Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Mark Lilla on Political Theology

Here’s a preview of Mark’s new book. It’ll be big. Mark is surely right that the God of liberalism is stillborn. But he’s surely wrong that our understanding of politics is unilluminated by revelation. How else do we know that true theology is not political or civil theology? The very phrase "political theology" seems un-American, and that’s one reason, among many, why true religion has a true home here.

The always incisive Spengler adds the complaint that Lilla doesn’t really love reason, but only hates Christianity or the Christian conception of the human person. And that explains, for example, why he identifies all religius resurgence in our country with fanatical "political theology."
Not to mention why he’s so indulgent and hopeful when it comes to Muslim "renovators."

Discussions - 11 Comments

Thanks to Ralph Hancock for telling me that I messed up the link again. All is well now.

Yes, our thanks Ralph.

Peter, I didn't have the heart to read the second page of the Spengler, b/c the first page is just so over the top--Lilla supposedly lumps Barth with the "German Christianity" crowd, Lilla is writing esoterically, etc. I also have my defenses up when it comes to Lilla and American religion, but Spengler just assumes that so much unfairness must be in the peice, that he is quite unfair to it.

Because it really is a good piece, even if later one, in the book, Lilla probably will pull out the sharp knives and go after orthodox Catholicism and Evangelicalism. But one thing at a time, and thus to the piece itself. I will never quite think of German liberal theology in the same manner, for example, and I think the juxaposition of Hobbes and Rousseau is useful, the lesson being for Lilla, that while we have to preserve Hobbes' "Great Separation" of church and state, we have to accept that Rousseau proved right about the permanence of the human religious instinct and about the the moral sterility of liberalism shorn of all religion. That is, MODERNIZATION THEORY IS/WAS/ANDEVERSHALLBE WRONG! And, yes, for the New York Times types, that has gotta be a HEADLINE. (But where, oh NYT-types, have you been for the last 30-40 years, such that you need Lilla to break you the news?)

I joke, but it remains a real service for Lilla to look today's NYT-types in the eye and tell them they're clueless about religion in politics, and particularly about Islam, because they're wed to this old liberal/modernization thesis that all that God stuff is just going to fade away

Lilla makes Spengler mad, in part, because his framing of things does make it seem nearly accidental that Karl Barth wasn't with the Nazi-friendly "German Christian" crowd. One would need to supplement what Lilla reveals about the longings of German liberal theology (in reaction to which, evanglicalism had its birth, BTW) with the observation by many writers, but most starkly and succinctly by Alain Besancon in the recent ISI book A Century of Horrors that Communism and Nazism were 1) substitute religions, and 2) that they were Jewish/Christian "apostasies," and derived much of their energy and leadership (in the Nazi case, of course, only Christian apostates need apply) from former devotees of those faiths. Lenin dared his followers to go beyond the moral categories they learned from Theism, Jewish or Christian. Indeed, this insight, would in fact overshadow the "political theology" element in any serious discussion of Nazism and Communism.

And that's just one of the many reasons, that the term "political theology" is going to prove problematic for Lilla. Peter's right--despite Lilla's strong recognition of American exceptionalism, we just know he's going to try to apply the theory here, and the term doesn't seem to capture what conservative American Christians are up to. Perhaps Lilla will admit that, since at times he does say that in America, and in Europe post-45, there has been a post-political theology era, even while obviously being worried about the fact that such an era might end. And even bigger problems arise, I think, in his trying to use this term as a bridge b/t the Muslim and Christian experiences w/ religion in politics.

Two final thoughts: 1) it isn't the case that Hobbes is the sole source of the Great Separation b/t church and state--seems to me a great teacher or otherwise said something about distinguishing what belongs to Ceaser and what doesn't--Lilla would doubt the centrality of Hobbes more if he read John Courtney Murray, and would realize even more profoundly that he already does why an Islamic Hobbes is probably impossible.

2) We really do need our secularists today to sketch a plausible scenario of their worst fears given a sustained political triumph of conservative Christian politics in America, or perhaps Poland or Russia. And that scenario, for it to be plausible, woudl have to turn on the populist political dynamics that might pervert/ruin the "natural law liberalism" of people like Robert George and Christopher Wolfe, people that, were they to rule the country, really would do a good job and treat liberals, athiest, homosexuals quite fairly, contrary to the absurd cry-Wolf stories 95% of liberals seem to tell themselves these days about Christian conservatives. But politics is deadly and dark stuff, given to extremes, as Augustine, Madison, or Calvin and Hobbes could tell you, and there really could be a future Christian Conservative Wolf that everyone ought to worry about unleashing. Here's hoping Lilla moderates himself enough in his book to give us all some wisdom about such matters.

Carl is right that Spengler is over the top, that NYT fans could learn a lot from Lilla, that Hobbes isn't the deepest source of the great separation, about Lilla and political theology, and that although fears about the future excesses of "Christian conservatives" are overblown, way overblown, it would be imprudent to regard them as completely trivial. (Natural law liberalism is itself problematic, although I'm for it.) I was hoping Spengler would produce more conversation than he has. Maybe Lilla will when we see the whole book, which, I repeat, will be big.

Tis the season for big tomes on religion and politics. Harvard UP has released Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. At over 800 pages, it looks like a big tome indeed.

In other words, it will be large, but for this very reason it won't be big.

I'm between Spengler and Carl on this one. I was particularly struck by what Lilla left out, and what he intimated rather than stated. His Hobbes is too nice, too reasonable -- and a caricature; he is not a radical individualist and materialist ("All is body.") and all around bad boy ("Monster of Marmesbury" and all that); his Rousseau is simply the Vicar, when we have a character named "Jean-Jacques" in Emile to speak for the author, not to mention "civil religion" at the end of the Social Contract; the Archbishop of Paris was right to condemn the book. There's no mention (that I recall) of Schmitt, the most famous (and infamous) exponent of "political theology" in the 20th century. And Carl said the right word about the Great Separation during l'affair Linker: the only bargain Americans have made about religion and politics is the first amendment, not Rawls. Lilla's last paragraph is pathetic, tendentious, and positively unhelpful. And finally, I don't find any evidence that Lilla has even the most elemental understanding of what genuine Christian faith is. In a field of NY "intellectuals" who are totally blind his one eye makes his a seer. But as a guide to the world and to faith and reason and politics, he's biassed and obfuscating.

Thanks to Paul for outing the whitewashing of Hobbes and Rousseau and even the origin of "political theology" for us. I especially agree with Paul's thought that LIlla's hostility to Christian thought and faith is based on ignorance.

If Lilla's Hobbes sounds more reasonable it is becuase Lilla has included the thoughts of John Locke and David Hume under this large tent. "Let us call them the children of Hobbes and the children of Rousseau." Thus it is not really Hobbes but anyone who took on a project similar to Hobbes. Lilla is taking liberties about specifics...that is probably inevitable when you classify all of political science/philosophy/political theology under two "lawgivers". It is unclear following Lilla if Kant is a child of Hobbes or Rousseau...actually Lilla makes Kant out to be Rousseau like...but Kant is awoken by Hume who in my opinion clearly belongs under the children of Hobbes tent. In fact one could ask if Kant wasn't trying to reconcile the two sets of children...and it isn't clear to me that even if Kant didn't try this that Rawls wasn't trying this. I think Lilla makes some good points...chief among these is a point that I think shows that Lilla might not disagree with paul seaton. Paul says that "I don't find any evidence that Lilla has even the most elemental understanding of what genuine Christian faith is." I don't see why Lilla would disagree.

"If liberalizers are apologists for religion at the court of modern life, renovators stand firmly within their faith and reinterpret political theology so believers can adapt without feeling themselves to be apostates." In this sense Lilla is a liberalizer while Paul is a renovator. Lilla has a Hobbesian stake in the matter...while Paul has a more existential one.

And again to say the same thing: "By speaking from within the community of the faithful, renovators give believers compelling theological reasons for accepting new ways as authentic reinterpretations of the faith."

As I recall, Lilla wrote an autobiographical piece for the NYT Mag some time ago. He seems to have gone through a Pentecostal Jesus Freak phase during his teens, if memory serves.

The book is better balanced than the article, although it's just not as good as I'd imagined it would be. It's written against political theology (and so against the naive and superficial thinking that prepared the way for its 20th c. revival), and the only credible alternative is presented as political philosophy. The possibility of a third alternative--such as theology that's not political theology--is dismissed without much of an argument.

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