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Taylor, Mark Lewis

Mark Taylor is Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. His most recent book is Religion, Politics and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Politics and American Empire. He is currently speaking on themes of post-9/ll U.S. culture, the politics of empire, and the ways white racism pervades U.S. interests in empire and religious practice within the U.S. and globally.

In his book The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America (2001), Taylor addressed theologically the issues of the contemporary prison-industrial complex, police brutality and the death penalty. This book won “Best General Interest Award” from the American Theological Association. He is also the author of, Remembering Esperanza: A Cultural-Political Theology for North American Praxis (1990), Paul Tillich: Theologian of the Boundaries (1987), and co-author of Reconstructing Christian Theology (1996) and other books and numerous articles.

He is national coordinator of “Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal” a group of 800 university teachers organizing for a new trial for Abu-Jamal, a journalist on Pennsylvania’s death row since 1982.

He has also been an activist in the current anti-war movement, in “No More Prisons!” movements and regarding policy issues in Mexico and Latin America. He has numerous essays and columns in professional journals, magazines and newspapers on issues of justice and peace in theology and religion.

*This is an individual personal web page. Material on this page is not controlled or maintained by Princeton Theological Seminary and should not be considered official content of the Seminary's Web site. Authors of these pages are responsible for obeying all relevant laws and policies, including those delineated in Seminary Handbook.

"SIGNS OF THE TIMES"

in the photo box 


at the right, depicts an important issue of the day, and also contains a link to my writing about it and other information relating to it.

RECENT ARTICLES:  

(1) NEW! (1) "Of Chimps, Cartoons, and Campus Racism: Prophetic Criticism and Free Speech," posted at the Matthew 25 Network, (2)"Memo to Obama on Prisons and Mass Incarceration" published this month in Tikkun Magazine, (3)"How I Am For Obama: Obama and Critical Resistance Movements."   (3)  Justice and Spirituality - A View from Cuba on Justice Movements & Spirituality, presentation in Matanzas, Cuba, May 15, 2008. (4) "What's Going On In the USA? Rise of an Imperial Triumvirate,"  The Ecumenist: A Journal of Theology, Culture, and Society, Vol. 43. No. 3 (Summer 2006). 

             

New Article on Ethnic Conflict: “Toward Contexts More Intricate and Subtle,” in Santosh C. Saha, editor, Perspectives on Contemporary Ethnic Conflict : Primal Violence or the Politics of Conviction. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Pages 1-16. Support the  Southern Poverty Law Center's  work for tolerance, and against racism, against all hate crimes and discrimination.

             

Popular Press:  On Mumia Abu-Jamal, my essay:"Why Naming Streets for Mumia Makes the Powers Rage." For a statement I helped to write, "Justice Movements and Spirituality," for the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, World Council of Churches and Christian World Mission, see posting at the WCC.

New Music Recommended: Check out the group Blue Scholars. Review of new CD Butter&Gun$ in SPIN Magazine: "Like the Coup and dead prez, Blue Scholars believe in the revolutionary power of words.          

 

Camp_x-ray_detainees

 
Detainees under U.S. guard at the Guantanamo Detention Facility. For background on the brutal treatment at Guantanamo, see Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray, Guantanamo: What the World Should Know , and the story of U.S. Army Muslim Chaplain at Guantanamo, James Yee, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire . For one of my writings on American torture, see Mark Lewis Taylor, "American Torture and the Body of Christ," in Marit Trelstad, editor, Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today (Fortress Press, 2006). Go here to support the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and join the January 11 action in Washington, D.C. to SHUT DOWN GUANTANAMO.

 

  
 

ABOUT MY BOOKS

 
 

RELIGION, POLITICS AND THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT: 

POST-9/11 POWERS AND AMERICAN EMPIRE

By Mark Lewis Taylor

Mark Lewis Taylor is the most prophetic theologian, political activist and cultural critic of his generation. There is simply no one on the scene like him. Don't miss this book!" Cornel West, Princeton University.

"A compelling, timely, and thought-provoking book. Mark Lewis Taylor's critique of American imperialism is searing, and his vision of radical liberalism is creative, insightful, and inspiring. Essential reading for all committed to the revolutionary spirit of democratic governance and ongoing emancipation."Sharon D. Welch. Professor of Religious Studies,University of Missouri-Columbia. Author of After Empire:The Art and Ethos of Enduring Peace.

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Religion Taylor

 
  Religion, Politics and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire (Fortress Press, 2005) argues that 9/11 is best interpreted as a “mythic moment” that temporarily ruptured the great myths of American Greatness by which many U.S. residents live. It explains how, amid that rupture, residents’ fear and reactive patriotism enabled the resurgence, in culture and politics, of two powerful currents that long have run deep in U.S. political history and cultural psychology: American political romanticism and economic liberalism, which have often produced and reinforced U.S. imperial dreaming and adventuring abroad, and systemic patterns of exclusion and repression at home. That dreaming and adventuring is especially prevalent now in the post-9/11 USA, as many celebrate or debate the virtues of “American empire.” Internal to the U.S. we are seeing the rise of an imperial triumvirate of neocons (neoconservatives), theocons (theocratic conservatives), and CEOcons (conservative leaders of the transnational global class).

      This book is also about hope. There are still available to U.S. residents’ powerful traditions that carry what I call “prophetic spirit.” This is a tradition of spirit for all public life to which no religion has primary claim, and which those with secular commitments also help to create and sustain. “Prophetic spirit,” as I develop it in this book, might offer to U.S. residents a new appreciation of their land, its radically diverse peoples, a new sense of revolutionary subjectivity and national project, without falling prey to the romanticisms, nationalisms and racisms that still bedevil our polities today.


 

THE EXECUTED GOD:

THE WAY OF THE CROSS IN LOCKDOWN AMERICA

By Mark Lewis Taylor

"A powerful critique of America as Empire and the challenge it poses for all who believe in the way of Jesus."   James H. Cone, Union Theological Seminary

“Mark Taylor’s absorbing examination of our shameful execution obsession is without a doubt the finest and most discerning theological analysis of the death penalty now available . There is no doubt that the question is once again back in the public eye, and his graphic and penetrating book will surely help focus the discussion we all need.”  Harvey Cox, Harvard Divinity School

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   The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America (Fortress Press, 2001), argues that remembering Jesus of Nazareth, victim of an imperial execution, and enacting what I term his “way of the cross” is an important resource for mobilizing effective resistance to lockdown America – its death penalty, burgeoning prison-industrial complex and systemic police brutality.

     In my Christological approach, Jesus of Nazareth is not understood as in himself some executed God, as readers might first think from this book’s title. No, the “God” who is executed, suffering imperial, state-sanctioned crucifixion, is presented as a whole life force, a greater power of being and action. This way of being and action is what I summarize as “Jesus’ “way of the cross.” This way of the cross has three crucial aspects: (1) being politically adversarial to religiously backed systems of imperial power as they work both in socio-political systems and in collective psychologies; (2) performing creative and dramatic modes of resistance to imperial power, primarily through non-violent direct action and aesthetic modes of protest and prophetic witness, and (3) organizing movements that can continue resistance and flourish even after imperial executioners exact their worst.

The reinterpretation of Christian faith that I offer in this book for responding to the crises posed by lockdown America is not to suggest that I believe Christianity and it alone is the only or best faith tradition to fuse with activism today. Quite to the contrary, the spiritual practices most demanded by today’s political crises must be interfaith ones. In fact, I believe that this interfaith dimension of political resistance today is already at work. People of struggle, informed by a wide array of faith traditions (Muslim, Jewish, engaged Buddhist, Yoruba, and several spiritual traditions of Caribbean cultures, as well as Christian ones) are all enlivening the current struggle in the U.S. If this book gave nearly exclusive attention to reinterpreting Jesus, his way of the cross, and resources of Christianity, it is because I am seeking to move my own tradition into a closer and more effective solidarity with those forces of an inter-religious spirituality that are working for justice today.

     Lockdown America, with its circulating webs of white racist and patriarchal power, its brutal political economy of prison networks, as well as its imperial, networking power abroad, will lead many people to despair and resignation. Champions of domestic Realpolitik will insist that the police are too many, too strong, and too well equipped for people to challenge. The white racism will seem too thoroughly woven into the warp and woof of the U.S. cultural fabric. The prisons will seem too massive and so thoroughly intertwined with U.S. cultural life that it will seem ludicrous to even think to challenge them. Criminals and murderers will always be scary, and politicians will feed the fear of them and any new terrorist coming onto the horizon. Thus, it will be tempting to keep resigning ourselves to the inevitability of the system’s executioners.

     The way of the executed God, however, allows the executioner neither the last word nor the final act. The way of the executed God, the way of the cross through lockdown America, is still under way, still making a way. Whether in the mother of the slain son, Anthony Baez, rising another day to speak at the next meeting and rally against police brutality, whether in Yoruba priestesses pouring libations to remember the deaths of their youth of color slain at urban crossroads in the United States, whether in the courage of a few protesting pastors who kneel to pray in front of traffic on Wall Street, whether in a Mumia Abu-Jamal who pens number 501 of his treatises from an 8 ½ x 10 ft. death row cell – in all these, the finality of the state’s executing ways is challenged. Those who pray, worship and act in the way of the executed God know that the days of exploitative imperial power are numbered. At best, today’s empire is an interim state; it is not final. It is only a frail challenger to the greater, deeper, and wider way of the executed God.


 

 

RECONSTRUCTING CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY:

A LIBERATING PEDAGOGY

Edited by Rebecca S. Chopp and Mark Lewis Taylor

In Reconstructing Christian Theology, Rebecca Chopp and Mark Lewis Taylor have brought together a collection of essays from a formidable cast of theologians. As part of a Workgroup that met together regularly to reshape and construct a new theology for the new millennium, Chopp and Taylor served to focus the group together in this text that, while it embraces a diversity of voices, theological traditions and methodologies, nonetheless serves as a solid foundation for students and other interested readers to reconstruct theology along new lines.-Fr. Kurt Messick, Bloomington, IN

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   Reconstructing Christian Theology (1994), co-edited with Rebecca S. Chopp (then Professor of Theology at Emory University, now President of Colgate University), was the fruit of years of discussion and scholarly papers produced by the Workgroup on Constructive Theology. The volume explores theology – language and knowledge about God – as it found itself on new terrain at the end of the 20 th century. Theology of this period worked with a new sense of its historical and cultural specificity – its contextuality.

     Intrinsic to this sense of context was a sense of crisis. As we wrote in our introduction, “Contemporary students of theology face a world in crisis. Relations between peoples in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres are disastrously structured. While only 18 percent of the world’s population lives in the region that combines North America, Northern Europe, and Japan, that region pulls in 82 percent of the world’s income and has a per capita income twenty-six times greater than the entire rest of the world. The growing gap between rich and poor internationally has been sharply replicated within the United States . . . The team of theologians represented here, having worked collectively over the past several years . . . is committed to careful analyses of these and other crises. If by nothing else, analysis is prompted by the fact that oppressing crises are not simply top-down phenomena. To be sure, there are oppressing agents who can be identified and dominator groups and elites to be named; but as Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault insist, oppression reaches crisis proportions because of forces that pervade the totality of political interaction, social patterning, and everyday personal struggle and living.”

     Although the essays in our book were rooted in this context of crisis and suffering, the theologians in it also view their analyses as a way toward hope and historical transformation. Hope springs from the voices and struggle of those belittled and oppressed who now speak; hope wells up in communities for whom new ways of living together are hallmarks of Christian praxis. Theologians craft expressions of hope in Christian symbols that envision personal and social transformation. This hope, in Cornel West’s terms, is a “utopian realism”: an anticipation of a new, transfigured reality based on a realistic analysis of the sufferings and desires of the present age.

     The author’s who examine many of the crises of turn-of-the-21 st-century exhibit some dramatic new shifts of emphasis: thinking not in terms of melting pots but of collages of identity, facing crises of survival and loss of flourishing, identifying ambiguities of postmodern culture, developing a postcolonial sensibility, and embracing the interplay of world religions.

     What is most important to me about this text, still, is that it introduces a mode of theological interpretation that continually exhibits the mutually interplaying dynamics of analysis, reconstruction, and envisioned emancipatory praxis. In doing this, we the editors of the volume hoped to move ourselves and our readers into an emancipatory discourse that features not simply one more theological set of constructions but also a distinctive discourse for making some small difference in a time suspended between crises and hope.



 

REMEMBERING ESPERANZA: A CULTURAL POLITICAL THEOLOGY

FOR NORTH AMERICAN PRAXIS

By Mark Lewis Taylor

Wonderfully provocative in both content and method, Remembering Esperanza is a ‘must-read” for all those who face the contradictory challenges of making faith claims in a postmodern pluralistic context. . .Bonnie Miller-McLemore,Vanderbilt Divinity School

"This is a most welcome book. It is dense and complex, and deserves to be read slowly and reflectively as its contents work upon the reader ... Charles M. Wood, Perkins School of Theology

A profound and serious attempt at constructing a liberation theology in the U.S. As such, it is an important book for all of us in South America: a sign of hope in the North-South theological dialogue.. .The final chapter, "Christus Mater," represents a true revolution in Christology.  Pablo Richard, Departmento Ecuménico  d e Investigaciónes, Costa Rica

Mark Taylor has done what no other man has yet attempted (to my knowledge): a theology that begins with his own context as a white, straight, relatively affluent male, to address issues of sexism, classism, heterosexism and racism . . .”Sallie McFague, Vanderbilt Divinity School

We are all in debt to Mark Taylor’s original study of the importance of social location for theological method. Remembering Esperanza is a work that demands and will receive critical response across the entire theological spectrum. David Tracy, The University of Chicago

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    In U.S. Christian churches, what theologians call “the event of grace” is usually viewed as occurring first and primarily between individual believers and God. Social and political action is then seen as an outworking of this grace as something already received by the believer. Remembering Esperanza presumes and argues otherwise, that the event of grace occurs, primarily, when believers find themselves collectively given to socio-historical movements of liberation, to what I term, in the book, “reconciliatory emancipation,” i.e. building new structured freedom in common struggle and hope amid forces of gender injustice, racism, heterosexism, and economic exploitation. These movements are sites not only for moral practice but also for encountering grace.

     This book was an attempt to trace one of the lifelines of my theological work. It began with some of my earliest memories as a five-year-old boy in a Zapotec village in southern Mexico, where I first encountered a friend in my childhood, Esperanza, and her larger world. The book moves from those memories into proposals for theological method, which in 1990, was awash in the turbulent currents of postmodern, poststructuralist and postcolonial society.

     The argument at the heart of the book was that North American social and institutional practices featured a thoroughgoing, albeit often well disguised, “abstraction” from material conditions, an abstraction that wreaks abuse and oppression on humanity and on nature; an abstraction that is a turning away from, often an abhorrence and fear of, concrete existence. The fault is not abstract thinking; rather, it is thinking and practice turned away from the sources of human and natural life: matter, bodies, mothers, darkness.

     What made the book so complex was that this central argument was situated within a larger argument that suffused the entire volume. This more pervasive argument holds that any position should attempt to show how it is entangled in particular social locations and intellectual biases. Accordingly, I had to acknowledge the way my own social location and biases structured my arguments, without suggesting that my arguments were only due to that limited perspective. To this day, I believe that even the claims we advance with the utmost of theological or moral conviction, must be qualified by acknowledgment of our own limited perspective and by rigorous analysis using the best that human and natural science can provide. Our understanding must be both self-understanding, and intersubjectively-tested understanding of culture and nature, of world.

     I am aware that the major christological move in Remembering Esperanza will continue to trouble even many politically radical Christians. That move involved situating God’s revelation in history not primarily in the individual figure, Jesus of Nazareth, but instead in what I argue is the more concrete, socially constructed figuring of him (in social and political imaginaries), which catalyzed transformative movements of women and men gathering in his name. God was not in history as the man, Jesus, but as Jesus, the man become movement. I further developed this Christological approach in The Executed God (March 2001), in relation to the powerful currents in the 1990s of U.S. empire-building abroad and booming prison construction and paramilitary police violence and surveillance at home. The God of Jesus Christ is known in the social movements of resistance, performative joy, and hope that takes on the most oppressive structures of our time.

     This kind of Christology is no mere “liberal” throwback to some nineteenth century progressive, bourgeois theology, as some “radical orthodox,” “Neoorthodox,” and even liberation theologians have claimed. It is, rather, a necessary Christological revision in service to the radical politics of Christian witness to God’s grace today. If we do not embrace a radically socialized and politicized view of the Christ-event itself, of Jesus’ person and work as movement of liberation, Christianity will not sustain a radicalized social and political witness in these times of crisis. Without such a revisioning, Christians will find it difficult if not impossible to find their places within what Hardt and Negri have called” the multitude,” that group of diverse humanity struggling socially and politically, and with nature, against global war and for radical democracy in this age of empire.

     Alas, as I pointed out in the 2005 Preface to the book’s re-issuing by Fortress Press, “most indicators are that U.S. Christianity generally has lost its radical vision and has become little more than that “Christendom” that the powerful of every era prefer. The Jesus executed by a terrorist state power, who welcomed children, slaves, the sick, women as well as men, the poor, as well as some of the rich, and who transgressed so many official boundaries with a radically inclusive love – that Jesus has been laid aside by too many of our U.S. churches. I am therefore less sanguine that I was when writing Remembering Esperanza that Christians are present as key catalysts for change today. W. E. B. Du Bois’s caustic indictment of the church in The Christian Century, seems likely to stand:

     [The church] is mainly a social organization, pathetically timid and human; it is going to stand on the side of wealth and power; it is going to espouse any cause which is sufficiently popular, with eagerness; it is, on the other hand, often going to transgress its own fine ethical statements and be deaf to its own Christ in unpopular and weak causes. Du Bois, “Will the Church Remove the Color Line?” The Christian Century, 1931, cited in Phil Zuckerman, editor, Du Bois n Religion ( Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 200), 179.

     Nevertheless, in Remembering Esperanza, I tried to rework and renew discourse about Jesus for an alternative, emancipatory remembrance and enacting of the way of Jesus, alongside other religious adherents and other peoples of conscience from any background. This has led me precariously close to being what Jeffrey Stout has termed, following Van Harvey) an “alienated theologian,” one who focuses on Christian traditions while setting aside significant aspects of existing Christian belief. As I explain in the book, I find it necessary to live that alienation as a way toward life. One cannot undertake radical criticism of current culture and politics in the name of Christian belief without taking up a scalpel for radical surgery on Christian belief itself.


PAUL TILLICH: THEOLOGIAN OF THE BOUNDARIES

Edited by Mark Lewis Taylor

Taylor’s well-constructed anthology, through itserudite selection of texts, provides solid introductionto the essential Paul Tillich."John R. Connally, Religious Studies Review

“ Taylor’s introduction to his Tillich reader is the onlyone of the introductions that attempts to be a creativeinterpretation of the thinker under scrutiny.      Dawn De Vries, Theology Today

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Tillich-Taylor 1

 
 

  

     Edward Said wrote, as his own life drew to a close and as the U.S. assault on Iraq in March 2003 seemed inevitable: “we need a Paul Tillich, someone to take stock of our situation as an 'ultimate concern.' ”

     When I was interviewing lyricist and singer, Michael Franti, of the musical group Spearhead, Franti at one point found himself struggling for some way to explain the “spiritual” aspect of his work.

     “What do you mean by ‘spiritual,’” I asked. ‘

     “I don’t know, maybe…well,” Franti continued, “there was this guy who talked about the spiritual as being whatever is our ultimate, ultimate….I forget the exact phrase and the man, but…”

     “Ultimate concern?” I wondered. “And do you mean Paul Tillich?”

     “That’s it. That’s him. Great.”

      That’s the essence of Paul Tillich: developing concepts and perspectives helping people, especially artists and those amid life trauma, to articulate a view of the human situation that has spiritual depth. He was a theologian, yes; indeed, a theologian who valued the Christian church. But he approached and challenged the church as a “theologian of culture,” i.e. as a thinker about religious matters who found the religious or the spiritual, not on a plane above or outside of culture’s many functions, but within them, within their depth. Not surprisingly, Tillich’s “God,” his “Jesus Christ,” and his notion of “Spirit” departed from what many Christians mean by those terms, and especially from what the church teachers of orthodox doctrine mean by them. But when one gets done reading Tillich, one suspects not only that he has given you some wisdom for understanding what life’s about, but also that religious symbols, especially Christian ones, offer something distinctively human and needed for a creation and humanity that lives amid both misery and hope.

       Tillich (b. 1886 in Germany) served as philosopher and theologian in Germany until 1933, when he went underground and then fled to the United States to accept an invitation from Christian ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr, to teach at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. The recently installed regime of Hitler first tried to bribe history with a lucrative position, then increasingly repressed him. Tillich had not been wont to keep his mouth shut. He defended his Jewish students from Brown Shirt repression in 1933. He was the first non-Jewish intellectual to be placed on a list of those to be purged. His 1932/1933 work, The Socialist Decision, was immediately confiscated by the Nazis; his socialism was unique, differing from other forms and harshly critical of the romanticist fascism of the Nazis. That book, together with his earlier writings, I believe are the richest of his work, rivaled by some of the fine essays of his later period and some brilliant sections of his Systematic Theology.

      I myself have found the basic structure of Tillich’s The Socialist Decision, helpful for tracing the powerful currents at work in the political processes and cultural psychology of current U.S. life. His work in this book, therefore, structured the overall vision at work in my most recent book, Religion, Politics and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire (see pages xii, xiv, 25-7, and 104-109.

      His going into exile from Germany’s Weimar Republic in 1933 was the outgrowth of teaching, writing and organizing to which he had given himself after World War I. That experience marked him forever, until his death at the University of Chicago in 1965. “Hell rages around us. It’s unimaginable.” Tillich, a 28-year old theologian and German Army chaplain, rote those words to his father from the trenches of World War I at the battle of Verdun. Even amid his grim despair and breakdowns worked by the “sound of exploding shells, of weeping at open graves, of the sighs of the sick, of the moaning of the dying”, Tillich remained both preacher and professor – delivering sermons at the Western front of battle and lectures in front of academics at the University of Halle. Whether facing bombs of battle, political oppression and social chaos after the war, the specter of nuclear warfare after World War II, the threatening character of world capitalist economy, or the deep-running angst in personal life – in the face of all these, Tillich sought sustenance for his theology not only from the Christian scriptures and tradition, but also from his culture’s art and the literature of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Karen Horney and others.

      Tillich’s writing had power because in them he risked being in touch with what he termed “the unrepeatable tensions of the present.” Our reading and writing about him must likewise risk a view of him through an awareness of the unrepeatable tensions of our own era.

       But the very notion of “our own era” is problematic. Who is this “our?” Given the intense plurality of thought, religions, and cultures in our times, to invoke the first person plural is often, at best, to risk misleading generalization. At worst, it is to exclude others from our conversation and life. When I write here in the plural, the “we” I have in mind are precisely those who know the problems with such writing. There may be many who work within communities that inspire little suspicion about the collective “we.” But there are also many of us who see theology as entering an age of increasing consciousness of theologians’ and all thinkers’ locations, whether these locations be described in terms of gender, class, ethnicity, or of some cultural amalgam of those factors. Pragmatic philosophies on both sides of the Atlantic, from Ludwig Wittgenstein to Richard Rorty, reinforce the sense of communal particularity that must be remembered as part of all thinking. In these times when women and men are wrestling with the implications for theology of a radically self-locating consciousness, why read Paul Tillich, who for all his talk of concreteness, loved also his ontology, his essence-language, his universals, and a theolog6 of “culture.”

        In these early decades of the 21 st century, however, Tillich’s interest in combining concrete issues with ontology may be emerging as a new stronger concern. It is evident, for example, in French philosopher Alain Badiou’s Being and Event (English, 2005), as well as in the ruminations of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, in their books, Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004). Feminists are exploring ontology, if not through Tillich, then through retrievals of Spinoza’s mixing of politics with ontology. Others with vibrant political concerns reach for tools to enable them to wrestle with deep questions like “what is being as being” (ontology). Indeed, Edward Said, if still with us, might be calling not just for some summary account of our times’ “ultimate concern,” but also for some ontological reflection.

       When Tillich’s works are studied in my classes, rarely do they receive ready endorsement. Tillich’s writing engages the problems of human life, even making specific references to the lives of Central American rural Indians and North American college students, for example, but such references are connected to a demanding philosophical analysis that plunges readers into a world of technical terms. In addition, women, Latino/a, Arab Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans and others, as well as international students, bring to Tillich’s texts a set of suspicions and issues that Tillich often does not directly address. But rarely does Tillich fail to provoke and equip us in some way for reflecting on, and acting in relation to, the distinctive problems we discern, even if, finally, this may mean rendering negative judgments about Tillich’s work.

       In my Tillich book, I have written its Introduction and a large number of briefer introductory sections throughout. But the emphasis falls on letting Tillich speak for himself. In selecting the texts you find in the book, I had an over-riding concern to display both the conceptual unity of Tillich’s work and also the way that work grew from a particular set of historical and cultural concerns. Tillich, though addressing ultimate and infinite concerns, thought and wrote from within quotidian and finite conditions.

       Tillich’s closing words in one of his last sermons, “The Right to Hope” (1965), are worth quoting here.

      “Participation in the eternal is not given to the separated individual. It is given to him [sic] in unity with all others, with humankind, with everything living, with everything that has being and is rooted in the divine ground of being. All powers of creation are in us and we are in them. We do not hope for us alone or for those alone who share our hope; we hope also for those who had and have no hope, for those whose hopes for this life remain unfulfilled, for those who are disappointed and indifferent, for those who despair of life, and even for those who have hurt or destroyed life.” (See page 331 in Mark Taylor, Paul Tillich: Theologian of the Boundaries.)


 

BEYOND EXPLANATION:

RELIGIOUS DIMENSIONS IN CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY

By Mark Lewis Taylor

"Taylor's . . . central argument [that the discourse and impulses of cultural anthropology have a religious dimension] are well made, and the discussion of his two exemplars (Levi-Strauss and Marvin Harris) is instructive, though social scientists remain agnostic as to its final destination. Taylor generates novel insights linking the writings of these anthropologists to the implicit order of presuppositions that underlies them - a notable instance being the place of Rousseau's notion of pitie in Levi-Strauss's vison."          Jean Comaroff, The University of Chicago, American Anthropologist.

“One of the best things about Taylor’s book is that in order to reach his conclusion, he presents masterful, detailed summaries of Harris’s and Lévi-Strauss’s work. . . . I suspect both men would acknowledge the integrity and insight of Taylor’s account of their motivations and concepts."       John P. Crossley, The Christian Century

 Taylor is equally at home in the literature of both disciplines; he demonstrates methodological sophistication, unusual clarity of argument and expression, and impressive constructive talents together with the facility to carefully nuanced, well-balanced judgments. . . .His book affords a model for evaluating religious dimensions in other social and human sciences (Psychology, sociology, history, literary criticism, linguistics, philosophy), and perhaps even the natural sciences. Nothing could be more crucial for the survival of theology in the postmodern world."  Peter C. Hodgson,       The Vanderbilt University Divinity School

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         Beyond Explanation: Religious Dimensions in Cultural Anthropology (Mercer University Press, 1985) was my first book, a revision of my dissertation for the Ph.D. degree in Theology, received from the University of Chicago at the end of my years of doctoral studies (1977-1982). Drawing on strands of Tillich’s thought and of hermeneutical phenomenology (H.-G. Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur), I argued that a “religious dimension” may be discerned in anthropologists’ discourse, so that this discourse may be viewed as driving “beyond explanation,” i.e. beyond the disciplinary methods, descriptions, and theories usually seen as constitutive of this social-science discipline.

      The presence of such a religious dimension I hoped would serve as a focal point around which religionists and social scientists, theologians and anthropologists, might converse. I hoped to move toward such a conversation without co-opting anthropological concerns into fields of religious studies and theology.

     As the contrast between reviewers judgments showed, expressed above by anthropologist Comaroff’s reserve and theologian Hodgson’s praise, the book took better with theologians than with anthropologists. Few anthropologists responded to the book, though a similar article appeared later in Current Anthropology, complete with nearly ten anthropologists writing in response, including Marvin Harris himself, who was one of two major, representative anthropologists in the book, along with Claude Lévi-Strauss. My response to all of these anthropologists was printed in the same issue of Current Anthropology.

     I still value what I did in that book. It set the conversation that has marked all my work – one that features the need to begin with descriptions of theologians’ cultural situations before constructing and advancing theological beliefs and claims. Of course, there is a persistent circle between the hermeneutical interestedness of theologians in things theological, on the one hand, and their descriptions of cultural situations, on the other; but the circle is not vicious. One of the things that keeps it from being vicious, is a refusal to take one’s faith or theological beliefs as settled, to always be revising them in spite of the discomfort in letting go of one’s received traditions (personal, professional, cultural), of cherished doctrines, personal orientations, or even of rigorously won disciplinary habits.

     While the book’s interdisciplinary concern has stayed with me, it must be noted that soon after its publication, and really ever since, I have been more interested in learning from anthropological and other theory to interpret the world so that theologians might make a contribution to changing it (to recall Marx’s famous last thesis on Feuerbach), and less interested in continuing the book’s jousting with anthropologists about their suspicions of religion, i.e. their claims to have distanced themselves from all things religious when pursuing their intercultural understanding and explanation.

     Beyond Explanation, for me, stands as testimony to my own doubts about any science’s ability to reduce completely religious experience to other categories (social, political, psychological, philosophical, aesthetic, and so on) or any such science’s neglect of reflection on religious beliefs and practices. Religious phenomena are too complex to reduce, too influential to ignore. I would still labor to make those points, and have in occasional published essays (see bibliographical entry, “Spirit in the Researching of Cultural Worlds”). But I have found myself often needing to develop anthropologists’ suspicions regarding theology and religion. Many of those suspicions are good ones, challenging ones, especially concerning the damaging and often ignorant refusal by religious adherents regarding the cultural and other biases of their beliefs and experience.

      The way I do theology now (see especially The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America) is informed, to a significant degree, by my sharing those anthropological suspicions, especially the one that insists against any theologians contrary claim, that theological beliefs are always culturally mediated (thus saturated with controversial philosophical, social, political, economic, often personal meanings).

      Alas, when writing Beyond Explanation, I myself did not sufficiently foreground the cultural mediation of all knowledge. I certainly did so with respect to scientific knowledge, and especially to the anthropological knowledge that I placed under the book’s scrutiny. I did not, however, foreground the mediation of my own venture in writing the book that would set anthropological and theological interests in contrast and conversation. Why was I interested in writing the book? Why was I predisposed to a conversation between anthropology and theology? Why the concern that generated an entire dissertation and book?

      One could answer, “Well the issues are significant.” Indeed they are, and I like to think that a host of auxiliary issues and questions can be generated from this book’s work. But deeper and perhaps more valuable insights emerge when one notes and I am completely silent about this in the book that my own personal/social location is shaped by my being son of a cultural anthropologist father who was also a believing Christian. As I detail in the autobiographical prologue in Remembering Esperanza, the tension between my family’s anthropological side and its Christian side was rendered especially acute by the family’s adherence to evangelical intellectual heritages, piety and practices. I no longer consider myself an evangelical, in belief or practice (though I am sure those roots have left some telling signs and scars - for better and worse).

       As I relate the story and nature of this tension between anthropological and Christian interest in Remembering Esperanza, I also argue in that later work that this kind of reflexive move on one’s own thought, a “critical self-inventory” (Antonio Gramsci) is necessary not only for self-knowledge but also for critical knowledge of wider society and even of nature. In the philosophical jargon of Calvin Schrag’s Communicative Praxis and the Space of Subjectivity, hermeneutical self-implicature is integral to achieving any intersubjectively verified, critical knowledge. So, it is interesting, and important, to read Beyond Explanation (about anthropology and theology) through the lens of the later prologue in Remembering Esperanza (about the anthropological and theological sides of my life and work).