The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. By Mark Lilla. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. 334pp. $26.00.
Mark Lilla's The Stillborn God is a welcome consideration of a question of utmost importance. What if, contrary to the expectations and hopes of many Enlightenment figures, religion and faith have not faded into history as relics of our primitive past, but have flourished despite the advances of reason and modernity? What if Nietzsche's Zarathustra is mistaken, and God is not dead? Lilla's book is an erudite and provocative attempt to explain why religion and politics have had such a vexed relationship and how the attempts to solve the tension between them have shaped the contours of political thinking in the West.
The outline of Lilla's book is simple enough, even if the subject matter at times delves deep into the works of some major, and not so major, political philosophers and theologians. Lilla describes the crisis of European history as resulting from political thinking in which God's will ana truth are central components. This way of thinking-Lilla refers to it as political theology-had a certain comprehensiveness that was comforting on one level, but it also carried, and carries, inherent tendencies that can erupt into political reality with the most unpleasant consequences.
Lilla begins by describing the struggle of Christian political theology and concludes that although it must be given credit for "[allowing] a magnificent and powerful civilization to flower," the seemingly endless doctrinal and political debates that accompanied it "rendered medieval European life increasingly intolerant, dogmatic, fearful, and violent" (p. 55). This last flourish might remind one of Thomas Hobbes's famous line about life in the state of nature being "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
Indeed, Hobbes plays perhaps the pivotal role in Lilla's telling as the architect of "The Great Separation," the first modern solution to make politics safe again by taming the divisive potential of religion. Hobbes's great accomplishment was to redirect our attention from a God-centered approach to political life to a man-centered "nexus." Whereas prior to Hobbes God acted as the hub and the concerns of man were like so many spokes in a wheel, now human concernsnamely the fear of death-would operate as the center, and God, to the extent that God was involved at all, would be relegated to one of the spokes.
This account is all skillfully and carefully relayed. …