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The Political and the Divine

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 Westis 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.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jeff #

    “This seems to be a fairly sensible and historically responsible claim”

    Ryan, what I really like about the questions regarding the political and the divine is that it causes us to be as you said, “historically responsible.” Being historically responsible, in my opinion helps us not to make claims of all religion being good or all religion being bad. Religion is mostly a human construct as result of how the divine has become real to humanity. How we take those convictions into the public realm (ie. politics) is something that remains distant from me as my Mennonite background has been more of a separatist mindset than an involved one. This conversation makes me want to read again “The Politics of Jesus” as one example of how a divine agenda made itself present in the day to day of human existence.

    Thanks Ryan.

    September 15, 2007
  2. Thanks Jeff – I think you’ll enjoy Yoder. I think you’re right, generally speaking Mennonites have not historically been terribly politically engaged. Yoder’s got some good ideas regarding how followers of Christ can engage culture in a manner that takes seriously the pattern of Jesus’ life, rather than just what we think he accomplished.

    September 15, 2007
  3. I’ve heard from others that this might be a good one to look at as well. Thanks for the recommendation Jadon.

    September 16, 2007
  4. Dave Chow #

    Just an interesting news clip that does relate somewhat to religion and politics in Germany, see “Limit Marriage to Seven Years”:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/article2500361.ece

    Gabriele Pauli, who is running to become head of the Bavarian conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) party seems to be using tabloid-like statements and sensationalizing her glamorous image to get more press.

    Only, instead of Christian political theology, in my opinion, she’s just exercising bad politics and bad theology…

    September 21, 2007
  5. I think I agree with your assessment Dave!

    September 21, 2007

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