla, which only goes to show that he hasn’t read much theology. He then offers this imaginative explanation for how humankind began to posit a deity:

Imagine human beings who first become aware of themselves in a world not of their own making. Their world has unknown origins and behaves in a regular fashion, so they wonder why that is. They know that the things they themselves fashion behave in a predictable manner because they conceive and construct them with some end in mind. They stretch the bow, the arrow flies; that is why they were made. So, by analogy, it is not difficult for them to assume that the cosmic order was constructed for a purpose, reflecting its maker’s will. By following this analogy, they begin to have ideas about that maker, about his intentions and therefore about his personality. In taking these few short steps, the human mind finds itself confronted with a picture, a theological image in which God, man and world form a divine nexus.
It’s hard to tell whether Lilla is just speculating for the sake of argument, or whether he honestly thinks this is the sole basis for the idea of God. Either way, it is simply a watered-down version of the teleological argument. Nothing new or surprising here, but also nothing that Christian theologians themselves have not already critiqued. Lilla just shows how impoverished his own imagination really is. He follows his imaginative explanation with the following:
In taking these few short steps, the human mind finds itself confronted with a picture, a theological image in which God, man and world form a divine nexus. Believers have reasons for thinking that they live in this nexus, just as they have reasons for assuming that it offers guidance for political life. But how that guidance is to be understood, and whether believers think it is authoritative, will depend on how they imagine God. If God is thought to be passive, a silent force like the sky, nothing in particular may follow. 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 reveal something man cannot fully know on his own. This revelation then becomes the source of his authority, over nature and over us, and we have no choice but to obey him and see that his plans are carried out on earth. That is where political theology comes in.
Lilla is at least right about this one thing: how we understand God will affect how we engage in politics. But his analysis is so crude and overly simplistic that it’s laughable. Apparently, God is either a passive object in the heavens (Deism) or an active tyrant who bends all creation to an omnipotent will (hyper-Calvinism). Either political theology appeals to God as a kind of benevolent afterthought, or it appeals to God as the basis for some wacked-out fundamentalist jihad. Lilla is a walking example of how we are still squarely in modernity. He throws around binary oppositions like sledgehammers, leveling all complexity and nuance standing in his way. Certainly, not all scholars of politics and theology are like Lilla, just as all atheists are not as dimwitted as Richard Dawkins. But that is little consolation. Apparently, someone thinks he is worth reading and listening to.

In the end, Mark Lilla serves as a model for how not to think about political theology. If this embarrassing selection from his new book is any indication, we are desperately in need of scholars who will present cogent counter-arguments, demonstrating that we are not limited to a choice between modern Enlightenment atheism and radical fundamentalism. As Barth would say, there is a “third way”—at the very least! Thank God for that.

For more by Mark Lilla, see “Coping with Political Theology” (Cato Unbound).


Anonymous said…
The Immanent Frame was discussing this book extensively some time ago. Here's a link to all posts on The Stillborn God. I recall that James K.A. Smith and Charles Taylor made some particularly insightful criticisms. Lilla himself has several responses too.

That aside, you make some good remarks about the dubious "we" with which Lilla assumes that, more or less, sensible Westerners believe the secularization thesis about the disappearing of religion. I wonder what he'd say to Charles Taylor's thorough debunking of that myth?

Taylor's own review of Lilla says that Lilla's "broader narrative is hard to grasp, and seems to verge at times on the fantastic." Which, translated into the vernacular means "what the hell is Lilla smoking?"
John Roberson said…
Thanks for writing your blog. I always enjoy it.
Anonymous said…
Wow, I thought I had heard good reviews of this book. Thanks for raising some of the major problems.

You mentioned Cavanaugh, yes, he is just finishing a book on religion and violence. I've been doing some editing of it and preparing the manuscript for OUP. I'd guess it will be out early next year.
Moses Gunner said…
I would highly suggest for you, and any one else interested to read the book ""The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions." by self-professed secular Jew and mathematics/philosophies teacher David Berlinski.
This tells the story of a Jew who was forced to dig his own grave prior to being shot by a German soldier. Prior to being shot, the old Jewish man advised the German that “God is watching what you are doing.” The Jewish gentleman pointed what i think is the real problem with atheism. "If you have the time please check the book out