Mark Lilla: Urges the West to remember the religious fanaticism in its past

Historians in the News

An alternate title for "The Stillborn God," Mark Lilla's new history of the separation of church and state in the West, could be "How Soon They Forget." Take an example from our own lifetime, something titanic like Sept. 11. Remember how it seemed so inconceivable, so unprecedented, that terrorists would blow up the World Trade Center? Yet it had already happened -- in 1993, when a group affiliated with al-Qaida tried to do just that, with a car bomb, killing six people. Somehow, the fact of that bombing never seemed to stick in the public's mind; until the towers actually came down, spectacularly and on national television, and thousands died, an Islamist terrorist attack on American soil remained "unimaginable."

Small wonder, then, that we also have a hard time remembering the religious fanaticism in our own history. Westerners now talk blithely about the need for a "reformation" in Islam, apparently oblivious to how bloody and traumatic the Christian Reformation actually was. Lilla finds this situation perilous. As long as we refuse to acknowledge the madness of the religious wars and persecutions of the 16th century, he argues, we remain in danger of loosening our grip on "the Great Separation" (of church and state) that resulted from it. By not understanding how easily any politics infused with any religion can drift in the direction of fanaticism and terror, we put ourselves at risk of drifting that way ourselves.

If we think the West is way beyond lapsing into that kind of insanity, Lilla (a professor of the humanities at Columbia University and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books) begs to differ. "Intellectual complacency," he writes, "nursed by an implicit faith in the inevitability of secularization, has blinded us to the persistence of political theology and its manifest power to shape human life at any moment." Political theology, what Lilla defines as "discourse about political authority based on a revealed divine nexus," takes its beliefs about how society should be run and how power should be distributed from what it considers to be the word of God -- the divine truth revealed to man through scripture.

This way of thinking about politics isn't merely a holdover from our evolutionary past, destined to dwindle away like the appendix. It is "a primordial form of human thought and for millennia has provided a deep well of ideas and symbols for organizing society and inspiring action, for good and ill."...
Read entire article at Salon

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