To many Americans, the rise of militant Islamism is inexplicable. Why can’t Muslims keep politics separate from religion? Behind that question, says Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, is an assumption that secularism is the natural condition of humankind. But it isn’t. The West’s own break with political theology was a unique historical event—and the fragility of that separation is underscored by the way political theology has occasionally returned, notably in Protestant thinkers’ support for Nazism.
We owe what Lilla calls the “Great Separation” of politics and religion in the West to Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). Amid the furious wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics in 17th-century Europe, the English philosopher “did the most revolutionary thing a thinker can ever do—he changed the subject, from God and his commands to man and his beliefs.” Ignoring divine commands, Hobbes argued in Leviathan (1651) that peace must be the first imperative of life on earth, and that humans must surrender to absolute rulers in order to achieve it. An exhausted Europe accepted the secular prescription, as later modified by John Locke and others.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) represented the proverbial fly in the ointment. No friend of organized religion, Rousseau nevertheless argued that human beings need religion both as an expression of their natural goodness and as a moral compass. The “children of Rousseau” flourished in continental Europe, especially after the traumas of the godless French Revolution and the Napoleonic conquests. Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel were among the thinkers who embraced a romantic vision of religion’s purifying force. Hegel argued that religion alone could forge social bonds and encourage people to sacrifice for the common good—it was the source of Volksgeist, a people’s shared spirit.
Among both Protestants and Jews in 19th-century Germany, these ideas bred a stolid liberal theology that prescribed “a catechism of moral commonplaces” and dutiful citizenship. But the horrors of World War I put an end to this complacent belief system. Germans were not alone in demanding something more exalted—the purchase on redemption that is the ultimate promise of biblical religion—but it was in Weimar Germany that the demand got its fullest expression. The Jewish thinker Martin Buber, later regarded as a kind of ecumenicalist sage, called for a “Masada of the spirit” and declared that “a beautiful death” was preferable to a plodding bourgeois existence. The theologian Karl Barth forged a more militant Protestantism, and though he never rallied to the Nazi cause, a number of others did. The respected Lutheran theologian Emanuel Hirsch, notes Lilla, “welcomed the Nazi seizure of power for bringing Germany into ‘the circle of the white ruling peoples,’ to which God has entrusted the responsibility for the history of humanity.”
Is there a new Hobbes lurking among today’s Muslim thinkers? Lilla is respectful but skeptical of those who simply promote a more liberal and tolerant Islam. “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.”
Lilla has more hope for theological “renovators” of Islam, such as Tariq Ramadan, the controversial Swiss-born cleric, and Khaled Abou El Fadl, a law professor at UCLA. Just as Martin Luther and John Calvin found theological grounds for modernizing Christianity—ending priestly celibacy, for example—Muslim renovators are working to renew Islam from within. But Ramadan and El Fadl have been harshly criticized by Western intellectuals because they do not necessarily accept the Great Separation. That’s too much to ask, Lilla believes. Even in the West, the separation is constantly challenged. A self-confident, modernized Islam that is able simply to coexist with the West ought to be enough.
* * *
The Source: “The Politics of God” by Mark Lilla, in The New York Times Magazine, Aug. 19, 2007
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Edward Musiak