Originally published in the Washington Post’s series Under God
This morning I was lucky enough to spend some time with Mark C. Taylor, Chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University. I remember having some questions as I stepped into his office, maybe something about Obama or China, but those quickly evaporated. Taylor is one of those wild and brilliant thinkers whose conversations effortlessly cover time and space and everything in between. And once he gets going, it’s hard to keep up and impossible to stop him. The following is a little morsel of the awesome urgency he brought to religion, just enough to whet the appetite.
ME: How did religion get to be where it is today politically? It’s so prevalent in one sense, but it doesn’t seem any deeper than the word itself.
MT: As somebody who’s spent his life reading and thinking about all this stuff, it’s interesting that you have religion back as such a preoccupation in the minds of everybody and yet the understandings of religion are simplistic.
ME: It seems to be a blanket term applied to multiple belief systems.
MT: Lets start there and see where that goes.
MT: Back in the 60’s and 70’s, and in the years until recently, the governing wisdom was that modernization and secularization went together; as societies modernized they became secular, and that that process is inevitable and irreversible.
And that obviously has not been the way things have worked out. Part of that rested on a simplistic understanding of religion, and part of the difficulty now is that those who attempt to understand these processes of so called secularization, those who attack religion, and those who defend religion, all have a really simplistic view of what religion is all about.
Religion is not simply what goes on in churches and mosques and synagogues and temples: It pervades all of culture. And it’s not even religion in its manifest form. Religion in its latent form is more powerful. I often say that religion is most powerful where it’s least obvious.
ME: Do you think this latency is related to distinct beliefs or traditions or is it something migrating through a sea of ideologies?
MT: I tend to think through these issues in terms of the problems that are addressed and the issues dealt with rather than whether it’s being done explicitly in terms of theology, philosophy, literature, art, or architecture. For instance, you had a conversation with Peter Eisenman on his Holocaust Memorial. One of the problems that Peter is dealing with in that work, of course, is the representation of the unrepresentable. How does one represent that which cannot be represented, thats’ a theological issue. Thats an issue that has a long history within theology.
ME: So is religion a representational problem?
MT: Thats a complicated question. The question you’re basically asking is what is religion, and that is important. And in this last book (After God), I take that on directly.
There are those scholars of religion who say there is no such thing as religion, there are only religions. And those who say that the notion of religion itself is a western if not European construct that emerges in a certain type of social, political and economic situation. On one level all ideas have that kind of contextualization. I do think it is important to ask the what is question and I’ll try to answer it.
MT: I think that religion functions in two ways; two interrelated ways that are often not seen in tandem. Religions are formed by networks of symbols and rituals, myth rituals, that function to provide people and communities with a sense of meaning purpose and direction. At the same time these complex networks of symbols function to call into question every structure that provides meaning structure and direction. So there is a structuring and a de-structuring, a stabilizing and a de-stabilizing that go together. I think they work in a certain kind of rhythm. I think there’s a certain kind of historical development that occurs, it occurs according to a pattern.
These systems have a common structure in different media, that is to say, there is a common structure in symbolic systems, social systems, political systems, economic systems and even biological and chemical systems. And they have a common developmental trajectory that the biologists call punctuated equilibrium, that is they are emergent . They are emergent complex adaptive systems.
They emerge, they create a certain kind of stability, that stability ossifies until it becomes non-functional. Then it breaks down, and you have a phase shift and another one emerges.
ME: And thats happening now?
MT: People talk about the return of religion, that’s a mistake. It didn’t return because it never went away. The problem is that people have an inadequate understanding of religion so they haven’t been able to see it operating in ways that are not quite so obvious.
It’s a global phenomenon this “return of religion”, it’s not just the religious right in this country, it’s in the Mideast, it’s in India, it’s taking place in many many different contexts.
Globalization is a process that is taking place in multiple ways, economic, social and political. In part this has been enabled by new kinds of networking technologies, not just the internet and the like, but all kinds of information and communications technologies.
As systems and networks expand they become more complex. As they become more complex, they become less stable. So there’s an increasing complexity that leads to a destabilization. Destabilization and increasing complexity create instability, and instability creates the desire for stability and simplicity. So that the kind of foundationalism (fundamentalism) that we have in religion is a response to this kind of global development.
What postmodernism was about from the get go, was the claim that there is no foundation. That that which we take to be the original is always already a copy, that the sign is always the sign of a sign and that which we’re left with is the infinite play of signs or signifiers.
The problem is always misstated. The problem isn’t the lack or absence of meaning, the problem is the infinite proliferation of meanings. And you want a foundation to put an end to the play of meanings and to give you security, certainty and stability.
Religion is associated mostly with institutional forms of religion, most of which many people think are bad, you know, religion’s [the] cause all our problems, you get rid of religions and they’ll go away, well, I’ll tell you, religion’s not gonna go away.