Roberto Unger on Religion and Revolution

My theme is the religion of the future. My thesis is that there is now need and occasion for a religious revolution. Tocqueville once remarked that every profound revolution in the history of humanity must be both political and religious. The religious revolution that I want to address in these minutes that I have with you includes a political revolution, but goes beyond it. 

I begin to speaking to what religion is and has been in the past (1). Then I say something about the prompt for a religious revolution today (2). And finally, I deal with the moral and political vision that can inform the religious revolution that we now require (3).


Religion today and in the past

Our idea of religion in the West has been modelled on the semitic monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, with their creative and interventionist deity. But a conception of religion must be broad enough to include the major spiritual orientations, such as Buddhism and Confucianism, that have no place for such a transcendent and personal god.

Religion viewed in this wider scope has as its first characteristic to anchor an existential imperative, an orientation to life in a vision of ultimate reality.

A second characteristic of religion is that it confronts the irreparable flaws in the human condition. First, that we are mortal. The experience of life is an experience of unlimited profundity. Everything in our existence points beyond itself. We must nevertheless die. Second, that we are groundless. We cannot grasp the framework of our existence or look into the beginning and the end of time. And third, that we are insatiable. We demand the unlimited from the limited, the unlimited even from one another. Because we are mortal, our existence is urgent, irreversible and frightful. Because we are groundless, it is dreamlike and prodigenous. Because we are insatiable, it is tormented, albeit punctuated by joys that we are powerless to make last.

A third characteristic of religion is that it elicits – it demands faith, in a two-fold sense. First, faith as an unavoidable cognitive overreach. We must take a stand. We must commit our lives in one direction or another, without ever having adequate grounds on which to do so. And second, faith in the sense of the heightened vulnerability of others that this inevitable cognitive overreach exacts from us.

For 2500 years, the great religious orientations that have prevailed in the world have shared certain common characteristics, despite the vast difference among them. All of them have first established a dialectic between the transcendence of the divine and its imminence in the world. Second, they have discounted or denied all of the divisions within humanity and asserted our fundamental unity. Third, they have rejected the ethic of proud self-assertion or martial valour in favour of an ethic of inclusive and sacrificial altruism. Fourth, they have tended either to deny or to avoid what I just described as the irreparable defects in the human condition. And fifth, each of these spiritual orientations has been a kind of two-sided ticket. One side of the ticket invites us to escape the world. Another side calls us to change it.

Now these spiritual orientations that have predominated in the last 2500 years of human history have followed three main directions.

One direction is the overcoming of the world, exemplified, for example, by Buddhism. It denies the reality of phenomenal distinction and change and commands us to establish contact with hidden, unified and timeless beings. A central problem in this orientation is the contradiction between the practical and the cognitive antidote to nihilism. The cognitive antidote supplied by the overcoming of the world is contact with a hidden unified being beneath the surface. But this cognitive antidote contradicts what is in fact the practical antidote to nihilism, which is connection and engagement in the one real world around us.

A second orientation to existence, exemplified, for example, by the original teachings of Confucius, is the humanisation of the world. Its central idea is that we can create meaning in a meaningless cosmos by honouring our role-based obligations to one another and by cultivating our ability to imagine the otherness of other people. A problem in this orientation is that it accepts some established social order as the template of our relations to one another. But the truth is that no social role and no social regime is ever adequate to a human being.

A third orientation to life in these two and a half milleniums could be called the struggle with the world. It has a sacred and a profane form. The sacred form is the Near Eastern religions of salvation, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And the profane form is the modern secular projects of liberation, especially democracy, liberalism, socialism, and romanticism. Its central idea is that we can assent to eternal life, or at least to a greater life, through transformation of the world and of ourselves. A central problem in this orientation is that it directs us only into the future, the providential future of salvation or the historical future of another social order. But we do not live in the future. All that we ever have is life right now.

Of these three orientations, it is really the third, the struggle with the world, in both its sacred and profane form that has come to command the agenda of humanity. For over two centuries, the world has been on fire because of the revolutionary method of this third approach to the world.

Why then a religious revolution right now?

In part as a result of the worldwide influence of that third tradition, the struggle with the world, a message has been propagated throughout humanity. The message is that ordinary men and women are not so ordinary after all, that they share in the attributes of divinity and especially in the attribute of transcendence over their present context. It is a message disseminated throughout the world, not simply by the established religions, but by the revolutionary political ideologies and, most of all, by the worldwide popular romantic culture. Part of this message is that love is higher than altruism and is the organising element in our mortal experience. Another part is that no structure, no way of organising society, can do justice to our possibilities of experience. And the fundamental idea in this message is that we are context shaped and yet always transcendent over the conceptual and social orders that we make and inhabit. They are finite with respect to us, and we are infinite in relation to them. There is always more in us, in each of us individually and in all of us collectively, the human race, than there is or ever can be in them. And this idea, that we can become more human only by becoming more God-like, by resisting and revising the context, contradicts the established beliefs and the existing forms of social organisation in the world. Thus the need for revolution, for religious revolution.

Another point of departure of religious revolution is the need to confront our mortality, our groundlessness, and our insatiability, rather than to deny them, in the hope that by confronting them, we can awaken from conformity to the possession of a greater life.

What can and should the form of such a religious revolution be?

The great religions of the past were established by inspired individuals who claimed special proximity to the divine, gathered around them a group of followers, and then had their teachings reduced later to a scriptural canon. Today, religious revolution would have to take a different fork, and its centerpiece would be the idea of the prophetic powers of all living men and women. The Protestant Reformation preached the priesthood of all believers. The next stage, the next revolution, is the prophetic mission of all humanity.

Something will remain from the earlier form of religious revolution in the new one. The central role of the combination of visionary teaching with exemplary action. The gates to prophecy are never closed. New prophets will arise to deliver a new message in a new voice.

What then about the direction?

Now I want to speak to the direction in a purely secular or profane form. Although everything that I have to say could also be advanced through the reinterpretation and redirection of the established theistic religions.

First, the political vision. The established social regimes in the world contradict the idea of the godlike character of the ordinary person. They contradict that idea in many ways. First because all the established economic systems, the existing form of the market economy, reinforce a hierarchical segmentation that denies opportunities and instruments to the majority of mankind. Second, because under our established arrangements there is no adequate practical basis for social solidarity. Money transfers organised by the state are not enough. The only sufficient basis of social solidarity is direct responsibility to take care of other people, beyond the boundaries of one’s own family. And third, because the only democracies that exist in the world are flawed partial democracies, low-energy democracies that fail to master the established structure, that renew the power of the dead over the living and that continue to make change dependent upon crisis.

It would be necessary to transform the institutional content of the existing forms of the market economy, of political democracy and a free civil society. The old model of ideological conflict, the hydraulic model, that pits the state against the market, more state, less market, more market, less state, has ceased to have meaning in the advance of such a project. What is necessary is to democratise the markets and to create high-energy democracies, and to establish a form of education that recognised in every child a tongue-tied prophet.

On our present understanding of ideological conflict, we have shallow freedom against shallow equality. The right would be those who give priority to freedom, and the left those who give priority to equality within the established institutional arrangements. But the true aim of religious and political revolution is deep freedom. The reconstruction of the arrangements of society is a service of the power of the indiviual to resist, revise, and transcend context. It cannot be done without a gradual, but ultimately radical, reshaping of the institutional arrangements of the economy, the state, and civil society.

And then, the moral vision

We do not live in historical time. We live in biographical time, and cannot await this transformation of the structure of society. What way of living can do justice to the aims of such a revolution?

Consider it first from the standpoint of a doctrine of the virtues, the ordinary virtues, the pagan virtues of connection through which we attenuate the conflict between our need for others and our need to avoid the jeopardy in which they place us. Respect, fairness, forebearance, and courage. Courage, the enabling virtue without which all other virtues are rendered sterile.

And consider it from the perspective of our response as individuals to the formative incidents of a human life. A first such incident is a downfall that comes when we recognise our mortality, our groundlessness, and our insatiability. In confronting the fact of death, we awaken and begin to conceive a religion that instead of being a lullaby, is an arousal. Then a second incident is our mutilation. Each of us, as he grows up, must understand that he has to cease to be many things in the world in order to become one thing in particular. And in so doing, it is as if we’ve mutilated ourselves and reduced our humanity to a single course of action. We must somehow contrive to imagine the many cells that we did not become, as if recalling the movements of a ghostly, lost limb. This imagination is the true basis of human solidarity. And then the third most decisive incident is our mummification. As we grow older, the combination of the hardened self in a character and the compromise of its circumstance begins to create a mummy around each of us. Within this mummy, we die many small deaths. We must then break out of the mummy by placing ourselves in circumstances that exact from us the price of a heightened accepted vulnerability. We must cast down our shields.

And what is our reward for all this searching and striving in the midst of the great darkness that surrounds us? It is to move further away from the idols and closer to one another. It is to come into the fuller possession of our greatest good, life. Life right now, with its characteristic attributes of surface, spontaneity, and surprise. It is to live in such a way that we die only once.

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