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Religion and Society: The New Conflicts

Par Mark Lilla
Publié par Clifford Armion le 08/11/2010

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Le 12 octobre 2010, la Villa Gillet organisait à l'Institution des Chartreux une rencontre autour de la perception des religions dans notre société. Réunissant des spécialistes français et américains des questions religieuses, cet évènement était l'occasion de faire le point sur ces "nouvelles conflictualités" qui sont souvent la conséquence de préjugés et de pratiques culturelles spécifiques à chaque nation. Ce texte a été écrit par Mark Lilla, philosophe et professeur à l'Université de Columbia.

This evening we are going to have a conversation about religion, society, and conflict.  It is a conversation all of us have had before, in our homes and our schools, with friends and with adversaries.  In my experience, these are often frustrating discussions - not because we have conflicting values, but because we find it hard to agree on just what we are talking about.  To help focus our discussion tonight I'd like to make a distinction between two concepts - religion and theology.  I'd then like to suggest that the major conflicts that concern us have less to do with the so-called return of the religious than with the intellectual challenge posed by political theology.

Religion is a human practice.  All societies known to us were originally founded on shared beliefs about what lies beyond the human realm, beliefs expressed in customs, rituals, symbols, and institutions.  Some would argue that this is always the case, and that even our allegedly secular Western societies are held together by unquestioned religious beliefs.  They point to so-called Judeo-Christian values or the Biblical symbols that still appear in our social and political rituals.  They are right, in a way, though I have to confess I don't understand the term religious values and am hoping that John Bowen can clarify this for me.  Does the injunction honor thy father and mother, for example, express a religious value or a secular one?  When an American President places his hand on a Bible and promises to uphold the democratic laws of the United States, does that make the inauguration a religious ritual, a secular ritual, or a secularized religious ritual?  Do these distinctions even matter?  I'm not sure they do. – The truth is that we can't be terribly precise about what is and isn't religious because religion is always woven into a way of life.  To isolate it is to falsify it.

Theology, however, is not a way of life.  It is a way of thinking that we can speak about more precisely.  The term theology literally refers to reasoning about God or the divine.  Whatever the social and psychological sources of religious belief and practice may be, theology is the place where those beliefs and practices are judged and sometimes transformed in the light of reason.  Through theological interpretation, speculation, and deduction, a religion constitutes itself as an autonomous subject.

The natural theology of the ancients took human beings and the world as they are and then deduced from them what must be true or believable about God.  Though it sought the divine, natural theology's ultimate authority was reason - which is why, to my knowledge, it was never a source of conflict.  Revealed theology is another matter.  It begins with a revealed truth and then reasons about what else must also be true - and, more importantly, what we are obliged to do - given that revelation.  Such theologies are potential sources of violence because the revelations they elaborate are a priori inaccessible to common observation or sometimes even discourse.  They just are, which means that the commandments based on them also just are.  When confronted with multiple revelations one has no choice but to choose, since failing to chose is also a choice.  Athens or Jerusalem - or Bethlehem, or Mecca.  Those are the kinds of alternatives political theologies pose.

Many of the controversies surrounding religion today have nothing necessarily to do with revealed theology, and by themselves don't strike me as very serious or even particularly interesting.  They certainly having nothing to do with some fundamental incompatibility of religion and modernity.  Americans today find themselves arguing about censorship, abortion, and the teaching of evolution in schools, but mainly because of cultural disputes that began in the 1960s.  Because of rapid growth in immigrant populations and failures of integration, Europeans find themselves arguing about headscarves, burkas, and the height of minarets.  And due to decolonization, economic modernization, and cultural globalization, even moderate Muslim nations are having to rethink the place of religious practices in society.  All this strikes me as perfectly normal.  Most societies have, at one time or another, faced problems of intolerance, social integration, and defining citizenship, and they have found ways to cope.  They will again.

In my view the really consequential conflicts surrounding religion today are not over values or practices or even beliefs.  They are over principles - theological and political principles.  This is the great surprise and the great challenge of our time.  It is also why we must reacquaint ourselves with just what political theology is and why it is utterly incompatible with modern liberal democracy.

Historically, almost all civilizations known to us, from ancient times to the present, have legitimated public authority and institutions through some sort of political theology.  The law had a divine sanction, and political discourse was about how to interpret that sanction.  The great attractiveness of political theologies has always been their promise of comprehensiveness.  They offer ways of thinking about the conduct of political life, and then connect those thoughts to loftier ones about the existence of God, the nature of the soul, the origin of all things, and the end of time.  They are also flexible and heterogeneous.  In the theological-political traditions of Judaism and Islam, for example, there are many different schools, different styles of textual interpretation, and different ways of adapting to custom and historical change. – Yet somehow both traditions have been able to maintain the unity of the Law.

Christian political theology, however, never achieved this kind of unity, not even in the Summa theologiae of St. Thomas.  The political theologies of Judaism and Islam are essentially legal systems and, in a certain sense, are this-worldly: they recognize that human beings, though children of God, are also political animals and therefore need clear political guidance.  Christianity has never been able to fully reconcile itself to man's political nature, given the antinomianism written into its DNA.  That is why, for a millennium and a half, Christian political theology fueled violent disputes setting the City of Man against the City of God, prince against emperor, emperor against pope, pope against church councils - and, after the Reformation, Catholic armies against Protestant armies.  It was the weakness, not the strength, of Christian political theology that set off the war of all against all that provoked modern political philosophers like Hobbes to seek intellectual alternatives to all political theology.

In my recent book The Stillborn God (Le dieu mort-né), I called this moment the Great Separation.  This phrase has led to some misunderstanding, even among my colleagues here tonight.  So let me try to clarify it. – The separation I have in mind is not between the West and the rest, as Abdelwahab Meddeb seems to have thought; nor is it identical with the separation between church and state, or what Dominique Schnapper calls the creation of  a religiously neutralized public space shared by everyone (un espace public réligieusement neutralisé commun à tous).  The separation I have in mind was and is intellectual.  Thomas Hobbes offered the first modern intellectual alternative to political theology.  He did the most revolutionary thing a thinker can ever do he changed the subject.  In the centuries before him, the subject of Western political thought was God and His legitimate authority over man; after Hobbes, the subject became man's legitimate authority over himself.  Hobbes did not talk about revelation, or even try to refute it; he just ignored it, and talked instead about the violence and insecurity that belief in revelation causes.  He separated theological discourse about authority from humanistic philosophical discourse about authority, and insisted that when it comes to politics there can be no shared sovereignty: either we rule ourselves legitimately or God does.  There is no third way.

We have all heard this lesson in school.  But given the confused way we speak about religion and conflict today, it seems we need to relearn it.  The lesson is not that liberal democracy is hostile to the practice of religion or that religious belief is a threat to modern citizenship. – Liberal democratic citizens are free to think and say what they like about what God wants from us, and, at least from an American standpoint, they are free to invoke revelation when making their political arguments.  All they are obliged to recognize is that the legitimate exercise of public authority depends only on the consent of the governed, expressed through public institutions ruled by law. – It is entirely possible to live in this double-minded way, to act as a prophet calling fellow citizens to righteousness, while at the same time accepting the principle of popular sovereignty.  That was exactly what Martin Luther King did in the American Civil Rights Movement.

In principle, there is no reason why this sort of double-mindedness should not also be possible for Muslim citizens of our liberal democracies.  Nor, in principle, do I think that public expressions of Muslim piety or even appeals to Koranic revelation should disturb us - so long as those who make them fully accept the legitimacy of our democratic institutions.  But the awkward, embarrassing question is: do they? – This, I believe, is a question we have every right to ask.

When John F. Kennedy, the first and only Catholic American president, was a candidate in 1960 many questions were raised about whether his loyalties were divided between Catholic political theology and the principles of liberal democracy.  Kennedy, who did not consider such questions inappropriate, confronted them in a major speech in Texas and the matter was settled - not only for him, but for most politically active Catholics ever since.  At the time Kennedy spoke, the Catholic Church had already accepted democratic self-government in practice, and a few years later accepted it doctrinally at the Second Vatican Council.  The question is closed and today there is no Christian political theology that poses a realistic intellectual or political threat to liberal democracy.

This is not the case with Islam.  Christian political theology was always weak at its core.  Islam has a long, noble heritage of political theology and legal reasoning running back more than a millennium, a strong intellectual tradition that helped govern an empire for centuries and still offers a serious alternative to modern political philosophy.  Yet this tradition has also fallen into decline and has been usurped in the eyes of many by violent, dehumanizing, messianic political theologies based on profound ignorance of that very tradition.

For different reasons, both these forms of Muslim political theology - the traditional and the radical- are adversaries of liberal democracy.  Not because there is a clash of civilizations, or because groups of criminals have claimed to speak in the name of Islam.  It is because there is a fundamental clash of principles between the political philosophy of modern democracy and all political theologies.  The brutal truth is that they can never be reconciled.  And that, I believe, is the ultimate source of the conflictualities of our time - to which we still have no adequate response.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Mark Lilla, "Religion and Society: The New Conflicts", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), novembre 2010. Consulté le 23/04/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/les-dossiers-transversaux/religion-et-societe/religion-and-society-the-new-conflicts

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Mark Lilla est philosophe et professeur à l'Université de Columbia. Spécialiste de la théologie politique, le thème général de son œuvre est l'héritage controversé des Lumières en matière de politique et de religion. Le Dieu mort-né, considéré comme l'un des cent meilleurs livres parus l'année de sa publication aux États-Unis par la New York Times Book Review, met en avant la contradiction que représente le triomphe du fondamentalisme religieux dans une modernité occidentale sécularisée.

Le Dieu mort-né (Seuil, 2010)