Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Stillborn God

Hello virtual friends of the wonderful internet reality,

Hope you all had a great Christmas. Mine was exhaustingly delightful.

It's a bit ironic, but on Christmas Eve I starting reading a book entitled The Stillborn God by Mark Lilla. So far, I'm loving it. It's masterfully written, brilliantly argued, insightful -- and in my opinion, mostly correct.

Mostly -- but not entirely. For example, Lilla tries to assign some of the blame for the violence Christianity has chronically engaged in on conceptual conflicts rooted in the theology of the New Testament. I think he's mistaken. I'd argue that all the violence is rooted in the fusion of political thinking and Christian theology that arose once Christianity acquired political power in the late 4th century. But though Lilla spends quite a bit of time on this point, it's actually not central to his thesis.

Lilla argues that the modern western concept of freedom is the result of Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Hobbes (in his work Leviathan) reacting against the perpetual religious-political violence of the 17th century by completely separating politics from theology. The modern concept of political freedom, in other words, is an inherently secular concept. While some conservative Christians try to argue that the Constitution of America is somehow rooted in Christianity, Lilla persuasively argues it came about only because influential thinkers abandoned Christianity and all religion as a foundation for political thought.

He is so right about this!

I'm not finished with the book yet, but the concern that seems to be driving Lilla's work is that this secular concept of freedom continues to be threatened by religion. We are not "out of the woods" yet, he argues. The secular concept of political freedom has only been around for several hundred years and the verdict is still out as to whether it will survive. The political theology of Nazism demonstrates how easy it is even for modern western people to slip back into theologically-based politics, and how harmful this can be when it happens.

I think Lilla is profoundly right about this as well. It's part of what concerns me when right or left wing Christians declare their political opinions to be the "Christian" position or to represent the politics of God.

I suspect many Christians would read Lilla's book as a slam on the Christian religion and a defense of full blown secularism. In a sense, it is. But I don't see this as a bad thing, for the movement Jesus came to establish -- the Kingdom of God -- can't be identified with the Christian religion. In fact, insofar as the Christian religion hasn't looked like Jesus Christ loving, serving and dying for his enemies (and let's be honest, if often hasn't), it contrasts with the Kingdom of God. It's in the interest of all Kingdom people to passionately point this sharp contrast out to people.

Not only this, but one can agree with Lilla's thesis that the modern concept of political freedom is inherently secular without accepting full blown secularism. I passionately reject the secular, humanistic, materialistic worldview. But because I think political freedom is a good thing, I just as passionately want to follow Lilla's advise and keep religion out of politics.

The bottom line is that religion and politics don't mix. Not only are free societies threatened by the mixing of religion with politics, as Lilla argues, but history shows that mixing politics and religion is disastrous for Christianity. This is what concerns me most.

We who have pledged our life to following Jesus are called to do one thing: follow him! We're called to mimic his loving service to all others, even if this entails suffering for enemies (Eph 5:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:20-25). We're not called to pretend that we have any superior wisdom or morality when it comes to resolving political conflicts.

So far, I'm finding Lilla's book to be a compelling demonstration of this truth. I heartily recommend reading it.

Stay centered in his love,