Lilla on “The Great Separation”

Mark Lilla made an impression on me when he made the following point about intellectuals’ discomfort with “ultimate questions:”

It is not that anyone thinks that incivility, promiscuity, drug use, and irresponsibility are good things. But we have become embarrassed to criticize them unless we can couch our objections in the legalist terms of rights, the therapeutic language of self-realization, or the economic jargon of efficiency.

Lilla’s forthcoming book “The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West” is excerpted in the NYT Mag this week. He traces the intellectual history of western conceptions of tolerance and freedom of conscience, exploring the historical contingency of commitments most of us take as second nature.


I can’t do Lilla’s article justice here, but I found most interesting his distinction between “liberalizers” and “renovators” within religious traditions. He believes that liberalizers may be doomed in the religious “marketplace of ideas:”

A number of Muslim thinkers around the world have taken to promoting a “liberal” Islam. What they mean is an Islam more adapted to the demands of modern life, kinder in its treatment of women and children, more tolerant of other faiths, more open to dissent. These are brave people who have often suffered for their efforts, in prison or exile, as did their predecessors in the 19th century, of which there were many. But now as then, their efforts have been swept away by deeper theological currents they cannot master and perhaps do not even understand.

The history of Protestant and Jewish liberal theology reveals the problem: the more a biblical faith is trimmed to fit the demands of the moment, the fewer reasons it gives believers for holding on to that faith in troubled times, when self-appointed guardians of theological purity offer more radical hope. Worse still, when such a faith is used to bestow theological sanctification on a single form of political life — even an attractive one like liberal democracy — the more it will be seen as collaborating with injustice when that political system fails. The dynamics of political theology seem to dictate that when liberalizing reformers try to conform to the present, they inspire a countervailing and far more passionate longing for redemption in the messianic future. That is what happened in Weimar Germany and is happening again in contemporary Islam.

Lilla contrasts “liberalizers” with “renewers” or “renovators,” who attempt to reform a tradition from within:

If liberalizers are apologists for religion at the court of modern life, renovators stand firmly within their faith and reinterpret political theology so believers can adapt without feeling themselves to be apostates. . . . Today, a few voices are calling for just this kind of renewal of Islamic political theology. Some, like Khaled Abou El Fadl, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, challenge the authority of today’s puritans, who make categorical judgments based on a literal reading of scattered Koranic verses. In Abou El Fadl’s view, traditional Islamic law can still be applied to present-day situations because it brings a subtle interpretation of the whole text to bear on particular problems in varied circumstances.

Lilla then considers the fate of liberal democracies like the United States and Europe, and offers this prediction:

We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder [than the advocates of political theology]: we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men.

I found myself hesitant at this characterization of the modern west–first, because Lilla appears to speak as if a modus vivendi of mutual tolerance is a fait accompli, and second because he assumes that agnosticism about the nature and purpose of humankind is something the “rational” West can keep up indefinitely. I’d like to comment a bit on the second objection.

As I’ve addressed in a couple of essays, the accelerating pace of modern technologies of self-manipulation poses an existential challenge to humans as presently constituted. Some like Lee Silver and Ray Kurzweil embrace the new technology, advocating a growing integration of man, machine, and chemical methods of altering one’s self and mind. Interlocking advances in genetics, robotics, information technology, and nanotech (what Joel Garreau calls the GRIN technologies) will make visions like Silver’s and Kurzweil’s ever more plausible.

Some of our most gifted philosophers have begun to address these new technologies–for example, Jurgen Habermas in “The Future of Human Nature.” Commenting on Jonas’s work, Habermas notes how genetic engineering can create a “self-destructive dialectics of enlightenment, according to which the species itself reverts from domination of nature to servitude to nature” (48). In other words, once we turn our mastery of nature on ourselves, an unavoidably Darwinian dynamic may develop. An arms race of genetic enhancement may become not merely a way of “getting ahead,” but a necessity in the face of others’ competition for scarce resources.

Habermas gives several arguments for avoiding this fate, but these reflections toward the close of the book give a substantial challenge to Lilla:

Democratic common sense must fear the media-induced indifference and the mindless conversational trivialization of all differences that make a difference. Those moral feelings which only religious language has as yet been able to give a sufficiently differentiated expression may find universal resonance . . . . [I]ntercultural relations may find a language other than that of the military and market alone.

He’s reiterated the point in a recent exchange with Pope Benedict XVI:

In the face of the uprooting effects of technology and the global market, the liberal state should “treat with care all cultural sources on which the normative consciousness and solidarity of citizens draws.” Religion is pre-eminent among such sources. “In sacred writings and religious traditions, intuitions of sin and redemption, of deliverance from a life experienced as unholy, have been articulated, subtly spelt out and kept alive through interpretation over millennia.” Thus although the civic bond is not based upon pre-existing religious ties, it should treat them with the greatest delicacy, recognising them as important allies in its own struggle against the alienating forces of the modern world. (emphasis added)

As recently as the Rawls-Habermas debate of 1995, and in a 2002 collection of essays, Habermas did not appear to be terribly enthusiastic about religious ideas (or even fundamental conceptions of human nature) informing political life. What led to this change? My sense is that any intellectual historian taking on the development of his thought will see his 2001 confrontation with the problem of genetic engineering as a turning point. The GRIN technologies can combine to pose an existential threat to human nature as we know it, but it does not appear that we can “couch our objections” to them “in the legalist terms of rights, the therapeutic language of self-realization, or the economic jargon of efficiency” (to return to the Lilla quote with which I started).

My sense is that if humanity ever manages to harness the GRIN technologies in a wise and humane way, a spiritual consensus about our common human predicament will be essential. That requires more than “our own lucidity.” So I hope Lilla is wrong in suggesting that’s “all we have” to base politics on in the new millennium.

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