NY Times Mag: The Politics of God - Not in Our Back Yard

Mark Lilla writes about "the Great Separation" between religion and politics -- that we in the U.S. get it and the rest of the world doesn't. Yes we know -- and that is why we are the sole superpower.

The weaknesses of his analysis are (a) it is too high-level. He needs to name more names. And (b) he ought to shine the spotlight on the religious leaders who aspire to political power and the politicians who climb on the back of religion -- not on the philosophers. Perhaps he does more of this in his forthcoming book.

What interested me greatly in the article were the two references in the article to the philosopher Hermann Cohen. Rav J. B. Soloveitchik, my teacher, wrote his doctorate on Cohen at the University of Berlin (Das reine Denken and die Seinskonstituierung bei Hermann Cohen; i.e., Pure Thought as the Constitution of Being in Hermann Cohen's Philosophy). So anything about Cohen has added significance for me.

First shocker, Lilla's citation of Cohen saying the we are all Protestant in our "intellectual questions of religion":
Among Jewish liberal thinkers, there was a different sort of hope, that of acceptance as equal citizens. After the French Revolution, a fitful process of Jewish emancipation began in Europe, and German Jews were more quickly integrated into modern cultural life than in any other European country — a fateful development. For it was precisely at this moment that German Protestants were becoming convinced that reformed Christianity represented their national Volksgeist. While the liberal Jewish thinkers were attracted to modern enlightened faith, they were also driven by the apologetic need to justify Judaism’s contribution to German society. They could not appeal to the principles of the Great Separation and simply demand to be left alone. They had to argue that Judaism and Protestantism were two forms of the same rational moral faith, and that they could share a political theology. As the Jewish philosopher and liberal reformer Hermann Cohen once put it, “In all intellectual questions of religion we think and feel ourselves in a Protestant spirit.”
Second shocker, Lilla's citation of the letter that Cohen wrote supporting German WWI militarism:
By the turn of the 20th century, the liberal house was tottering, and after the First World War it collapsed. It was not just the barbarity of trench warfare, the senseless slaughter, the sight of burned-out towns and maimed soldiers that made a theology extolling “modern civilization” contemptible. It was that so many liberal theologians had hastened the insane rush to war, confident that God’s hand was guiding history. In August 1914, Adolf von Harnack, the most respected liberal Protestant scholar of the age, helped Kaiser Wilhelm II draft an address to the nation laying out German military aims. Others signed an infamous pro-war petition defending the sacredness of German militarism. Astonishingly, even Hermann Cohen joined the chorus, writing an open letter to American Jews asking for support, on the grounds that “next to his fatherland, every Western Jew must recognize, revere and love Germany as the motherland of his modern religiosity.” Young Protestant and Jewish thinkers were outraged when they saw what their revered teachers had done, and they began to look elsewhere.


bryce said...

Concerning Saul Lieberman's story, you wrote: "Some rabbi-stories ought not be published." Why don't you say "some philosopher-stories ought not be published" about these stories about Cohen?

F said...

Lilla's was a very bad article! He fails to understand history and makes up a convenient new category of 'political theology' instead of tackling the relationship between politics and ideology and understanding what theology is. Not to mention his treatment of morality which he separates from religion so that he can attack religion. The article is flawed on many accounts. For more you can check my blog http://paswonky.blogspot.com