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