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Jan. 3, 2008

Q & A with Religion Professor Mark C. Taylor

Special from The Record

Professor Mark Taylor

Professor Mark C. Taylor

Don’t expect Mark C. Taylor to teach religion traditionally. Rather, as the new chair of the University’s Department of Religion, he plans to cut across disciplines and departments to include such apparently nonreligious topics as cognitive science, medical ethics, economics and communications technology.

“There’s a religious dimension to all of culture,” says Taylor. “Religion is not only about what goes on in mosques, synagogues, temples and churches but is also involved in art, music, literature and media. You cannot understand the world today if you do not understand the manifest and latent aspects of religion.”

In more than 20 books, Taylor has written about subjects as diverse as body tattooing, money and financial markets, and Madonna (the pop icon, not the icon). He contends that even the unlikeliest topics may have a religious undertone. For example, he says it’s hard to understand the architecture or the artistic mission of the Guggenheim Museum without appreciating the religious and spiritual commitments of Hilla Rebay—who advised Solomon R. Guggenheim on which artwork to buy—and Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect she recommended.

Mark C. Taylor

• POSITION: Department chair and professor of religion, Columbia University

• LENGTH OF SERVICE: Visiting professor of religion and architecture since 2003; chair since Summer 2007

• HISTORY: Professor of religion and humanities, Williams College

In his latest book, After God, Taylor weaves together strands he has been developing for almost four decades to present a comprehensive theory of religion and exploration of the complexity and diversity of religion in today’s world. He also examines whether it’s possible to have religion without God or ethics in a world without absolutes.

Q. What is it about religion that captures your attention?

A. You can never grasp religion; it always slips away. What fascinates me about religion is similar to what I look for in a book or work of art—something that will take me some place where I’ve never been and lead me to something I can never fully comprehend. I find religion most intriguing when it creates uncertainty and insecurity.

Q.  You are very interested in media and technology. How is religion connected to media?

A. There are many aspects to this issue. An important phenomenon now that has not received adequate attention is the sophisticated use of media by the religious right in this country. Conservative Protestants are always far ahead of others in their use of media. The reason for this goes back to the Protestant reformers for whom the primary mission was spreading the Word of God. The technology then was print. Today the heirs of this tradition have extraordinarily sophisticated media networks—not just television but books, music CDs, videos, even video games. … To understand the role of religion in today’s world involves understanding that kind of use of media.

Q. You’ve written that teaching religion today is much more challenging. How so?

A. I often say that it’s never been more important to study religion critically than today, and it’s never been more difficult to do so. Many in the University and elsewhere thought that religion would disappear, but guess what? It hasn’t turned out that way. Religion is inadequately understood both by those who attack it and by those who defend it. But it was dismissed by some academics over the years as a vestige of an earlier time. It’s now back on the front burner with a vengeance.

Q.  How do today’s students relate to religion?

A. Very differently than they have in the past. We have many very seriously committed students, and for some of them, raising difficult, critical questions—critical not meaning negative, but making them question their beliefs—is threatening. Political correctness has morphed into religious correctness and the consequences are very troubling. I always tell my students if they don’t come out of my course more confused than they came in, I failed. My point is not necessarily to take away their faith but make them question whatever it is they have faith in.

Q. Do you believe in God?

A.  Not in the traditional sense. God, or, in different terms, the divine, is the infinite creative process that is embodied in life itself. As such, the divine is the arising and passing that does not itself arise and pass away. This process is actualized in an infinite web of relations that is an emergent self-organizing network of networks extending from the natural and social to the technological and cultural dimensions of life.

Interviewed by Melanie A. Farmer. Photo courtesy of the Department of Religion