The Lord & Taylor

When I was a student at Williams College in the 1990s, Professor Mark C. Taylor was the big man on campus, the intellectual figure to reckon with. If a book had been written with the title God and Man at Williams, the man would have been Taylor, according to whom God was dead. Taylor loomed especially large for students like me who came to Williams with faith in God as well as aspirations, or pretensions, to be intellectually sophisticated. For faith in God, at least according to Taylor and his protégées, was intellectually disreputable. Haven’t you read Nietzsche, and Freud, and the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and above all the French “deconstructionist” Jacques Derrida?

Intimidated, I shied away from Taylor, but read on my own both his work and Derrida’s, quietly seeking to understand and come to terms with this challenge to my faith. During my senior year, I enrolled in a Taylor seminar on Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Derrida—all three in one semester!—but dropped out after the first meeting, turned off by the cult of personality surrounding Taylor and by his strange teaching style. (At the end of the class, he recapitulated his lecture by repeating parts of his major claims, then pausing for students to fill in what came next. You were with him or you weren’t.) Perhaps, too, I was still intimidated. When I asked Taylor to sign my drop/add form at his office the next day, he looked at me and said, “Couldn’t take it?” No, I said, I couldn’t.

Now Taylor, who after three decades at Williams has recently become chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University, has published a long and theoretically ambitious book about religion that both confirms my wariness of him and suggests that I could have learned from him. Still, Taylor is not a teacher for—and this is not a book for—persons of faith seeking understanding. After God is a work of cultural theory that seeks to lead its readers to “appreciate religion’s abiding significance” even though they do not, of course, believe in God. Taylor writes for readers who might be tempted to join the growing ranks of what the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher called religion’s “cultured despisers.” Here, too, either you’re with Taylor or you’re not. If you’re not, there is still much you can learn from this book as long you’re patient and can forgive the author’s intellectual promiscuity: he discusses with great energy and dispatch a vast array of thinkers and artists, historical figures and events, theories and controversies. But be prepared to be made uneasy by After God’s grand narrative, which relegates traditional forms of religious faith and practice to the dustbin of history.

What I have come to find interesting about Taylor is that he does not know what it is like to belong to a religious tradition—he appears to have no feeling for the religious life—and so he provokes the person who does belong to such a tradition to think about how he or she is different. (In some touching remembrances of his parents deep in this book, Taylor writes that “though we were regular churchgoers [at a Presbyterian church], it was clear to me from a very early age that, in our family, school was church and books were scripture.”) As a deconstructionist, Taylor urges his readers to “cultivate uncertainty,” but he exhibits none of it himself. This is a book of answers, not questions. Taylor is never in the dark, he shows no doubts—to quote one of his political pronouncements, it is clear to him that “the so-called culture of life is really a culture of death”—and it is difficult to imagine him ever struggling with the feeling that his thinking is inadequate to its object, or that he must have gone wrong somewhere to come to this or that conclusion. He seems to think he has everybody and everything figured out, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob included. By contrast, John Paul II observes in his encyclical Fides et ratio that “faith purifies reason. As a theological virtue, faith liberates reason from presumption, the typical temptation of the philosopher.” I wonder if Taylor could appreciate this observation. Or would he, like Nietzsche, see it as a piece of priestcraft aimed at those who are unenlightened, servile, and even somehow sick?

By “religion,” Taylor means “an emergent, complex, adaptive network of symbols, myths, and rituals.” This definition allows him to dismiss the great differences among religious traditions. Instead, Taylor groups religious believers according to their politics. He quotes with agreement sociologist Alan Wolfe’s claim that “the theological differences between conservative Catholics and Protestants that created five hundred years of conflict and violence have been superseded by political agreement.” From there, Taylor goes on to assert that “doctrinal and theological differences between and among denominations [have] become less important than differences within particular traditions,” so that “Evangelical Protestantism and radical Islamism are closer to each other than either is to liberal forms of Christianity or Islam.” This kind of claim is repeated often nowadays, and I have even made it myself. A friend of mine who teaches at a Catholic institution and who is on her way to becoming a Presbyterian minister has recently made me reconsider it. According to her, while believers from different religious traditions may of course share a political agenda, even Presbyterians and Roman Catholics inhabit largely separate “worlds,” with different habits of consciousness, dispositions, and outlooks corresponding to different liturgical and sacramental practices and basic beliefs. These differences cannot be fully understood without long and sympathetic study and exchange.

This kind of observation is alien to Taylor’s theorizing. What motivates this book, Taylor writes in its introduction, is his belief that “never before has religion been so powerful and so dangerous.” He is particularly disturbed by “the ascendancy of neofoundationalism,” which he presents as a reaction to the countercultural movements that shook the West in the 1960s. According to Taylor, who came of age in the ’60s, “the mortal danger we not relativism but absolutism,” and “the future depends on displacing religious foundationalism and exclusive moralism with a religion of life and an ethics without absolutes.”

The book’s thesis may be articulated in three propositions that Taylor repeats several times in different terms: (1) “The Protestant revolution prepared the way for subsequent revolutions that created the modern world”; (2) in language taken from Max Weber, “the Protestant ethic” is the origin not merely of “the spirit of capitalism” but also of “the spirit of globalization” that is now making our world one; and (3) “Western secularity,” which with globalization is breaking its old geographical bounds, “is a religious phenomenon”; more precisely, it is the culmination of “the reversal of transcendence in immanence” that Taylor claims is “at the heart of the Protestant tradition.” This last proposition requires some explaining. Despite his deconstructionist credentials, Taylor is at bottom a kind of Hegelian. (The Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor is another and rather different kind of Hegelian.) According to the author of After God, “Hegel explains the importance of the Reformation”; he works out the implications of the Reformation’s “privatizing, deregulating, and decentering the relation between the believer and God” and its proclamation of the priesthood of all believers. To put a long and complicated story in brief, for Hegel and for Taylor too, “the world is really the self-embodiment of God, and thus, whatever exists is an incarnation of divine reality.” But if (and what a big if it is!) “God is real only by becoming incarnate in self and world,” then it follows that, “in this process of its own becoming,” transcendence—that is, God—“negates itself in...immanence”—that is, the world. Or, in more dramatic terms, “God dies by becoming so immanent that the profane is sacred and the finite is infinite.”

On this view, secularity is “the fulfillment rather than the simple negation of religion.” It is the fulfillment of God’s embodiment and self-negation in nature and history. Yet Taylor still finds sense in talking about “the divine.” “After God,” he writes, “the divine is not elsewhere but is the emergent creativity that figures, disfigures, and refigures the infinite fabric of life,” which sounds a lot like what has traditionally been called pantheism. Taylor’s ethical prescriptions are similarly thin. We are to “embrace complexity,” “promote cooperation as much as competition,” “accept volatility,” and “cultivate uncertainty.” But stay away from absolutes! He does not say whether this prohibition extends to principles like respect for persons.

The deeper I read into this book, the more I felt like a spectator. Since “modernity as well as postmodernity is inseparably bound up with Protestantism” (according to Taylor, there is even an “unexpected relationship between Protestantism and the Internet”), what’s a Catholic who still believes in God to do but watch from the sidelines? Taylor does discuss two contemporary Catholics, Benedict XVI and William Bennett, but only as examples of reactionaries who must be overcome. Another turn of the dialectic, however, seems unlikely to bring the peace that Taylor calls for. A richer appreciation of the life of faith in its diverse forms—and a willingness to turn the page on the culture wars of the 1960s—might make for a better start.


Read more: Letters, June 20, 2008

Published in the 2008-04-11 issue: 

Bernard G. Prusak holds the Raymond and Eleanor Smiley Chair in Business Ethics at John Carroll University. His co-edited volume, with Jennifer Reed-Bouley, Catholic Higher Education and Catholic Social Thought, was published by Paulist Press in February 2023.

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