Part One: Of Bows and Arrows

“The world of today is torn asunder by a great dispute; and not only a dispute, but a ruthless battle for world domination. Many people still refuse to believe that there are only two sides, that the only choice lies between absolute conformity to the one system or absolute conformity to the other.” What Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind was calling “a great dispute,” Mark Lilla calls “The Great Separation.” With this phrase, The Stillborn God presents itself, like its predecessor, as an account of the world, “our world, the world created by the intellectual rebellion against political theology.” Milosz was speaking with some ambivalence of a harsh, still expanding, if still finite, situation, one contained within historical and political limits. More ambitious, Lilla writes of a “perennial challenge,” a cosmic and paradoxically irenic struggle marked by a broken history of repetition but untouched by notions as crass as power or domination. Strangely, Lilla thus appears less concerned with politics than with metaphysics, with “two ways of envisaging the human condition.” And indeed, this originary parting of the ways is structured by a quasi-transcendental confrontation, “an actual choice contemporary societies face” (and have therefore always faced). The choice – one might be tempted to say, after Carl Schmitt, the decision – is the privilege of an ambiguously located subject, the collected and collective psychology of which appears dry and hollow (don’t go in the water, Lilla seems to insist, stay on the safe shore: “The river . . . is narrow and deep; those who try to ride the waters will be swept away by spiritual forces beyond their control”). The decision, at any rate, inhabits less than it simply confronts two ways and testifies to two sides. Yet, there are only two sides. And that, Lilla dramatically sums up with undeniable empathy, “that is the human condition.”

There lies, in this typically deft and disingenuously benevolent, laissez-faire gesture of comprehensive universalization, Lilla’s most brilliantly revealing and, considering the success and praises his book has gathered, his most noxious contribution. This is no doubt secularism at its best.

Like enmity for Schmitt, Lilla’s “political theology” simply is an essential element of human life. There would have been, then, there were always “political theologies.” Or, to delve into the refined and complex subtlety of the argument, it has been and remains always and everywhere the case that “certain religious beliefs get translated into doctrines about political life” (emphasis added). In this implausible and unwanted bilingualism, there is religion – here is politics. And since their translation, at once impersonal and perennial, does not affect the meaning of the terms involved (religion is belief, politics is human), the only question that remains is “why?” Indeed, if there is a “great separation” and if the translation it seeks to abolish no longer occurs, the condition of which Lilla speaks must go back to the beginnings of time – and of religion. “We stretch the bow, the arrow flies; that is why they were made. So, by analogy, it is not difficult for us, when considering the cosmic order, to imagine that it was constructed for a purpose reflecting its maker’s will.” The present tense testifies throughout that this is religion. Which is always distinct from politics (the latter’s relation to bows and arrows being different, I suppose). Yet, for some reason or reasons, religion and politics get mixed up: “The believer has reasons for believing that he lives in this divine nexus, just as he has reasons for thinking that it offers authoritative guidance for political life.” There is religion; here is politics – and never the twain shall meet. Yet, confronting both, we nonetheless find ourselves: “We all face the implicit alternative between living in light of what we take to be divine revelation, or living in some other way.” Such is the “great separation” which, at once constituting and suspending our humanity, can and must be upheld through “the art of separation.” For Lilla and his readers, it does not get any better – or worse – than this.

After his own fashion, and like the hero of what he explicitly claims is not a fairy tale (“The Stillborn God is not a fairy tale”), one could say that Lilla is no Christian. Bow and arrows (and Hobbes apologia) aside, he is no theologian either (and indeed, anyone claiming that “the Messiah” – rather than God, or at least the Word – “became flesh” would have to flunk that Kantian test). But Christians can be bad theologians. They can even be bad Christians. For who could otherwise afford to ignore – or obscure by way of exposition – the singular Christian history of political theology (never mentioning that the phrase was revived in the twentieth century by a good – or even bad – Catholic, who went by the name of Carl Schmitt) and spare himself the effort otherwise necessary to universalize it? Such work is conducted elsewhere. Here instead, we are all presented with a difficult, nay, an impossible mission – should we accept it? – a primordial struggle. “Political theology is a primordial form of human thought and for millennia has provided a deep well of ideas and symbols for organizing society and inspiring action, for good and ill. This obvious historical fact apparently needs restating today” (incidentally, Lilla will in fact restate it almost verbatim on a number of occasions). One has hardly room to wonder about the obviousness, the universality, or the historicity of such primordial facts. Of course, Lilla does show some interest in history, if a restricted one, but it is important to remark that he “does not arrive at his view inductively after surveying the bloody record of political history. He is making an anthropological assumption about human nature that is meant to reveal the true lessons of history” (I take the liberty here of quoting from Lilla’s own description of Schmitt in The Reckless Mind). This would only become disquieting were history to mean or function outside of the purview of Christianity in its working and worlding Wirklichkeit. Consider that, although Lilla does not bother to mention any such outside of the expanding confines of Western Christendom, among all the political theologies of the ages of the world (the world having recently found out through this and other thick and marketable volumes that it has always had a political theology, the way it discovered just about one hundred and fifty years ago that it was mired in “religion,” even “world religions”), none should be spared being criticized (or summarily explained away).

None? There is one that may nonetheless stand up and stand out, “the intellectual structure” of which “turned out to be exceptional.” The discreet charm of this not so peculiar Christian exceptionalism operates in such a manner that it attributes, again and again, no significance to translation (how does one say “political theology” in the original biblical Hebrew?) nor to a division and a distribution of regions of being that would be different from its own (how does one determine or indeed contest the boundaries of any and all communities as predicated on an alternative between “political” and “theological”?). “In one sense the claim to exceptionality can be justified: in Christianity, versions of every species of political theology can be found.” Lilla does not, in any way, essentialize Christianity (others might not get away so easy from the accusation). On the contrary, he accounts for it with Vichian sapienza poetica – and with what appears to be at once immaculate and multiple conceptions (“The Great Separation was never a fait accompli, even in Christian Europe where it was first conceived”). Thus, Christianity – the New Faith – operates through its making and remaking so as to gently and efficiently endow the entire world with its own attributes and divisions, in order to claim for itself the exceptional virtue of having had the lucidity to “emancipate” itself from the shackles it blissfully sees itself as having shared and sharing still, and often enforcing this view in very concrete, evangelizing, ways. With such generous blessings, how could one fail to ask in wondrous amazement: why? (“Understanding reasons is the key to understanding political theology”). Why is it, indeed, that out of Christian political theology there emerged “an authentically new way of treating political questions”? And what was it “about the Christian tradition that provoked such a profound challenge to the way societies had always conceived of political life?”

Before engaging these not so novel questions (after Nietzsche, one could have asked simply: “Why Are We so Great?”), let me summarize the logic, or mechanics, here at work. First, a Christian thinker – which is to say one educated within, or an active participant in, what Lilla himself calls “the Christian tradition” – resolutely and decisively begins by rejecting his own Christianity. Alternatively, he may repeatedly affirm that other Christian thinkers were not Christian thinkers, as in “Hegel was no theologian, let alone a Christian one.” Along with its contemporary followers, the Church – having a long and venerable tradition for seeking out dissenters of whatever sort, excommunicating them and worse – has been happy to oblige and confirm the verdict: “this is no Christian of mine!” (compare how one can write a book these days about a Jewish theologian in order to intégrer the poor fellow into the community of “real” philosophers. Rushing to give you a prize in order to celebrate the exclusion of this prodigal son will be your local synagogue and other institutions of higher Jewish learning). Second, instead of proposing a critique of Christianity, the no-longer Christian thinker gently extends his rejection/critique to “religion” and beyond to the whole of humanity (“not just Christian political theology, but the basic assumptions upon which all political theology had rested”), proceeding to a. condemn “them” for not having achieved his own degree of freedom and, b. affirm the exceptional dimension of – what else? – Christianity, which thankfully brought him to the happy shores on which he finds himself (“We live, so to speak, on the other shore” as Lilla smugly and tirelessly repeats). Finally, our non-Christian exonerates Christianity (forgive me, he exonerates “true Christianity,” not them marginal dissenters, mystics and fanatics) by piling up the blame on those toward whom he had previously extended his kind, and unsolicited, attention. As a coda he proceeds to ask – it is, after all, the great separation – “Why Are We so Great?”

Part Two: The Stillborn, Reckless Mind

“The human mind is a weak organ”

Not so deeply buried through Lilla’s explorations is the verso side of an answer, which I am almost afraid to discuss for fear of joining the current war on anti-Semitism. Yet, Lilla is disturbingly clear and insistent that the reasons behind Christianity’s gentle contribution to the emancipatory advancement of the world at large are not Jewish reasons. They are nothing but Christian, of course, but because Lilla lingers on figures that he identifies as “Jewish,” the reader gains an essential perspective on “the other shore” and its history. Thus, having cast the Bible as the quintessential Jewish text (Lilla kindly adopts the politically correct “Hebrew Bible,” thus erasing the Reformation’s invention of the Bible as both political and theological and as neither political nor theological, further advancing us on the path of liberation from the recently canonized and vernacularized Old Testament and, presumably, toward the next Good News, the happy shore on which we stand), Lilla warns us to “beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise.” Clearly, whatever we have to thank for the Great Separation does not come from the Hebrew Bible, or from the Jews (Cohen, Buber, Rosenzweig). For under these names and headings, we should recognize the perils of “political messianism,” a.k.a., “religious passions,” “biblical religion” and my personal favorite “biblical political theology.” There is found the living and searing source of the perennial alternative that confronts us. There the danger that threatens us and our choicest way of life. One can see how those who fail to think “that the destructive forces within biblical religion [sic!], which surfaced repeatedly in premodern Jewish and Christian history could ever again pose a threat” carry a heavy burden of responsibility. For “the religious passions traditionally associated with messianism [are] still alive. Heresies, false prophecies, peasant revolts, massacres, genocides, self-immolations – the history of messianic moments bulges with them.” Surely, it is political theologies, nay, religion itself that is to blame for such a bloody history. Is it not religion, after all, and religion alone, that “can express darker fear and desires, that can destroy community by dividing its members, that can inflame the mind with destructive apocalyptic fantasies of immediate redemption”? Who would not want therefore “to protect modern man from the cycle of superstition and violence into which political theology inevitably led”? Yes, it must be religion, and religion alone that should stand out among those who make possible “the foulest of modern ideologies.”

Lilla does not go so far as to blame the Hebrew Bible, Jewish political theology, or even a Jewish thinker, much less the Jewish religion, for the rise of Nazism and whatever one considers its avatars today (much in the same way, back in 1993, Deborah Lipstadt had refrained from blaming “deconstructionism” for Holocaust denial). He does not even blame a Christian theologian for the advent of whom he calls “the Messiah of 1933.” He does better than that. He understands them (“they wanted to experience the moment of absolute decision and to have that decision determine the whole of their existence. Well! They did experience it.” Nazism – now, that’ll teach them!). Layering the association (or is it the guilt?) he explains that “they show how resilient political theology is, how it could survive in the modern West and be adapted to justify the most repugnant of modern political regimes.” And then he forgives them all for their lack of lucidity, for failing to see the beast they were participating in shaping and breeding.

[For] neither Rosenzweig, who died in 1929, nor Barth, who lived until 1968, recognized the connection between the rhetoric of their theological messianism and the apocalyptic rhetoric that was beginning to engulf German society. Their books did nothing to cause that political development, which had much deeper sources. But they did unwittingly help to shape a new and noxious form of political argument, which was the theological celebration of modern tyranny.

Part Three: East is East, West is West

For his part, Czeslaw Milosz – who avoided blaming either Jew or Christian for Nazism or Communism – knew well that “the pressure to conform” was exercised on both sides of the “great dispute,” if differently. It is important to recognize this. Milosz speaks of conformity, not of “speaking truth to power,” something one might have to do on the same shore, not from the safety of the other side on this now quasi-proverbial river, behind borders and ever higher walls. Like Lilla, he did not fail to choose one form of conformity over the other. What the two moreover share is a gesture whereby that which is seen, if for a fleeting moment, as an internal defect is subsequently projected onto the outer world. What they share is an exoneration of the hither side. It is the other side, the side of the other, therefore, that is defined, as it were indifferently, in political, religious and psychological terms. There is the side of “the New Faith.” Can we fail to discern something more there? It is revealed, I think, by way of the psychological profile Milosz traces of the main foot-soldier of this New Faith, this totalitarianism (Lilla would say: this political theology).

Milosz calls him “Ketman.” He is the arch-paradigm of “the captive mind” – “not only must one deny one’s true opinion, but one is commanded to resort to all ruses in order to deceive one’s adversary” – although he stands in an odd relation to the typology otherwise mapped by Milosz. In a way, Ketman is degree zero of the problem one confronts when considering the New Faith. It should come as no surprise that Ketman comes to us from “the Mussulman East.” Ketman is a stereotype of the worst kind, of course, which in fact comes from one of the undisputed founders of modern racism, Arthur de Gobineau. He was recently revived – if he ever went away – by those who appeal today to the wisdom of Milosz in recognizing that through the Communist East, the West never stopped fearing, and fighting, “Asiatic despotism.” Since Montesquieu at least, the paradigm for the despotic ruler traveled from the Ottoman Sultan to the Chinese emperor and the Russian Czar. The paradigm for the despotic subject, however, dominantly remained: Muslims. At times, they go unnamed – they are simply those who live on the other shore of politics, under the metaphorical or literal despot. Sometimes the name they bear remains unheard (think of the Muslims of Auschwitz). But since there are only two sides, details and differences among them, while interesting perhaps, need not concern us. As Lilla explains,

Most theories of religion, ancient and modern, have adopted a third-person perspective on belief: religion is something that happens to human beings, arising out of ignorance and fear or as a mythical expression of a society’s collective consciousness . . . Subjectively viewed, religion is a choice, perhaps even a rational choice, for individuals and societies. We all face the implicit alternative between living in light of what we take to be divine revelation, or living in some other way.

By the end of The Stillborn God, the perennial alternative will have imposed itself through sheer repetition. “Islam conquered its empire self-consciously with a confident tradition of political theology . . . Christianity, by contrast, acquired its empire accidentally and was forced to derive the principles of its political theology under the press of circumstances.” To repeat, then: although there may be more than one way on the hither side of things as well, it remains the case that, as Milosz put it, “there are only two sides” (for Milosz though, the choice may not be so “rational” – his own decision, he explains, “proceeded, not from the functioning of the reasoning mind, but from a revolt of the stomach”). That is why Gobineau is relevant here, and Milosz as well. For if, engulfed by these terms, we start to ask today about the other side, we will not have to wonder for long who they are and where they come from, or what the policy implications might be. They come – imagine that! – from “biblical messianism” and “from the Mussulman East.”

But of course, the enemy is also within (as Paul Cooke puts it, “Hobbes’s intention in treating the Bible as he did, I believe, was to sustain the form of Christianity while changing its actual substance for such readers, and this intention required the greatest care, manifested as a kind of duplicity, or, as I call it, a conspiracy against Christianity”). It is possible to go so far as to claim that the enemy is us? Lilla acknowledges at the outset that the great separation is internal (“we are separated from our own long theological tradition of political thought . . . . Now the long tradition of Christian political theology is forgotten”). Moreover, to the extent that Lilla’s perennial alternative, and the choice that derives from it, constitute “the human condition,” the answer would have to be: yes, the enemy is within us. But the enemy is, as we have seen, facing us. That is why, notwithstanding all the “fragility” rhetoric (“we” are in grave danger, of course, under threat or attack, our confidence shaken, and what not), Lilla is less interested in self-interrogation than in “knowing the enemy,” and in the repeated affirmation that we must be steadfast in upholding our sense of ourselves. “We sense ourselves to be thinking, critical creatures considering the alternatives before us. And therefore we are.”

And who are we, then, we who are, with or without sense or reason, that which we sense we are? We are those “who have accepted the heritage of the Great Separation.” Truly, this is not a fragile “we” that continues to be confronted by itself, or by an internal enemy, nor one faced any longer (was it ever?) with an existential decision. This “we” that speaks through Lilla is nothing if not content and confident: “we have made a choice” already. “We have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands.”

I suppose we should be proud of these indubitable achievements – in Iraq or in our prisons and reservations, on the Mexican border and in the slums where the exponentially multiplying poor survives (or not) – proud of having held political theology and indeed religion at bay (Lilla does assert that “it is only thanks to a strong constitutional structure and various lucky breaks that political theology has never managed to dominate the American political mind”). Right. But does this fairy tale – it is, I am afraid, a fairy tale – demonstrate “fragility” or does it manifest unwavering assurance? If anything, it seems to “attest to the strength of Americans’ self-confidence.” To the very least, it manifests the faith of a gated secularism in the righteous inevitability of its internal, rigid rather than liquid, ways. And it is consistent with what Lilla had elsewhere described as the “pride in our capacity to absorb immigration and shame in the legacy of slavery,” the political commitment and engagement that is “the logical extension of the social enfranchisement given to immigrants and promised, but never delivered to American blacks,” something which “speaks volumes about the social consensus that exists in this country about how to think and argue about such questions.” Right. Then again, “success has bred complacency.” Oh really?

So what about “the bloody record of political history”? In The Reckless Mind, Lilla had mentioned it, apparently in order to suggest that such minor “European” events as decolonization and the collapse of Communist regimes “have had no appreciable effect on American intellectual life, for the simple reason that they pose no challenge to our own self-understanding.” How is that still possible, one would ask, if one had not read Walter Benjamin on the rule and the exception. “We are the exception,” exults Lilla anyway, doing so along with a number of our American compatriots. As one fellow combatant recently put it, speaking truth to power from the assured shores of power: “This is America at its best.” It is, indeed, and going, and going, and going. But I would submit that it has little to do with liberalism. It has even less to do with “religion,” still less with “religions” or “political theologies.” It does acknowledge, if rather crudely, the lines of continuities that link “the unique theological challenges of Christendom” and its self-proclaimed “emancipation” from itself. It also shows the persistence of a pattern of distribution that separates politics and religion from a familiar, determined and determining perspective, applying its universal scheme wherever it casts its critical or distracted, often destructive, gaze. (Caesar meet God. God meet Caesar.) Does this “essentialize” Christianity? By no means. It merely situates “us” on the right side of the shore, well-placed to teach the world the lessons it keeps failing to learn. By insisting that this is a lesson in religion and its limits; by identifying “sides” along with enemies – and loving them – Christianity reveals less an essence than its pertinacity. And so still, the Jew, the Arab (“Thinking about such behavior was more highly developed in Christianity than in Judaism and Islam”).

This is not – and certainly not only – politics, here masquerading anyway as “the Clash of Religions” (not that Huntington meant anything else really). Affirmed or denied, reformed and reaffirmed, Christianity is many, of course, but by the force of its ever new faith and fairy tales, and by a few other means, it manages to remake and reconstitute itself in the figure of the Christian tradition and its alleged self-transcendence, which pervades Lilla’s book and grants it its language and understanding (“The idea of separating political discourse from theological discourse was a novelty, conceived to meet a particular predicament in Christian history”). Does it not ours? It works and operates as a one-sided decisionism of an all-too common kind, one that continues to spread and advance (God protect us!) carpet-bombing style, privileged to ignore its effects, or its tireless repetitions. “We have little reason to expect other civilizations to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique theologico-political crisis within Christendom.” If this is the secular age – allegedly an offer they can refuse, perhaps thanks to “our self-restraint” – it is still sustained and advanced by Western Christendom: far more than a religion and a benevolent set of political choices, the military-industrial complex hand in hand with the democratic and economic mission in its theologico-political teachings. The Stillborn God is a secular book, no doubt, but more importantly, it is Christianity triumphant. It partakes of a mondialatinisation it describes quite aptly: “The Anglo-American liberal tradition lacks a vocabulary for describing the full complexity of its own religious life, let alone for understanding the relation between faith and politics in other parts of the world.” After The Stillborn God, it is obvious that this lexical mishap – the irrelevance and abolition of translation – plagues not only the book itself, but the discriminated world it stands for and affirms. But hey, as one Texas governor is said to have put it, “if English was good enough for Jesus-Christ, it’s good enough for me!” Just listen to the way this little phrase – “political theology” – is spreading.


It is the enduring sound of one civilization clashing.