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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The front lines of this struggle run through Jakarta, Bombay, Karachi, Cairo, and Lagos. That's where the real story is

August 21, 2007 More on "The Politics of God"
This is a followup to my earlier post. From the online Chronicle of Higher Education:

Mark Lilla and the Threat of Theological Politics
Siva Vaidhyanathan declares himself a longtime admirer of Mark Lilla's work, which is precisely why he is worried about Lilla's forthcoming book, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West, which was excerpted this past Sunday in The New York Times Magazine.
Vaidhyanathan's concern stems from Lilla's apparent belief that there is something called "the West" and that "within this alleged 'West' there is a 'We' that conforms to the core tenets of textbook history: 'We' were once burdened by superstitions and irrationalities until somehow 'we' became enlightened."
Vaidhyanathan, settling in to his new digs at the University of Virginia, where he is a professor of media studies and law, lays out his case on Eric Alterman's Web site, Altercation, where he is guest blogging this week. (To read more about Vaidhyanathan, check out this profile by The Chronicle's Scott Carlson.)
"Any construction of an intelligible and enlightened 'West' must elide all of those messy contradictions within it: Nazism, Francoism (Catholic royalism), Stalinism, radical Serbian nationalism, Jerry Falwell, etc. But mostly," Vaidhyanathan writes, "it must ignore the diversity of thought and practice among real people who inhabit 'the West.' And it must ignore the omnipresence of materialism, secularism, consumerism, rationalism, and even atheism as major traditions in places that could not easily be described as 'Western' such as India, Iran, and China."
Contrasting Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University, Vaidhyanathan is not "puzzled" by the sort of "theological radicalism" that emanates from Iran or Saudi Arabia. He claims that it echoes the theologically infused politics that one can find "in any conservative Baptist church in Texas." Even more arresting, Vaidhyanathan claims that this "hard-core millenarianism...is perhaps the most powerful strain of political thought in the United States today." As such, he faults Lilla for failing to examine how political theology influences not only radical Islam, but also radical Christianity and radical Judaism.
"The conflict between political theology and political liberalism is, as Lilla claims, the central conflict of our time," Vaidhyanathan writes. "I would add that it is the central conflict of all time. And it ain't just Americans and Europeans who have to deal with it. The front lines of this struggle run through Jakarta, Bombay, Karachi, Cairo, and Lagos. That's where the real story is."
(Not surprisingly, Christopher Hitchens has some of his own objections to Lilla's thesis.) Evan Goldstein Posted on Tuesday August 21, 2007 Permalink Posted by Michael Perry on August 21, 2007 at 03:47 PM in Perry, Michael Permalink

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