Monday, October 01, 2007

Stillborn God?

Tonight I started reading Mark Lilla's new book, The Stillborn God. I'm reading it with Mike, my Talmud study partner from the days when I studied Talmud. We'll likely read 10-20 pages a day and talk three or four mornings a week about what we're reading.

At this point, I'm not sure that I will accept the premise, introduced on the second page of the text (page 4), that "Western liberal democracies have succeeded in creating an environment where public conflict over competing revelations is virtually unthinkable today." Is it not the competing revelations of science and Christian theology that have divided the American polity in the last two national elections?

Aside from terrorism, the major lines in the sand have been between theological orthodoxy and secular compassion. Only yesterday, John McCain's response to the question of whether a Muslim might be elected President of the United States, more than suggested that Christian theology remains a foundation for at least this Western liberal democracy. (McCain: "I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles, that's a decision that the American people would have to make, but personally, I prefer someone who I know has a solid grounding in my faith.")

Is Western liberal democracy philosophically incompatible with McCain's sort of Christian chauvinism? Lilla suggests that it is: "The ambition of the new philosophy was to develop habits of thinking and talking about politics exclusively in human terms, without appeal to divine revelation or cosmological speculation." Such philosophy, however, has yet to permeate the political arena where McCain contemplates a Baptist conversion, Hilary Clinton speaks openly of her Methodist faith, and Giuliani is measured against his Catholic training.

Lilla's book may turn out to be a fine history of the development of secular political philosophy, but his suggestion that secular political philosophy has triumphed in this country may be extremely premature. Of course, no Western democracy is likely to be transformed into a theocracy in our lifetime, but theocratic-like declarations that categorize those who threaten us as evil, when coupled with suspension of rights for anyone accused of being an enemy combatant, bear too striking a resemblance to the act of throwing the heretics into the dungeons.

According to Lilla, "We are no longer in the habit of connecting our political discourse to theological and cosmological questions" (p. 7). Would that it were so. He concedes that the only barrier to making this (forbidden?) connection is "self-restraint"; even saying, "That we must rely on self-restraint should concern us" (p. 8); but how can he not see that no mainstream national figure exercises such restraint, and any who would do so would not get elected?

The theocracies of the Middle East are surely more restrictive, less happy places for secular humanists to live, but the developed world is not yet free from the shackles of political theology.

I began this blog thirty months ago to record my relationship to the Talmudic foundations of Judaism. Does a reading of The Stillborn God belong in this setting? To the extent that the philosophical disputes from which modern political philosophy emerged over several hundred years represent (in Lilla's words) "a continuous conversation, running over many centuries" (p. 12), they can be seen as well as a continuation of a conversation that goes back at least to Tractate Sanhedrin, if not even further into the past. And so, I continue to study.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lilla's premise seems way off and it makes me wonder where he lives and who he talks to. So much of our political and social discourse is contextualized in theological terms that it's hard to imagine what evidence he brings to support his thesis.

6:23 AM  

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