The Political and the Divine By REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN NY Times: September 16, 2007 THE STILLBORN GOD Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. By Mark Lilla. 334 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.
The fact that he acknowledges the profundity, both psychological and philosophical, of the religious impulse does not, in the end, undermine his commitment to the Enlightenment’s prying apart of theology and politics — at least for the West. But he cautions against drawing up universal prescriptions: “Time and again we must remind ourselves that we are living an experiment, that we are the exceptions. We have little reason to expect other civilizations to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique theological-political crisis within Christendom.”
Some readers may want to challenge Lilla’s inference regarding Christian specificity and the limits of the lessons of the Enlightenment. Contemporary Japan and India, among other non-Christian countries, have also embraced the Great Separation. It’s not so clear that the Christian West is exceptional in anything except for first proposing the answer that has gradually gained momentum almost everywhere except in the Islamic Middle East. Lilla offers a cogent explanation for why Christian Europe got to the Enlightenment first. It doesn’t follow that the Enlightenment’s solution to the political problems religion universally poses is not a thing to be universally recommended. Nor does it follow that particular historical contingencies are a necessary feature of the solution. One can read Lilla’s story and draw precisely the opposite normative conclusions from the ones he asks us to draw: that the West’s experimental testing and retesting of political theology, trying to see if there is any safe way of mixing politics and religion, has delivered an answer from which all may learn. Separating church and state works; mixing them tends toward disaster.
But draw what normative conclusions you will from “The Stillborn God,” this provocative book is to be applauded for doing justice to the complexity of our long attempt to reconcile our transcendental aspirations with human well-being. « Previous Page 1 2 Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s latest book is “Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.”