Religious passions are again driving world politics. The quest to bring political life under God’s authority has been revived, confounding expectations of a secular future. In this major book, Mark Lilla reveals the sources of this age-old quest—and its surprising role in shaping Western thought.
The story could not be more timely. Most civilizations in history have been organized on the basis of a political theology – a myth or revelation about the correct ordering of society. Yet due to a crisis in Western Christendom nearly five hundred years ago, a novel intellectual challenge to political theology arose in Europe. By portraying religion as an expression of human nature, not a divine gift, modern Western thinkers found a way to free politics from God’s authority and build barriers against destructive religious passions.
But the temptations of political theology are always present, even in the West. As Lilla vividly shows, the urge to reconnect politics to religion remained strong and took novel forms in modern European thought. By the Second World War a forceful political messianism had arisen, justifying the most deadly ideologies of the age.
Making us question what we thought we knew about religion, politics, and the fate of civilizations, Lilla reminds us of the modern West’s unique trajectory and what is required to remain on it.
About the Author
Mark Lilla is Professor of Humanities and Religion at Columbia University. He was previously Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. A noted intellectual historian and frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, he is the author of The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics and G. B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern. He lives in New York City.
Advance praise for Mark Lilla's The Stillborn God
“Mark Lilla is a master of the history of ideas. The Stillborn God . . . is a study of ‘political theology,’ the central question in the relation of religion to politics, as to which has the highest authority in moral discourse. The Enlightenment and the thinkers that followed had posited a ‘great separation,’ between the two, but that liberal view has collapsed, and we face the question anew as to the idea of God in the world today. Lilla follows this question from Kant to Hegel, to Karl Barth in Christianity and Franz Rosenzweig in Judaism. It is a tale told with lucidity and spareness, and challenges all serious thought in the modern world. The Stillborn God will be a landmark in political philosophy.”
Henry Ford Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus, Harvard University
“Mark Lilla’s elegant and erudite book is a masterwork of modern secularism. Like all the greatest secularists, Lilla is mesmerized by religion, and cannot live with it or without it. The Stillborn God is a history of ideas haunted by the consequences of ideas, a cautionary tale about philosophy in the world. And in our God-addled age, this rich and lucid study of theology and politics is even a public service.”
"Thomas Hobbes, Mark Lilla demonstrates in the most insightful discussion of that seminal philosopher's ideas I have ever read, separated political authority from religious commandment and in so doing made modern liberal society possible. But can we be so sure that we know how best to live in a world in which we rule ourselves? The Stillborn God is a profound meditation on our contemporary condition, offering hope guided by wisdom."
Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, Boston College