Monday, October 15, 2007

The Stillborn God

I promised a while back to lay down Stephen O'Shea's exciting recounting of muslim/christian relations around the Mediterranean from the 7th through the 16th centuries to dive into Mark Lilla's recent The Stillborn God. During my "hiatus", I did just that ... well, at least half ways. (Click here for all my posts which have discussed this book.)

Half ways because I just had to give it up on page 124 of 309 pages of labored prose. I can say this for the book ... its turgidity is more annoying than its turbity ... by which I mean that it is more bloated than muddy, but not by much. This is the classic case of a modern book that any competent editor could readily reduce to a two-part New Yorker essay. Lilla indulges far too much meandering reminding his readers of introductory college humanities stuff that, he assumes, we have forgotten somewhere between spouse number two and SUV number three. But a tiresome review of the commonplaces of intellectual history is the least of the problems.

I suppose some sense of the impulse to completion will force me back to this annoying prose. But this is what stopped me in my tracks ... the Vicar is Rousseau's apologist for a de-theologized, or natural, religion in the famous parable in his Emile:

The Vicar's faith is not the Christian faith. But neither is it opposed to Christianity. That was what was so revolutionary ...

Revolutionary, indeed. Rousseau was exiled for this piece of writing, but I would assert that it was not because it was revolutionary but rather because it was an argument in the character of its times that threatened the perquisites of the cynical theologues who had the power to exile him. But in the grander scheme of things, this is precisely the apology for religion that allows the desperate to cling to it even in the face of "death of god." This was not atheism, but a pseudo-theism that allowed atheists to pretend to believe in god.

Early on in this blog, in the context of the good lord taking poor ole Jerry Falwell to his reward, I argued that there are three types of the religious: the earnest, the desperate, and the cynical. The Vicar's argument is the classic statement of how the desperate should interpret religion, how they too can join in.

Lilla's point in the long run is that secularists have to understand the mindset of the religious, and this is without doubt completely and totally obvious. But it hardly justifies forcing good secularists to plunk down $26 and hours of their free time to read through a turgid reiteration of "natural religion" arguments whose validity expired with the power of the Church to burn us alive, or leastwise chase us from our homes and livelihoods.

The straw man nature of Lilla's argument rears up even in the introduction ... the man seems to love cheap rhetorical tricks such as broadly obvious lines disguised as insight:

Fragility is a disturbing prospect. We see this in our children, who love fairy tales where occult forces threatening their worlds are exposed and mastered.

Good lord, children, fairy tales. But then he slides, as if the critical reader is blind to the obvious conflation, to describing "modernization, democratization, the 'disenchantment of the world,' 'history as the story of liberty'" as the fairy tales of our times. This is a set-up, a con job. Once you adopt this self-righteous dismissal of the themes of modern western civilization as mere fairy tales, there is not point in reading the rest of the book ... just skip to the mushy conclusion.

I guess this is as far as I can get tonight on this piece ... tired and back-sore. I am always annoyed by liberals ... secularists, if you will ... who feel compelled to interpret the idiocy of religion in a warm, fuzzy light. Religion was once ineluctable, unavoidable. It is now a curse. We need to find a way to obviate it, not to re-invest in it.

Call things by their real names.

I'll try to get back to hashing this book up on another, hopefully more lucid, occasion.

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