The Stillborn God

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Most Americans and Europeans today accept the idea that religion and politics should occupy distinct places in public life and the related idea that people who follow different religions can be citizens of the same national state. There are still some debates about the relationship between these two, concerning religious displays in governmental spaces or the acceptability of encouraging expressions of faith in state-run schools, but these debates are based on variations in shared assumptions. In The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, Mark Lilla argues that these assumptions about the distinction between theology and politics are not necessary products of increasing rationality or of modernization. Instead, tensions within the Christian tradition created a Western reaction against political theology.

Political theology, according to Lilla, involves thinking and talking about political authority as based on the divine. Christian political theology inherited tensions at the core of Christian beliefs about the world. The central article of Christianity, that God became man through Christ, set up questions about God’s nature and about the divine relationship to the world. In the Trinity, God is threefold, but one of the three parts is a transcendent deity and one of the parts is a human in the world. Is the world therefore good because God made it and came into it, or is it bad because it requires divine grace? The question of working in the world or rejecting the world therefore recurs throughout the history of Christian theology, as does the question of the nature of the Trinity. Christ came into the world apart from the Father, according to Christian beliefs, but he departed to a heavenly realm and is expected to return to Earth again at some point in the future, at which point both worlds will be reunited. Christians are continually in the position of living in this world but looking to another world, and expecting that this world will be ended. In addition, Christianity was historically an otherworldly religion that became the faith of a worldly empire. Struggles between religious and political authorities and disagreement about the true nature of the Christian state were therefore not only results of the development of competing institutions but also consequences of an unresolved problem at the heart of the faith.

The difficulty of drawing a clear line for the descent of authority from God to humanity could and did lead to violent conflict. By the sixteenth century, the religious wars had become so violent that they were tearing Europe apart. Lilla finds in Thomas Hobbes, author of the social and political treatise Levianthan (1651), the beginning of an answer to the religious crisis of Christendom. According to Lilla, Hobbes changed the nature of the political discourse about religion. Instead of asking what kind of worldly order should be derived from the divine order, Hobbes asked why human beings seek religious belief. He shifted the focus from God to humanity. Lilla makes a helpful contribution to our understanding of Hobbes by maintaining that the early modern author’s account of religion was essentially the same as his account of political order. Hobbes famously argued that governmental authority is based on fear. The struggle of all individuals for their own ends creates an insecurity that can be resolved only by handing over power to a sovereign. Similarly, though, Lilla points out that Hobbes also based his religious psychology on fear. Fear of the power of nature leads to belief in God (the religious version of raising up a sovereign), and fear of God then leads to obedience to some set of religious precepts and to efforts to impose religious precepts on others. Hobbes, in Lilla’s view, was the author of what Lilla calls the “Great Separation,” since Hobbes showed the way for talking about both politics and religion in naturalistic terms, in place of considering nature and politics from the perspective of theology. Even those, such as philosopher John Locke, who disagreed with the view of the nature of humanity presented by Hobbes tended to follow Hobbes in focusing on human experience rather than on divine order.

After Hobbes forced faith and authority apart, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant brought them back together, but in a manner that had been...

(The entire section is 1782 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Commentary 124, no. 4 (November, 2007): 60-65.

Commonweal 134, no. 18 (October 26, 2007): 32-34.

The Humanist 68, no. 1 (January/February, 2008): 45-46.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (September 16, 2007): 9.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 27 (July 9, 2007): 49-50.

Weekly Standard 13, no. 14 (December 17, 2007): 39-42.