“Turn! Turn! Turn,” the Byrds sang. “For everything there is a season,” quoth Solomon. Perhaps it’s the way we acquire knowledge, but lately many fields in academia are experiencing “turns.” The idea seems to be that if fields continue to turn, they will eventually all converge on the same intersection and true knowledge will be obtained. The post-modern turn, however, suggests that there is no objective knowledge. It kind of makes me dizzy, all this turning. Although I find the use of this particular noun in such phrases a touch unsophisticated, it’s here to stay. At least until academia takes another turn. Public intellectuals, after all, have to have something to say. And academics are capital imitators.
Ironically, within the same week I read of the “religious turn” in the humanities and a different turn within religious studies. This “religious turn” is not to suggest the humanities have found that old time religion, but rather that many disciplines are now realizing that religion has played, and continues to play, a very important role in human affairs. Fields that have traditionally avoided religious topics are now “turning” that way. At the same time that others are turning toward religion, religious studies is taking a “material turn.” The public intellectuals smile at the maze they’ve created as the paychecks roll in. The “material turn,” if I understand correctly, is that the ideas of religion can be explained via the real world needs that various religions meet. There’s no need for any divine character or intervention. There is no sacred or profane, but rather kinetic movement of shifting patterns that at any one time or place might be denominated as religions.
I’m all for progress, but I think I might’ve missed the turn. To my old school way of thinking, sacred and profane, Eliadian though they may be, still have great explanatory value. I don’t know if there’s objective knowledge to be found by fallen mortals such as we. The material world we experience through our senses is mediated by those very senses so our understanding is, of necessity, limited. We can’t touch naked reality even if we try. Our quest, in circumstances such as these, would seem to be digging deeper until we come to that which resists any tunneling. It’s like coming to the end of the physical universe and wondering what’s beyond this natural limit. Then, I suppose, you’d have to turn. Until such time as that, however, all of this present day turning is for the Byrds.