God Interrupted: Heresy and the European Imagination Between the World Wars (Princeton University Press, 2008)

  • Best First Book in the History of Religions -- American Academy of Religion
Haeresis dea
Princeton University Press

Why would leading students of religion between the world wars insist that the best thing about religion was the heresies it spawned? Why would gnosticism and pantheism, the two most potent heretical alternatives to the monotheistic tradition, become veritable ideals in interwar Europe? Why should we care? In pursuit of an answer, God Interrupted provides an intellectual history of the era and several of its most important afterlives, approached by means of revisions in theological thinking that were also much more.

The book traces how the heretical ideal played out in cultural circles both mainstream and occult. It also provides novel interpretations of three seminal thinkers, all of them German-Jewish emigres: Hans Jonas, Leo Strauss, and Gershom Scholem. Jonas developed a philosophical biology that made him an inspiration for the German Green movement and for bioethicists the world over. Strauss became one of the most important political theorists of the twentieth century, and for some inspired the rise to power of the neo-conservative movement in America. Scholem almost singlehandedly invented the modern study of Jewish mysticism, and became one of the century’s two or three most important scholars of religion. But these apparently unrelated chapters in the history of ideas had common origins—in debates about heresy between the world wars.

Together, their examples help us appreciate the abiding salience of the divine to Europeans between the wars and beyond, even among those for whom God had long been dead or missing. Their stories alert us to the ways in which talk about God could be adapted for talk about nature, or politics, or art, to the ways in which discourses of the divine not only persist as an alternative to this worldly world of ours, but flourish in the midst of our most secular of pursuits.

Current Research

Earth Undone: A History of Organisms and Artifacts in the Twentieth Century

OrganismShould trees have standing to sue in court? Should corporations have the right to patent new species of living beings? Do three-toed sloths and staghorn ferns have value or purpose independent of what we make of them? Are biological organisms free, and if so, what are the implications for how we organize our systems of justice, our politics, our bodies, our human-built world?

These sorts of questions are at the core of current discussions about humankind’s relation to nature. They were also posed in more sophisticated form by a host of twentieth-century thinkers, who worried about the modern dominance of the artifactual over the natural, of what we make (and how we make it) over the natural world in which we live.

Earth Undone recounts their story by pursuing one of its most curious dimensions: the revival of the ancient idea that biological organisms, both animal and vegetable, are endowed with freedom, albeit a kind to which moderns have become unaccustomed—to act in accord with what beings are by nature. Those dismayed by the mindless pursuit of technological advance looked to this notion of nature as an antidote. They called into question the equation of human freedom with the fabrication of our world and ourselves, and set out to overturn the dominant approach to the issue since the age of Hobbes, Bacon and Descartes.

Whether they were right is up for debate. That their stories are both fascinating and instructive is not. In arguments about law, philosophy, politics, and biotechnology, the book describes how anxieties about the eclipse of the grown by the made, of earth by artifact, pressed twentieth-century thinkers to reimagine natural objects as subjects, as agents that make claims upon human action.