Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God feels like two books, oddly yoked together. One is a fascinating study, which traces a post-Enlightenment tradition of theorizing about religion starting from an anthropocentric focus. Religion is to be understood from the human desire or craving or need for religion. The originator of this way of thinking is Rousseau, but he rapidly acquires followers in Germany: Kant, the German Romantics, Schleiermacher. Lilla traces this line of thought in German culture, up through Liberal theology, Kulturprotestantismus, and the triumphant sense of liberal religion as at the heart of modernity. And then he tells how this complacent view was rudely discredited by the killing fields of 1914-18, and how this crisis gave rise to supposed returns to orthodoxy, in the form of Barth and Rosenzweig.

This is a fascinating story, and well worth the telling, particularly as Lilla weaves together both a Christian and a Jewish variant, which grew symbiotically in Germany. Of course, one might cavil at some of the interpretations; I feel that Lilla pulls his major figures perhaps a bit too far in the anthropocentric direction. In particular I feel that his Hegel interpretation is a bit too human-centred, but there is much room for disagreement here and no writer can please everyone. This is a fascinating account, from which one can’t but learn, whether in agreement or not.

But then this monograph is woven into a much broader narrative of modernity, about the coming, and then later the threatened undoing of what he calls the Great Separation. Otherwise expressed, this involved a determined sidelining of “political theology.” This meant that people were ready to understand political society in purely human terms. This, for Lilla is something achieved in the early modern West, and now perhaps under threat even here. It is foreign, even unthinkable, in other cultures. The motive for the Great Separation was the religiously inspired violence of the confessional wars of the early modern period. Its great architect for Lilla was Hobbes. The threatened return of political theology today may also weaken our defenses against the eruption of violence, hence the importance of our understanding what is at stake.

So the form of the narration is, first an important gain, and then later a threatened back-sliding. This latter threatens as a result of the tradition of liberal theology and the self-declared return to revelation that its discrediting provoked. This is a narrative rather like the secularization one, which often ends in today’s variants with a threatened “return of religion” – except that Lilla sets his face against an idea of secularization as an inevitable historical force.

Now this narrative seems to me wide of the mark. The strong metaphors, like Great Separation, and the image of our having crossed a river, distort and exaggerate the differences. On one bank, political theology supposedly reigns supreme; on the other, it has vanished.

What is political theology? Perhaps that in answering basic political-normative questions (justice, legitimate authority, war and peace, rights and obligations) one appeals to divine authority. Or perhaps that one appeals to revelation. But this is not a category for many religions, so Lilla adds “cosmological speculation.” In any case, for the modern West, “We no longer recognize revelation as politically authoritative.”

But, if you look at what shaped the West “for over a millennium,” you get a much more complex picture. These issues of justice, war and peace, and so on: these were not settled by revelation according to what was long a dominant view. Take Aquinas. The sources here were natural law theory, Aristotle, sometimes Plato (admittedly, Plato comes close to leaning on “cosmological speculation,” if you think of his Idea of the Good). When it comes to legitimate rule, one important source was traditional law. Who was the legitimate successor to the previous King lately deceased?

True, there were demands on the political system made by revealed religion. The King should defend the true faith for example; this was a key notion of post-Constantinian Christendom. And there was indeed a crisis generated by different interpretations of this demand in the early modern period: the Wars of Religion, which we modern Westerners are dimly aware of as the crucible out of which certain features of modern liberal society emerged painfully and over time, most notably the principles of toleration, separation of church and state, and eventually pluralism. This was a tough and sometimes long transition. But we didn’t make it by shifting utterly our modes of political thinking, from one based on divine revelation to one based on purely human considerations.

Take the French Wars of Religion. The normative background in which these were fought out included French Law, including the Salic law of succession; the generally accepted considerations of Natural Law, and the above-mentioned demand that rulers should defend the true church against heresy. In fact the vicissitudes of the 16th Century were partly determined by the ways in which different kings weighted the different demands on them. And the crucial drama turned on the way within each side, and particularly the Catholic side, these demands were differently weighted. In the end the crucial struggle was between the Ligue under the duc de Guise, on one side, Catholic extremists who were willing to over-ride all other considerations in order to defend the Catholic faith, going even to the lengths of assassination of Kings they considered not sufficiently hostile to heresy (but to be fair, the royal party also resorted to assassination, of which Guise was a victim); and on the other side, les Politiques, the party that weighed peace, order, and legality over doctrinal purity. They won, and the compromise was the accession of Henri IV, legal according to Salic rules, along with his conversion and an Edict of toleration (l’Édit de Nantes). Paris vaut bien une messe.

Europe emerged from its wars of religion by moves of this kind. The analogues of the Politiques cobbled together various kinds of deals in which the demands for doctrinal purity were tempered by legality and the requirement of peace and order. The Holy Roman Empire became a patchwork quilt of confessional states in which each local ruler enforced his orthodoxy, while co-existing with neighbours who embraced different confessions. In other states, “heretical” faiths were tolerated within limits.

The great political philosophy which emerges out of this transition is that of modern Natural Law, whose major figures in the 17th Century were Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, Pufendorf. This was the school which invented modern human rights; that is, they made central individual “subjective” rights, rights as the property of individual agents. And they all developed powerful reasons why legitimate order should trump any theological claims about the evils of heresy (that is, not render these null and void, but trump them whenever they conflicted with the demands of order).

Where in all this do we find something like a “crossing” to another shore? This seems altogether too dramatic an image. The more so, in that many of these thinkers continued to invoke the will of God as the basis of Natural Law. This is clearly the case with Pufendorf and Locke. For Locke, the kernel of Natural Law is the right to life. And the basic justification of this right is as follows: “For Men being all the Workmanship of one Omnipotent, and infinitely wise Maker; All the Servants of one Sovereign Master, sent into the World by his order and about his business, they are his Property, whose Workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one anothers Pleasure.” True, this is arguably not derived from Revelation, but the product of Natural theology. Nevertheless, God remains very much part of the picture. It would not be possible to describe Locke as “thinking and talking about politics exclusively in human terms.”

So what is political theology, and when did we abandon it? One answer is to define this mode of thinking as one deriving basic premises from Revelation, and then note that it was first neutralized, subordinated to the other kinds of consideration which were always in the field, and then later, dropped altogether, in the sense that most political thinkers today do not feel the necessity of evoking revelation. Which of these steps corresponds to “crossing the river”? Hardly the first, because the notion of Nature and particularly human nature as providentially designed persists for a long time. Indeed, it is not even fully clear when the second move occurred, because since the reigning notion of the Age of Enlightenment was that a Supreme and Benevolent Being had designed the world, appeals to God and appeals to Nature were in this domain extensionally equivalent. It wasn’t really until the post-Darwin era that the notion of a normative design in nature, whether based on a theistic account or not, comes under challenge.

Later the discussion in the book seems to introduce a third conception of political theology. In the above discussion we gleaned two senses: (1) political theology exists where our normative political theory depends directly on premises from Revelation, (2) this theory depends on premises which are theological, even though not drawn (only) from Revelation (e.g. Locke and Pufendorf). To these, the discussion of Chapter 2 seems to add a third. Our whole thought about politics can be enframed by a view of God and his purposes, and their relation to human action in history, even though our normative thought doesn’t derive directly from any theological premises, revealed or rationally arrived at. Otherwise put, if we reconstruct political deliberations in the form of practical syllogisms, we are not forced to articulate any specifically theological premises.

Lilla elaborates three such enframings in pre-modern Christianity: one a hyper-Augustinian view which saw the political scene as dominated by what were in effect super-robbers, who can at least quell the petty criminals and keep them in order; a second which did try to draw some conclusions for political order in Church and State from God’s ambiguous relation to human history; and a third, that of millennial rebels, which called on people to reject all established orders in favour of the new eschatological age. “Withdrawal into monasticism, ruling the earthly city with the two swords of church and state, building the messianic New Jerusalem – which is the true model of Christian politics?” He wants to claim that the tension between these three frames helped to bring an end to political theology in Christendom.

This third sense of “political theology,” the enframing of our thought about politics and human affairs in some doctrines about God and the world, Lilla speaks of as maintaining a “divine nexus”. This sense (3) is clearly different from (1) and (2), since it is possible to practice political theory in this sense without engaging in (1) or (2). In our age, Reinhold Niebuhr provided an example. Plainly his Augustinian faith combined with his observations helped him develop a philosophical anthropology of humans as fallen creatures, which made him very skeptical of claims that human life could be radically improved by political engineering, whether communist or liberal.

So what would it mean to end political theology? Perhaps to drop it in all three forms, and to think out the great questions in entirely intra-worldly terms. This seems to be what Lilla is suggesting in Chapter 2, the “great separation.” And this impression is strengthened by his choice of Hobbes as the paradigm figure. He reads Hobbes’ “Epicureanism” i.e., mechanistic atomism, as leveling “nothing less than the Christian conception of man.” Of course, this is highly controversial, if one means that Hobbes meant to level the Christian conception. This would render the whole second half of Leviathan with its elaborate interpretation a tongue in cheek exercise meant to fool his contemporaries. Another interpretation is not ruled out. There were Christian Epicureans in the 17th Century (Gassendi, for instance).

But we can by-pass this and simply say that we consider mechanistic materialism incompatible with Christian faith and that therefore Hobbes was in fact refuting it, even if he didn’t grasp this. But this reading of the Great Separation raises questions for the issue when it was supposed to occur. Hobbes was much less influential in his time than he is in ours, and this was largely because of his reductive theory. Lots of contemporaries judged of him what Lilla seems to have judged, that he was a covert atheist. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. So is the great separation consummated when we’ve all been converted to mechanistic materialism? In which case, it would have to be a moment of liberation yet to come. Or is it just when we stop talking altogether about God? But that doesn’t seem to have happened either, except in some reaches of the academy, and even there you wonder how many crypto-Niebuhrs are hiding.

So how are we to conceive the Great Separation, the abandonment of political theology? In senses (1) and (2), it was never the only game in town, except perhaps for millenarist sectarians. But it was part of the range of essential considerations for most people. There were those who in virtue of their theology in sense (3) wanted to retreat from the political world, like Anabaptists. Whatever theology they had in sense (1) could be called “negative”; have nothing to do with the powers of this world. Obey the Prince when he doesn’t demand something directly contrary to the Gospel (like joining the army), and even when he does issue such commands your disobedience should be utterly passive. Somehow we’ve got to an age in the West where there is very little direct intrusion of normative premises from theology into our political lives; but this can arise for many believers because their enframing sense of the relation to God is much more complex, and doesn’t admit of such direct transfers, or because lots of people are now atheists or agnostics, or more realistically for both reasons: because we are split about the issue of potential theological enframings, the only way we can discuss together about political issues is in terms which remain common.

I think Lilla exaggerates the importance of Hobbes, but he is right to see him as one thinker in the chain of those who developed what I have called the modern moral conception of social order. A more apt founding figure for this outlook is Grotius. It sees human beings as both each pursuing their own goals, of life and prosperity, in potential conflict with others, while at the same time they are sociable, meant to live with others. Our social morality can be derived from this predicament. Those social rules are correct which can enable humans to live together; which can in other terms harmonize their projects, so that they become mutually strengthening, instead of causes of conflict and hence destruction. This is if you like a derivation of social rules from purely human considerations, and Grotius even makes the (in)famous claim that these rules would be valid, even if God didn’t exist. But in the way these ideas were worked out, in say, Locke, or Pufendorf, or the framers of the American Declaration of Independence, they were not disconnected from theology. The assumption was that God had made human beings so that they could achieve harmony by these rules, whether this was established by reason, often in a Deistic mode, or shown by Revelation (and for many people, of course, the fact that these truths were doubly guaranteed made them all the more credible). “We hold these truths to be self-evident….”

Where I agree with Lilla is that this new ethic of order could be detached from a theistic anchoring. It could be seen as inscribed in Nature (Jacobins), and then later as what our instincts and intuitions as they have developed in civilization suggest to us. What I cannot see is a moment of Great Separation, as it were, a crossing of a stream. Even today, our sense of this liberal order of equality, rights and democracy is sustained by what Rawls called an “overlapping consensus,” in which people support the same principles for a host of different reasons, Kantian, utilitarian, but also theological. Now in fact, it is hard to think across these gaps; for a believer to understand an atheist, and vice versa. So people always fall into imagining that their grounds for upholding the consensus are the only valid ones. Certain people on the US right think that Christianity is the only possible basis; certain members of the liberal academy think that if you aren’t some kind of Kantian you have no good reason to believe in Liberalism. These beliefs help to generate the kind of Kulturkampf from which the US suffers. But the fact is that our civilization is anchored in widely incompatible “comprehensive views,” to use Rawls’ term. Only if you forget this can you believe that “we” have crossed a deep divide, and that we are now threatened with regression. It seems to me that the reality is more mixed and less dramatic than that.

So on “our” (modern liberal) side of the river, “political theology” has never been wholly absent, and has often been very prominent. Unless we choose to forget abolitionists in Britain and America, the Civil Right movement, all the Second World War rhetoric about “defending Christian civilization,” etc. It is more or less prominent at different times and in different milieu, but it is always there.

And symmetrically, the kinds of philosophical considerations which we rely on today were very present on the “other” shore. One has the impression at times that Lilla sees the pre-modern age as dominated by the Guises and the Münzers. There were far too many then, but then we’ve seen quite a few in our day, not just those with a “theological” outlook, but also Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. Lilla never undertakes to describe the “other shore”, but the odd hints he does offer make me wonder. He speaks of contemporary recurrences to political theology as being unlike those of earlier days; they don’t “appeal to miracles, or biblical inerrancy, or divine providence, or sacred tradition.” Later he mentions “fanciful cosmologies.” But Biblical inerrancy is an invention of modern evangelical Protestantism; miracles were not standardly appealed to in political theory, even with a “divine nexus” (it’s true that they became very important in apologetics in the 18th Century, hence the punch in Hume’s deflationary arguments on this score); providence played a big role for thinkers of “British and American Liberalism,” of which Lilla says that for two centuries they “stayed well within the philosophical orbit that Hobbes had circumscribed.” This would certainly have surprised many of them.

One is led to wonder whether for Lilla pre-modern normative thinking was simply dictated out of Revelation. Speaking of our present enlightened age, Lilla says: “No one in modern Britain or the United States argued for a bicameral legislature on the basis of divine revelation.” But did the Norman Kings of England when they summoned the first Parliaments which provided the template for today’s British and American institutions consult the Bible or the doctrine of the Catholic Church?

Of course, one finds the tendency to derive goals directly from Revelation among sectarians and millenarists. These groups are often violent, which is one reason why many secular moderns link religion and violence. The last century has shown that this kind of murderous sectarianism is not confined to religious believers. It’s not clear to me what Lilla’s views are on this question.

In sum, the monograph on German thought is immensely stimulating and suggestive, but the broader narrative is hard to grasp, and seems to verge at times on the fantastic.