Review: The Stillborn God

April 24, 2008

As with any number of non-fictions books I've read lately, Mark Lilla's The Stillborn God is one I'll have to return to in the future for a detailed skimming. I like taking notes; yet, notetaking requires extra time, and can make it difficult to see the forest for the trees. Thus I've been experimenting with reading all the way through, with an eye to returning soon to skim back over for the most thought-provoking elements. Hasn't happened yet with anything else though =/.

When I do so with this work, I will particularly be working on better understanding the overarching schools of thought that he comments on — enlightenment separation, liberal theology, political messianism, etc. With which analyses, driving these and other philosophical / theological approaches, do I agree? And, do they offer me any further insight into how to live my life — which means living my faith — today? What lessons can I draw that would help me better understand, and better explain, the role of religion today? More explicitly, to understand and explain the role of the Bahá'í Faith in this ancient struggle between freedom and submission?

This work is unusual in its narrative style. This is seems likely to be an artifact of its origination in a series of lectures, which certainly helps explain the lack of footnotes. I value footnotes, but it has been refreshing to avoid their distraction. Lilla does not seem particularly concerned with invoking authority. He lays out, unapologetically, his understanding of various philosophers and their influence on society (particularly theologically), leaving as an exercise for the reader to dig into alternative interpretations.

He also writes in a such a manner that it is often difficult to tell when he is speaking for himself and when he is attempting to carry on in the voices of those long dead. This has the positive effect that the reader is presented with an argument without embedded rebuttal. On the other hand, it can lead to some confusion about what, if any, material-spiritual (divine nexus) worldview he may be advocating for his audience. This felt particularly true when reading about Kant and Hegel.

It is a good book, doing much to uncover how Europe went from religious fanaticism in the 17th century to atheistic-messianic disaster in the 20th. It shows messianism to be fraught with peril, often collapsing on itself by sowing the seeds of its own destruction. At the same time, he leaves room for recognition of the inherit human yearnings that find (some of) their highest expression in the religious impulse.

I wonder if there are any such objective books on the rise of messianic-political Islam?

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