An intellectual history (that needs more context) written for a wide audience

The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern WestThe Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West by Mark Lilla

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Stillborn God was a fascinating read. Lilla traces Western thought from the early modern period to the 1930s, identifying two broad schools of thought. The first begins with Thomas Hobbes and his argument that religion is completely subjective and therefore cannot be used as a basis for politics. Lilla sees in this the modern Anglo-American separation of church and state and the secular basis for political thought and policy. While Hobbes himself was an absolutist, others like Locke made a case for a more liberal and secular order.

On the other hand, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that religion stemmed from what was good in man, even if it was still subjective. From here, Lilla narrates the intellectual history of this idea, incorporating Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, and the liberal German theologians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The “stillborn God” of liberal theology, he argues, could not help but disappoint and produce new arguments for messianic movements like communism and Nazism.

Lilla is a clear partisan of secular politics, but also recognizes the fragility of modern liberalism: it cannot speak to ultimate things. Still, he believes, it must be guarded because of the terrible possibilities that lie outside it, whether they be the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries or the bloodbaths of the 20th century. A condensed form of his argument can be found in this article.

Lilla tells his story well, but there are some weaknesses. First, he accepts the usual simplistic religion leads to violence narrative, which William Cavanaugh dealt with very well in The Myth of Religious Violence. Cavanaugh’s work shows another weakness of Lilla’s argument. The wars of the 1500s and 1600s did not happen just because of disagreements about theology. The centralized European state, and the resistance that it provoked among local interests, was more of a driver of these wars than theological disagreements. Lilla refers to the development of the modern state only a couple of times in the book, and more context would have better grounded his analysis of the intellectual history of the time.

James K.A. Smith points out these weaknesses better than I do, and since I read his review before I read the book I imagine that he primed me to look for them.

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