The Religion of the Future

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Roberto Mangabeira Unger
  • Verso Books
    , October
     2016.
     480 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781784787301.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The problem is simple: we are going to die. This is an inescapable fact of being human. Issues arise, however, when we mask this reality or pretend that death is something other than the finality that it is. We can never, because of this, fully grasp the ground of being. And, as Roberto Mangabeira Unger argues in The Religion of the Future, this inability is compounded by or exacerbated when we realize that this fundamental problem reveals our insatiable desires, our unexpressed natures, and our experiential belittlement, the latter of which is “death by installments” (25). Religion, historically, is humanity’s attempt to both make meaning of and deal with these irreparable flaws. It tells us that ultimately everything is all right. But everything is not all right. We must abandon anything that would deny these existential flaws—like traditional religion—and establish a starting point that fully accepts death, unknowing, insatiability, inadequacy, and belittlement. From this acceptance, says Unger, the religion of the future will emerge, a religion that “advances in the search for a greater existence” (216). 

Unger’s work is long, detailed, and refreshingly speculative. I doubt that anyone can fully encapsulate what Unger seeks to accomplish, though Andrew B. Irvine has certainly made an admirable attempt in his review essay (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 83/2 [June 2015]: 554-68). What I will focus on in this review, however, is the surprising trajectory that Unger takes by not eschewing religion altogether, which would seem to be the natural path of a philosopher arguing that religion, as a multicultural and transhistorical category, has blinded humanity to the flaws of its existence. This trajectory raises the obvious questions: Why religion? Does one still need the category of religion to root existence in mortality, groundlessness, and insatiability? Why not philosophy, art, or politics—categories less burdened with the historical weight that squishes religion? Because religion is a useful category, Unger writes, that can be distinguished from other categories in its content, created and ratified by humankind, outside of its historical representations. Religion might encompass the world religions, but it cannot be reduced to any other category that grapples with meaning in the face of existential flaws. 

So religion is still useful, but not as it currently operates. What is needed is a religion of the future—embodied and acted upon in the here and now—that embraces mortality, groundlessness, and instability, and seeks to redress the only eradicable defect of human existence—belittlement. This new religion would take the contents of religion’s historical manifestations and provide them with a new vision by responding to “the indifference of nature and the meaninglessness of the cosmos by building a social order responsive to our concerns … through the collective work of society and culture” (217). If the religion of the future recasts traditional religion’s vision, then it is as solidarity over theology, death over transcendence, generational good over immortality, and decentering over self-importance. 

Again, Unger’s monograph is both thick and philosophically rich. So while there is much more that can be said about it, of primary interest is the way in which his argument builds upon his definition of religion—its contents that both incorporate and move beyond religion’s historical manifestations. According to Unger, this encompassing yet discreet category is unique in human experience and, as such, is still useful in constructing the categorical landscape of the future, wherein religion upholds life as the greatest good. Unger’s understanding of religion is that which allows humans to respond to the flaws of human existence, to orient life around a vision of the world that entangles the prescriptive and descriptive, and to demand a commitment that always exceeds rationality in such a way that humans must rely upon one another in order to actualize life (236–37).

This is a religion, in the final analysis, that connects the semiotic and material worlds, facilitates the construction of meaning in an ever-changing and dynamic existence, and allows for the possibility that the empirical sciences—though foundational to some of humanity’s best constructs of meaning-making—do not exhaust all existential expression. While this might seem naive to those scholars of religion who see themselves as critics and not caretakers, it is important to remember that Unger is neither one nor the other. He is a philosopher who roots his argument equally in religious studies, the history of philosophy, and the philosophy of science. In doing so, he seems to fall within the camp of someone like Bruno Latour and his An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence (Harvard University Press, 2012) or his Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech (Polity, 2013), a camp that is no longer interested in criticism for the sake of criticism. The Religion of the Future, in that light, is a refreshing take that is unabashedly both about religion and itself religious. It is a work that positively seeks to think through the current state of religions in the world, the ways in which the category is still useful, and the changes that humanity needs to make to religion’s content in order for religion to function according to its unique role within the semiotic and material world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin John Peters is Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Roberto Mangabeira Unger is one of the leading philosophers and political thinkers in the world today. The Religion of the Future develops a vision that Unger has also advanced most recently in The Self Awakened and The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time (with Lee Smolin) as well as in his earlier work, Passion.

Keywords: 

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