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The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West 1st Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1400043675
ISBN-10: 1400043670
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This searching history of western thinking about the relationship between religion and politics was inspired not by 9/11, but by Nazi Germany, where, says University of Chicago professor Lilla (The Reckless Mind), politics and religion were horrifyingly intertwined. To explain the emergence of Nazism's political theology, Lilla reaches back to the early modern era, when thinkers like Locke and Hume began to suggest that religion and politics should be separate enterprises. Some theorists, convinced that Christianity bred violence, argued that government must be totally detached from religion. Others, who believed that rightly practiced religion could contribute to modern life, promoted a liberal theology, which sought to articulate Christianity and Judaism in the idiom of reason. (Lilla's reading of liberal Jewish thinker Hermann Cohen is especially arresting.) Liberal theologians, Lilla says, credulously assumed human society was progressive and never dreamed that fanaticism could capture the imaginations of modern people—assumptions that were proven wrong by Hitler. If Lilla castigates liberal theology for its naïveté, he also praises America and Western Europe for simultaneously separating religion from politics, creating space for religion, and staving off sectarian violence and theocracy. Lilla's work, which will influence discussions of politics and theology for the next generation, makes clear how remarkable an accomplishment that is. (Sept. 14)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Political science begins in the wars-of-religion-devastated seventeenth century with Hobbes' treatise Leviathan, with its theory of the state based on philosophical, not theological, reasoning, sanctioned by humans, not God. After outlining the political implications of the three different conceptions of divine-human relations, Lilla begins with Hobbes, too, and the "Great Separation" between God and earthly authority that his thinking inspired. Humans being by nature disputatious, barely had desacralized politics got off the ground than the Romantic philosophers Rousseau and Kant argued to bring God back to ground statecraft ethically. A later Romantic, Hegel, subsequently made the ethical political God downright salvific, at least for the bourgeois Protestant state (with eventually dire consequences, thanks to such teleological ideologies as Nazism and Communism). Cultural critic Richard Weaver's famous dictum ideas have consequences seems to be the leitmotif as Lilla traces the imperiled life of the nontheological polity that Hobbes first formulated, that was realized tacitly in England during the eighteenth century and explicitly by the U.S. Constitution, and that has been adopted by most of the West despite successive attempts to weaken or destroy it for God's sake. Riveting, engrossing reading, even though it is history-of-philosophy. Olson, Ray
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (September 11, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400043670
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400043675
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.2 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,148,465 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Roy E. Perry on October 21, 2007
Format: Hardcover
In The Stillborn God, Mark Lilla, Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, has written a cogent history of "political theology" (the unholy marriage of church and state, religion and politics).

Although Lilla deals briefly with Judaism, and mentions Islam (just barely), he concentrates on Christendom and its conflicted theology, which has often led to heated controversies, doctrinal schisms, and religious wars.

Here a puzzling paradox emerges: why does a Christian doctrine that blesses the peacemakers and considers the lilies of the field too often inspire racism, intolerance, fanatical hatred, and violence?

At the heart of Christianity, Lilla explains, there is a conceptual confusion, an ambiguity found in dogmas such as the Trinity, which leads to a bifurcation of Christian perspectives between "already" and "not yet." While some theologians emphasize the "there and then" (a transcendent God and a future redemption in heaven), others emphasize the "here and now" (an immanent God and a present redemption on earth).

Such conceptual divergence has important implications for political theology. While some believers advocate an ascetic withdrawal from the mundane world by retreat into monasticism, passively and patiently awaiting the Second Coming of Jesus, other believers call for political activism, faith initiatives, militant resistant against an evil empire, or a longing for an apocalyptic Armageddon. Such a mentality may advocate and welcome a Christian theocracy--an abolition of the "misguided" separation of church and state.

For the philosophically minded, The Stillborn God is a rare treat.
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Format: Hardcover
With books about atheism doing well in bookstores (like Christopher Hitchens's _God is Not Great_ or Richard Dawkins's _The God Delusion_), believers might worry that a book titled _The Stillborn God_ (Knopf) offers more of the same. This is not the case. The book's subtitle, _Religion, Politics, and the Modern West_, gives a bit better picture of its subject and theme, but does not make its content completely clear. Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University and frequent contributor to the _New York Review of Books_, has written a book about the separation of church and state, but you won't find here references to Thomas Jefferson or the U.S. Constitution. This is a broader and generally Eurocentric view of how theology became pried apart from politics, a process that has taken many centuries. We take for granted now that there is something inherently wrong with a government that imposes or favors one church's belief system, and we are aghast at governments who imprison or suspend rights of citizens simply because of their religious beliefs, but that was, at one time, the way all governments operated. There are plenty of Americans who feel that church and state are too separated now, but there are fewer who would insist that the government ought directly to sponsor particular church movements. The concept of what Lilla calls "the Great Separation" was long in coming, and as he tells the story, it was brought about by influential thinkers; if they had not taught in just the way they did, perhaps we would not have managed the separation at all. It wasn't inevitable. Lilla's is a serious tome which will be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates a historic explanation of this particularly important way we have come to regard both religion and politics.Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
Mark Lilla wrote this book for the heirs of what he calls the Great Separation: the modern West's attempt to distinguish religious questions from political ones once and for all. This is the West's most ambitious political experiment. The trouble, according to Lilla, is that we in the West have forgotten that it is indeed an experiment, that in trying to think through political questions atheologically, the West is the historical exception rather than the rule. Because of this forgetfulness, "we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still inflame the minds of men, stirring up messianic passions that leave societies in ruin. We assumed that this was no longer possible.... We were wrong" (3).

So Lilla sets out to remind us of the long, prestigious, and powerful legacy of political theology in the West. He marches quickly through the rise of Christianity (and its "accidental" acquisition of an Empire) up to the first attempt at the Great Separation by Thomas Hobbes (chs. 1 and 2), then more slowly through a few major thinkers who wrestled with the consequences of that attempt: Locke and Hume (ch. 3), Rousseau and Kant (ch. 4), Hegel (ch. 5), the 19th century liberal Protestants and Jews (ch. 6), and finally the re-emergence of both Christian and Jewish political theology in, above all, Karl Barth and Franz Rosenzweig (ch. 7). In the beginning, Hobbes intended to disavow religion entirely, seeing it as merely an expression of humanity's incessant fearfulness, inevitably leading to violence. But religion gradually regained a foothold in political thought, first in the negative form of "freedom of conscience" and later in the more positive form of an "enlightened" religiosity.
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