Abiding Grace: Time, Modernity, Death

Abiding Grace: Time, Modernity, Death

by Mark C. Taylor

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226569086
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/02/2018
Series: Religion and Postmodernism Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 837,080
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Mark C. Taylor is professor of religion at Columbia University and is the founding editor of the Religion and Postmodernism series published by the University of Chicago Press. He is author of over two dozen books, including Last Works: Lessons in LeavingSpeed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left, and, most recently, Abiding Grace: Time, Modernity, and Death.

Read an Excerpt


Ending (the) Series

That all essential thinkers at bottom always say the same thing does not mean that they take over the identical thing from each other, but rather that they transform their own primordial thought which is different back to what is essential and to the origin. And for this reason one can find that what became known only in later ages — after it became known and could thus be seen — was also found in traces in the earlier thinkers without being able to say that the earlier thinkers already thought and knew the same thing in the same way. What was just said must be noted with regard to the concept of freedom, too.

— Martin Heidegger

Beginning Ending

... Beginning ... Ending ... When to begin? Where to begin? How to begin? When to end? Where to end? How to end? What is or is not before (the) beginning? What is or is not after (the) ending? If (the) beginning is always already past, does anything or anyone ever begin? If (the) ending is always yet to come, does anything or anyone ever end? What does it mean to pass? Might passing be the future that holds the present and past in suspense?

What is a series? Series — which derives from ser, "to line up," and the Latin serere, "to arrange, attach, join" — means "a group of events, or objects corresponding to such events, related by order of occurrence, especially by succession; a group of thematically connected works or performances. A group of objects related by a linearly varying morphological or configurational characteristic. The indicated sum of a finite or of a sequentially ordered infinite set of terms." What does it mean to be a member of a series? What holds the members of a series together? What holds them apart? From point to line, but not yet to plane. Two dimensions, perhaps three, but not yet four. What might be the fourth dimension? How does a series begin? Can the members of a series be numbered and counted? Can they be calculated? Are they interrelated? Is there a progression in a series? Is there a regression? Does the series have a future? Has the time of the series passed?

The series. Not just any series, but the series known as Religion and Postmodernism ... 1987 ... 2018 ... covering almost three decades — three crucial decades bridging (which is not to say joining) the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. From the deconstruction of one wall to the construction of others. Thirty-five books plus one, which might or might not be a conclusion. Why did the series begin? What was before the series? Why is the series ending? What will be after the series? Before — behind or in front of, past or future? After — in pursuit of or subsequent to, future or past? Before — a past that is a future, and a future that is a past. After — a future that is a past, and a past that is a future. In this interplay of past-in-future, and future-in-past, where is the present? What is the present? When is the present? Past, present, future. Future, present, past.

The question of the series is the question of time. Virtually every question probed by the books in this series can be traced to the problem of time. Is time real or unreal? Postmodernism poses and reposes the question of time — "real time." What is postmodernism after? What was modernity? When did it begin? Has it ended? Does postmodernism have a future, or has its time passed? Might this passing be the impossible possibility that disrupts the presence of every present? Time. Modernity. Death.

Post Ages

In the first volume of Either/Or, Kierkegaard's pseudonymous author observes, "Experience shows that it is not at all difficult for philosophy to begin. Far from it. It begins, in fact, with nothing and therefore can always begin. But it is always difficult for philosophy and philosophers to end" (EO, 1:39; translation modified). And so it goes, on and on and on. Uncertain of what comes next, the series becomes a series, perhaps an infinite series of post ages: postwar, posthistorical, postindustrial, posthumous, posthuman, post-God, postreligion, post-Christian, post-Western, post-real, post-truth, postbiological, postmodern. What is postmodernism? What will postmodernism have been? What comes after the Post Age? What might a post–Post Age be?

The question of the post is the eternally returning question of time — being after, belatedness, afterward, afterword. What understanding of time do post ages presuppose? Is the time of postmodernism modern or postmodern? The question of time is ancient, as ancient as thought itself. When thinking is serious, it inevitably takes time. If thinking takes time, what or who gives time? If time is given, it is never ours to spend, save, or waste; rather, it is a gift, a present. A present that is always already present and thus never fully or totally present. If the present is never present, can it ever pass, be past? Can it ever arrive? If past, present, and future are never present, what, then, is time?

The question is not my own (it never is). Rather, the question was first posed by an other: Saint Augustine in The Confessions (397–400), which is considered by some to be the first autobiography ever written. In the legendary book 11, he asks, "What then is time? I know what it is if no one asks me what it is; but if I want to explain it to someone who has asked me, I find that I do not know. Nevertheless, I can confidently assert that I know this: that if nothing passed away there would be no past time, and if nothing were coming there would be no future time, and if nothing were now there would be no present time." The longer Augustine ponders the question of time, the more perplexing it becomes.

Augustine had been driven to question time by his quest to understand himself. Like Kierkegaard and Freud centuries later, Augustine realized that self-knowledge presupposes the relation to an Other that can never be known. "What then am I, my God? What is my nature? A life various, manifold, and quite immeasurable." As Augustine continues to reflect, he becomes even more enigmatic to himself, until he finally experiences a moment of illumination:

It is now, however, perfectly clear that neither the future nor the past are [sic] in existence, and that it is incorrect to say that there are three times — past, present, and future. Though one might perhaps say: "There are three times — a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future." For these three do exist in the mind, and I do not see them anywhere else: the present time of things past is memory; the present time of things present is sight; the present time of things future is expectation. If we are allowed to use words in this way, then I see that there are three times and I admit that there are.

In this seminal passage, Augustine expresses two interrelated insights that were indirectly and directly influential for virtually all later theology and philosophy. First, time is inseparable from human self-consciousness, and second, time is best understood in terms of presence and self-presence. Insofar as self-consciousness is inescapably temporal, self-knowledge is inseparable from memory, or, more precisely, recollection and expectation. To know himself, Augustine must enter into "the belly of the mind," the "cavern or cave of the mind," or "the huge court" of his memory. There, he confesses, "I encounter myself; I recall myself — what I have done, when and where I did it, and in what state of mind I was at the time. ... I can myself weave them into the context of the past, and from them I can infer future actions, events, hopes, and then I can contemplate all these as though they were in the present."

The Confessions is the product of Augustine's recollection. He artfully weaves dispersed moments into a coherent narrative that reveals the fabric of his life. But he cannot stop with this work, because his story is part of a larger story that is unfolding under the watchful eye of God. The individual, he believes, cannot be understood apart from the universal, and therefore The City of God must be written to complete The Confessions. Augustine cannot know where he came from or where he is heading without knowing where history as a whole is going. It is important to stress that for Augustine, neither self-consciousness nor the historical process is self-grounded or autonomous. In the depths of his soul, Augustine discovers an Other he cannot recollect but to whom or to which he is eternally indebted: "If I find you beyond my memory, I can have no memory of you. And how shall I find you if I do not remember you?" Augustine names this immemorial other "God"; later writers have other names for such radical altarity.

Augustine's timely meditations established the parameters that define what Heidegger describes as the "Western ontotheological tradition." From Aristotle and Augustine and Hegel to Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Derrida, two metaphors have governed notions of the presence of the present: the line and the circle. Accordingly, time has been interpreted as either linear or cyclical. From the former point of view, time appears to be a series of now-points that have no necessary connections to one another. These discrete points can be identified, quantified, counted, and calculated. As we will see in chapter 7, Heidegger concludes Being and Time by drawing on the insights of Saint Paul, Luther, and Kierkegaard to criticize Hegel for supposedly perpetuating the misguided serial notion of time. While Heidegger's claim is not incorrect, it is one-sided. Hegel does view "natural" time as serial, but he interprets historical time as cyclical. Hegel maintains that when time is properly comprehended, it is, in Derrida's terms, an "archaeo-teleological process" in which the end, implicit in the beginning, becomes explicit at the end of history, and the beginning becomes intelligible as the logical outworking of the end. In the poetic words of T. S. Eliot,

In my beginning is my end ...
Hegel presents his clearest and most influential formulation of this line of analysis in the preface to the final book he published, The Philosophy of Right (1821). The Trinitarian structure of the Hegelian dialectical system is a philosophical appropriation of a theological interpretation of history that dates back to the medieval theologian Joachim of Fiore (ca. 1135–1202). The ages of the Father (ancient) and the Son (medieval) culminate in the age of Spirit (modern), which Hegel claims to fully grasp and present in the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. "To comprehend what is," Hegel maintains, "this is the task of philosophy, because what is, is reason. Whatever happens, every individual is a child of his time; so philosophy too is its own time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as absurd to fancy that a philosophy can transcend its contemporary world as it is to fancy that an individual can overleap his own age, jump over Rhodes." The present, however, can only be understood when it has passed; full comprehension can occur only after death or after the end of history. Using what is perhaps the most famous phrase in his entire corpus, Hegel avers: "The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of twilight." Looking back, time no longer appears to be a series of disconnected points, but becomes a coherent narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end. In this apocalyptic vision, the crucifixion and resurrection of the Logos appear as the process of the self-negation and sublation of all singularity through which time is taken up into eternity. "To recognize reason as the rose in the cross of the present and thereby to enjoy the present, this is the rational insight which reconciles us to the actual, the reconciliation which philosophy affords to those in whom there has once arisen an inner voice bidding them to comprehend, not only to dwell in what is substantive while still retaining subjective freedom, but also to possess subjective freedom while standing not in anything particular and accidental but in what exists absolutely." Once again, the poet translates the philosopher's Begriff into an effective and affective Vorstellung:

And all shall be well and All manner of thing shall be well When the tongues of flames are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one.
Hegel never lost sight of the theological roots of his philosophical vision. As we will see, the modern world is for him the logical conclusion of Lutheran Protestantism: "It is a sheer willfulness [Eigensinn], the willfulness which does honour to mankind, to refuse to recognize in conviction anything not ratified by thought. This willfulness is the characteristic of our epoch, besides being the principle peculiar to Protestantism. What Luther initiated as faith in feeling and in the witness of the spirit, is precisely what spirit, since become more mature, has striven to apprehend in the concept in order to free and so to find itself in the world as it exists to-day" (translation modified). When what is, is what ought to be, the kingdom of God has come to earth and history is over.

Indirectly commenting on Hegel, Derrida reminds us: "A dialectic always remains an operation of mastery." But what if time cannot be mastered? What if the kingdom never comes, but is always deferred, delayed? What if history is never over? What if (the) work is not complete?

Hegel died in 1831. While the circumstances of his death remain uncertain, he appears to have died unexpectedly from cholera, which was raging throughout Europe at the time. He was buried along with his wife in Berlin's Dorotheenstädtische Friedhof und Friedrich-Werschen Gemeinder beside Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814). At the time of his death, Hegel was at the height of his fame; hundreds attended his lectures, which were edited from student notes and eventually published. During the last decade of his life, he did not publish a single book. Though he could not have known it at the time, the preface to The Philosophy of Right was the preface to his last work. Throughout his writings, Hegel was always preoccupied with the problem of prefaces. His first published work, Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), is nothing more and nothing less than a preface to his entire philosophical system. Hegel realized that prefaces pose a problem for systematic philosophy. Is the preface part of the work, or is it pre-liminary? If it is preliminary, then when and where does the work proper begin? If it is part of the book or system, then it is not really a preface. Neither inside nor outside the system, prefaces appear to be promissory notes that might or might not be redeemed.

Beginning, it seems, is as much a problem for the philosopher as ending. In an essay on prefaces, entitled "Hors livre," Derrida writes, "Prefaces, along with forewords, introductions, preludes, preliminaries, preambles, prologues, and prolegomena, have always been written, it seems, in view of their own self-effacement. Upon reaching the end of the pre- (which presents and precedes, or rather forestalls, the presentative production, and, in order to put before the reader's eyes what is not yet visible, is obliged to speak, predict, and predicate), the route which has been covered must cancel itself out. But this subtraction leaves a mark of erasure, a remainder which is added to the subsequent text and which cannot be completely summed up within it." Always written after the work it nonetheless precedes, the preface is actually a postface or postscript whose erasure leaves the work incomplete. If the end is always missing, the work cannot come full circle to reach closure and secure a certain conclusion. Rather, it remains open and must be supplemented by postscript after postscript after postscript. Prefaces and postscripts are nonreflexive images of each other, which disrupt systemic and structural closure. This is Kierkegaard's point in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, where, writing under the guise of Johannes Climacus (aka JC), he explains,

When the dialectician has finally emancipated himself from the domination of the orator, the systematic philosopher confronts him. He says with speculative emphasis: "Not until we have reached the end of our exposition will everything become clear." Here it will therefore be necessary to wait long and patiently before venturing to raise a dialectical doubt. True, the dialectician is amazed to hear the same philosopher admit that the System is not yet completed. Alas! everything will be made clear at the end, but the end is not yet there. ... For it is ridiculous to treat everything as if the System were complete, and then to say at the end, that the conclusion is lacking. If the conclusion is lacking at the end, it is also lacking in the beginning, and this should therefore have been said in the beginning. A house may be spoken of as finished even if it lacks a minor detail, a bell-pull or the like; but in a scientific structure the absence of the conclusion has retroactive power to make the beginning doubtful and hypothetical, which is to say: unsystematic.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations

1.         Ending (the) Series
Beginning Ending
Post Ages

2.         Mirror Stage
Quest for Autonomy

3.         Constructing Modernism-Postmodernism
From Speculation to Spectacle and Simulation
Self-Reflexive Technologies
Escaping Time
Time, Modernity, Death

4.         Ghosts Haunting Modernism-Postmodernism
Reformation to Revolution
Hegel’s Luther
Kierkegaard’s Luther
Heidegger’s Luther

5.         Recollecting the Future
Logos and Trinity
Spacing and Timing
Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection

6.         French Hegels
Between Reason and Unreason
Deferring Presence
End of History
Structure and Event

7.         Being Timely
Coup de Grace
Being as Time
In-difference of Art
Art Opening

8.         Abiding
Abiding Debt
Shadow of Death
Being Given

9.         Ending Ending
Letting Go

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