Thursday, December 13, 2007

Stillborn Rationalism?

Note: This is the seventh (and final) post in a series of notes that I wrote as I read The Stillborn God by Mark Lilla. The posts should be read in the following sequence: (1) Stillborn God?, (2) Why Believe?, (3) The Values Test, (4) Torah Rules, (5) "What Makes Man Religious at All?", (6) Genuine Religion vs Idolatry, then the following.

I have wanted to resume blogging for some time but felt obliged to finish this series of posts on Lilla's book before moving on to tackle other issues. Obliged to whom? Probably to Lilla. It was unfair to leave the many critical observations I made in the earlier posts in this series without balancing them by expressing my appreciation that the later sections of his book answer many of the questions that I raised as I wrote in the midst of my reading.

I finished the book several weeks ago and did not take detailed notes, so this will not satisfy my own standard for posting. It is simply better than leaving the other posts out there unresolved before moving on.

So, briefly: I now understand that Lilla's lack of references to Jewish philosophy in the first half of his extended consideration of the decline of political theology in Europe does not derive from an ignorance of, or lack of respect for, Jewish philosophy, but from his understanding (no doubt a correct understanding) that the Christian philosophers who influenced the evolution of politics away from its theological foundations were not themselves referencing any Jewish philosophers. When Lilla gets to the 19th Century, a time when Jews were finally welcomed as citizens in Europe, the Jewish contributions to philosophy and political theory are well represented. Ironically perhaps, the possibility of assimilation provided a fertile ground for the development of an alternative Judaism-- self-labelled "Reform" Judaism-- that related to traditional Judaism as Protestantism related to Catholicism. This bifurcation of Judaism thus opened doors for diverse Zionist impulses that replicated the Christian argument about whether a state should be based on religious and/or tribal affiliation.

Ultimately, Lilla's "Stillborn God" is the deracinated theology that portrays "religion as socially useful when rationally and morally reformed" (p. 300). Unfortunately, since terms like rational and moral will probably never be universally understood, the enforced separation of church and state will be utopian for some and dystopian for others.

The tension between politics and religion will clearly be the elephant in the room throughout the presidential campaigns that are now in full swing, and it is to that conversation that I intend to turn in my next postings.