Milan Cathedral, Milan, 1998: Thomas Struth
Messianic theology breeds messianic politics
Mark Lilla is professor of the humanities at Columbia University.
The below essay, published today in the NY Times, is adapted from his book “The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West.” The book is to be published next month.
This is a long essay. My mom sent me a copy with seven words, "This is worth reading all the way." I did, and she was right.
Here's how we'll do this. Below is pasted up just a taste of Professor Lilla's essay. Read it please, then kick to the NY Times for the rest. The link is at the top of the essay. Read the whole essay -- yes, it's long; yes, as my mom says, "this is worth reading all the way" -- then come back here and we'll talk it over.
The Politics of GodGo. Read the whole essay. Come back and we'll talk. *smiles*
I. “The Will of God Will Prevail”
The twilight of the idols has been postponed. For more than two centuries, from the American and French Revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity — these were the questions that divided us. Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We in the West are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong.
An example: In May of last year, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran sent an open letter to President George W. Bush that was translated and published in newspapers around the world. Its theme was contemporary politics and its language that of divine revelation. After rehearsing a litany of grievances against American foreign policies, real and imagined, Ahmadinejad wrote, “If Prophet Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, Joseph or Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) were with us today, how would they have judged such behavior?” This was not a rhetorical question. “I have been told that Your Excellency follows the teachings of Jesus (peace be upon him) and believes in the divine promise of the rule of the righteous on Earth,” Ahmadinejad continued, reminding his fellow believer that “according to divine verses, we have all been called upon to worship one God and follow the teachings of divine Prophets.” There follows a kind of altar call, in which the American president is invited to bring his actions into line with these verses. And then comes a threatening prophecy: “Liberalism and Western-style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity. Today, these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems. . . . Whether we like it or not, the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty and justice and the will of God will prevail over all things.”
This is the language of political theology, and for millennia it was the only tongue human beings had for expressing their thoughts about political life. It is primordial, but also contemporary: countless millions still pursue the age-old quest to bring the whole of human life under God’s authority, and they have their reasons. To understand them we need only interpret the language of political theology — yet that is what we find hardest to do. Reading a letter like Ahmadinejad’s, we fall mute, like explorers coming upon an ancient inscription written in hieroglyphics.
The problem is ours, not his. A little more than two centuries ago we began to believe that the West was on a one-way track toward modern secular democracy and that other societies, once placed on that track, would inevitably follow. Though this has not happened, we still maintain our implicit faith in a modernizing process and blame delays on extenuating circumstances like poverty or colonialism. This assumption shapes the way we see political theology, especially in its Islamic form — as an atavism requiring psychological or sociological analysis but not serious intellectual engagement. Islamists, even if they are learned professionals, appear to us primarily as frustrated, irrational representatives of frustrated, irrational societies, nothing more. We live, so to speak, on the other shore. When we observe those on the opposite bank, we are puzzled, since we have only a distant memory of what it was like to think as they do. We all face the same questions of political existence, yet their way of answering them has become alien to us. On one shore, political institutions are conceived in terms of divine authority and spiritual redemption; on the other they are not. And that, as Robert Frost might have put it, makes all the difference.