Contested Authority

By Peter Berkowitz
The Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

The Stillborn God
By Mark Lilla
Knopf, 334 pages

Evangelical Christianity was not supposed to rise as a political force in the United States. Militant Islam was not supposed to develop into a global threat to America and the West. Democracy and modernization were supposed to sweep away ancient superstition and make man at home in the world by secularizing it.

Mark Lilla's study of religion and politics in the modern West helps to explain where this supposition came from and why it has proved to be misguided.

American citizens generally agree that political questions should not be decided by appealing to God's will, scriptural interpretation, or prophetic pronouncement. For the most part, we recognize the imperative of making our case without the aid of divine revelation or theological speculation.

This understanding represents a relatively recent innovation. Political theology guided men for millennia in the West and still does in many parts of the world. Its great mission was to ground politics, publicly and definitively, in religious teaching.

According to Lilla, the decisive figure in the revolt against Christian political theology was Thomas Hobbes, who sought to separate politics from religion. Hobbes effected this Great Separation not only by making human nature itself the highest political authority but also by introducing a new understanding of man, nature and the cosmos.

In Hobbes' view, human nature was governed by amoral appetites and passions, and reason was an instrument for satisfying them. Religious belief arose out of fear and ignorance. The best political order achieved peace by concentrating power in the sovereign. Religion had to be radically demoted.

Later thinkers challenged Hobbes' demotion of religion but did not disturb the Great Separation. Locke taught that peace and the protection of the individual could be better achieved through religious toleration and the separation of powers. Rousseau and Kant argued that men had religious needs that demanded respect but could not be fully satisfied by conventional religion. And Hegel sought to show that religious faith provided an indispensable vehicle for expressing crucial truths about the ethical life.

Political theology enjoyed a rebirth of sorts in 19th-century Germany. The new political theology found in the moral and political achievement of the modern German nation-state God's presence in history. Liberal theologians were sharply criticized in the 20th century. And then the guns and concentrations camps of World War 2 silenced the debate in Europe.

Lilla concludes that "there is no effacing the intellectual distinction between political theology, which appeals at some point to divine revelation, and a political philosophy that tries to understand and attain the political good without such appeals" and urges us to keep revelation out of politics.

Lilla elegantly reconstructs so much intellectual history that one can't help wishing that he had taken his narrative even nearer to the present. Leo Strauss contended that Western civilization draws strength from the unresolved contest between reason and revelation. And Charles Taylor, the winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize in religion, has long argued that many of modernity's greatest achievements draw sustenance from premodern religious sources.

The Political and the Divine

By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
New York Times, September 16, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

Mark Lilla adds nuance and complexity to the intellectual account we tell about the West's thinking on religion and politics. Lilla wants to challenge the view that the Great Separation was analogous to, say, the Copernican Revolution.

In Lilla's telling there was nothing inevitable about the Great Separation: "When looking to explain the conditions of political life and political judgment, the unconstrained mind seems compelled to travel up and out: up toward those things that transcend human existence, and outward to encompass the whole of that existence."

Lilla says this urge is so irresistible that only highly unusual circumstances can compel us to give it up. Those unusual circumstances were provided by Christian theology. Christianity's fundamental ambiguities made it uniquely unstable, subject to a plurality of interpretations.

In some sense, Lilla is saying that Christianity is just too philosophically interesting. Thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, and Hume were responding to "the intellectual structure of Christian political theology, which turned out to be exceptional, and exceptionally problematic".

The Enlightenment's proffered cure was to translate questions about religion into psychological and anthropological questions. The problem was changed from "What does God want from us?" to "Why is man constantly asking what it is that God wants from us?" The thinker most centrally responsible for this interrogative substitution was Thomas Hobbe, who thought religion comes from a dark place in the psyche.

Lilla believes Hobbes' thinking to be psychologically simplistic. The religious impulse can also be an expansive response toward the universe, morality and freedom. Thinkers of the caliber of Kant struggled to do justice to religion's expansive aspects.

The "stillborn God" is what Lilla calls the deity of liberal theology, a post-Hegelian movement, active particularly in Germany, that "wedded romantic soulfulness with the modern conviction that man attains happiness by freely developing his capacities, not by submitting them to God's authority." Lilla believes this dud helped prepare the way for a far more fiery and apocalyptic breed of political theology, expressed in totalitarian religions of state.

Lilla acknowledges the profundity of the religious impulse yet remains committed to the Enlightenment's prying apart of theology and politics. His book does justice to the complexity of our long attempt to reconcile transcendental aspirations with human well-being.

Coping with Political Theology

By Mark Lilla
Cato Unbound, October 8, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

American policy has been unable to understand the religious passions dominating contemporary world politics. Given Americans' collective recognition of religion's legitimacy in a modern political order, one would think that we would be better able to adapt ourselves to the current situation.

Contemporary American debates over religion and politics keep coming back to the same basic themes: toleration, church-state separation, freedom of assembly, conscience, values, community, and a few others. For many of the first settlers, establishing a constitutional framework guaranteeing toleration and church-state separation was the first order of political business.

We seem to have forgotten how unique the circumstances were that made possible the establishment of the American compact on religion and politics. Perhaps now is the time to remind ourselves of some basic facts. The most important one was the absence of a strong Roman Catholic Church as a redoubt of intellectual and political opposition to Enlightenment ideas.

America was racially and culturally homogeneous in the early years of the republic. There were a few Catholics and Jews among the early immigrants, but the tone was set by Protestants of dissenting tendencies from the British Isles. Everyone spoke the same language and looked to a shared history of persecution and emigration.

It was this trust, bred of homogeneity, that allowed the ideal of toleration to be actualized. People feel comfortable when they are with their own, and it is only in an atmosphere of mutual trust that norms of acceptance and openness can develop.

The principle of toleration has been rooted in the United States and is formally recognized in the democracies of Western Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia. Toleration seems so compelling to us as an idea that we find it hard to take seriously reasons for rejecting the democratic ideas associated with it.

The United States has no established tradition of political theology. No serious American religious thinker ever developed a full-blown theology of government throwing the basic legitimacy of American democracy into question.

Political theology is the primordial form of political thought. Virtually every civilization known to us began with an image of itself as set within a divine nexus of God, man, and world, and based its understanding of legitimate authority on that theological picture. Political theology seems to be the default condition of civilizations.

Unlike the Hebrew or Muslim God, the Christian God was a trinity that ruled over a created cosmos and guided human beings by different means: revelation, inner conviction, and the natural order. But the Christian picture of the divine was difficult to apply to politics.

The crisis of Western Christendom prepared the way for modern political thought. Modern liberal democracy is a post-Christian phenomenon. I want to stress the uniqueness of Christian revelation and its theological-political difficulties.

Thomas Hobbes changed the subject of European political thought from theology to anthropology. All political theology interprets a set of revealed divine commands and applies them to social life. Hobbes ignored the substance of all such commands and talked instead about how and why human beings believe God revealed them. The hope was that whenever we talked about the basic principles of political life we would simply let God be.

This was the Great Separation. But letting God be is not easy. God must be conceived of as having imposed upon himself a certain distance from the mechanics of political life. Such a theological transformation is unimaginable in many religious traditions, and difficult in all of them.

Religious Americans believe in the absolute truth of their faiths. Yet they believe that those revealed truths should not affect the rules of the democratic game. Americans freely express their religious views about particular policies, but hardly any harbor religious doubts about the legitimacy of a process that does not recognize the revealed truth of those views.

This should allay worries expressed in recent decades about the political influence of organized religious groups in the United States. Considered historically, our problems are relatively minor so long as they are about policy, not about the basic legitimacy of our constitution.

Americans focus too little on the intellectual separation needed to keep political theology at bay. Historically speaking, the Great Separation is a departure from the way most civilizations have thought about themselves, and there are revivals of political theology even in nations we recognize as democratic today.

The challenge in the Islamic world is much greater. Our working assumptions are simply not the assumptions of millions of Muslims across the globe. The political theology of the sharia is still intact and has been put into practice in Muslim nations for over a thousand years. The Great Separation has no counterpart in the Muslim world.

The Muslim tradition does not lack political concepts akin to ours. But Muslim political theology derives them from the revelation of the Quran, the traditions of the hadith, and the decisions of scholars who look to these sources. And that must be recognized if we are to understand each other.

The Templeton Prize

The Templeton Foundation, New York, March 14, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

Professor Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher who for nearly half a century has argued that problems such as violence and bigotry can only be solved by considering both their secular and spiritual dimensions, has won the 2007 Templeton Prize.

The Templeton Prize, valued at more than $1.5 million, was announced today at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York by the John Templeton Foundation.

Charles Taylor, 75, is engaged in such questions as the role of spiritual thinking in the 21st century. He has argued that depending wholly on secularized viewpoints only leads to fragmented, faulty results. Taylor: "The divorce of natural science and religion has been damaging to both."

Taylor has long objected to what many social scientists take for granted, namely that the rational movement that began in the Enlightenment renders such notions as morality and spirituality as simply quaint anachronisms in the age of reason. "The deafness of many philosophers, social scientists and historians to the spiritual dimensions can be remarkable."

Taylor is currently professor of law and philosophy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and professor emeritus at McGill University in Montréal.

Foundation President John M. Templeton, Jr: "Throughout his career, Charles Taylor has staked an often lonely position that insists on the inclusion of spiritual dimensions in discussions of public policy, history, linguistics, literature, and every other facet of humanities and the social sciences."

The Foundation seeks to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life's biggest questions.

AR I studied Hegel with Taylor at Oxford in 1976/77.

Key Articles and Books

By Charles Taylor

Edited by Andy Ross

The Explanation of Behavior
(Routledge and Paul Kegan, 1964)
This was my doctoral dissertation, an all-out attack on psychological behaviorism.

(Cambridge University Press, 1975; various languages)
This was an attempt to write an introduction to Hegel's philosophy which would make his work understandable to people trained in the analytical tradition. It was originally commissioned for the Penguin series on major philosophers, but it rapidly outgrew the permitted dimensions for this series.

Hegel and Modern Society
(Cambridge University Press, 1979; various languages)
This was basically a shortened version of Hegel, with more emphasis on the relevance of Hegel today.

Philosophical Papers Vol. 1: Human Agency and Language
Philosophical Papers Vol. 2: Philosophy and the Human Sciences

(Cambridge University Press, 1985)
These two collections brought together a number of papers written in the previous two decades, mostly critiques of mechanistic, and/or reductive, and/or atomistic approaches to human sciences.

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity
(Harvard University Press, 1989; various languages)
This was my first large-scale reflection on history. The theme was the development of the modern understanding of the human agent. My thesis is that we are all caught in the tension between what we have drawn from the Cartesian-Lockean tradition and the Enlightenment on one hand, and what we have learned from the Romantic-expressive movement on the other.

The Malaise of Modernity
(Anansi, 1991; various languages)
Published in the United States as:
The Ethics of Authenticity
(Harvard University Press, 1992)
This text was the basis for my Massey Lectures, a series of talks given each year on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It tried to explore our conflictual relation to modern individualism and to describe the ethic of authenticity.

Multiculturalism and "The Politics of Recognition"
(with Amy Gutman and others)
(Princeton University Press, 1992; various languages)
Modernity has produced a new concept of identity. This has had a profound impact on our political life. I was trying in this essay to analyze this new phenomenon.

Philosophical Arguments
(Harvard University Press, 1995; various languages)
This is another collection similar to the two published in 1985.

A Catholic Modernity?
(Oxford University Press, 1999)
This is a published version of the Marianist Lecture that I gave in Dayton. I cast the issue of how the Catholic Church should relate to the modern world in the context of understanding Catholic Christianity in all human civilizations and cultures, seeing modern Western civilization as another such culture.

Varieties of Religion Today: William James Revisited
(Harvard University Press, 2002; various languages)
This is one of the (three) products of my Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh in 1999. The theme was the rise of the contemporary secular age in the West. This was a look back at William James' Gifford Lectures, also delivered in Edinburgh a century before (1902).

Modern Social Imaginaries
(Duke University Press, 2004)
This is the second product of the Gifford Lectures, where I try to define shifts in our way of collectively imagining ourselves as a society.

A Secular Age
(Harvard University Press, 2007)
This will be the third (and central) product of the Gifford Lectures. It is an attempt to follow the development of the modern Western secular age. I challenge the dominant "master narrative" of secularization as the inevitable decline of religion with advancing modernity.

A Secular Age

By Charles Taylor
Harvard University Press, 896 pages

What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age? Almost everyone would agree that we — in the West, at least — largely do. And clearly the place of religion in our societies has changed profoundly in the last few centuries. In what will be a defining book for our time, Charles Taylor takes up the question of what these changes mean — of what, precisely, happens when a society in which it is virtually impossible not to believe in God becomes one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is only one human possibility among others.

What Happened to the City of God?

By Jack Miles
LA Times, September 16, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

A Secular Age
by Charles Taylor
Harvard University Press, 874 pages

The Stillborn God
by Mark Lilla
Knopf, 334 pages

In AD 391, Roman Emperor Theodosius established Christianity as the state religion. Less than a century later, when the last emperor ruling from Rome was deposed, a remnant of imperial power devolved upon the most important church official in the West, the pope.

By the 17th century there had arisen the doctrine of the divine right of kings. The religious wars of the first half of that century were ferocious, and among the fiercest was the English Civil War.

As that war raged, Thomas Hobbes saw human nature itself as defined by terror. And he saw terror as at its worst when driven by religion. Fortunately, the wolves of the human pack could create an all-powerful sovereign monstrous enough to protect them.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau saw politics as the source of human corruption rather than a remedy for it. Remarkably, the path forward for Rousseau and Hobbes alike was the "social contract."

In the founding of the United States, the gloomy Anglophile John Adams owed something to Hobbes, and the sunny Francophile Thomas Jefferson owed rather more to Rousseau.

Political secularization is just one of three kinds of secularization that Taylor addresses in his voluminous social and intellectual history. The second kind is the decline of subjective religious practice. The third kind is that in which neither belief nor unbelief is a given and one's identity is constructed rather than assigned at birth.

Taylor's account encompasses art, literature, science, fashion, and private life. Readers may occasionally lose their way, since Taylor never denies himself the pleasure of an interesting digression.

In Lilla's heroic view of him, Hobbes is a pinnacle from which later German thinkers each deviated in his own way, lured by Rousseau toward some lamentable accommodation of religion. The lesson drawn is that such soft-headed liberalism cannot revive religion but can invite fascism.

Sadly, in its extreme simplification, Lilla's book is a fairy tale. Taylor may risk boring his readers by including too much, but Lilla offers only a small part of a large story and gets even that part more wrong than right.

The Templeton Foundation

By Nathan Schneider
The Nation, June 21, 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

The declared mission of the Templeton Foundation is to explore life's big questions: Does the universe have a purpose? Does science make belief in God obsolete? Does evolution explain human nature? The foundation wants these questions to be our culture's uniting focus.

The Templeton Foundation was founded by John Templeton Sr. It holds assets valued at around $1 billion. This sum that will likely swell to $2.5 billion in the years to come. The foundation dispenses about $70 million in grants annually. The founder's flagship program is the annual Templeton Prize. The award's value is pegged to be bigger than that of the Nobel Prize.

Sir John Templeton built a career as one of the great architects of globalization. As he grew older, he began turning his attention away from business. He would rhapsodize about science's amazing progress in virtually every area of knowledge except in spirituality. The answer he envisioned was a new posture he called "humility theology," an outlook that emphasizes how little is known about the divine and how much believers need to question and test their beliefs.

Through his mostly self-published writings, Templeton developed an idiosyncratic vocabulary, speaking of the search for "spiritual information" and of God as "Unlimited Creative Spirit." Uneasy with conventional meanings for "God" and "religion," he speculated in a 1990 document that "maybe God is providing new revelations in ways which go beyond any religion."

While its founder preferred eternal questions to worldly politics, the son who has succeeded him, John Templeton Jr. — Jack — is a conservative Evangelical who spends his personal time and money opposing gay marriage and defending the Iraq War.

Jack Templeton is little like his father. While the elder Templeton's writings venture into the poetic and speculative, his son's read like a medical report. Jack displays admirable filial loyalty, evident most of all in his decades-long leadership of the foundation under his father's guidance. He has been president since it began, serving full time since he left a successful pediatric surgery practice in 1995. His memoir begins and ends with lessons his father taught him and is suffused by, as he put it, "a struggle to find acceptance and approval in my father's eyes."

Project Reason, founded by New Atheist author Sam Harris in 2007 to promote secularism, hired British science journalist Sunny Bains to investigate Templeton and build a case against it. Her unpublished findings include evidence of pervasive cronyism. She concludes that Templeton's mission is to promote religion.

The Templeton Foundation has associated itself with political and religious forces that cause it to be perceived as threatening the integrity of science and protecting the religious status quo. This is quite the reverse of the founder's most alluring hope. Sir John Templeton wanted to remake the human race's moral and cosmic toolbox in a scientific revolution of the spirit.

On Templeton

By Sean Carroll
Preposterous Universe, May 2013

Edited by Andy Ross

The John Templeton Foundation (JTF) supports research into the "Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality" and likes to promote the idea that science and religion are gradually reconciling.

Due to the efforts of many smart people over the course of many years, scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality have by a wide majority concluded that God does not exist. We have better explanations for how things work. The shift in perspective from theism to atheism is arguably the single most important bit of progress in fundamental ontology over the last five hundred years.

In my view, we have a responsibility to get the word out. And when we blur the lines between science and religion, we do the world a grave disservice. Religious belief exerts a significant influence over how the world is currently run. Understanding the fundamental nature of reality is a necessary starting point for productive conversations about morality, justice, and meaning.

The JTF has done its best to spread the impression that science and religion get along just fine. This impression is false. But if anyone is tempted to award me the Templeton Prize, I will totally accept it!