December 21, 2006

I don't have the guts to look at Heidegger again

One of my favorite books as a college religion major was Mark C. Taylor's Erring: A Postmodern A/theology. I was a total sucker for deconstructionist punctuation, long before Justin Timberlake started doing it. After Nietzsche, Buber and maybe Heidegger, Taylor did as much as anyone to transform my understanding of the human condition.

Picking up his book 15 years later, of course, I can barely decipher it. Here's a random passage I underlined, meaning that at one point it was not only intelligable to me, but also important.

The purpose of the book is to render present the discourse of the world by bringing about the absolute proximity of perfect transparency of object to subject. Though not always obvious, this aim implies a self-negation of the book. In the course of approximating its goal, the book inscribes a paradoxical "progression" toward its own effacement. Perfect mimesis is no longer mimesis. If imitation were to realize itself completely, it would negate itself by actually becoming the thing imitated.

In 1999, I went back to Taylor for the first time when he created a computer game that I hoped would blow my mind, without requiring much actual reading. But by that time I was apparently post-postmodern again, and the game was just boring.

The good news is that the guy can put away the jargon when he wants to and turn out trenchant commentaries like his Op-Ed in today's Times about the important and underappreciated topic of religious correctness.

It seems the more religious students become, the less willing they are to engage in critical reflection about faith. The chilling effect of these attitudes was brought home to me two years ago when an administrator at a university where I was then teaching called me into his office. A student had claimed that I had attacked his faith because I had urged him to consider whether Nietzsches analysis of religion undermines belief in absolutes. The administrator insisted that I apologize to the student. (I refused.)....

For years, I have begun my classes by telling students that if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of the course than they were at the beginning, I will have failed. A growing number of religiously correct students consider this challenge a direct assault on their faith. Yet the task of thinking and teaching, especially in an age of emergent fundamentalisms, is to cultivate a faith in doubt that calls into question every certainty.

Any responsible curriculum for the study of religion in the 21st century must be guided by two basic principles: first, a clear distinction between the study and the practice of religion, and second, an expansive understanding of what religion is and of the manifold roles it plays in life. The aim of critical analysis is not to pass judgment on religious beliefs and practices — though some secular dogmatists wrongly cross that line — but to examine the conditions necessary for their formation and to consider the many functions they serve.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


It's a noble and reasonable piece and I think I understand his project. Certainly academic inquiry into religion should not "pass judgment" at least insofaras any given religious studies class ought not to be considered a "let's Debunk X 101." Save that stuff for English, Sociology, Philosophy, and Psychology classes. But while doubt is a central feature of secularism and has a long tradition in Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism, and some older forms of Protestantism, it is not some universally valued property. To say "let's doubt" is to say "I'm from a doubting people and we're going to make you people just like us." It's the same problem with tolerance the PC thugs had so much difficulty parrying (in the eyes of the uninitiated) back in the good old days. We all see the plainspoken commonsense of what Taylor's essay says, but we're not the problem. The problem goes to a point of difference on which compromise may not be possible. It may come down to judgments made and needing to be made. Ultimately universities, public and private, are, by their very charters, under no obligation to exactly reflect every aspect of the world around them. If they were they wouldn't teach anybody anything they didn't already know before they got there, they would reflect the knowledge deficits indigenous to all populations. They are, then, communities of choice devoted to the propagation of certain specific cultural and intellectual values. Most radical religious weirdos figured this out a long time ago and made their own rival institutions (the first that comes to my mind is Yale, founded because Harvard had become too liberal) of varying degrees of acceptability within the established academic community. Still, because of this variable legitimacy (of accreditation and reputation, which is mutable, if not fleeting, and built on the back of the other cultural specific values of earlier administrations, ie Protestant Whites) religious kooks will still try to go to real colleges so they can get better jobs afterwards. In other words they want the fruits of humanism. The academy has to make it clear to these people (put the stick about) that it stands for something, even if that something includes doubt and uncertainty, and it requires some degree of respect for its values from students hoping to benefit from the experience. Colleges are not obligated only to give respect and not receive it. We expect the savage puts aside his cannibalism as he steps through the ivied gate and we must expect the same of anything else, no matter how trivial and uncannibalistic, that fundamentally and irreconcilably opposes the basic values of the university. In a Fishian vein we only tolerate because we're pretty sure we could take them in a fight, because we don't really take their beliefs seriously and we assume they don't either. Well, some of those bananas do. For them there's always Patrick Henry College and administrators from FIT to Harvard have to back up their faculty when they try to do their jobs.

Sorry, that's been sticking in my throat since high school.

I want to clarify something in one of those parenthetical statements. The white protestants from whom we inherit the academy are not exemplars of what we now think of as the academy, quite the opposite, they are forces negotiated with and struggled with to reach the modern university. Colleges are not natural, normal, or neutral and past administrations are not abstractions but specific people from specific backgrounds. The academy of 100 years ago would be a horrible shock for most of us and no doubt it'll be very different 100 years from now. But we can try to build the future on a basis of what we believe is good, indeed if one were intemperate enough [ahoy!] one may even say right, about our current humanistic standard of inquiry and not leave it to the opposition to force us into 'dialogue.' They (of whatever particular religion they happen to be) are already telling us what they are all about and what they are willing to do. No more sanctified 'dialogue' is necessary. What is necessary is clarity, even in defense of uncertainty and doubt. People fought hard for the universities, they shouldn't be handed back just because academics and administrators want to be liked. Or is the last 40 years of the American higher education project just not worth it?

I'll bookmark TG's post, but, onion-like, it's like preaching to the converted of the converted. Which is unfortunate, because it's very well written. When I come across the unwilling to doubters, however, I'm going to send them here instead, because I think it will do the job better.

It's funny, I find those pomo gyrations easy to read these days. Back then, I used to think each sentence was packed with the essence of western intellect, to be unwound and consumed fully before moving on. Now I just see it for what it is: formalistic jargon, some better wrought than others. Of course, I started reading Claude Simon for pleasure in between, which may have helped.

Thanks, 99, I appreciate that.

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