Beware the passions, for their bastard issue shall return in the guise of a black-robed priest. Some such prophetic utterance springs to mind in reading Mark Lilla’s magnificently ambivalent The Stillborn God on the looming (or is it receding) power of religion and its hold (or is it the memory of its hold) on the Western political psyche. Lilla seems certain of one thing: that human appetite is ruinous if not properly quarantined, disciplined, and divided from its ultimate aim. It is a curiously puritanical message for twenty-first century readers. But perhaps these are puritanical times.
The question, at least, of the times and what they positively require is raised by Lilla with dramatic flourish. As he ventures in the book’s closing lines, “we have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by the light of revelation. If our experiment is to work, we must rely on our own lucidity.” A rousing declaration to be sure, if not also a bit conventional in our post-post-Enlightenment. But then Lilla is not aiming for diagnostic creativity in these pages. There is the fortress called “the Modern West” to defend and a story to tell about its internecine struggles that makes this defense more urgent and more vexing than ever. In the dense, Tim Burton-style fog of late, late 2007 on this bloody planet earth (2008 by the time you read this), who could doubt that, well, something needs urgent defense, that, indeed, it may very well be that “our lucidity” has been souring in its own carnivorous juices for so long that the masses will no longer stomach our pies.
Yet it is harder than it might seem to get to the bottom of Lilla’s concluding claims about politics, reason, and biblical theology, hard, simply, to discern who or what is the agent in these sentences: What are these forces? Which Bible—which books, sections, verses, versions? By what method is the Bible’s promise discerned? On what grounds might we distinguish the productive light (lucidity) from the destructive light (revelation)? These questions betray precisely the disingenuous sensibility Lilla wants to pulverize. His analysis trades on a single distinction: between political theology and political philosophy, between, in short, a politics informed by “larger, impersonal forces” and one chastened enough to exile such forces, to make one’s way alone—to let God be. But the villain in Lilla’s nightmares is not “the religious mind in all its chiaroscuro intensity, pulsing with conscience and curiosity, hope and despair.” It is the thieving, academic fop, the purveyor of the quixotic “third way” between these poles, the liberal theologian, that is, with his well-anointed and even better appointed liberal deity scavenged from the early modern dump. Empowered by Kant and emboldened by Rousseau, the “post-Christian” theologian (does it not matter that he is, as Gil Anidjar notices in his fiery response to Lilla, “the Jew, the Arab”?) doubles “the Christian lion” and the “Christian lamb” in brotherly love, like Jesus and the Devil in Mike Huckabee’s rendering of Mormonism. Shall we not abhor such wanton mixing? Shall we not refrain from asking how we are to distinguish the tangled limbs in the bedclothes when their progeny is already short-sheeting our bed?
The stillborn is in this light an equivocal image for Lilla. For the atmosphere he conjures is hardly the hushed sorrow cloaking the inert fetus: named, blessed, buried, remembered (would that it were so). It is rather the chaotic atmosphere of carnival, in which the fangs of the real God are impossible to distinguish from the benign liberal effigy until the very moment of the unholy kiss between theology and politics. Something live has emerged from the early modern birth canal, and this is precisely why we must wager at all, separating both the real and the simulacrum lest any seed be spilled. No doubt the “the liberal deity” was “unable to inspire genuine conviction among those seeking ultimate truth.” It is stillborn in only this sense, then: that its face and figure simply do not pass in the world. But for Lilla, there really is no liberal God that is not also (how could we have missed this, he wonders?) a fiercely partisan and demanding lover: “for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God” we are reminded, in the epigraph from Exodus. There is no third way. What is stillborn for Lilla, then, is not God—his (Lilla’s, God’s) gallop through the Modern West suggests just the opposite. What is stillborn is the promise God makes, which the dragon slayer Hobbes might very well have been too hasty in assuming he had procured—the promise God makes to keep his eros to himself.
So it is and shall be. “We have trouble letting God be… because [for believers in biblical religions] God does not let us be.” But if this is so, whither Lilla’s walls? If the wager is for a sobered political philosophy schooled in the lessons of the “Great Separation,” what will separate the separation from its opposite—from mixing, tangling: from the very passions on this (Modern, Western, Hobbesian) “shore” of the divide? Lilla seems both to trust in the strength of the Hobbesian imaginary and to assume its impermanence. Hence the book’s fundamental ambiguity, its insistence both that we are on another shore (however narrow the river), which makes it difficult to understand both the religious frenzy on the international pages of the daily papers and our (the “West’s”) own tormented struggle to domesticate this frenzy, and that in fact there is no shore, no respite, no haven from the “craving for a robust faith” which seems a constitutive threat, a “temptation,” to political life as we know it. “Thomas Hobbes was wise” not because he successfully put an end to political theology (the thesis of the book is that he did not) but because he saw the necessity of doing so—he saw that this necessity is part of the task of a proper political philosophy. But then, one assumes such a task would not be accomplished through lucidity alone, as if simply seeing the danger of political theology would convince us to abandon it. Indeed, it seems strange to suggest, as Lilla does, both that political philosophy is constituted through “self-awareness” and restraint and also that only “with great effort and a great deal of argument can people be trained to separate basic questions of politics from questions of theology and cosmology.” Argument, on Lilla’s grounds, seems to have little to do with it (for all the danger of their positions, “reading Rousseau and Hegel on religion is an infinitely richer experience than reading Hobbes or Hume…”). Effort, yes, and here it would be consistent with Lilla’s drift to recall Nietzsche’s observation that our values (of restraint above all) are writ in blood. It takes work to separate: education, but also discipline and protocols and police and maybe a little, too, of Sweeney Todd’s grief and self-mortification. Lilla may be sincere when he casts his book as identifying “no dragons to be slain.” But this bit of fantasy wears thin by the end, thanks to Lilla’s own gallant horse. That he slays none is not for lack of trying: the wisdom of Hobbes, I take it, above all.
It is at this point, though, that the disorientation sets in. Lilla notes that since the time of Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, “the liberal democratic tradition” has really failed to confront “just what religion is.” But just what or who or where is religion for Lilla himself? Is the problem really the Bible—that, in addition to being modern, “we are heirs to the biblical tradition”? This seems so profoundly to beg the question. What makes the Bible the Bible if not the passion (“the forces unleashed”) that would so obviously survive its exile? What makes revelation (the divine light) different from lucidity (the natural light) if not the thing they precisely share: the appetite that drives human beings towards at once hedgehog-like commitments to the whole and fox-like commitments to the piecemeal and the plural. Reason and revelation are names for human desires, but from neither of these desires, then, can there be any separation. As above, we can get God to promise to stay out of politics (we can, with effort, divide our passions from their aim); we cannot make this promise ourselves (we cannot divide our aims from the passions).
To some degree this is Lilla’s point—that we are to be ever vigilant (lucid, self-aware). But he wedges this fact into a pseudo-history about “the West” and its vicissitudes, making it seem as though there is some historical lesson to be learned here, from the Bible to Hobbes to Kant to Cohen to Bhutto. Lilla’s real problem is not history, though (or particular books, for that matter, whether Amos or King Lear). It is ontology—not the ontology of religion, e.g., the “messianic longings embedded in biblical faith,” but the ontology of division, of separation. One might say Hobbes’s “Great Separation” expresses Lilla’s own messianic longing for the purity of a political philosophy that keeps its sights down and its garters tight. To be sure, there is (against many intellectual fashions) an admirable focus in Lilla’s observation that his book wagers “between two grand traditions of thought, two ways of envisaging the human condition”—in his boiling down the innumerable complexities, perspectives, and traditions here to two. What threatens the argument, however, is Lilla’s squeamishness about mixing. Like Strauss on Athens and Jerusalem, Lilla invests everything in a separation between reason and religion for which he has no real way of accounting. Their opposition is presupposed, a presupposition which has the ironic effect of requiring the very third between them that is anathema to Lilla. In his own analysis in the book, the third is but a mask for one side, a failed attempt to stand in both reason and religion, an emissary reabsorbed by the fires of the side that sends it forth. Yet, like Lilla’s imputation of dangerous tendencies to the Bible rather than its readers, this opposition—and the structure of opposition as such—is not given an intellectual outline. It is as if the words reason and revelation have frozen referents to which we need only point. This pointing cannot take place on rational grounds, for there are no reasons given for it; equally it cannot take place on revealed grounds, for revelation, on Lilla’s reading, is unable to pick out the human apart from its connection with the divine. The standpoint of revelation can see only itself; the standpoint of reason can see everything but itself. Neither can hold onto the tension, much less the opposition, between themselves (the opposition itself is a fantasy of each), and so one can only imagine Lilla their narrator preaching from the ice floe of the very third which his own argument rules out. This time, one regrets to say, it is Lilla himself who vanishes.
It would be hard to be “self-aware” under these circumstances. In Lilla’s endgame, any admixture of revelation in reason spoils the batch. But, holding onto the clarity of his “two grand traditions of thought,” one might productively take a cue from Burton, who is in other ways a quite delicious muse of the proceedings. Lilla’s work tries, to its credit, not to be about good and evil, at least as Gnostic complementaries. This is food, glorious food: appetite, passion, eros, revenge. In Burton’s Sondheim, we are saved from none of these, and here Lilla puritanically demurs. But for Burton this anti-salvation is declared as much in a cheerfully spinozistic mode as a gothic one: human appetite is ruinous, and yes, with the fierce consciousness of this appetite, that is all there is. Does this mean we will eat our own, live and stillborn both? Undoubtedly. Man the barricades. And yet, and yet those barricades are erected in the playing fields of what they protect us from, by that same material, with the same dangers. Shall we slit our own throats as a result? Not at all. For consciousness can be read on the tongue and in the stomach—it can function to limit and to restrain and to choose from there. If this, finally, is what Lilla can mean by lucidity (even if it is not what he does mean), let it reign unimpeded, in this tradition and that.