The first sixty-one pages give the reader the entire argument. What follows, however, is a seemingly endless expansion (and repetition) of the basic points. In a nutshell, the human condition is unavoidably defined by three realities: we are mortal; we are “groundless,” that is, we can’t figure out the world or our place in it; and we are insatiable in our desires—the spirit of transcendence within us longs for immortality, fulfillment, meaning. The denial of these three truths constitutes “wishful thinking.”
Yet, says, Unger, that is exactly what religion (and for that matter, philosophy) has always attempted: to diminish the terror of death, the incomprehensibility of the cosmos and of human existence itself, and the longing for wholeness. In effect, religion in the past has served the function of “belittling” the truth about the human condition by offering a variety of escapes. Unger spends much of the book in a detailed critique of religions that seek to “overcome the world” (Buddhism and its cognates), “humanize the world” (Confucianism), and “struggle with the world” (the three so-called “salvation religions” of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity).
The Christian version of struggle with the world—stripped, to be sure, of God, the resurrected Christ, and a future life—offers Unger the best framework for his religion of the future; in addition to taking body, spirit, and time seriously, it perceives that individuals and the world itself can change. How can the religion of the future build on that heritage? First, by getting rid of God and instead seeking to become more godlike; second, by unswervingly facing the three constraints of mortality, groundlessness, and insatiability without flinching; third, through passionate political engagement and personal transformation, with social and personal changes interdependent.
This is a religion rather than a philosophy, Unger insists, because of the gap between the personal commitment required and the non-demonstrability of the premises—leaping that gap requires faith. But how can people locked in their present cells of denial (reinforced by societal structures and religions) make that leap? Mainly through better (more dialectical) education, more flexible economic policies, openness to change, and the virtues of attentiveness and courage. Thus humans will only die once, because they are fully alive in the moments of their mortal lives.
Unger is learned and thoughtful. The book is loaded with fine sentences. Many of his critiques ring true. But his positive vision simply does not convince. Above all, it fails to show how such a radical and demanding program could possibly motivate the sort of “up-by-our-own-bootstraps” reform for which he calls. It is refreshing to find a contemporary thinker who speaks positively of transcendence and of humans as embodied spirits with great if not infinite depth. But because he never speaks of, much less takes seriously, the deep flaws in humans as they exist, and above all the evil toward which they seem inclined no matter what their social arrangements, Unger’s utopian project becomes ultimately another form of “belittlement.”
Rebel in the Ranks
Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Shape Our World
Brad S. Gregory
HarperOne, $27.99, 304 pp.
This is essentially a more accessible version of the argument that Brad S. Gregory, a professor of history at Notre Dame, made in his award-winning 2015 monograph, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Gregory argues that even though Luther and Calvin could never have conceived of such an outcome (and would have vigorously opposed it), their religious reform bore within itself the seeds of modern secularization. The way from then to now was neither rapid nor direct. It passed through the great religious wars of the seventeenth century, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the combination of money and technology that made contemporary consumerism the functional replacement for the religious passion that drove both the Protestant and Catholic reformers of the sixteenth century. But Gregory asserts that Luther’s principle of sola scriptura, together with the primacy he gave to his own experience and individual conscience when they came into conflict with the magisterium, underlay all these changes and led eventually to the hyper-individualism of contemporary first-world existence.
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