Political Philosophy/Theology: According to Mark Lilla


(So I just cut this section from the intro to my dissertation so I thought I would post it here.)

Political Theology and Political Philosophy

Mark Lilla makes a rough distinction between political philosophy and political theology that will set the stage for our consideration of political theology.[1] For Lilla, all political theology depends upon a picture of reality relating God, humanity, and the world, a form or habit of thought perennially possible.  Political theology depends on reference to divine authority or cosmological speculation.  But modern political philosophy, set in motion by Hobbes, separates the religious from the political and attempts to speak of politics purely in human terms.[2]  This he calls the Great Separation, first articulated by Hobbes and then elaborated by Locke and Hume.  Hobbes “was the first thinker to suggest that religious conflict and political conflict are essentially the same conflict,”[3] and that religion had to go within the sphere of politics.  Lilla is quick to show that strict atheism need not follow, just that political philosophy must move ahead independently.

But rather than building on its successes, Lilla traces a narrative of decline concerning the Great Separation, showing how Enlightenment philosophers eroded the wall Hobbes had erected.  Lilla reads Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel as inadvertently transforming modern political philosophy back into a political theology, opening the door for a messianic backlash in the early twentieth century when liberal theology began to crumble.  Against Hobbes, Rousseau introduces the goodness of the natural sentiment of religion if uncorrupted by dogmatic speculations revolving around revelation, and thought that the suppression of religion made humanity less human.  Kant followed after, and while respecting the separation of reason from revelation, nevertheless reintroduced God through the backdoor of morality.  For Lilla, Kant confused the issue of political philosophy versus political theology because while revelation does not inform the dictates of reason or politics for Kant, morality required in faith in God.  Rather than modern Epicureans like Hobbes and their theological rivals trading on clear contrasts between revelation and reason, church and state, tradition and innovation, Kant developed a “novel kind of theological-political fantasy” where the priest and prince can lie down in peace.[4]  With Hegel, the final move is made toward a thoroughly modern political theology when he claims the priest and the prince, and the philosopher, have always been talking about the same things in different ways, with religion now acknowledge as a principle conduit of truth and knowledge rather than producing fear and ignorance.  Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel inaugurate a new trajectory in modern thought such that “political theology could be derived from human experience alone,” opening again the door to another world, even if Kant and Hegel disagree on the nature of the relationship of the other world to this world. Either way, for Lilla, this possibility is the fall from modern political philosophy and its Great Separation.

While one might disagree with his characterization of the rise and fall of political philosophy, surely Lilla is correct in his assessment of this new political theology.  When a huge anthology like De Vries and Sullivan’s Political Theologies, containing selections from philosophers, political scientists, historians, and sociologist, offers only one essay by a theologian,[5] Pope Benedict at that, and another volume with “political theology” in the subtitle says next to nothing about God, theology, or any actual existing religion, using instead Lacanian theory as a cipher for the divine,[6] it is easy to confirm Lilla’s suggestion regarding the emergence of a thoroughly modern, might I add, humanistic (or anti-humanistic) political theology.  One need only consider the work of Slavoj Žižek, who could be properly called an atheist political theologian.  Whether this is the fall of politics by theological corruption, or the cooptation of theology for politics, or something else altogether, is in the eye of the beholder and in need of farther refinement.

[1] Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God (Vintage Books: New York, 2008).

[2] Ibid., 4-5.

[3] Ibid., 80.

[4] Ibid., 162.

[5] Hent De Vries, Lawrence E. Sullivan, eds, Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006).

[6] Slavoj Žižek, Eric L. Santer, and Kenneth Reinhard, The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005).

Leave a Reply