Whose Stillborn God?

Even critics will have to recognize that The Stillborn God is a stunning book. (It is also a handsome book, just the sort of thing one expects from Knopf: stout, creamy, a pleasure to hold. Only deckled pages would have been an improvement.) Lilla’s erudition informs a sweeping narrative of the early modern liberation from “political theology” effected by Hobbes, giving rise to the “Great Separation” between private claims to revelation and the public arbitration of politics by appeals to reason alone. But the remainder of the story tracks all the ways that “political theology” came back to haunt the modern West—particularly in German contexts. The core problem of the book is that it buys into the simplistic myth of religious violence and secular peace, resting on the unsubstantiated empirical claim that “religion” (whatever that is) breeds violence whereas institutions of liberal democracy foster peace (current world conflicts not withstanding). Lilla also continues to cling to the myth of a “secular” political philosophy. In both of these respects, he is culpably ignorant of contemporary scholarship (particularly the work of William Cavanaugh, John Milbank, Nicholas Wolterstorff and Jeffrey Stout). And Lilla can’t simply plead that he’s doing history; what’s at stake is his historiography. Despite these fundamental problems, it remains an important book that can’t be ignored.