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The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern Westby Mark Lilla
Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One: The Crisis
The kingdom of God is among you.
--LUKE 17: 21
My kingdom is not of this world,
--JOHN 18: 36
The revolt against political theology in the West was directed against a Christian tradition of thought. It began, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as a local dispute involving a particular faith and a few kingdoms in a small corner of the globe. Yet its implications proved far-reaching, for the West and for any nation that has tried to absorb Western politica ideas in the modern era. Something unprecedented happened in the polemical battle between Christian political theology and its modern adversary; an authentically new way of treating political questions, free from disputes over divine revelation, was born. What was it about the Christian tradition that provoked such a profound intellectual challenge to the way societies had always conceived of political life? That is the first question we must address. However progressive our modern political ideas may appear, they were forged in a backward looking struggle against an archaic tradition of political thought stretching back to the dawn of civilization. Christian political theology was just one expression of that tradition, and a uniquely unstable one.
God, Man, World
Why is there political theology? The question echoes quietly throughout the history of Western thought, beginning in Greek and Roman antiquity and continuing down to our day. But generally it has been interpreted in terms of another question, which is why human beings believe in gods.
Western theories about the genesis and nature of religious belief are numerous, and we will have occasion to examine some ofthem in detail. Yet we need to recognize that they address the question of political theology only obliquely. Religious faith is a necessary but insufficient condition for the development of political theology. It is possible for an individual or entire civilization to hold beliefs about God without those beliefs being translated into political ideas. Just as there are religions without theologies, so there are religions without political theologies. So we must ask ourselves: Why do certain religious beliefs get translated into doctrines about political life? What reasons do people give for appealing to God in their political thought?
Understanding reasons is the key to understanding political theology. Most theories of religion, ancient and modern, have adopted a third-person perspective on belief: religion is something that happens to human beings, arising out of ignorance and fear or as a mythical expression of a society's collective consciousness. But political theology is a way of thinking; it is an activity, not a psychological state. Subjectively viewed, religion is a choice, perhaps even a rational choice, for individuals and societies. We all face the implicit alternative between living in light of what we take to be divine revelation, or living in some other way. Infinite choice is not actually available in every historical circumstance, this we know. But we also know that since time immemorial human beings have speculated and argued about the divine; that they have changed their beliefs and their societies on the basis of those arguments; and that at certain junctures they have confronted intellectual alternatives to theological argument. We do not live in an
A study of political theology examines the relationship between religion and politics throughout Western history, as well as the influence of political theology on the evolution of Western thought and the sometimes dangerous repercussions of connecting politics to religion. Reprint. 20,000 first printing.
Mark Lilla is Professor of Humanities and Religion at Columbia University. He was previously Professor at the Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago. A noted intellectual historian and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, he is the author of The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics and G.B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern. He lives in New York City.
Table of Contents
The crisis — The great separation — The ethical God — The bourgeois God — The well-ordered house — The redeeming God — The stillborn God — Afterword to the Vintage ed.
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