The impact of religion on politics—particularly the invocation of divine authority to justify a specific social order—is an issue both interesting and complex. In The Stillborn God, Mark Lilla promises an episodic presentation of the rise and fall of political theology from sixteenth century England to twentieth century Germany. While often interesting and thoughtful, the book ultimately fails to fulfil this promise, instead becoming mired in its exploration of the interaction among various philosophical positions.
Lilla's goal is laudable, and for the most part I think I agree with his main thesis—that political theology's influence has declined since the Enlightenment, but as examples in early twentieth century Germany show, it's never far from people's minds. His writing isn't up to snuff, however, and the book never really takes on the "episodic" aspect for which he strives. I'm also now sick of the word "eschatological." Yes, it may be pertinent to the subject, but does Lilla have to use it every second page?
We're treated to a survey of the thoughts of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel, as well as some more minor modern German thinkers, and the most cursory glimpse at Leibniz and theodicy. Having not read Leviathan or any of Rousseau's works, I did find these summaries interesting, but not really episodic. Lilla's language gets, at times, extremely technical and academic. This is not the crisp prose of A Short History of Nearly Everything. Hence, despite my interest, I had trouble enjoying and savouring The Stillborn God; by the time I neared the end of the book, my urge to set it aside was growing ever stronger.
Certainly, I applaud Lilla for presenting a dry and academic overview rather than producing a highly rhetorical polemic. There's a limit to how dry a book can be and still be decipherable; Lilla approaches that limit several times. Only with considerable patience did I absorb each argument, piecemeal as he presented it, and followed his synthesis of these philosophers' ideas. So if you have the time or inclination to read extremely patiently, to parse and consider every page of this book, you may get more from it than I did. While I'm not looking for light reading by any means, The Stillborn God was a little too dense for me. And it never really achieves the unity of its thesis that can alleviate the tedium of a tense work.
Lilla takes a look at some of the major philosophers, as I mentioned, and shows us how each one built upon the thoughts of those who came before—either by accepting or refuting their predecessors' positions. He credits Hobbes with the initial novity, the idea that religion might not necessarily be inseparable from politics. Later thinkers, such as Rousseau and Hegel, take that kernel but apply a more humanist spin on it, adding a thread of religious toleration. This discussion of religion from purely a philosophical perspective, rather than the biological evolution of religion explored by Richard Dawkins, Nicholas Wade, et al., is pretty fascinating. Aside from mild intellectual interest, however, Lilla's synthesis of these positions never evokes a sense of wonder or illumination beyond what we already knew.
Those looking for advice or a prescription for the present will be disappointed; Lilla makes that quite clear at the beginning of the book. And I don't judge it the worse for that reason. The Stillborn God is a survey of modern Western philosophy parsed through the lens of political theology. It brings little enough new to the table, in my opinion, that it's probably more worthwhile to simply read the source philosophers (Hobbes et al.) yourself—and if what you desire are summaries and syntheses of those philosophers, I suspect that field is diverse and has plenty more to offer than this one book. It offers up some interesting thoughts, but The Stillborn God lacks any quality that would distinguish it from other discussions of political theology.