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[url=http://www.truthdig.com/arts_culture/item/20071220_zachary_karabell_on_mark_lillas_the_stillborn_god/]Zachary Karabell on Mark Lilla’s ‘The Stillborn God’
One of the bedrock assumptions of our society is that we have, after centuries of struggle, finally achieved an enviable balance that allows individuals to have their own religious beliefs but does not permit religion to dictate public life and thereby enflame passions and generate deadly conflict. That balance was hardly easy to create, and only after many years of two steps forward and one step back did we in the West finally—supposedly—arrive at the right formula. But arrive we did, says Mark Lilla in “The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West,” his provocative, passionate essay on what he calls “the Great Separation.”
With the rise of a virulent strain of radical fundamentalism in the Muslim world, that separation is being assailed, and we seem bewildered that anyone could argue against it. Lilla, however, contends that it is not the fundamentalists—Muslim, Christian and Jewish —who are seeing the world askew; it is Western culture and its defenders. “We must remind ourselves,” he writes, “that we are living in an experiment, that we are the exceptions. We have little reason to expect other civilizations to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique theological-political crisis within Christendom.” In short, Lilla believes that we> have gotten one thing utterly wrong: We are not us. We are them. We are not the rule; we are the exception.
The rule for Lilla is a blurring of the political and theological that has defined most societies from time immemorial and Western society for most of recorded history until only recently. Since the dawn of Christianity, there has been a deep confusion in Western society about what constitutes a good society, and Lilla astutely highlights what he sees as the limitations of the New Testament in not “articulating a clear, coherent picture of the good Christian political order.” Although full of moral guidance, the New Testament is indeed vague about how society should be structured, perhaps because most of those who penned its text believed that the end of days was near and hence that it would be a waste of time thinking too much about how to construct an ideal political society in this world. The result, however, was endless war and tension between different groups in what became Europe.
Lilla is a historian of ideas, and his book is primarily an intellectual history of the thinkers who confronted the problem of never-ending wars of theology and who sought a solution and an escape. Lilla’s hero in this endeavor is Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century English philosopher who looked at the wreckage caused by theological conflict and offered a radical solution: structure society around man’s nature, not on God’s. And that nature isn’t pretty. For Hobbes, “the reason human beings in war commit acts no animal would commit is, paradoxically, because they believe in God. Animals fight only to eat or reproduce; men fight to get into heaven.” Because humans need someone to follow absolutely, Hobbes suggested that they follow not God, whose will is mysterious when applied to politics, but rather an absolute ruler, “an earthly God.”
From Hobbes, Lilla then charts the intellectual peregrinations of thinkers as varied as Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Karl Barth. Some are more familiar than others, but the book as a whole is a sophisticated series of essays on the way these thinkers slowly erected a wall between theology and politics and inexorably built the foundations for a society predicated not on God’s will but on human action and human thought
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