Mark C. Taylor's sprawling and ambitious new book, After God, is one of the latest works striving to explain a modern world that did not, despite most predictions, continue to expand into secularity throughout the twentieth century. Taylor, who previously has relocated the God of classical theism to the postmodern cultures of Las Vegas, Times Square, and installation art, now reaches back to Martin Luther and forward to theories of emergent adaptive systems to expand the concept of God even further. An intellectual biography, a history of ideas, and an attempt at a comprehensive theology of culture for the twenty-first century, After God is composed of multiple mini-narratives that juxtapose different eras, ideologies, and disciplines. Taylor stitches together theology and philosophy with politics, art, and science, using the past to read the present and the present to read the past. Like Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, After God appears to be proposing a theory to end all theories and taking into account all of Western history as a demonstration of this narrative.
In After God, as in earlier works, Taylor is aware of both his own intellectual path and its relationship to broader trends in cultural theory. For more than thirty years and in over twenty books, from poststructuralist philosophy to chaos theory, from the death of God to tattoos, from Melville to Madonna, Taylor has challenged the boundaries of theological and philosophical thought. Like the many charts and diagrams of ideological intersections and overlap that illustrate his latest book, Taylor's work proceeds by accretion. Rather than abandoning one school of thought (deconstruction) to move into another (the study of emergent adaptive systems), he piles them up, building links and constructing connections over time and between disciplines. In After God, we get the whole package: Taylor's early theological studies of Kierkegaard and Hegel, his Derrida-influenced "a/theology," his explorations of popular culture, postmodern art, and architecture, and his more recent study of complexity theory and economic and biological patterns and systems. For devoted readers of Taylor's work, After God will offer a familiar cast of thinkers and writers such as Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Derrida, and Wallace Stevens, as well as Martin Luther, Andy Warhol, Adam Smith, and several contemporary biologists and physicists. For readers new to Taylor's work, After God will read as an overwhelmingly broad, sometimes bewildering, sometimes irritatingly assured and dizzying introduction to his thought.
As he does in many of his books, Taylor begins After God by asserting his views that "you cannot understand the world today if you do not understand religion" and that "religion is often most influential where it is least obvious" (xiii), statements he will repeat throughout this book. He also expands one of his familiar premises by claiming that "religion and secularity are not opposites; to the contrary, Western secularity is a religious phenomenon" (xiii). By starting with these tenets and asserting that "the problem is that neither those who defend nor those who attack religion today have an adequate understanding of it," Taylor sets out to create an "alternative vision better suited" (xv) to contemporary challenges. But this very modern goal sends him back in time: to the Bible and Near Eastern mythology, fourth-century Christian heretics, German philosophy, and, most of all, to Luther. Taylor's vision of the Protestant Reformation is, as he continually reminds us, central to each section of this complex work. As he has from the beginning of his career, Taylor acknowledges being "consistently guided by leading eighteenth and nineteenth century European thinkers and writers" especially Hegel and Kierkegaard, but in After God, he is more explicit than before about their specific Protestant orientation. Luther, he claims, is an "additional trajectory" that is vital to understanding modern and postmodern sensibilities, politics, economics, and systems of all kinds. Even his concluding vision of an "absolutely paradoxical faith," or a "religion without God," is, he insists, the "consummation of the revolution Luther began" (xviii). In this work, more than in previous books, Taylor looks to establish large overarching narratives of historical influence and connection; each section is both micro and macro and intended as part of the same story. Taylor, who used to write about labyrinths, here threads the theme of Martin Luther in a relatively straight line from the Reformation to the Internet.
After God can be divided into five main sections. Chapter 1 is dedicated to developing an expanded definition of religion, which will be the basis of Taylor's forthcoming sections. Chapters 2 and 3 examine ways in which Luther and his revolution paved the way for the emergence of modernity and postmodernity. Chapter 4 expands the argument that secularity emerges from within the Judeo-Christian tradition going back to debates in fourth- and fifth-century Christianity to show that contemporary secularity is actually implicit in classical Christology. Chapters 5 and 6 bring this thinking into the last half of the twentieth century and early twenty-first. Taylor argues (again) that what the nineteenth century philosophized the twentieth century realized. He also traces the move toward fundamentalism in recent decades and argues that the religious wars of the twenty-first century have roots in the culture wars of the 1960s. In his final two chapters, claiming that absolutism must give way to relationalism, Taylor proposes an alternative schema--a "religion without God"--that replaces what he sees as competing absolutisms.
If this seems like a lot of material to cover, it is, and although Taylor works hard to construct connections and a central thesis, an initial reading will likely feel decentered. How one understands the work as a whole will depend greatly on one's familiarity with the various subjects and with Taylor's previous works. One key to understanding After God is grasping Taylor's definition of religion; a current definition of religion, as he outlines it, must move past and through recent theories of the history of religion, social constructivism, and deconstruction (10-11). Religion is
an emergent, complex, adaptive network of symbols, myths, and rituals that, on the one hand, figure schemata of feeling, thinking, and acting in ways that lend life meaning and purpose and, on the other, disrupt, dislocate, and disfigure every stabilizing structure. (12)
The idea of a religion (or a God) that paradoxically lends stability and instability, certainty and doubt is, of course, not new; it goes back as far as early medieval mystic Pseudo-Dionysius and has been explored recently by theorists such as Richard Kearney, Timothy Beal, Hent DeVries, and in Derrida's later works. Nevertheless, Taylor's extensive development of this paradox is both odd and brilliant as he not only explores this contradictory tension but also attempts to show that any binary description is "finally inadequate for understanding the interrelation of nature, society and culture in today's culturally pluralistic world" (36). What is new in his definition is the idea that religion is a "network" of complex adaptive systems which, in Taylor's theory, will employ but move beyond traditional definitions as well as those informed by structuralism and poststructuralism. Unpacking his definition of religion also leads him to a new definition of God. Taylor's twenty-first century God is "not the ground of being that forms the foundation of all beings but the figure constructed to hide the originary abyss from which everything emerges and to which all returns" (345). The key term in understanding how his definition of religion will result in this negative God is the term schemata, which he adapts from physics to refer to complex adaptive systems. Taylor's description of how "schemata self-organize and operate in physical, chemical, and biological as well as social, political, and economic systems" (16) is indicative of the wide scope of this book. Citing examples ranging from ancient cosmogonic myths to modern information theory, Taylor stresses the interplay of order and chaos common to all systems, whether mythic, cultural, or scientific.
The construction of this negative God comes out of a pattern that Taylor will establish as a primary theme: "God can disappear in two ways: on the one hand, God can become so transcendent that he is functionally irrelevant, and on the other, the divine can become so immanent that God and the world are one" (73). Taylor identifies a back-and-forth alternation between a transcendent (dualistic) and immanent (monistic) worldview to theorize historical moments and to serve as a trope to organize many of his familiar themes into a more focused narrative. In his analysis, this alternation can be either theological or cultural, "in either case the result is the same: secularity is revealed to be inseparable from religion" (157). He will find this double movement of negation in the history of modernist and postmodernist art, which "restages the dialectical interplay between transcendence and immanence" (207), and in postmodern theories of virtual reality where the "interplay between thing and image reenacts the dialectical reversal of transcendence into immanence figured in the death of God" (220). This pattern determines Taylor's narrative of late twentieth-century religion as well, where liberalism (immanence) gave way to neoorthodoxy (transcendence), which was negated by the death-of-God theology in the 1960s. The following "recent emergence of neofoundationalism represents the effort to reverse this perceived decline by reasserting religious and moral absolutes in a world that seems to be drifting toward chaos" (297). Ultimately, Taylor sees neither transcendence or immanence as appropriate for today, instead opting for a "complex" God or worldview that "exposes the inadequacy of every version of monism and dualism" an argument that leads to the Taylor-esque formulation that "to think after God is to think the after that is ever before us" (40).
As Taylor has been doing in recent works, his final chapter attempts to put his theories directly into practice. His histories of Western philosophy, the death of God, the Protestant Reformation, speculative science, and himself, lead to the philosophical-biographical assertion that he is "a committed relativist or, perhaps more accurately, relationalist, who firmly believes that the future depends on displacing religious foundationalism and exclusive moralism with a religion of life and an ethics without absolutes" (254). Although there is always a danger in expecting theory to translate into immediate practical action, this is exactly what he sets out to do, providing "guiding principles for negotiating conflicts that often seem nonnegotiable" (354). While his The Moment of Complexity (2001) turned to education, After God turns to ethical issues surrounding clean water and global warming.
Taylor's work continues to provide an important intervention in trying to redefine where we are in an age that seems to be moving too fast, a time, he warns, where "midnight may be approaching" (xii). Perhaps the most difficult task for readers of After God is to mentally hang on to all the parts and their connections and to still be aware of the larger themes. To that end, Taylor proves a helpful if occasionally heavy-handed guide. Whether readers are convinced by Taylor's narrative or not will depend greatly on how they read the meaning of his title. Just what does he mean by after God? For Taylor, we are after the God of Nietzsche, after Thomas Altizer's "death of god," after the neofoundationalist God of Jerry Falwell, and the self-help God of Joel Osteen, after, even, the God of deconstruction. The only path, for him, is to move toward new constructions--more plural, more relational--of God, religion, history, science, and ethics within uncertainty, complexity, and insecurity. Is such a shift possible? For Taylor--for whom this possibility also means confessing impossibility--it is our only hope.
New York University
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|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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