The Politics of God

Our two posts on fundamentalism (1, 2) have only scratched the surface of this phenomenon and revealed many more interesting questions to explore. 

A useful place to pick up the exploration is a recent article by Mark Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia University, called The Politics of God. Professor Lilla’s point of departure is his sense of amazement that after two centuries when world politics revolved around “eminently political problems,” we seem to be back in the 16th century “entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty.” What happened? Like a good teacher, Professor Lilla has posed an interesting and also a very critical question.

Readers can go to Professor Lilla’s article to see how he answers the question with reference to Hobbes and Rousseau. Here we extract some material to rephrase the proposition in our own context and to pose some new and different questions for ourselves.

Professor Lilla begins with a broad Us versus Them characterization:

We all face the same questions of political existence, yet their way of answering them has become alien to us. On one shore, political institutions are conceived in terms of divine authority and spiritual redemption; on the other they are not… Understanding this difference is the most urgent intellectual and political task of the present time. But where to begin?

Quite interestingly, Professor Lilla chooses to begin with Us:

The history of political theology in the West is an instructive story… Political theology was a presence in Western intellectual life well into the 20th century…. in the aftermath of the First World War it took an apocalyptic turn, and “new men” eager to embrace the future began generating theological justifications for the most repugnant — and godless — ideologies of the age, Nazism and Communism. It is an unnerving tale, one that raises profound questions about the fragility of our modern outlook.

And so, having dispensed with the false Us versus Them dichotomy, Professor Lilla poses the more general question: “Why is there political theology?” And this is where God enters the picture: “Theology is, after all, a set of reasons people give themselves for the way things are and the way they ought to be. So let us try to imagine how those reasons might involve God and have implications for politics.”

Imagine human beings who first become aware of themselves in a world not of their own making. Their world has unknown origins and behaves in a regular fashion, so they wonder why that is. They know that the things they themselves fashion behave in a predictable manner because they conceive and construct them with some end in mind. They stretch the bow, the arrow flies; that is why they were made. So, by analogy, it is not difficult for them to assume that the cosmic order was constructed for a purpose, reflecting its maker’s will. By following this analogy, they begin to have ideas about that maker, about his intentions and therefore about his personality.

In taking these few short steps, the human mind finds itself confronted with a picture, a theological image in which God, man and world form a divine nexus. Believers have reasons for thinking that they live in this nexus, just as they have reasons for assuming that it offers guidance for political life.

But how that guidance is to be understood, and whether believers think it is authoritative, will depend on how they imagine God.

If God is thought to be passive, a silent force like the sky, nothing in particular may follow. He is a hypothesis we can do without. But if we take seriously the thought that God is a person with intentions, and that the cosmic order is a result of those intentions, then a great deal can follow. The intentions of such a God reveal something man cannot fully know on his own. This revelation then becomes the source of his authority, over nature and over us, and we have no choice but to obey him and see that his plans are carried out on earth. That is where political theology comes in.

And this is the point of departure for us.

A lot seems to depend on how we imagine God. So, how do we imagine God in South Asia?

The closest parallel with Professor Lilla’s Christianity is Islam, a divinely ordained religion with an increasing number of adherents who believe they will be rewarded for implementing God’s will on earth.

Then there is Hinduism. The novel being serialized on this blog (A Gash in the World) makes the point that Hinduism had a healthy fuzziness regarding its imagination of God that kept it safe from the kinds of religious wars that plagued Christianity. Yet, there are now an increasing number of Hindus who wish to do away with this fuzziness.

And then there is Buddhism seemingly with no God at all to worry about.

I found fascinating the pursuit of this question with Chinese friends. They were quite unable to understand what I was trying to get at. The best I could conclude was that there was an “Emperor in the Sky,” quite like the passive God Professor Lilla had mentioned, but all rules for good living were derived from Confucius. I wondered if that explained why there were no (non-Muslim) Chinese religious fundamentalists – at least just yet.

So, for the moment, the questions I want to explore with our readers are the following:

1.     How do you imagine God?

2.     What difference does this particular imagination of God make to how you act?

3.     What do we do if we have different imaginations of God in South Asia?

Mark Lilla’s essay appeared in the New York Times Magazine and was adapted from his book The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West.

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One Response to “The Politics of God”

  1. Vivek Raghavan Says:

    Lilla’s discussion of this fascinating topic is highly abstract and suggestive. One way to make it more concrete is to begin to identify the different strands within each religion that had quite different conceptions of God. For this, one needs some historical detail. For example, classical Christianity appeared to emphasize a more personal conception of God revealed through scripture who intervenes in the world, a view that may be called a type of theism; in the seventeenth century, as a result of the Enlightenment, there was a rationalist offshoot of Christianity called deism that believed in an impersonal Creator derived from reason who does not intervene in the universe. These two very different conceptions of God arose within the same basic religion because of different historical circumstances.

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