Abiding Grace

Time, Modernity, Death

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Mark C. Taylor
Religion and Postmodernism
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , September
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Mark C. Taylor’s Abiding Grace: Time, Modernity, Death strikes a tone of mournful and graceful solemnity. Marking the final publication in the eminent Religion and Postmodernism series from the University of Chicago—one that Taylor founded and edited for much of its thirty-year run—Abiding Grace is not so much a capstone or culmination of the series, as it is a recollection or reflection on the meaning of what comes after that which is already postmodern. It is an ending that negates without annihilating in the guise of Martin Heidegger’s negation of the Nichts (the nothing) or Jacques Derrida’s la différance (difference and deferral)an opening, or clearing, of new possibilities, rather than a closing. Endings and beginnings are intertwined and interplaying. Taylor has written a marvelous work of postmodern philosophy of religion and a/theology that is both a fitting end and apt beginning, or guide, to the interweavings of religion and postmodernism.

The through line amidst the endings is Taylor’s method of “retro-reading” (18). Retro-reading, at its simplest, reads backward through history and texts to envision what texts might have become “through the eyes of their successors” (24). Retro-reading wears several guises. It is, in part, a memoir, situating Taylor’s intellectual biography—beginning with his university student days in the tumultuous 1960s—alongside the emergence of postmodernism and deconstruction in the United States at John Hopkins University in 1966. It is, in part, an intellectual history, a theological genealogy, which informs much of the text, with illuminating research into the theological underpinnings of French (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich) Hegel reception and postmodernism. It is, in part, a technological and economic critique of post-apocalyptic or eschatological narratives, arguing against Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992) and the death-defying escapism of posthumanism. It is, in part, a philosophical and theological analysis of time—in the wake of Heidegger’s retro-reading of F.W.J. Schelling and Søren Kierkegaard on the groundless ground of freedom, being, and nonbeing. Finally, it is, in part, a reflection on death and hope, an existential and mystically tinged decision to abide with hope in the face of despair. 

The language of “post” looms—though not cheekily—with Abiding Grace functioning as “an unconcluding unscientific postscript” to both the series and Taylor’s voluminous career (23). The negation of “un” affixed to Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript evokes Taylor’s Kierkegaardian legacy, as well as the nature or kind of ending Taylor seeks. It is a retro-reading of the ruptures and possibilities for understanding modernity and postmodernity in light of an alternative genealogy of deconstruction stemming from the abyssal Protestant tradition of theologia crucis (theology of the cross), and the Deus absconditus (the hidden God), the tradition of the death of God of the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and even Derrida. In other words, the reference to Kierkegaard provides Taylor with a rhetorical and philosophical structure around which to base his recalling of the series, and his initial forays into the conflict between a systematizing Hegel and a disrupting Kierkegaard through the lenses of their successors, namely Heidegger and Derrida among history of the French reception of Hegel.

Two small concerns (more quibbles than concerns) stand out among the historical excavation. First, Taylor accurately and adroitly notes Heidegger’s theological inheritance, relying on the groundbreaking work of John Van Buren in the 1990s. There has been recent, excellent scholarship that builds upon Van Buren’s foundation, such as Ryan Coyne’s Heidegger’s Confessions (University of Chicago Press, 2015), that would benefit Taylor’s discussion. Second, Taylor provides exegeses of numerous philosophers and their later interpretations, for example, Hegel in Hegel’s terms, and then Hegel for Alexandre Kojève, Alexandre Koyré, and Jean Hyppolite, all of which is extremely compelling. One omission from this trend is Schelling, who receives fleeting mentions and hints at greater coverage, but is primarily interpreted through Heidegger rather than on his own terms. Schelling’s notion of freedom is crucial for Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and the theological genealogy Taylor is sketching, as he notes (196). More direct work with Schelling, principally his notion of an abyssal and absent God as a possibility for difference, would only benefit Taylor’s otherwise remarkable text.

Amid this historical structure, Taylor discovers a theory of “chiasmic time,” which is a complex blending of linear and circular views of time (14-15). In short, chiasmic time is an entwining of a past that is never fixed and a future that never arrives for a present that is always held in suspense. The payoff of chiasmic time is a present that is “irreducibly open at both ends” (15). The complex, entwining of chiasmic time allows the future to transform the past as much as the past sets the conditions for the future. In other words, chiasmic time is like an abiding grace that opens the past to future possibilities. 

The method and motif of “retro-reading” signals the importance of an idea in clear, precise language, connecting the micro argument of the moment to the overarching argument of the book. Taylor’s retro-reading is a superb rhetorical and philosophical tool, which he uses to great effect. He masterfully balances a rich and complex narrative that is, at once, original and illuminating, clarifying dense and difficult material. While a difficult text, Abiding Grace, with its retro-reading, serves as a valuable entry point and exciting addition to the scholarship of the theological and philosophical genealogies of postmodernism and religion.

Taylor poses an existential or theological question. Is hope possible in a post-postmodern age? Taylor’s future-oriented question is not the search for a utopian forecast. Nor is he some kind of “post-apocalyptic dystopian prepper.” Rather, Taylor seeks a third alternative absent determinations and simply open to possibility (251). Hope is possible in two senses. First, there is hope in light of the new possibilities of chiasmic time; and second, there is hope in the acceptance of the gift of life and death, a decision to leap toward hope in the face of absolute difference. Hope springs from the abyss.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jason Blakeburn is a doctoral student in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University.

Date of Review: 
April 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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 Leaving and Speed Limits: Where Time Went and Why We Have So Little Left.


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