Was Historical Christianity Really That Much Different?

One of the strengths of Mark Lilla’s writing is that it makes us explore and confront our assumptions. In some cases, though, I honestly question the basic roots of his argument. I wonder how many historians of Christianity would recognize a characterization like the following:

The ideas and problems of Christian political theology are what shaped the West. Unlike the Hebrew or Muslim God, who delivered a comprehensive law governing all aspects of individual and collective life, the Christian God was a trinity that ruled over a created cosmos and guided human beings by different means: revelation, inner conviction, and the natural order. The Christian picture of the divine was magnificent and allowed a magnificent and powerful civilization to flower. But it was difficult to apply to politics.

I suspect he is retroactively applying post-Enlightenment re-thinkings of Christianity, such as the Anglican “Trinity” of reason, tradition and revelation. If I look at the pre-Enlightenment period though — that is, about 85 percent of Christian history — I see no difference whatever between orthodox, standard, Christian thought and the portrait he offers of Jewish and Muslim doctrine. Christianity too received ” a comprehensive law governing all aspects of individual and collective life” although of course believers argued about the content of this divine law — just like Jews and Muslims, in fact. Historically, Christians were far less potentially “rational” than Mark says, and Muslims and Jews were much more open to arguments from reason and natural law. The fact of being Trinitarian simply did not make Christians more likely to seek a “tripod” of authority — revelation, inner conviction, and the natural order — than people of other religions.

In short, I suggest that his picture of the distinction between the three faiths is seriously exaggerated, and that their commonalities were far more striking at any given period than their differences. The theological differences, in turn, were far too slim to account for “Western distinctiveness”.

My point is that Muslim societies and regimes today may indeed operate from very different assumptions from those of the West, but I would seek quite different causes, and thus different solutions.

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.