Saturday, September 15, 2007

The great undertaking of the liberal West is to make a place for religion

BOOKS Contested Authority A Philosophical history of the shifting power of religion in politics By PETER BERKOWITZ September 15, 2007 The Stillborn God By Mark Lilla Knopf, 334 pages, $26
In Hobbes's view, nature was mechanistic. God was not the Creator and Redeemer but at most an ultimate cause. Human nature was governed by amoral appetites and passions, and reason was an instrument for satisfying them. Religious belief, as the ancient Epicureans had taught, arose out of fear and ignorance. The best political order achieved peace -- self-preservation is the precondition for the satisfaction of individual desires -- by concentrating power in the sovereign. Above all, because differences over religion were the principal source of strife and war between nations, religion, in Hobbes's judgment, had to be radically demoted.
Later thinkers challenged Hobbes's demotion of religion but did not disturb the "Great Separation." Locke taught that peace and the protection of the individual could be better achieved through religious toleration and the separation of powers. Rousseau and Kant argued that men had religious needs that demanded respect but could not be fully satisfied by conventional religion. And Hegel sought to show that religious faith provided an indispensable vehicle for expressing crucial truths about the ethical life.
Political theology enjoyed a rebirth of sorts in 19th-century Germany, as Mr. Lilla shows. Championed by Protestant theologians, the new political theology -- or "liberal theology," as it came to be known -- found in the moral and political achievement of the modern German nation-state God's presence in history. Liberal theologians were sharply criticized in the 20th century by the German Protestant theologian Karl Barth and by the German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig for losing sight of the reality of biblical revelation and the promise of divine redemption. And then the guns and concentrations camps of World War II silenced the debate in Europe.
Where does that leave us now? Mr. Lilla concludes that "there is no effacing the intellectual distinction between political theology, which appeals at some point to divine revelation, and a political philosophy that tries to understand and attain the political good without such appeals." Even as he explains why other civilizations may well make different choices, he urges us to "keep our politics unilluminated by the light of revelation." But isn't that too stark, especially for a country whose Declaration of Independence grounds our unalienable rights in God as well as nature?
The great undertaking of the liberal West is to make a place for religion -- in public as well as private life -- without sacrificing individual freedom and political order. To be sure, this is no easy task, as Mr. Lilla shows, for religious belief has a way of making exclusive, and often political, claims... Mr. Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor at the George Mason University School of Law.

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