Liberal Theology in the Modern West

Elaine Lynn

The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West, by Mark Lilla (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007, ISBN 978-1-4000-4367-5) 321 pp. Cloth $26.00.


The “Stillborn God” of this fascinating and scholarly work is the God of the Enlightenment, God as conceived by liberal theology. The book places modern-day church-state issues in historical context and asserts that liberal theology failed because it reduced religion to a pallid thing that couldn’t survive a challenge when it arose. “The idea of separating political discourse from theological discourse was a novelty, conceived to meet a particular predicament in Christian history,” Mark Lilla tells us, and it has proven inadequate because it doesn’t meet human religious needs. Lilla gives us a detailed intellectual history of liberal theology beginning with Hobbes, and he stops in the early twentieth century as a group of Protestant church leaders and theologians declare that “Christ has come to us through Adolf Hitler.”

Lilla, currently professor of humanities at Columbia University, says the human need for religion always resulted in identifying every human society as god-centered, based on a concept of the nexus between God, the individual, and the world. In this study, he deals with Anglo-American and European societies, particularly Germany, where liberal theology flourished in the nineteenth century and seemed to promise a fundamental change in social and political life.

Unlike Islam, Christianity acquired an empire accidentally when Constantine declared himself a Christian. It continued to be a kaleidoscope with political authority fragmenting among different papacies, church councils, kingships, free cities, and the like, each claiming to derive its form and principles from God’s nature and role in the world. A good citizen, or, usually, subject, lived in accordance with God’s intent.

As the new sciences began to eat away at Christianity, Lilla says that the findings of Galileo, Leeuwenhoek, and others had more subtle but deeper consequences than are usually noted. “Natural theology had become central to Christian thinking on the assumption that a full account of ‘the whole’ was in principle possible and could serve as a support to Christian ethics.” God teaches us through nature, but that came into doubt: the world did not show the stable signs and patterns from which we could learn those lessons.

In 1652, Hobbes published Leviathan, for which the modern term paradigm shift would be somewhat of an understatement. Instead of starting with the issue of God’s relationship to the world, Hobbes begins discussing society by describing sense perception and the mental activity by which we order our experiences. He rejects the idea of a soul as a misleading way to talk about the human mind and its activities. Human beings live in a physical world and are driven by desires and aversions. There is no evidence—“no signs nor fruit,” as Hobbes would have it—of religion except in humans’ experience. We must no longer begin a consideration of life by considering the nature of “God” and his relationship to individual people and to the world. We should start with human beings and ask where religion comes from. Why are people religious? What is religion? People invent gods to assuage their fears, but these are even more frightening. People then turn credulously to other people—priests, magicians, and so on—thus turning their private fears into public issues. Hobbes believed religion was based solely on ignorance and fear. People arrived at social arrangements, including religion, as a matter of necessity without which life would be famously “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes’s analysis of religious and political conflicts as sharing identical roots in human nature made sense to many thinkers living in a period of intense religious warfare.

In the seventeenth century, a “Great Separation took place, severing Western political philosophy decisively from cosmology and theology,” Lilla tells us. “It remains the most distinctive feature of the modern West to this day.”

Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) modified Hobbes’s approach by giving more weight to the active will, believing that people value some things and choose to join in social arrangements to advance their purposes. One of the things we crave is certainty, which is hard to find in the world. We accept the pseudo-certainties of religious superstition too easily.

Hobbes concludes that the only way for a society to be stable is to give all religious and political power to one ruler, with no separate church. The sovereign would have full authority over public religion. Locke and others who followed found the proposal disastrous. They believed people could live successfully in secular democracies. Churches could be reformed from within, and people would be content to view them as voluntary associations that have no legitimate political claims. The churches could be tolerant and observe strict separation of church and state.

Both Hobbes and Locke claimed that their philosophies were consistent with Christianity. Hume, writing in the eighteenth century, no longer found that necessary. Hobbes had changed not only the rules of the game but the game itself.

Spinoza, Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Madison, Adams, and Jefferson believed in what would have seemed fantasy to most of their contemporaries. A political order could be established that was not based on revelation or an absolute ruler but was designed to limit and distribute power throughout society, where religious tolerance could flourish and where individuals would have established rights against government as well as others within their society. Today, we see this as part of the political landscape, but it would have been unimaginable to nearly anyone before Hobbes.

In the mid-eighteenth century, Rousseau’s Emile lent support to the liberal political philosophy without agreeing with the Hobbesian solution. Rousseau identified all the benefits of religion (conscience, fellow-feeling, virtue) as part of human nature, which could only be corrupted by organized religion. For that, his books were publicly burned; Rousseau himself barely managed to escape the fate of his books.

Despite how different the two philosophers often seem, Kant systematized and developed the ideas of Rousseau. Kant differs from other philosophers in this line of thought, which asserts the importance of separating church and state. He thinks all individuals have a permanent internal conflict, because they not only have the natural goodness Rousseau found, but they also have radical evil as part of their nature. Kant uses the biblical Eve as an example of wickedness. Eve’s sin was risking the wrath of God by eating fruit from the tree of knowledge. Kant points this out as a perfect example of wrong: she let her own reasoning determine what to do. But knowledge is another form of good. She wanted it, and she subordinated morality (the commandment of God) to get it. According to Kant, happiness, such as acquiring knowledge, must always be subordinate to morality.

Kant thinks our despair requires the comfort of a church and that we must assume the existence of God and immortality. He, alone among the philosophers contributing to this approach, regards church participation as mandatory. Every person should be part of the “church invisible” so he or she can participate in the purification of the “church ecclesiastical.” Conveniently, the form of the ideal religion turned out to be Kant’s own: Protestant Christianity, in a purer form than existed at the time, was the true religion the rest of
the world eventually accept.

In nineteenth-century Germany, political philosophy produced what the au-thor calls “a revolutionary intellectual move,” a political theology that could be derived not from revelation but from human thought and experience. It was the “liberal theology” of German Protestants and Jews. German Jews thought this created a basis on which Jews could hold full citizenship in the state as well as modernize their religion. The most important fact about it in Lilla’s telling is that it failed. Liberal theology, from which many of our current Protestant and Jewish practices derive, failed spectacularly in twentieth century Europe because it could not—and still cannot—satisfy the overwhelming, innate need for religious passion and redemption. “Man is a religious animal,” he tells us. Religion is what ultimately unites people in a culture against other cultures.

Anglo-American thought seemed to have found a path perceived as beneficial to both church and state: the church could focus on individual salvation, and the government was freed from making judgments and accommodating doctrines in religious affairs. The author warns us from the vantage point of history not to get our hopes up for the long run.

The tension between modern political philosophy and political theology is always with us. It is not something that was settled in our past or is just living today in foreign lands. “Political theology,” Lilla tells us, “is a way of thinking, a habit of mind and therefore stands as a perennial alternative to the kind of thinking that inspired the modern institutions we now take for granted.”

Elaine Lynn

Elaine Lynn received her master’s degree in international relations from the University of Chicago. She currently devotes herself to the study of science, history, and philosophy. She is the secretary of the Secular Humanist Society of New York and leads its book club. She is also the host of the Atheist Book Club, an MNN cable television program produced in New York City by the New York City Atheists Library, available online at MNN.org.


The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West, by Mark Lilla (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007, ISBN 978-1-4000-4367-5) 321 pp. Cloth $26.00. The “Stillborn God” of this fascinating and scholarly work is the God of the Enlightenment, God as conceived by liberal theology. The book places modern-day church-state issues in historical context and …

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