Interview with Mark C. Taylor

I want to divide this interview in two parts: in the first part, I would like to ask you about your ideas regarding the present situation of the study of religion and in the second part I want to know your ideas about our global religious, economic and political situation.

Originally published as “The Coming Back of Religion. An Interview with Mark C. Taylor” in Trópico, Idéias de Norte a Sul,  a cultural and academic on-line magazine published by UOL, Folha de São Paulo, Brazil, June 2006.

First, let me start by asking this: You say that the major philosophical moves that radically changed our ways of understanding the world today happened between Hegel and Kierkegaard. Could you explain why?

Hegel and Kierkegaard are two very influential philosophers whose work delineates alternative ways of being-in-the world.   While both insisted that their writings brought to completion the principles initially articulated by Luther, their philosophical and theological perspectives are very different.  While Hegel develops a comprehensive system in which everything is interconnected and interrelated, Kierkegaard radicalizes the notion of the isolated individual, which can be traced back to medieval Nominalism.  The subsequent history of philosophy and theology in the 19th and 20th centuries can be understood as an oscillation between these two positions.  But the importance of the work of Hegel and Kierkegaard is not limited to philosophy and theology but extends to other domains of culture as well as to different forms of socio-political organization.

In Brazil, universities in general, not counting of course the Catholic universities, do not like the idea of religion in their curriculum. I guess I could say that this is the same in United States. Why religion has been so often despised by the academy and why it still is?

Religion is, in many ways, the most difficult subject for the university to deal with.   Most of the problems grow out the failure to distinguish adequately between the practice and the study of religion.  This situation is compounded by limited understandings of religion on the part of both those who defend and criticize it. I will return to this point in the next question.  Many academics remain committed to theories of secularization, which were formulated in the 1960s.  From this point of view, modernization and secularization are inseparable: as societies modernized, they become more secular in a process that is both inevitable and irreversible.  Obviously, things have not turned out this way.  Religion has never been more powerful or more dangerous than it is today.  It is absolutely essential not to regard the recent resurgence of religion as a reversion to premodern forms of belief and practice.  To the contrary, the rise of conservative forms of religion is a global phenomenon that is distinctively postmodern.  Religion is not going to go away and in all likelihood will become even more powerful in coming decades.  It is, therefore, vitally important to develop sophisticated and nuanced analyses of what is occurring.  The place where such an investigation must begin is with the recognition that secularity itself is a religious phenomenon that is the product of Judaism and Christianity.

You often say that religion appears where it is less evident or expected. Could you give us a definition of what you understand by religion and how do you approach it?

Religion is not simply what goes on in churches, temples and mosques.  There is a religious dimension to all culture.  Modern art, literature and architecture, for example, would never have developed the way it has without the profound influence of various religious and spiritual traditions.  The notion of the individual that lies at the foundation of much modern political and economic theory was first defined in Protestantism.  Adam Smith developed the analysis of markets that continues to inform economic policies today by appropriating Calvin’s notion of the invisible hand.  It is important to expand our understanding of religion in ways that allow us to see the extent of its influence in so-called secular culture.

You have been working with religion for the past 30 years. What are the major shifts you have seen during this time and what is the present situation of the study of religion?

It has never been more important to study religion critically than today and it has never been more difficult to do so.  On the one hand, political correctness has morphed into religious correctness.  Some religious believers have attacked scholars – sometimes threatening violence – for not respecting their beliefs.  In extreme cases, critics of the scholarly study of religion insist that only committed believers are qualified to teach a particular tradition.  On the other hand, critics argue that religion is epiphenomenal and must be reduced to more basic systems and processes, i.e., psychological, sociological or economic infrastructures.  What is most needed today is an approach to the study of religion that is multi-disciplinary and comparative.  It is necessary to bear insights from different methodological perspectives on traditions that are in conversation with each other.

What are the thinkers you say are important to the study of religion today?

I think the most interesting work for the study of religion is going on outside the field.  I would identify three different areas: art, literature and the biological sciences.  I should stress that none of these would not necessarily regard their work as religious or even relevant to religion.  In the arts, earthwork artists like Michael Heizer and James Turrell are developing enormously ambitions and important projects.  Other artists whose work is important include Richard Serra, Ann Hamilton, Matthew Barney, Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer.  In literature, two authors who deserve much more attention are William Gaddis and Mark Danielewski.  Finally, in the biological sciences I will note trajectories rather than individuals.  I believe that bioinformatics will be as important for the next few decades as computers and networking have been for the past several decades.  As more research is done in digital biology and artificial life and further advances in technology are made, the line between the human and the machine will become increasingly obscure. These developments have enormous implications for the world’s religious traditions.

You have created this word ‘altarity’ which is a twist form the world ‘alterity’, the same thing Derrida did with difference/differance. Could you explain this term?

You are correct to note the relation between my term altarity and Derrida’s notion of differance.  When I first started reading Derrida in the early 1980s, it was clear to me that he was preoccupied with theological questions.  Moreover, he was exploring the territory between Hegel and Kiekegaard that seemed to me to be very rich.  Derrida’s differaance can be understood as neither Hegel’s both/and nor Kierekgaard’s either/or.  That is to say the neither/nor of differance is the condition of the possibility of oppositions like presence/absence, being/nonbeing, transcendence/immanence, etc.  Alterity, which means other, remains bound to the oppositional structure that differance subverts.  Altarity is an other other that subverts every opposition.

You’ve said somewhere that you live in many worlds and your work has been heavily marked by a broad interdisciplinary approach. Among other things, you have worked with theology, arts and architecture, pop culture, media, technology and cybernetics, the body and flesh, complex systems graves, bones, and economics and the market. Why have you expended your thoughts in so many directions?

I believe that being is relational – to be is to be connected.  To understand anything, it is necessary to unravel the web of relations within which it emerges.  For example, you cannot understand the neo-liberalism of global capitalism if you do not understand Calvin’s doctrine of providence on the one hand, and, on the other, massively multi-player online role playing games (MMORPGs).  Creative insight emerges by bringing together phenomena that appear to be unrelated.  The way in which knowledge is structured is not etched in stone but reflects the modes of production and reproduction in a society.  As we have moved from industrial capitalism through consumer capitalism to finance capitalism the structure of reality has changed.  The problem is that universities have not changed with the world.  The model for today’s university was first formulated by Kant in a prescient work published in 1789.  Kant took as his model of the university mass production.  Try to imagine a curriculum and university structured like a network rather than an assembly line and you will begin to glimpse the changes that are required today.

Your students love your classes. Here at Columbia, I witnessed that. In 1995, you won the title of “College Professor of the Year”, an award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. How do see your work as a professor?

I take teaching very seriously; indeed, I regard teaching as a vocation.  I always tell my students that the teacher-student relation is ethical; we both have obligations and neither can do his or her job without the contributions of the other.  All too often today’s research universities slight teaching in favor of research.  The research/teaching dichotomy is specious.  Research informs teaching and teaching nourishes research.  There is nothing more rewarding than serious engagement with intelligent and committed students.

How do you see President George Bush’s personal relation to religion? Is he trying to develop a “theocracy”?

I have often said that I worry more about true believers than unbelievers.  In many ways, the religious wars of the 21st century are an extension of the cultural wars of the 1960s.  For many people – ranging from George W. Bush to Pope Benedict, the 1960s started us down a path of relativism that can only be corrected by a return to absolutes.  I believe absolutes and the certainty they seem to secure are dangerous.  I do not think Bush wants to create a theocracy but I do think that his uncritical religious commitments have led to domestic and foreign policies that are doing enormous damage.

How Bush’s views on religion have changed the ways the United States deal with politics and economy both internally and also with the world?

In recent years, the political landscape in the US has been transformed by what I call the New Religious Right, which emerged when conservative Protestants and Catholics joined forces in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The critical issues were abortion, school prayer, evolution and the federal judiciary.  These issues are still driving much of Bush’s agenda. It is important to realize that conservative Protestants have always recognized the ways in which new technologies can be used to spread the faith.  This began with the printing press, spread to radio and television and now extends to the internet.  This technological savvy has led to enormous financial and political power. There is nothing that comes close to this on the left.

How should we approach the world after September 11? How do you understand the idea of “terrorism”?

As I have suggested above, terrorism is a distinctively postmodern phenomenon that is a reaction to the expanding power of global capitalism.  It is based upon an oppositional ideology, which sets good against evil. What makes this ideology so dangerous is that the world is becoming increasingly interconnected.  When you have an oppositional ideology in a world of webs and networks the results can be disastrous.

With what eyes do you see the future of our world?

In all honesty, it is difficult to be optimistic about the future.  The problems we face are so profound and there is so little willingness to recognize or engage them.  I believe the most critical issues of the 21st century will be environmental.  Nowhere is that more evident than in Brazil.  The destruction of the rain forest threatens the life of the planet.  The webs in which we are entangled are not just internet and global capital but are also natural webs, which, when once damaged, cannot be repaired.  We are rapidly approaching a tipping point, which might well bring massive destruction.

To wrap up our conversation, what are the ways in which the study of religion can offer resistance or some alternatives to the present political, economic and religious situation?

Thought and action, theory and practice are inseparably related.  We desperately need an understanding of the world in which we understand that everything is codependent and coevolves.  If we continue on the path we are now following, it is hard to imagine any future at all.

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