Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Political Theology at Georgetown

This evening and Thursday morning I'll be at Georgetown attending this conference on "Political Theology," built largely around a consideration of Mark Lilla's book The Stillborn God.

I have some serious issues with Lilla's book, some of which I'll be able to express at Thursday morning's panel. DC area readers are invited to attend; for those who can't, here's a bit of what I'll say.

The Great Combination:

Modern Political Thought and the Collapse of the Two Cities

Patrick J. Deneen

Georgetown University

Political theology, Mark Lilla instructs us, “is discourse about political authority based on a revealed divine nexus.”1 That is, political theology is the effort to associate or affiliate political authority with appeal or reference to, a comprehensive doctrine of a divine being or beings. It thus represents an intermingling not only of Church and State, but theology and politics in the deepest sense – a condition in which the authority and legitimacy derives its force and definition from the society’s (or authority’s) understanding of the divine.

According to Lilla, political theology was for the most part the basis for political authority for most of human history (at least in the West, the area about which he is concerned), at least until the inauguration of “the Great Separation” that was inaugurated in the early modern period above all by Thomas Hobbes, and subsequently developed by such thinkers as Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel. The “Great Separation” was an effort to remove appeals to “the divine nexus” in connection to political authority, instead vesting political authority wholly in terms that are rational, secular, and therefore separate from religious understandings. “The Great Separation” was an effort to remove religious concerns from the basis of political life, instead rendering it an affair of private life, individual conscience, and voluntary association. The hope, as Lilla suggests, was, over time, foster a condition in which “modern men and women [would] have less need of religion – a need they [could] satisfy privately, so long as they do not enter the public sphere” (SG, 90). On the basis of this “Great Separation,” not only would the wars of religion cease, but the need even to assuage human fears and longings through recourse to religious belief – it was believed – would also fade, replaced instead by concerns that were wholly secular and worldly. The world would become more like the one that many perceive or hope comes daily more into existence: a world of societies composed of individuals that are tolerant, peaceful, commercial, secular, reasonable, replete with plural views that do not violently conflict, governed by liberal regimes that are impartial to ends and efficient at promoting political and juridical solutions to problems while also encouraging prosperity that undergirds individual fulfillment. This was the dream that underlie “The Great Separation” inaugurated by Hobbes.

However,Lilla’s version of the development of modern liberalism as a form of "separation" of theological from political considerations is far off the mark. He writes that early modern thought sought to separate considerations of “the divine nexus” from political considerations. Lilla repeats with different iterations that the liberal order was built “without reference to such [theological] matters,” arguing that its constitutive thinkers sought to emphasize solely secular grounds for politics, “wishing the extinction of political theology,” concluding, for instance, that these thinkers sought the separation “of political discourse from theological discourse” (SG, 103, 298) Yet, this claim does not correspond to the deepest theological underpinnings of liberalism in its early modern and progressive forms of liberalism (roughly the two periods Lilla treats in the two respective chapters of Part II of The Stillborn God). Instead, looking squarely at the evidence, what one sees instead is the effort to overcome Augustine’s “Great Separation” by means of two distinct “Great Combinations,” each corresponding roughly with a development within liberal theory, from its classical conception enunciated most clearly by Hobbes and Locke, and its “progressive” period, as witnessed in such thinkers such as Rousseau and J. S. Mill. This “Great Combination” represents a true form of “political theology,” collapsing what Augustine had sought to hold apart, seeking fulfillment in the world by combining the Two cities. This combination differs for each iteration of liberalism, either putting the City of God in service of the City of Man (for classical liberalism propounded by Hobbes and Locke), or transforming the City of Man into the City of God (the aim of Rousseau and Mill, among others), but however rendered, it is actually at the origins of the liberal tradition – that tradition that Lilla believes to comprise the “Great Separation” – that one actually witnesses “The Great Combination.”


That's the thesis and synopsis. As for my conclusion:

Conclusion: A New Separation?

Modern thought – particularly the two iterations of liberalism now dominant on today’s political scene – represent not the legacy of separation, but combination. Above all – for their many differences from one another – both liberalisms place the human will in a place of ascendance, and view the world (nature, even humanity itself) as being subject to human dominion, command, and manipulation. Reaching back to Hobbes’s early boss, Francis Bacon, the modern project rests fundamentally upon the redirection of human negotiation with the created world – that which is “given” by God and whose existence we must struggle to understand in full cognizance that complete understanding will elude us – to one in which the created world becomes subject to our mastery and dominion. As Dewey would write (admiringly) of Bacon’s understanding of the human relationship to existence, we must conceive of Nature as a creature akin to a prisoner, and humanity as its jailor and torturer, seeking to extract from unwilling Nature its secrets. Lilla paints a dramatic portrait of an age of pre-modern violence born of religious warfare and a placid and peaceful condition of modern liberalism in which toleration, industriousness and prosperity govern. Left unsaid is the violent basis upon which liberalism was based, mainly directed toward a world that was viewed through a Gnostic lens of discontent and dissatisfaction, a relationship that was made possible by a “Great Combination” that put humankind in a position akin to that of gods.

This is a belief that I think we can no longer afford. Everywhere we are presented with evidence of depletion and destruction that our brief experiment with modernity has left us. What is needed is a true separation, an acknowledgment – returning to an Augustinian view – that we are not god, and cannot treat the world as means to our individual satisfaction or aspiration to perfectibility. As the author Wendell Berry has argued, the “war against nature” – inaugurated by Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, if not already by Machiavelli – is one that we are bound to lose. Our relationship to the world must change if we are to continue to derive sustenance from it, requiring an acknowledgment that we are created – not creators – and subjects, not sovereigns. At the moment, Berry writes, our relationship with nature is “dictatorial or totalitarian.” We need something and we take it; we want something and we exploit it. Instead, he writes, the proper relationship with nature is that of a conversation. We would ask of a place what it can offer and what we can offer in return, and listen even as we express our wants. He writes (in his essay “Nature as Measure”),

The conversation itself would thus assume a creaturely life, binding the place and its inhabitants together, changing and growing to no end, no final accomplishment, that can be conceived or foreseen....And if you honor the other party to the conversation, if you honor the otherness of the other party, you understand that you must not expect always to receive a reply that you foresee or that you would like. A conversation is immitigably two-sided and always to some degree mysterious; it requires faith.

Such a faith begins with a rejection of our self-sovereignty. Such a faith eschews “assurance,” that aspiration, above all, that marks not our ancient faith, but those modern faiths that we can no longer afford. If our modern faith is marked above all by a “Great Combination” of religion and politics, then I can at least agree with Mark Lilla that what is needed is a new “Great Separation” – albeit one that truly separates what should not have been put together.


Robert said...


Anonymous said...

I have long thought that we needed a new model for stewardship. The old idea of stewardship was expressed in Genesis, that man's relation to the earth was "to dress it and keep it." In the meantime... history happened, but there was no concept for the stewardship of history - the concept of stewardship remained folded into the concepts of economy and ecology. We need a model for stewardship of history that will include these - alas, I wish I could say that my book "Stewards of History" was published...