“ . . . and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded upon the rock.” – Matthew 7:25
As introduction, here’s a question: Would you like to know if you could enjoy reading a genuine postmodern classic? Are you wondering if you could even finish a sophisticated book by a brilliant Ivy League guru (Harvard, Williams, Columbia), who’s had a major influence in the humanities and social sciences?
Can your weak, mainstream American mind withstand the postmodern flood-tide? Are you running out of options? Nowhere to run and hide, grasshopper? Most important, do you need a Hail Mary to impress your beautiful, Leftish special someone?
Now we’re getting somewhere. As stated in Dr. Mark Taylor’s After God (2007), welcome to Martin Luther’s world.
WWMLD? Open Pandora’s Box. Read Dr. Taylor and see. After God won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but, in our opinion, it is a fun book loaded with wonderful insights. This guy is good; really good, and that’s the issue with all of these brilliant philosophers. In general, they wouldn’t be famous if they didn’t have the tools and the talent.
In this post we finish our three-part introduction to the topic of Christianity as the foundation of Western Civilization, as well as the topic of postmodernism and the study of history itself. In House on a Rock – Part I of III, we introduced Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (2019) by Tom Holland. Then, last time in Part II, we reviewed The Story of Christianity: A History of 2,000 Years of the Christian Faith (2009) by David Bentley Hart.
These two books argue that Christianity is the primary foundation of the West, a surprisingly controversial topic today. We offer the observation that, while the West’s Christian Classical Judeo-Christian foundations are increasingly under attack, intellectuals around the world are also somehow rediscovering this once generally-accepted idea.
But why consider history at all in a “Postmodernist Age” that holds truth to be relative, unless one is interested in manipulating power? Are some postmodernists interested in truth while also denying it, just to throw us off balance? Today, we push these issues farther down the road with a brief overview of Dr. Mark Taylor’s historical analysis of modernity since the Reformation.
The really big event of the day, however, and the one you’ve been waiting for, is the revelation of the answer to the Trivia Question posed last time in Part II (link then scroll down to Trivia Question): What’s the name of the famous battle where the white general elevated a non-white king who then took over the known world? Every Praxis Circle viewer and student of Western history needs to know all about this battle, and, sadly, few Westerners do today.
After God, (2007, 377 pages)
- By Mark C. Taylor
Let’ be honest: As Dr. Jay Ford in the video above suggests, there’s no way to offer brief comments about Mark Taylor’s After God. Dr. Ford (Professor of Religion at Wake Forest University) is a Praxis Circle Contributor, and he refers to Taylor’s book several times in his own most recent book, The Divine Quest East and West: A Comparative Study of Ultimate Realities (2016). Todays’ Featured Video presents Dr. Ford outlining After God’s main theme concerning Taylor’s definition of religion.
As an aside, we will review Dr. Ford’s The Divine Quest in 2021 when Jay is formally introduced and when we touch on three great religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. There Dr. Ford does an intriguing job of comparing the ultimate realities of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. The Divine Quest will enhance the way you look at each and the subject of religion itself, like After God.
To continue, Jay’s recommendation before the interview that After God is a good read was correct. It was one of the most enjoyable reading experiences in years, a true brain workout.
Again, if you like this kind of mind-bending philosophy, it will most certainly be the book for you. At least three of our Expert Praxis Circle Contributors have stated they are postmodern (Ehrman, McCloskey, and McWhorter). We aren’t sure whether Dr. Ford considers himself so, but, obviously, he gains inspiration from all good sources. Happy or sad to say, depending on your point of view, many recent college graduates know postmodernist think better than Hamlet. For this reason alone, you might want to experience the Real McCoy yourself.
After God would give you a better view of what’s out there having an impact in our institutions of higher learning, our culture, and families. Again, like Faulkner novels, After God’s not an easy read, but it’s the product of a brilliant mind with many first-rate insights about religion, philosophy, and the human experience.
Absolute worst case: You would own a postmodern classic on your bookshelf that would be there for that special someone when he or she arrives for refreshment.
Importantly, if you’re a theist, the title After God need not be threatening. Why? Dr. Taylor really doesn’t mean after the way normal people think about after, and he really doesn’t mean God that way either. Dr. Taylor engages from cover-to-cover in word play and redefinition, making it mostly playful when he’s not confusing. All will find points of agreement in this book, and we will be coming back to it as we review postmodernism more extensively very soon.
As Jay Ford suggests, Dr. Taylor is really writing about what comes after we reject the rigid concept of an old man God on the mountaintop who spews difficult to comply with moral codes and large quantities of punishment and guilt. If that isn’t your God, then you’ll have no problem getting past the title.
Today, we think God, the Old Moral Monster on the Mountain, is a stereotype Christianity’s enemies have manufactured as a straw man. The God of the Old Testament Bible was always a god in current time way ahead of His “pagan” competitors in the race for political correctness. Not that God isn’t interested in moral behavior, of course. In the Christian tradition, Jesus does call God Father, but God to Christians has never been a person with good characteristics other than for “marketing purposes.” Instead, God is those characteristics: Truth, Goodness, Beauty, all the Omni (power, goodness, presence, etc.) characteristics, including the virtues. You get the picture.
Let’s take a look at various definitions of religion before we get to Dr. Taylor’s. One Praxis Circle Contributor and leading American sociologist, Dr. Rodney Stark, defines religion as what people believe and do when they believe in supernatural being. He finds it more useful as one of the nation’s leading anthropologists to think of naturalism, that kind of secularism, or atheism as not being “religion.” We like this definition because it’s simple and useful in separating theists from atheists.
On the other hand, we believe the nature of all conscious knowledge today is based on faith, so we also like to think of religion as one’s truth assumptions. That way, all humans are religious. A Marxist could be just as religious as a Jehovah’s Witness. Every human operates on truth assumptions, even if their main one, when it’s most useful, is “There is no truth.”
In contrast to Dr. Stark, Dr. Taylor defines religion without any mention of supernatural God or gods, suggesting as we just did, that any beliefs or ideology, such as postmodernism, Marxism, positivism, or identity politics are sufficient to be a religion. Of course, he would definitely include Christianity within his definition (along with the other monotheisms and polytheisms).
Let’s take a look at Dr. Taylor’s definition verbatim, developed carefully throughout After God. (Notice the word emergent. Most Christians say God exists and doesn’t so much emerge as reveal He, She, or Itself . . . “whatever like that.”):
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. (page 12)
One of the things we loved about this book is that Dr. Taylor sees clearly why and how Martin Luther’s Christian revolution described in Dominion and The Story almost instantly created modernity from a philosophical point of view. In his view, Luther destabilized Christendom’s foundations and quickly ushered in the enlightened, secular, modern, and now, so-called, postmodern periods. This is no doubt true, and historians know all of this had been brewing prior to Luther for a long time.
On the other hand, with Dr. Taylor, we also believe Luther’s influence has remained strong and perhaps dominant in American society, at least, and that, in a sense, Christendom has never ended and only adapted or emerged. Though times have changed since the Reformation, they changed primarily because of Christianity, not in spite of it.
We believe that Christians should be taking more credit for what Christianity has accomplished in the way they talk about themselves, their religion, and Western history. This can be done with humility and without arrogance. The truth is not conceited. On the contrary, today, such words as enlightenment and modernity have grown heavy with overconfidence, if they weren’t conceits to begin with.
Whatever the case, believing and expressing truth is not arrogant.
Eric Metaxas’ recent Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (2018), mentioned in Part I, is a biography confirming Dr. Taylor’s observations about Luther. People went to such religious extremes soon after Luther’s writings “hit the new presses,” literally, that Martin Luther himself and many others had to urge the masses for years to stop the riots and violence against established churches and nobility. Does this ding any bells for you now?
Specifically, here’s how Dr. Taylor describes the Reformation’s impact:
Modernity is a theological invention. . . . if Luther had not stuck to his guns at the Diet of Worms, where he stood before the Holy Roman Emperor and refused to recant . . . there would have been no French Revolution and no America . . . there is no doubt that modernity as it has emerged in the West would not be what it is without the Reformation. . . . What began as a theological revolution became a social, political, and economic revolution that continues to transform the world today. The distinctive institutions of the modern world – democracy, the nation-state, and the free market – are inseparable from Protestantism and its history. (page 43)
European society’s religious and government institutions began destabilizing in the 1500’s, and this continued for the next two centuries in Europe and then America. There are many reasons for this. Dr. Taylor’s book connects all of this step-by-step through his history of philosophy to the present. When the book was published in 2007, Dr. Taylor was seeing a global religious Awakening occurring, and we suspect he would say this has continued to the present. We certainly think so and are not influenced much in this judgement by Europe’s current state of atheism or America’s reduced interest in “institutional religion.” Other Praxis Circle Contributors like Dr. Stark and Dr. Ford are seeing the same thing around the world.
In other words, Dr. Taylor doesn’t see God going away by any means; God is not “after” in that sense. He doesn’t need God in his definition of religion, and he is certainly not a believer in that Old Man God himself.
Instead, he thinks our age has placed us into a process of continuously rethinking God, and, as he demonstrates, it’s where the West has been all along. Furthermore, he is fairly clear that the age of postmodernism as we’ve known it might just be ending, too. Nothing remains static with human praxis. Not for a second, especially since the Reformation. It might be hard for him to come out and say this directly because he’s built a career and friendships on postmodernism, normally hostile to religion as supernatural belief and to objective truth itself, not to mention knowledge and reason.
A primary point in the book is that human thinking, especially religious thinking, is always evolving with changing experience.
So, his main question is: What’s next? It’s a question we, too, have strong interest in. In fact, we think each person should be a part of building his or her own new worldview, rather than allowing culture or others to do it for us. If you’re a thinking person, and every human being is, you want to know what your worldview is and have a general idea of where it might head. As they say on The View and The Five, if you want “to contribute to the conversation” or at least offer conscious engagement with others, then you need to get in there and deconstruct away on your own and other’s thoughts and worldview.
God wants you to develop a habit of searching your heart and mind.
In addition, Dr. Taylor bases his entire theory of life and religion on the praxis process – where theory and practice influence and develop each other in every moment – and he does a truly masterful job of explaining it. He is brilliant here.
He sees Christianity’s highly influential Creator God Story (our phrase) and contrasts it with the development after Luther by others of the Man God Story (also, our phrase) in various basic strands through the present. Where we differ is that he believes life is all about process and becoming along “process theology” lines, it seems to us, and not so much along the lines of truth, knowledge, reason, morality, goals, or results. (As an aside, his list would include most of the categories that Dr. Hart says in The God Experience mentioned in Part II that must be real and are vitally important to human beings to varying degrees.)
In sum, After God is an invaluable interpretation of the synthesis of Western philosophy since the Protestant Reformation from a postmodern or any point of view, even offering as a special bonus engaging and rather unique diagrams and tables. His schemata were mostly new to us and helpful, though at times more complicated than necessary and rather speculative.
Now, regrettably, by the end, After God turns into a Left-wing political statement against the George W. Bush administration and global warming conspirators. Academic writing today seems to require dogmatic proclamation of one’s politics, but who are we to complain if one’s worldview almost always has serious political consequences? That’s what worldviews do. It’s just in this case we think politics should be left out; yet, this is the whole point to postmodernists.
Much beyond pure explanation (again, all of a very high quality), Dr. Taylor constantly engages in self-inflicted contradiction by taking both sides of almost every philosophical issue or by dissolving actual differences or patching over them whenever it suits. He must be hoping no one will notice, when only a dedicated and strident postmodernist would applaud or fail to notice. Any “common man” with half a brain – and they all have a full one – would call much of such presentation “talking out of both sides of one’s mouth.” And that would be his or her compliment.
In other words, Dr. Taylor much too frequently falls into a pattern of common postmodernist speak, which at times is poetic but at other times to us, and we hate to say this, is just plain nonsense.
Here’s one quote well into the book’s development right after he makes a terrific point about how certain versions of dualism and monism have weaknesses. He loses predicates as he moves along, and the reader knows there are dualist and monotheist ways of thinking that scotch all the weaknesses he mentions. He should have stopped earlier, but he goes on to say:
As connectivity continues to spread, history is fast approaching a tipping point that portends a major phase shift. If this transition is to be negotiated imaginatively and creatively, new ways of thinking and acting must be figured. The task of thinking at the end of modernism and postmodernism is to develop schemata that are neither monistic (both/and) nor dualistic (either/or) but figure something different – something other, which remains so near that it is infinitely distant. . . . The resources for figuring this unthought theological or, more precisely. a/theological “altarnative” between theism and atheism can be found in critical trajectories launched in France during the 1960’s. . . . Indeed, theory is implicitly theological or a/theological, and theology and a/theology are inescapably theoretical. (page 298)
When have human beings ever not been connective? When have we really stopped or started doing this? Beyond that, you get the idea from this writing sample: At this juncture and all too frequently, Dr. Taylor is writing only to his existing PFC (Postmodernist Fan Club). His editors should employ their Ockham’s Razor of good writing to eliminate unnecessary language and encourage more use of simple language to make points. Without that, writing becomes elitist and only for the postmodernist-anointed. We know Dr. Taylor abhors elites, but his craft forces him to worship its language idols.
In spite of all of this, we will wave our own postmodernist magic-wand now to disregard excessive contradiction when it comes to the printed word: “Potential Reader, pay no attention to such quotes! This is a good and fun book, if you have the interest and the time and can put up with lingo.”
Final suggestion: To take a position on this book, you are going to have to decide how important reason is to you. It seems Dr. Taylor accuses every philosopher or politician who might disagree with him of “reification.” You might not know or care what this is, but it’s good to know. To reify is to render concrete or material form to ideas or concepts.
According to postmodernists, this is every regular American’s original sin who likes social and institutional foundations. You might be reifying if you actually take a stand on truth or have a firm opinion on something important; the result being that you take a stand opposite your postmodernist accuser and, even worse, try to do something about it. (Further warning, if you try to prove your reified case with “facts,” you will then be accused of “reductionism,” but we digress and must move on.)
To highly trained postmodernists and deconstructionists, all generally-accepted theology and philosophy “reifies” or hardens thinking in a bad way, except, of course, the ideas, philosophy, theology, or political opinions they passionately present and support. Again, you know the drill.
In any case, we learned only a few paragraphs into After God that we at Praxis Circle are in Dr. Taylor’s eyes – “neo-foundationalists.” Oh the shame. Apparently, you don’t want to have a good foundation in your life except process where, again, only relationships matter but not results. As human beings we are to be like water flowing “as one” wherever the water takes us. The fear is that foundations or reified ideas only kill and get in the way of Dr. Taylor’s politics winning out.
And yet, postmodernist identity politics is famous for reifying gender, race, and class when it suits and demolishing such differences when it doesn’t. We understand that flexible thinking is usually good and that contradictions infect human thinking. Yet, needless to say, no one has a monopoly on those obvious points.
From our point of view, all thinking and language reifies reality to various degrees. In addition, it’s not whether contradiction or paradox exist; of course, they do and are central to Christianity and Western thinking. But it’s how we apply the countless contradictions in human life that matters, and postmodernism usually falls off the rails here.
In contrast, Christianity has mastered the best we can do, and its theology and philosophy have been purified by fire and road-tested for 3,000 years. Jews and Christians call objects of reification idols, the worst sin they know. Human reason is limited and her feelings and emotions are critical. That is the heart.
We know wisdom is always necessary for justice and to get the best results. Extreme collectivism is just as bad as extreme individualism. Self and family interest are important as God’s creaturely individual and collective foundations on earth, and we must consider the common good when relevant. Often this duty and desire of service to others results in extreme personal sacrifice. The greatest sacrifice being our lives or, far greater still, the lives of loved ones. We see this everyday from a broken humanity that commonly produces heroes and saints. Finally, the Holy Spirit will empower and bring us together as one, when it’s God’s Will. God is always there, and we have and will succeed, with God’s help. This is God’s truth and grace.
In our opinion, this isn’t complicated and doesn’t need complex process diagrams. Love is love and truth.
By the end, Dr. Taylor hurts his good book with too much illogical and cliched postmodernist spin. Such brilliant work most certainly gets one tenure and could provide an excellent career over the last 50 years, but it doesn’t get one very far in the real world outside college. If we who seek good foundations in our world are neo-foundationalists, then similarly thoughtful name-calling might render Dr. Taylor a neo-sophist or worse. If things get really ugly, neo-Cretan won’t do, and the gloves come off, as they are in the streets in America right now.
Let’s not go there.
To conclude this post and the three-part series House on a Rock, before giving you the answer to the Trivia Question you’ve been waiting for, we should mention we like Jordan Peterson, and one of his themes is that what civilization does with the God concept is provide stability and order for humans in a world of natural chaos or entropy. He is elegant in describing how this is our goal today, as it has been since the beginning of recorded time. This is what all of the ancient stories, epics, and myths say, and Dr. Peterson has made his own career with related observations, while showing how these ancient stories confirm most of the social science he knows as a psychiatrist.
We think that if there is a good God, continuously creating and sustaining good societies with excellent foundations is exactly what He would want us to do.
Of course, this does not mean that stability and order is all that humankind seeks. In fact, to create any stability and order, human creatures must maximize their creativity to find ways to build civilizations in good, efficient, sturdy, durable, and just ways. No one wants to put in much effort into anything unless he or she believes basic human needs will be met and will make a lasting difference. To survive requires more than getting through the next meal; we have tried every short-term, easy, pleasurable strategy out there, and they all fail (though a good time can be had in the short run).
Where that creativity can be found, says Dr. Peterson, is on the border between order and chaos; you know, the place where the Spirit hovered over the face of the abyss. According to the Biblical narrative, man was created into this world to carry on God’s continuous act of creation. In sum, we much need Tom Holland’s, David Hart’s, and Mark Taylor’s insights and creativity to keep Western Civilization strong and progressing and to keep us flexible enough to last. Their analysis can help us do that, while also helping us decide how not to throw the “Old Man” and all his proven foundational babies out with the bathwater.
Okay. Drum roll please. The answer to the Trivia Question, more like a Riddle: The Battle of Milvian Bridge (312 AD) fought over the Tiber River in Rome. Constantine the Great, who became St. Constantine, is the “white general,” and Jesus of Nazareth is the “non-white” king.
Constantine unified the Roman Empire to end the Roman Tetrarchy, reestablishing a Roman kingdom on earth in the “known world.” He established Constantinople as the new capital of Rome, which led many years later to the construction of the fortified walls pictured in House on a Rock – Part I.
Moreover, Constantine also established Christianity as the Empire’s official religion, when it’s estimated only 10% of the Empire’s subjects were Christians, with himself as Pontifex Maximus (Pope). He declared religious freedom throughout the Empire. We know that few worldly people in the still “ancient world” were confused about race or color, and they knew Jesus had not been a white person. Just ask any ancient general, sailor, or slave-to-spice trader in the cosmopolitan space. Most people aren’t morons, though some intellectuals can be.
“What a minute!,” you say. “How did Constantine elevate ‘a non-white king who then took over the known world?’” Referencing the last post, you say, “I get the white general part, but how did Constantine ‘elevating Jesus to king, who then spread freedom, equality, and love throughout the land?’ It still got very ugly after Constantine, and, afterwards, with further attempts to reestablish the Roman gods.” Beyond that, slavery remained.
Well, this is where the Trivia Question becomes more of a riddle. We would argue that establishing Christianity as Rome’s state religion was darn close to freedom, equality, and love for the time. In fact, the story didn’t end there, and it all depends on one’s time frame.
Constantine knew Christ was king of the Roman Catholic “Christian” Church. What he was doing was highlighting the main thing Jesus spent most of his time teaching and preaching about, the Kingdom of God (or Heaven). This became the two cities scenario that St. Augustine would get to by the end of the 4th Century. While a slave owner, Constantine set in motion civilization’s attempt to establish God’s kingdom on earth, which created The Revolution Holland, Hart, and Taylor are all writing about. We do this by focusing simultaneously on the Kingdom of Heaven.
It’s working, has spread throughout the West, and is moving today increasingly to other parts of the world.
Little miracles like Milvian Bridge just kept happening on a daily basis. That’s all. It wasn’t predetermined as far as we can tell, but there sure seems to be an Invisible Hand in there somewhere. As Constantine said, “A) The Day of the Lord cometh like a thief in the night. B) Don’t be alarmed when the time comes. C) Make sure your House is on a Rock.” Next time we’ll make it multiple choice.
As Dr. Taylor suggests, this is not THE END.