spacer image
spacer image

Welcome! You're looking at an archived Snarkmarket entry. We've got a fresh look—and more new ideas every day—on the front page.

August 19, 2007

<< The Global Warming Gold Rush | Meta-Politics >>

Pragmatism, Politics, and God

Stop reading this post right now and go read Mark Lilla’s stunning NYT Mag article adapted from his forthcoming book. The past year has seen a horde of devout atheists — Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris — gathering arms against religion and its place in the civic sphere. But no matter how they title their books, Harris et al aren’t speaking to a Christian nation, but to a small subset of fellow thinkers. Lilla’s scholarship as summarized in this article feels like the scaffold for a bridge between the staunch secularists and the political theologists. Put him in a room with Reza Aslan, and you have the makings of a serious conversation, one that might begin to answer the question, “How do we live together?” Much better than this beautiful-but-doomed dialogue, at least.

Are you really still reading my rambling? GO READ LILLA. Then read No god but God. (Then read Rousseau’s “Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar,” which I’d never heard of until reading Lilla’s piece. It’s fantastic.) Then get into a conversation with an open-minded person on the opposite side of the secularist/theologist divide.

Posted August 19, 2007 at 12:45 | Comments (8) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Snarkpolitik, Society/Culture


I don't think I knew you were a No god but God fan, Matt. I also love it; one of the few books in recent memory I've read twice. Reza Aslan is also a terrific speaker.

Oops, sorry, I am supposed to be reading Lilla right now...

Mark Lilla is like David Brooks if he'd wandered into academia instead of journalism: the same rough set of intellectual references, the same not-quite-articulated politics, the same frustrating habits and moments of insight.

If you think about it, what do you really know about political theology after you've read this article? You know a fair amount about Hobbes and Rousseau, a little less about a handful of other Western figures (Locke, Kant, Hegel, Buber, maybe Augustine), and not much more than a sound bite about everyone else. Karl Barth? Greatest theologian ever. Ernst Bloch? Commie. A bunch of other Germans? Nazis. There's no meat there, no sense of an engagement with their writings or personality; it's just a catalog of names.

But this really hurts Lilla's argument when he's talking about Muslim thinkers. First, Islamic political thought apparently has no history, or no history worth considering, which would be news to a lot of scholars of just this field. If it's so important to know how Anglo-American thought reached the present, wouldn't it be important to know how bin Laden, Ahmadinejad, etc., got here as well?

Also, if the contemporary theologians/political theorists Abou El Fadl and Ramadan are so important, why not give them the same treatment as Hobbes and Rousseau? Instead, Lilla throws up a wall of ignorance -- they "speak a strange tongue, even when promoting changes we find worthy; their reasons are not our reasons" -- rather than letting them speak with their own voice or trying to make them understood.

In short, I am totally skeptical as to whether the information in this article would be useful to have a conversation about anything -- unless that conversation began: "Have you ever read Rousseau's Emile? No? Me either." :-)

Man, I hope my strong take didn't totally kill this thread. Somebody, argue with me -- please!

I totally read Emile.

Don't worry, Tim! I'm totally coming back to argue.

While Matt musters his forces, I'll offer a few defenses of Lilla's approach, even if I have to admit that Tim's charges on the idea-catalog quality of the piece are right on.

For one: it isn't damning that Lilla doesn't engage more with Muslim political thinkers. I think this article has to be read as an attempt to begin a series. Lilla seems to think that were he to simply start taking Islamic political theology seriously he would be laughed off the page. The "Great Separation" (which he overplays) would prevent his fellow intellectuals from seeing any sense in the content. And what is worse, the idea that political theology is somehow associated with less-developed societies might make his fellow intellectuals take political theology as evidence only of backwardness.

So Lilla tries to show that the relative absence of political theological thought in Europe, which others have claimed to be the inevitable result of social and economic development, is a historically odd occurrence of recent origin. That catalog of great thinkers is there mostly, I guess, to make political theology respectable as a tradition and to suggest that it is not just for non-thinkers.

My problem with this is that in bending over backward to give political theology a fine pedigree, Lilla ignores most of the places where political theology has really had an impact. I'm taking about among the collected clergy and laity, who have been tossing around these ideas for a long time and with at least as great an effect as that of Hegel.

Lilla also doesn't help himself in organizing his piece. When he talks about America, he invokes it only as an oddity in the developed world. Yet: doesn't it seem odd to make one of the largest and most powerful developed countries into an exception? Why should secular Europe be the norm, when religious America is there? Lilla's point would be stronger if he made a more incisive critique of the notion that social and economic development necessarily mean the devaluation of religious thought. I sense, though, that that is a bigger dog than he wants to provoke.

BTW, I totally forgot to issue my defense of Lilla.

RE: Lilla's not-quite-articulated politics. I dunno, I felt as though I got an impressively straightforward summation of Lilla's feelings on how we ought to proceed vis--vis religion in the Western public sphere. The reason I brought up Aslan is that Lilla seems to be making the exact same argument to a primarily Judeo-Christian and secondarily secular audience that Aslan made to a primarily Islamic and secondarily Western audience.

Aslan's prologue calls No god but God a call for reform in Islam. His appeal to the Islamic audience is for a reconsideration of the historical principles and ideals of Islam that allowed the religion to sit side-by-side with rational government for centuries. The interpretations of the Q'uran that give aid and succor to extremists such as bin Laden are merely that -- interpretations -- and they often contradict the Q'uran's ideals as manifest in Muhammad's own life. To the extent Aslan is speaking to a Western audience, he's explaining that bin Laden et. al are more the product of a war within Islam than a war on the West, and that the historical core of Islam shares a strong commonality with the ideals of Western religions. That Islam, as rationally interpreted, is as hospitable (or intermittently inhospitable) to democracy as Christianity is.

Lilla's got two different constituencies and pitches his argument in a different way. I suspect that many of the weaknesses Dan and Tim saw in this essay are the result of his having adapted a section of his book. The available evidence indicates that most of The Stillborn God doesn't address Islam at all -- it's subtitled "Religion, Politics and the Modern West" -- but I'm guessing the editors at the NYT thought the Islam angle would be a more gripping hook for their audience than Nazi Germany. Tim, that may be why you were troubled by his lack of engagement with Islamic political theology -- it's not what the essay or the book is about, even if he uses it as a lead-in.

In general, I didn't see the essay as a defense or even a philosophical exploration of political theology, but more of a history -- Lilla's specialty is the history of ideas. Sure, his engagement with the ideas of these thinkers is somewhat superficial; he's much more interested in the effects of those ideas.

My love for this essay comes from what I saw as a careful balancing act to calibrate his message for two recently hostile audiences. To his primary audience, the open-minded, casually religious Westerner, Lilla is pointing out that the centuries-long cease-fire between secularists and theologists in the West is a relatively recent and extremely tenuous historical accident. If history is any indication, he explains, religion and governance will always continue to intertwine, and the religious among us have a special debt to ensure the tension between the two doesn't get out of hand.

To his secondary audience, the Dennett/Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris crowd, Lilla lays out his sympathies. They think we should be beyond all this religious claptrap, that we're sufficiently evolved to leave religion behind. To an extent, so does Lilla. But again, he argues, if we look to history as a guide, religion is too seductive and all-encompassing a phenomenon to stay segregated from governance for very long. We are naturally "theotropic," inclined toward an idea of God. So our attention should be on managing the intrusion of religion into politics, not on stamping out that intrusion altogether.

I appreciate this argument because it seems much more nuanced than the atheist approaches of the last year. (Especially Harris' "even if you're a religious moderate, you're complicit in the worst excesses of the extremists" approach.) It's something both a rational-minded religionist and a conciliation-seeking secularist could agree on. Hitchens thinks the repression of secularist thought is as responsible as any natural inclination we have towards religion for its continued ascendancy, and that's fair, but I think Lilla makes a cogent case otherwise.

That's a strong defense, Matt. But even if we say that Lilla is giving a history of political theology in the West, there's still a lot that's lacking in his account. After the 17th century, he moves so fast -- and is so superficial/dismissive towards the thinkers he mentions -- that you don't really understand what the post-Enlightenment afterlife of religion and politics in the West looks like.

This is what I found lacking in his mention of Barth and Bloch, and Dan found lacking in his glossing over of the post-Hegelian religious lit. And as it happens, it's also the problem with his 2001 book, The Reckless Mind. Lilla has a bad (but not at all uncommon) habit of treating a thinker's politics as a kind of contamination -- often by misunderstanding much of what they really said and did, and almost always without empathy for the political and intellectual universe that others had to live in.

spacer image
spacer image