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"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
Mark Lilla's Collective We8/26/2007 12:42:50
After I've made some rather unnecessarily dismissive remarks to friends about Mark Lilla's "Politics of God" article in the New York Times, I feel that I have to redeem myself somewhat. The article is an interesting one and it deserves more respect. It raises important underlying questions about political theology for the public conversations, ones that have been too dormant. As a still-insecure scholar-in-training, I am susceptible to the traditional academic reflex that wants to kick anyone who brings the subject of one's interest into the public eye. Usually, upon reflection, the root cause of this reflex is the sentiment that "Damn, why didn't I do that first?"
But this is an illegitimate instinct. I just think of the grief my department has apparently given our own student Reza Aslan for his No God but God, an excellent introduction for normal people to Islam. This should be the sort of publishing an academic department should encourage, not rebuke.
The argument of Lilla's essay is that the West is unusual in its development of a political philosophy that does not rest upon divine authority. This occurred at a particular time, for particular reasons after the Wars of Religion that followed the Reformation. A system where power has a "secular" foundation, he insists, is the exception and not the rule. He contrasts this history with the fascinating recent letter to Bush from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which invokes divine authority as much as it does secular reason.
What jars me about the essay, which appears throughout, is the word "we." It begins in this passage from the first paragraph:
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.
Who is this "we"? Writers use it a lot. Daniel Dennett, in his Consciousness Explained, describes it as a kind of conspiracy, and a disingenuous one too:
In fact, just about every author who has written about consciousness has made what we might call the first-person-plural presumption: Whatever mysteries consciousness may hold, we (you, gentle reader, and I) may speak comfortably together about our mutual acquaintances, the things we both find in our streams of consciousness. And with a few obstreperous exceptions, readers have always gone along with the conspiracy (p. 67).
The way Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia, uses the word strikes right at the crisis of humanities education of "Western civilization" generally. Who are we, when the undergraduate classroom can be populated with international students, home-grown dissidents, and others who may could more as "them," as "not-we." In the essay, Lilla is concerned principally with a narrative of Western political thought grounded in Hobbes and Roussau. But are "we" all really the inheritors of those thinkers, of this tradition?
It is true, the Western democracies, especially the American one, were developed explicitly in that tradition. But then and since then, not all have understood the situation that way. One of the amazing features of American government is its ability to serve as the political theology for so many different theologies. The Mormons have features of American government written into their scriptures. Fundamentalist Christians and ardent secularists write revisionist histories against each other, each trying to claim the Founding Fathers for their own god. American "civil religion," a concept proposed decades ago by sociologist Robert Bellah, has created a political theology of its own, with its own benevolent Deity in whom we trust and who blesses us. When Jews, Protestants, post-John Courtney Murray Catholics, "spiritual" people, and most of the rest hear about that God, they see their own in it. To say nothing, then, of those who would actually prefer something more like a theocracy in this country, and they do exist.
The United States is home to thousands of religious groups and theories, many of which were born here and have made theologies out of American politics. Historically, students should absolutely learn about the ideas of Roussau and Hobbes. But since them, their ideas have been taken up in all sorts of ways and appropriated by all sorts of "we"s, many of whom probably find the Iranian president's remarks to actually fit their views of God and government quite closely. Meanwhile, there are many in other parts of the world and from other cultures, whether they have read Hobbes and Roussau or not, who also derive political power from earthly sources.
Ultimately, I think I am concerned with this use of "we" because of the way that it highlights "us vs. them" thinking. Lilla's paper, while a useful beginning to a conversation, does roughly the same performative work as Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations." if I were to have the cover story of the New York Times Magazine (kicking myself subconsciously that he got it first) to paint a picture of the world's political theologies, I would try to begin by making "we" for what it is: a whole world of people who are capable, not incapable and not without great effort, of inhabiting our necessary diversity together.
re: Mark Lilla's Collective We - 8/27/2007 16:35:42