Main content | Sidebar | Links

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mark Lilla, William T. Cavanaugh on religious violence.

This week's New York Times Magazine gives religion bloggers the sort of story that almost defies blogging. Mark Lilla's 7,680-word essay, "The Politics of God" (excerpted from his new book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West), tells the story of how Western societies came to embrace the "Great Separation" of politics from questions about God's will. It deserves a very careful reading and raises more intriguing if not always satisfying arguments than I have time to take up here. I expect to come back to Lilla's narrative of liberal theology's "stillborn God," however, since his story of liberal theology's failure concentrates on the European (i.e., German) tradition of liberal theology and presents Rousseau as the archetype of liberalism. The story of liberal theology in America has hardly turned out to be free of the temptations he identifies with European theological liberalism, but then again, American liberalism didn't roll over for Nazism.

The one point I do want to raise now has to do with the question of "religious" violence. Lilla is a political philosopher and student of Isaiah Berlin, one of my favorite thinkers, and I always learn a great deal from him. One of his earlier books closely studied intellectuals who got weak in the knees for authoritarianism and totalitarianism (e.g., Heidegger, Benjamin, Foucault, Derrida). Lilla writes with a degree of abstraction and generality; he's writing about how people (especially ruling classes) think, not about what societies do. This is important because the Great Separation gave the state a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence but did not necessarily reduce the amount — or even the ideological intensity — of violence.

How I wish the Harvard Divinity Bulletin published its most provocative essays online. The most recent issue features an essay that brought me up short: In "Does Religion Cause Violence?" (35.2-3, Spring/Summer 2007: 22-35; here's an earlier lecture version of the essay [Word doc]), William T. Cavanaugh argues that "the division of ideologies and institutions into the categories 'religious' and 'secular' is an arbitrary and incoherent division." That part of his essay is interesting enough on its own, but isn't as important to thinking about Lilla's essay as his second argument:

I ask, "If the idea that there is something called 'religion' that is more violent than so-called 'secular' phenomena is so incoherent, why is the idea so pervasive?" . . . The myth of religious violence helps create a blind spot about the violence of the putatively secular nation-state. We like to believe that the liberal state arose to make peace between warring religious factions. Today, the Western liberal state is charged with the burden of creating peace in the face of the cruel religious fanaticism of the Muslim world. [This is of course the peg for Lilla's book, scheduled for release on September 11, although I don't think Lilla is making a case for war.] The myth of religious violence promotes a dichotomy between us in the secular West who are rational and peacemaking, and them, the hordes of religious fanatics in the Muslim world. Their violence is religious, and therefore irrational and divisive. Our violence, on the other hand, is rational, peacemaking, and necessary. Regrettably, we find ourselves forced to bomb them into the higher rationality. (24-25)

I'm not going to attempt to resolve the thinking between these two provocative writers just now; there's too much in what each of them says. But now you know what I'm thinking about. Given the lectionary for the Sunday I'm preaching at King's Chapel, maybe I'll have some refined thoughts about discipleship and the demands of faith by then.

P.S. A note to Tom Ashbrook and the producers of his excellent "On Point" program at WBUR: When you invite Lilla on to talk about his book, invite Cavanaugh — and the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, Gary Dorrien, an expert not only on Karl Barth but also on the history of liberal theology.

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 23 August 2007 at 8:15 AM

Previous: This week at A loved one fades away.
Next: What does 'liberal, welcoming' mean at your church?





August 23, 2007 10:43 AM | Permalink for this comment

Looks like he already presented this paper at an earlier conference.

You can find a transcript of it here (which is a word document). There are a couple of PDFs available, but I had a difficult time getting them to download correctly.


August 23, 2007 11:12 AM | Permalink for this comment

Aha! Thanks, Dave. This is indeed the manuscript version of the essay in the HDS Bulletin.

hafidha sofia:

August 23, 2007 02:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

That is a huge amount to digest, but thanks for taking the time and making the effort to at least present the information for us readers. Whew.

Bill Baar:

August 23, 2007 02:37 PM | Permalink for this comment

A paper that opens with,

Everyone knows that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence.

Raises some cautionary flags with me.

People create religions. People create violence. Some people have created violent religions. Others have not. But whether it follows religion promotes violence, I think not.

But I'll read the whole thing.

Bill Baar:

August 23, 2007 02:38 PM | Permalink for this comment

I mean Everyone knows... is an assumption that usually shoots you in the tail.

Sometimes violently.


August 23, 2007 02:50 PM | Permalink for this comment

Bill, as you'll see by reading Cavanaugh's essay, he is being somewhat ironic. Mark Lilla, however, is in earnest when he opens his essay by saying, "We in the West find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still inflame the minds of men." Given my family history, I don't happen to find it especially incomprehensible.

Bill Baar:

August 23, 2007 03:28 PM | Permalink for this comment

The first sentence just rankled the historian in me. History's the record of what people have done.

Relgion's one of many institutions people have built. (Institutions as in Veblen's sets of habits.)

Some habits are better than others. We can judge them by their outcomes.

But I hate to see people copout with the institution made me do it.

People built 'em. They should account for 'em.


August 23, 2007 03:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

Bill, try your hardest not to be tedious. Blogging sometimes tempts people to respond to the first sentence of an essay, before even figuring out the author's tone or argument. Resist temptation. Read it first.


August 23, 2007 06:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

Lilla talks about "Western Christians" when he really means "Prussian Lutherans". It is perfectly true that Prussian Lutherans did not stop Naziism. Many observers would attribute that to their nationalism and anti-Semitism rather than their liberalism. You don't need higher criticism to hate Jews.

But the larger point which Philocrities mentions is that what happened in Prussia did not happen in most of the Christian world. Lilla ignores Catholics altogether. He claims that in the 19th century in the English-speaking world political arguments did not invoke divine authority. This is somewhat true in the US, but completely false in the UK. Leaders like Wilberforce and Gladstone invoked religion constantly. Religious issues frequently dominated British nineteenth century politics. And, of course, the C of E was directly controlled by the state, as it is today.

Even in Germany, the state controlled the Lutheran church in the nineteenth century. Even in Weimar Germany, where Church and State were officially separate, the Catholics supported the religiously based Zentrum party. The whole "Great Separation" is mostly American, yet America didn't spawn Hitler.

Overall, this is familiar Marxist line from the 30s. "Hitler shows the futility of liberalism," to which the classical answer is, "Yeah, we aren't perfect. What have you got that's better?"

Pet peeve: I dislike writers who use "we" to mean groups to which they obviously feel superior. Lilla, like many writers, uses it to mean "my stupid readers".

Second Pet Peeve: I dislike non-Islamic writers who generalize about Islam based on little discernable knowledge.

Gabriel Mckee:

August 23, 2007 07:54 PM | Permalink for this comment

Greetings from a fellow HDS grad (MTS 2003)! I'm glad to see I wasn't the only one to make the connection between William T. Cavanaugh's (frankly brilliant) essay and Mark Lilla's (frankly irritating) one. Lilla doesn't make the leap to supporting imperialist violence directly (as do Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens), but there's definitely more than a little colonialism in his words about Islam. My reaction, if you're interested, is here:

Bill Baar:

August 24, 2007 07:56 AM | Permalink for this comment

Bill, try your hardest not to be tedious. Blogging sometimes tempts people to respond to the first sentence of an essay, before even figuring out the author's tone or argument. Resist temptation. Read it first.

Yes, but there is so much to read these days, you have to filter.

When the author opens with: Everyone knows... my radar says, move along Bill, move along....


August 24, 2007 09:57 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks, uuwonk and Gabriel! Do read Gabriel's long discussion of Lilla and Cavanaugh over at his blog. Thanks to Gabriel, I've also learned that you can download an MP3 of Cavanaugh's lecture or listen to it online.

Christine Robinson:

August 27, 2007 09:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

The MP3 is spell-binding. Cavanaugh does a great job of dispelling the "myth of religious violence"..or at least enlarging it so as to be unrecognizible. A great lecture. And it ended with a great question (from a listener) which is not in the text: "If there is no such thing as religious violence, is there then no such thing as religious peacableness?"

Comments for this entry are currently closed.