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Jewish Journal

My take on Mark Lilla’s ‘Stilborn God’

by Brad A. Greenberg

August 23, 2007 | 12:04 pm


Mark Lilla’s cover story for last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is not the most thrilling essay I’ve read in the past month, but it is probably the most relevant to the world we are living in. Adapted from his to-be-published book “The Stillborn God,” Lilla addresses an important issue that underscores the limited effectiveness of “liberal” Islam:

What they mean is an Islam more adapted to the demands of modern life, kinder in its treatment of women and children, more tolerant of other faiths, more open to dissent. These are brave people who have often suffered for their efforts, in prison or exile, as did their predecessors in the 19th century, of which there were many. But now as then, their efforts have been swept away by deeper theological currents they cannot master and perhaps do not even understand. The history of Protestant and Jewish liberal theology reveals the problem: the more a biblical faith is trimmed to fit the demands of the moment, the fewer reasons it gives believers for holding on to that faith in troubled times, when self-appointed guardians of theological purity offer more radical hope.

The article details how the West got to where it is today, with its societies divided between the secular and the devout:

Liberal theology had begun in hope that the moral truths of biblical faith might be intellectually reconciled with, and not just accommodated to, the realities of modern political life. Yet the liberal deity turned out to be a stillborn God, unable to inspire genuine conviction among a younger generation seeking ultimate truth. For what did the new Protestantism offer the soul of one seeking union with his creator? It prescribed a catechism of moral commonplaces and historical optimism about bourgeois life, spiced with deep pessimism about the possibility of altering that life. It preached good citizenship and national pride, economic good sense and the proper length of a gentleman’s beard. But it was too ashamed to proclaim the message found on every page of the Gospels: that you must change your life. And what did the new Judaism bring to a young Jew seeking a connection with the traditional faith of his people? It taught him to appreciate the ethical message at the core of all biblical faith and passed over in genteel silence the fearsome God of the prophets, his covenant with the Jewish people and the demanding laws he gave them. Above all, it taught a young Jew that his first obligation was to seek common ground with Christianity and find acceptance in the one nation, Germany, whose highest cultural ideals matched those of Judaism, properly understood. To the decisive questions — “Why be a Christian?” and “Why be a Jew?” — liberal theology offered no answer at all.

Such vapidness laid the foundation for modern religiosity among those in the West who want religion more intertwined with politics. Christopher Hitchens, one of The New Atheists, critiques the piece in a Slate article titled “Mark Lilla doesn’t give us enough credit for shaking off the God myth.”

Question. What is a bigger threat to Western-style democracy: religious extremism or extreme secularism?

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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