The Stillborn God?

Today’s New York Times Book Review includes a review of a fascinating book by Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University, that examines the persistence of faith in the Western world after the enlightenment. Here are highlights from the review:

Some of us have been taking the European Enlightenment a little bit for granted. We’ve assumed that, just as natural philosophers like Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler ultimately prevailed in overturning the geocentric model of Ptolemaic cosmology, so, too, moral philosophers like Hobbes, Spinoza and Locke ultimately prevailed in removing ideas of divine revelation and redemption from politics. Progress in both spheres, the scientific and the political, was not only analogous and linked, but also, in some sense, inevitable, at least once rigorous standards of clear thinking were adopted. Let people freely and rationally pursue physics, and eventually they’d draw the conclusion that the Earth moves. Let people freely and rationally think about how best to organize human society — with a view toward diminishing turmoil and augmenting the realization of individual potential — and eventually they’d separate church and state. We’ve assumed the matter has been thankfully settled, at least in the Western intellectual tradition. No wonder, then, that recent years have brought a spate of incredulous “neo-Enlightenment” books — along the lines of Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great” — all of them barely able to contain their dismay that they even have to be arguing what it is they are arguing.

The sophisticated story that Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University, presents in “The Stillborn God” adds nuance and complexity to the intellectual account we tell about the West’s thinking on religion and politics, and how it managed to separate (sort of) the one from the other. Lilla wants to challenge the view that the “Great Separation” — the prying apart of political theories from theology — was analogous to, say, the Copernican Revolution, that it constituted a discovery at which those thinking well would eventually arrive and that, once discovered, was secured in intellectual history’s linear progress.

In Lilla’s telling there was, first of all, nothing inevitable about the Great Separation. In fact, it is political theology that comes most naturally to us: “When looking to explain the conditions of political life and political judgment, the unconstrained mind seems compelled to travel up and out: up toward those things that transcend human existence, and outward to encompass the whole of that existence. … The urge to connect is not an atavism.”

Indeed, this urge is so irresistible, Lilla argues, that only highly unusual circumstances can compel us to give it up. Those unusual circumstances were provided by Christian theology — but not, as some recent religious apologists have argued, because the Judeo-Christian framework itself promotes rationality and tolerance. Rather, it is Christianity’s own fundamental ambiguities — torn between a picture of God as both present and absent from the temporal realm, an ambivalence powerfully represented by the paradoxes of the Trinity — that made it “uniquely unstable,” subject to a plurality of interpretations that became institutionalized in sectarianism, and hence to several centuries’ worth of devastating upheaval.

. . .

And what was the Enlightenment’s proffered cure? It was to translate questions about religion into psychological and anthropological questions. The problem was changed from “What does God want from us?” to “Why is man constantly asking what it is that God wants from us?” The thinker most centrally responsible for this interrogative substitution was the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and the answer he gives is: because man is a frightened ignoramus. Knowing enough to be terrified of his own mortality but knowing little else about objective nature and thus understandably alarmed, man creates an omnipotent being who can be supplicated and obeyed, a conception that then ends up tormenting him with new fear. Religion, Hobbes thought, comes from a dark place in the psyche.

Lilla makes it clear that he believes Hobbes’s thinking on the religious impulse to be both historically pivotal and psychologically simplistic. More important, he argues that influential thinkers like Rousseau, Kant and Hegel agree with him. The religious impulse isn’t merely a matter of man’s cringing self-protective fear; it can also be an expansive response toward the universe, morality and freedom, and a strain of post-Enlightenment thinking, featuring thinkers of the caliber of Kant, struggled to do justice to religion’s expansive aspects.

Read it all here (subscription may be required).

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