Mark Lilla, professor of the humanities at Columbia University explores political theology in an essay in The New York Times adapted from his upcoming book The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West. He believes there is huge gap between those who believe that there is a one-way track toward modern secular democracy and that other societies, once placed on that track, will inevitably follow; and those who see political institutions conceived in terms of divine authority and spiritual redemption.
The twilight of the idols has been postponed. For more than two centuries, from the American and French Revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity — these were the questions that divided us. Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.
Understanding this difference is the most urgent intellectual and political task of the present time. But where to begin? The case of contemporary Islam is on everyone’s mind, yet is so suffused with anger and ignorance as to be paralyzing. All we hear are alien sounds, motivating unspeakable acts. If we ever hope to crack the grammar and syntax of political theology, it seems we will have to begin with ourselves. The history of political theology in the West is an instructive story, and it did not end with the birth of modern science, or the Enlightenment, or the American and French Revolutions, or any other definitive historical moment. Political theology was a presence in Western intellectual life well into the 20th century, by which time it had shed the mind-set of the Middle Ages and found modern reasons for seeking political inspiration in the Bible. At first, this modern political theology expressed a seemingly enlightened outlook and was welcomed by those who wished liberal democracy well. But in the aftermath of the First World War it took an apocalyptic turn, and “new men” eager to embrace the future began generating theological justifications for the most repugnant — and godless — ideologies of the age, Nazism and Communism.
It is an unnerving tale, one that raises profound questions about the fragility of our modern outlook. Even the most stable and successful democracies, with the most high-minded and civilized believers, have proved vulnerable to political messianism and its theological justification. If we can understand how that was possible in the advanced West, if we can hear political theology speaking in a more recognizable tongue, represented by people in familiar dress with familiar names, perhaps then we can remind ourselves how the world looks from its perspective. This would be a small step toward measuring the challenge we face and deciding how to respond.
Read it all here