A couple of weeks ago I posted about an article by Columbia professor Mark Lilla which addressed, among other things, the persistence of religion in a post-Enlightenment age and what might account for it. For those who are interested, his book—The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West—is now available, as noted in this morning’s review in the New York Times. In an age where religion is frequently portrayed as the enemy of all that is good and true, any effort to provide clarity on the subject of the historical interaction between religion and politics seems (to me) to be a welcome one indeed.
The review makes some interesting claims, the following “paraphrase” of Lilla’s assertion that Enlightenment thinkers were responding to “the intellectual structure of Christian political theology, which turned out to be exceptional, and exceptionally problematic,” among them:
Christian political theology encouraged the development of Enlightenment progressiveness the way that runaway mitosis encourages the discovery of cancer cures.
This seems just a bit simplistic and historically naive. Religion is the disease, and the Enlightenment the cure. Simple as that. It’s neat and tidy, and it makes us feel secure and superior. Yet even from reading the excerpt from the book published by the Times a few weeks ago, I get the sense that Lilla (who doesn’t strike me as much of a religious apologist) paints a more complex picture than that. Surely it’s conceivable that centuries of Christianity contributed more to the Enlightenment project than the degrading of Western thought and culture to the point where it was finally compelled to haltingly grope towards the clear light of reason.
At any rate, the book seems like one worth reading and I plan to get to it as soon as possible. From the Times excerpt and other reviews I’ve read, I suspect that Lilla might be more optimistic about the Enlightenment project than I am. Nevertheless, he does seem to treat the issue of the relationship between religion and politics in a way that acknowledges its complexity and doesn’t set forth simplistic solutions to the problems raised by the interaction of the two. He acknowledges that there does seem to be something driving our political ideals that is not simply a stubborn holdover from a more primitive and ignorant past:
When looking to explain the conditions of political life and political judgment, the unconstrained mind seems compelled to travel up and out: up toward those things that transcend human existence, and outward to encompass the whole of that existence. … The urge to connect is not an atavism.
This seems to be a fairly sensible and historically responsible claim—one that doesn’t just summarily stamp “illegitimate” on the hopes, goals, and motivations of centuries of human history. Things are rarely that simple, and our discourse about religion and politics is not helped when they are presented as such.