(Shipwrecked Minds) Religion & Political Reaction (Mark Lilla)


Not a knockout intellectual blow, Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction packs a tough little liberal punch nevertheless. But to what effect? Meant for a broad readership, The Shipwrecked Mind appeared in 2016 as a New York Review Book publication, assembled largely from essays by him from that journal. There will be readers of religion, Jewish philosophy, and critical theory who will note without necessarily appreciating the place played by Rosenzweig, Voegelin, and Strauss in this little history of reactionary ideas set alongside Badiou, Schmitt, Houellebecq, and the specter of Political Islam. It might seem strange for some to see Rosenzweig in this company. He was, after all, a mostly apolitical religious thinker; and Lilla never explicitly calls him a reactionary. His inclusion among these other intellectual shipwrecks shows that Lilla counts among those intellectual historians at work today who take religion very seriously. Among Lilla’s merits as an intellectual historian lies in the effort to guide political thought through the Scylla and Charybdi of religion and politics. His inability to get modern religion right coupled with what Nitzan Lebovic, whom you can read here, has called his nostalgic liberalism might constitute his primary challenge making it through those treacherous shoals.

Whatever faults of the book as a project, the anatomy of political reaction in The Shipwrecked Mind remains clear-cut and very much to the point, particularly as a reflection on historical time and its passage, especially in relation to the religious imagination.

What bridges conservative and radical expressions of political reaction are identified as:

[1] nostalgia (for the ancient and medieval past, and even, paradoxically, nostalgia for the future in the case of radical reactionaries) (for the lost shape of community that one wants to recoup) (for a justice to come),

[2] declinism and cultural pessimism (regarding late liberal modernity and the failure of revolution in the twentieth century),

[3] political theology (that mixes up the political, especially decisionism, with magical, mythical, messianic, apocalyptic thinking).

Taking my cue from Lilla, the conclusion is that thinkers and their thought (such as Rosenzweig and Strauss along with Schmitt and Benjamin) would have to share at least two of these family resemblances to count as reactionary. I would submit that a great many of my colleagues in Jewish thought and philosophy have not quite worked through their own attraction to topoi of such sort.

As a necessary corrective to the shipwreck represented by strict decisionism and other forms of theo-political posturing, Lilla’s liberal alternative is a politics defined in terms of “deliberation, consultation, compromise” (p.100). In relation to religion and against St. Paul and his radical contemporary inheritors, St. Augustine stands out, it seems to me, as the hero of religion in The Shipwrecked Mind. With Augustine, Lilla turns religion away from “the flow of history” towards an eschatological vision of end-times, projected safely out into the distant future. The religion that recommends itself to Lilla is epistemologically modest. No claims are made to know the exact relationship between God, catastrophe, and redemption, or even the relation between God and power. Religion is hedged in by rational religion, teaching the Gospel, moral righteousness and faith (p.70). After the rise of rightwing political religion in this country and abroad and after all the blather about messianism and the political, there is some relief to this more simple structure. Religion and politics represent different social phenomena. To collapse the two into one single form can only sustain damage to both.

But is any of this sufficient? Does Lilla’s liberal Augustinianism (if that’s what it is) speak to religion as a known historical phenomenon? This goes well and beyond the separation of church and state. Based on the separation of religion and history, this orientation towards what Lilla commends as a remote and silent God is not political, a notion which some will reject, and does not pretend to be political, which others will welcome (p.129). One suspects on Lilla’s part a deliberate and bad-faith move intended to exclude parties from coming to the table where the political gets hashed out. The move is similar to the one made by Lessing in Nathan the Wise where the genuinely spiritual figures (the friar, Brother Bonafides and al-Havi, the Derwish) conveniently enough leave the political arena (the polis, figured as Jerusalem under the rule of Saladin) to join more comprehensive religious orders out in the countryside.

The Shipwrecked Mind is a fine polemic against reactionary thought and the comfortable place it finds among certain circles in the western academy. But there’s something not quite right regarding religion. Even for those of us in Religious Studies who want to maintain some “distinction” between religion and the political might nevertheless want to resist the contention that these are completely “separable” spheres. Left by Lilla to its own devices, religion has lost its worldly, historical structure, and all the attendant relations to the political that come with that structure and that have constituted religion as, in his words for the political, a “deliberative, consulting, and compromised” social formation, always at work with or against dominant power.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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