Author, Meet Blog
Questions for Mark Lilla
The historian of ideas explains how he ended up writing a book about political theology, what blogging on The Immanent Frame did for the book, and why he's reading very selectively these days.
In your book The Stillborn God, you write extensively about the Great Separation—the prying apart of political theory from theology—which you trace back to Hobbes. Was the recent presidential election at all remarkable in this respect? This election did not seem to me to be a watershed, though in every other respect it was. I had a big piece on Sarah Palin and the neocons in the Wall Street Journal. That was my one contribution.
But many people who read your book were reminded of the American experience: Bush and his "American theocracy." Unlike many Americans, I'm less concerned about where we are on the religion and politics question in the United States than I am about the situation abroad. In America, our presumption is that whatever happens with regard to religion is subject to review by popular consent. It's rare that, after an election in this country, people walk away saying that the religious views of this candidate or that candidate render our system of government illegitimate.
In your earlier book, The Reckless Mind, you refer to the dangers of intellectuals entering politics and public life. Do you ever feel that way when writing for mainstream newspapers such as the Journal? Yes, I suppose so, though the subtext of much of what I write is that social problems are complex. There are no benefits in politics that don't incur costs, though it's possible to incur costs without any benefits—and you want to avoid that by being sober and forward looking and having moderate expectations. What's the name of that Larry David show? "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Since the subtext of much of what I write is "curb your enthusiasm," it's hard for me to imagine that being misapplied.
Is it true that academics who write for popular audiences must endure the ire of their colleagues? A lot of it is envy. People yearn to be able to do that kind of writing, and either don't have the opportunities or aren't particularly gifted. Also, academics can be very provincial. They don't actually know what it's like to do other jobs. What is it like being an assistant secretary of state and having to make decisions in the flow of real time, when you're dealing with budgets, when you're dealing with subordinates, when you're dealing with a changing media landscape? What Weber called the principle of responsibility ought to be the first principle when it comes to thinking and writing about politics. The same goes for business. How many of the academics who attack American corporations have ever walked into one or talked to a CEO?
How did you end up doing popular writing? It's how I began. After I got my master's in public policy from Harvard (and before going on to do a Ph.D.), one of my Harvard professors offered me a job working on The Public Interest. My background was in economics, and they were doing a special issue on economics. We worked in a very small office, and Irving Kristol held court. Contrary to what people might think, we didn't talk much about politics—we talked about books and ideas. People kept mentioning Hegel, and I had never read Hegel. I finally asked Kristol, "What kind of secondary literature should I read on Hegel to help me get a grip on him?" He looked at me like I was out of my mind and said, "Why don't you just read Hegel?" The thought had never crossed my mind. Later, in my job at the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought, I found the same contempt for secondary literature—it was something one wrote, but it wasn't something one read. Learning to read original sources was hard, but I found the immediacy intellectually liberating. I consider myself very lucky to have had this background. I've been able to plow my own way and write what I think are serious books that can be read by people both within and outside the academy.
Are there any public intellectuals that you admire? I think of the old Columbia: Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, Peter Gay, Daniel Bell—all serious scholars whose books could be read by educated men and women, anyone, anywhere. Europe, too, produced several examples. Isaiah Berlin was very important for me. In France, François Furet. In Poland, Leszek Ko?akowski. All of them wrote this way as a matter of course. Ko?akowski is one of the few who is still alive. In the post-1968 generation, academics became simultaneously more academic and more partisan, and I'm not attracted to either of those things.
What's on your reading list these days? As I get older, I find I'm reading less and less. I'm reading novels, and I'm absorbed at the moment in the Pléiade edition of André Gide's Journals. I don't need the magazines. I still read the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, but, frankly, I find myself turned within. The Stillborn God was a very personal book for me. And now I'm working on a book about conversion.
On religious conversion? I'm interested in the very idea of getting a new life. No one gets a new life, it seems to me, unless life imposes it on you. But we live with this fantasy, and it affects the way we think about politics, love, class and social climbing, madness, therapy—all kinds of things.
Do you read any blogs? Oh, no.
So your posts to The Immanent Frame were your first foray into interactive media? Yes, until my piece on conservative intellectuals and Sarah Palin attracted some two hundred responses on the WSJ site. Mainly really nasty, personal, and threatening.
How did you find your Immanent Frame experience? I enjoyed having people well known in the field responding quickly to what I wrote. What was also good is that they knew I'd get to respond to them as well. They had to develop what they thought were their strongest arguments and not make ad hominem attacks.
Was the discussion productive? Very productive, especially the exchanges with José Casanova. I saw him in Washington after our exchanges, and both of us were saying, "Isn't it great we could do this?" He had misunderstood just what the book was about, and I had misunderstood what he was driving at. Blogging about it led to a quick, mutual clarification. A little bit of that happened with Chuck Taylor as well.
What precisely did you learn from these exchanges? I could see that the book had given rise to all sorts of misunderstandings. If one person misunderstands you, maybe it's his fault. If five people misunderstand you, it's probably your fault—even if you go back to the book and say, "I said this five times! Can't you read?" From my point of view, the misreadings had to do with the preconceptions people bring to a book on this subject. For example, I do not use the words "secularization" or even "secular" in the book. In the responses on the blog, everyone immediately gravitated to the subject of secularization and accused me of not having coped with it. In fact, I don't take very seriously the discourse on secularization, which presumes that societies are wholes. I'm more attracted to the complex pictures espoused by figures like Daniel Bell and Niklas Luhmann. They argue that the nature of all societies, but especially modern society, is to have independent spheres that are related but nevertheless can be animated by different principles and concerns and change at different rates. Thus in America you can have tremendous technological modernization without a modernization of, let's say, Protestant theology. In fact, you can see a regress in Protestant theology, especially among evangelicals. Walk into a religious bookstore, and the books are dumber than they were fifty years ago. There has been a regress.
Were there any other misconceptions you had to contend with? One of the other accusations is that, actually, I am writing a genealogy of modern society and modern politics. I thought I'd made it clear at the beginning that I was interested in understanding the logic of the problem posed by Christian theology, which, with its ambivalence about whether God is present or absent, has provoked an unusual amount of philosophical debate over the separation of church and state. I talk at the beginning of the book about the different ways Christians have imagined God's relation to the world: an immanent God, an absent God, a transcendent God. I go on to show how various thinkers reproduce these alternatives. Hobbes has an immanent God without God—religion derives from the needs of the human psyche. Rousseau and Kant develop a view of religion that is transcendent: religion derives from the fact that we're thinking and choosing creatures. And then the messianic figures in the early 20th century champion the idea of the absent God—Karl Barth with his lightning-bolt conception of revelation. To reiterate, I was trying to understand the logic and not to say anything about how particular thinkers' thoughts trickled into our institutions. Besides, that would require not only one book but many, many books.
So it's not really an historical question? I think of it more as a kind of chess game. Hobbes made a brilliant chess move as a way of meeting the political challenges posed by Christianity, but that opened up other problems, like you'd have in chess. Rousseau responds, liberal theology takes that up, and then there's a revival of messianism that rejects both of those and expresses itself in modern messianic political theologies, which permitted a new theological justification of the disastrous mass movements of the twentieth century: communism and fascism.
Some critics have objected to your use of "we," particularly at the book's beginning, which suggests that you're speaking definitively for Western society. There is a consensus among people who live in liberal constitutional democracies, which is that we reject political theology and accept that human beings legitimately rule themselves. It seems to me that's a "we." My book tries to look at what made possible the creation of this "we" at the intellectual level—how Western Europe, North America, and most of South America came to share these ideas. I found that it was due to a lot of luck—and a lot of conflict. We forget that it was only after the Second World War that Catholic political theology, a force in European politics for nearly two millenia, ceased to be an important force on the political scene.
We were happy to see that the discussion at The Immanent Frame led you to write an afterword for The Stillborn God's paperback edition. But why write an afterword, if your goal is to prevent people from reading in ways that you didn't mean? Well, the book already has a foreword. My hope is that if readers arrive at the end of the book with all these misunderstandings and all these questions, they will appreciate suddenly seeing some answers—and this will make them inclined to go back and reread the passages in question.
The Immanent Frame has also hosted a discussion of Islam and the Secular State, by Abdullahi An-Na'im. He in fact used the Internet to write the book, publishing earlier drafts and then incorporating responses. Does that sort of interactive process appeal to you? For me, writing is an exercise, and a big part of that exercise is that you've got to be really exacting on yourself and self-critical, knowing that it comes out and you've got to live with it for the rest of your life. Hoping that other people correct your errors for you along the way would only invite sloppy thinking and writing. That's why I've never circulated drafts or chapters to friends. Also, the point of writing a book is to work on yourself—to become different inside. If something comes out that other people can learn from, that, for me, is a byproduct.
You say that you write for yourself: did writing the book resolve anything for you personally? Yes, in a couple of ways. My training was in political philosophy, and I originally wanted to write a book about the counter-Enlightenment that would have chapters on religion, politics, and art, among other things. That proved to be an impossible task in one book, so I decided to focus on religion. I was especially drawn to the messianic political theologians in the early 20th century. From reading Barth and others, I could see they'd rejected not the Enlightenment but rather the attempt in the 19th century to modernize, and repristinize Christianity and Judaism to make them presentable in polite society. Once I saw that, I could look back and sense the dynamics. You have this Hobbesian moment, then you have fear about that, then there's an attempt in the 19th century to both have modern politics and repristinized religion that would be a moral support to society, and then a reaction against that. Thinking in reverse ultimately gave me an appreciation of the uniqueness of Christianity. Of course I had always known about Christianity's claim to uniqueness, as well as the terrible political and religious positions that derive from this. But being driven to that conclusion by my own work—seeing how Christian theology poses unique political problems not found in Judaism and Islam—made a deep impact on me, and the problematic character of Christianity has become one of my central concerns. Part of the conversion book will be on that.
What has the public discussion about the book been like? There was an excerpt published in the New York Times Magazine; this attracted the attention of the wider public. And I've had the opportunity to give many talks. I enjoy discussing the book with live audiences because I get to address misunderstandings then and there. We have a dialogue. Surprise and spontaneity can happen.
What about the exchanges that take place at academic conferences? I don't do academic conferences any more because as they're currently structured, they really belong in the 19th century. I'm much more drawn to smaller meetings where people read each other's papers beforehand and then sit down and have a discussion. For example, the Liberty Fund holds a series of meetings where they put together eight to ten people in a room to talk about a theme. Participants have reading assignments beforehand, which can be old books or new books or a mix of the two. When they arrive, a few of them are expected to lead the discussion on these readings. The first one I went to was back in the early or mid-1980s, about a book that Edward Banfield had written on public art. We met in Salt Lake City, invited by some Mormon scholars at Brigham Young University. In the room were also a couple of Soho art critics, a couple of left-wing Marxist sociologists of art, and the author of the book, Edward Banfield. We spent two or three days arguing about the book and its themes. It was terrific.
If you had to write The Stillborn God again, would you do it any differently? There is a lot of exposition of the thought of figures like Hobbes, Kant, and Hegel. I probably could have cut to the chase more. And I would have made clear, on every page, that I'm not talking about secularization—this is not a philosophy of history—and I would have tried to bring out this notion of logic and the role of Western philosophy in prying apart theology and politics. Overall, though, the response to the book has been fantastic. This is a little over a year on, and through next September I'm still booked pretty solidly speaking about it.