Some Scattered Responses

Some scattered responses to my interlocutors:

On the Trinity: having tried to compress the argument of The Stillborn God to a couple thousand words, I see now how even good readers like Philip could be misled. The argument I make there is that the strange theological dynamics of the trinitarian idea made it difficult for Christians to agree on the proper attitude to adopt toward the world in general. God the father was like the transcendent deity of the Hebrew; the Christian Messiah then arrived, only to leave again; but the Holy Spirit remains. From Hegel to Hans Blumenberg, observers have seen this ambiguous picture of the divine’s relation to the world as the source of Christianity’s long struggle with both gnostic withdrawal and apocalyptic messianism. In the book, I also try to suggest it is at the root of Chritianity’s difficulty in establishing a consensus view about church-state relations. But readers will have to examine the book to see if they are persuaded by that.

On “comprehensive law”: here I really don’t understand Philip, for surely he agrees that there is nothing remotely approaching shari’a or halacha in Christianity. The New Testament does not provide detailed rules governing all aspects of human life, nor does canon law or even Aquinas’s Summa. In fact, it is for just this reason, as Philip rightly says, that Muslims and Jews were much more open to arguments from reason and natural law: both faiths developed complex systems of jurisprudence that were the loci of those discussions, long before Christianity did.

On theocons: I was very interested by Damon’s response to Philip regarding theological pluralism, which they are trying to overcome. That’s an important point, one I hadn’t thought about before. As for whether the theocons deny that human beings legitimately rule themselves, I defer to Damon’s intimate knowledge of them and their works. I am puzzled, though, how they could think that the Constitution was “on their side” and that “He [God] rules.” How does the theology work here? Has God subcontracted to us, and the Constitution is the paper we signed implicitly with him? More detail on this would interest me, if Damon can provide it.

On Habermas: A reader has asked what I think about “Jurgen Habermas’ recent and striking comment that democracy is dependent on Christian culture and theology.” I still haven’t been able to make sense of Habermas’s recent writings in this area, and how (or whether) they can be reconciled with his earlier writing. The argument I make in The Stillborn God is that Western democracy is indeed dependent on its Christian past, but most decisively in trying to offer an alternative to Christian political theology. Our greatest dependence is always on our adversaries.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Drawing on themes of his new book The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, Columbia University’s Mark Lilla attempts to explain why America, the most religious nation in the modern West, can neither understand nor cope with “the religious passions dominating contemporary world politics.” Lilla lays out how the “Great Separation” in Western political thought, which set aside “political theology” as the basis for conceiving of the legitimacy of the political order, together with the exceptional American experience of religious toleration, has made it difficult for Americans to grasp how uneasily Western ideals of democracy and toleration fit within frameworks of thought that still put God at the center of politics.

Response Essays

  • Damon Linker, author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, contests Mark Lilla’s claim that Americans have left political theology behind. According to Linker, the prevailing attitude of Americans to their political institutions is neither fundamentally secular nor radically religious. Rather, there is a large segment of the population — the religious right — who “passionately defend American constitutional principles and political institutions but who also interpret these principles and institutions in explicitly theological terms.” Therefore, according to Linker, learning to cope with political theology is not only required to grasp politics abroad, but also to grasp what is going on at home.

  • In his vigorous reply, the eminent Penn State religion scholar Philip Jenkins contests both Mark Lilla’s reading of history and the lessons he draws from it. In contrast to Lilla’s claim of American innocence of political theologies, Jenkins points to the centrality of religiously motivated politics in “the moral crusades of the late nineteenth century, … the Social Gospel, the era of Progressivism and Prohibition” and the civil rights movement. Jenkins’ alternative theory of the rise of liberal toleration emphasizes “changes in the material life of Western societies” brought about by increasing commercialization, which “has nothing to do with the intricacies of Christian theology, and was only marginally connected with Enlightenment political theory.”

  • Andrew Sullivan, blogger extraordinaire and author of The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back, offers a meditation on the tensions in American politics between a religious culture with a religious politics and the secularism of the American founding documents, without which, Sullivan argues, “America would long since have succumbed to some version of theocracy or another.” According to Sullivan, “the achievement of keeping God at arm’s length in the ordering structure of a polity is very, very rare,” and Americans should better appreciate its rarity and fragility.