Yesterday, in Seoul's weekend edition of the International Herald Tribune
, I read a delightful article, a review by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
of Mark Lilla's recent book The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West
Goldstein, herself the author of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity
, has an intellectual's grasp of the issues and a literary stylist's turn of a phrase.
Hence my delight.
Goldstein's article bears the title "The Enlightenment and its limitations
," a topic dear to my innermost, twisted heart of hearts not because I am against
the Enlightenment but because I am for
the Enlightenment project in the manner advocated by Jürgen Habermas
But that's peculiar to my biography and is merely the flip side of a coin that usually lands with its ad hominem
The intellectual territory mapped by Lilla and Goldstein has over the years had various landsurveyors measuring its dimensions, and I'm simply a chainman on a surveying crew that sometimes works with Habermas, sometimes with Hans Blumenberg
, and sometimes with Pope Benedict XVI
, but I pick up a few artifacts now and then from that labor, which therefore goes beyond autobiography.
Goldstein has noticed something about our postmodern circumstances, or at least our current, late modernist conditions:
Some of us have been taking the European Enlightenment a little bit for granted. We've assumed that, just as natural philosophers like Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler ultimately prevailed in overturning the geocentric model of Ptolemaic cosmology, so, too, moral philosophers like Hobbes, Spinoza and Locke ultimately prevailed in removing ideas of divine revelation and redemption from politics. Progress in both spheres, the scientific and the political, was not only analogous and linked, but also, in some sense, inevitable, at least once rigorous standards of clear thinking were adopted.
This Enlightenment assumption -- that scientific and political secularization go forth hand in hand like Adam and Eve from the Medieval garden into "The World ... all before them, ... and Providence thir guide" no longer
12.646-7) -- has come into question:
We've assumed the matter has been thankfully settled, at least in the Western intellectual tradition. No wonder, then, that recent years have brought a spate of incredulous "neo-Enlightenment" books -- along the lines of Christopher Hitchens's "God Is Not Great" -- all of them barely able to contain their dismay that they even have to be arguing what it is they are arguing.
I've noticed that, too. And to some degree, I've shared the dismay, siding with Christopher Hitchens
, Richard Dawkins
, and others when they're arguing for the separation of church and state. My sense is that most Westerners, even most Western Christians, recoil from theocratic visions when they take the form prescribed by Islamists
like Osama bin Laden
, for the visions remind us of what is at stake, of what we learned from our Western experience in Jean Calvin
's Geneva and in our 16th-
and 17th-century wars of religion
Well ... how did we get here?
In Lilla's telling there was, first of all, nothing inevitable about the Great Separation. In fact, it is political theology that comes most naturally to us: "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 is where the tale becomes interesting:
Indeed, this urge is so irresistible, Lilla argues, that only highly unusual circumstances can compel us to give it up. Those unusual circumstances were provided by Christian theology, but not, as some recent religious apologists have argued, because the Judeo-Christian framework itself promotes rationality and tolerance. Rather, it is Christianity's own fundamental ambiguities -- torn between a picture of God as both present and absent from the temporal realm, an ambivalence powerfully represented by the paradoxes of the Trinity -- that made it "uniquely unstable," subject to a plurality of interpretations that became institutionalized in sectarianism, and hence to several centuries' worth of devastating upheaval.
I'm not quite yet ready to give up the Pope's argument
for Christianity as a rational faith that married Jewish religion to Hellenistic philosophy, thereby joining the two houses of Jerusalem and Athens, but I recognize the plausibility of Lilla's argument as set out by Goldstein.
Goldstein demurs when Lilla "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."
To this, Goldstein responds:
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.
Goldstein does acknowledge that:
Lilla offers a cogent explanation for why Christian Europe got to the Enlightenment first.
However, Goldstein insists that a solution that arose in the West's peculiar circumstances can have universal application:
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.
This is, implicitly, an argument against radical multiculturalism
that reminds me of a similar conclustion reached by Rémi Brague in his fascinating reflection on our Western, Eccentric Culture
What would be serious would be if Europe considered the universal it carries (the "Greek" of which we are "Romans") as a local particularity valid only for Europe, one which has no extension to other cultures. Now, one sometimes hears it said, for example, that liberty, the rule of law, the right to bodily integrity, would not be good for certain peoples whose tradition, supposed to merit an infinite respect, is for despotism, for official lying, or mutilation -- as if liberty and truth were local idiosyncrasies, to be considered on the same level as the wearing of a kilt or the eating of snails. (Rémi Brague, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization, pages 185-186)
Brague, of course, argues for Christianity's rationality in the sense intended by Pope Benedict XVI, but one can take some comfort in perceiving that regardless of whether Christianity is rationally clear or fundamentally ambiguous, it has led us to a particular solution with universal application, namely, the separation of church and state.
Now, we just have to persuade the Muslim world...
Labels: Christopher Hitchens, Jürgen Habermas, Osama bin Laden, Political Theology, Pope Benedict XVI, Richard Dawkins, Rémi Brague