If space-time ever aligned in such a way that I might have the chance to vote for Roberto Mangabeira Unger, I would most certainly do so. Unger might be a singular figure in the history of modern thought. The problem of philosophy is that philosophers almost never tell us how to go about our daily activities, and when they do tell us, we get into troubling gray areas. The problem of religion is that priests almost always tell us what do to about our daily activities, and when we lay out these rules, we get into troubling black and white areas. Politicians are merely watered down versions of philosophers or priests that see an urgency to act despite the perilously limited nature of modern thought.
Unger, a Brazilian politician who writes philosophy books about religion, is something of an escape artist from the obvious predicaments of modern thought — although let it be said that he would disagree with the characterization of his project as escapism because he readily admits there can be no escape and to think of his work as much means that it will inevitably be defeated. That’s fine. I do believe his main idea will inevitably be defeated, but I would still vote for it. The Religion of the Future is a critique of the three major branches of religious prescription that concludes by offering a vague alternative with little immunity to the broad strokes of Unger’s original critique. This may bother Unger a great deal, though it bothers me not at all.
He identifies three and a half problems of human existence (he says the half-problem is not unsolvable but we’ve simply been dumb about it so far) that give rise to the world’s religions. He divides the religions into three branches: Semitic monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) that depict humans as struggling with the world, Buddhism and Hinduism that depict humans as overcoming the world, and Confucianism that depicts humans as humanizing the world. Unger analyzes the philosophical tenets that prove each of these depictions has failed to solve the three and a half problems of human existence. So what are those three and a half fundamental problems?
They are death, groundlessness, insatiability, and (the half-problem of) belittlement. The death problem is that we are terrified by the fact that we die no matter what. The groundlessness problem is that our individual lives might be entirely meaningless and unmotivated. The insatiability problem is that we are full of empty desires despite the constraints of mortality and purposelessness, and therefore we suffer. Our response to these problems is to take actions that can never match the unlimited potential of our human spirit, and so we end up compromised by routine half-measures that result in a feeling of self-contempt. This root is where Unger and I will disagree — not about the situation, but the connotations he attaches to it.
An adorable thing about philosophers is that they highly prize writing that will organize every warrant into an effective set of claims, but they always have a loose thread somewhere inside those warrants. In Unger’s case, he ought to have mounted a defense of foolishness. No, seriously. Most of modern thought is obsessed with getting the practice of every day living into an order that brooks no inconsistency. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s hobgoblin goes by many names in Unger’s book: hypocrisy, paradox, contradiction, irony, zero-sum, defect. These words all have negative connotations that amount to characterization as a problem; Unger repeatedly assumes a contradiction ought to be eradicated.
Perhaps the only advantage of religion over philosophy is that it usually characterizes inconsistencies through a more positive lens: mystery, gray area, tension, adventure. These don’t require resolution, but unfortunately, they often give birth to faith. Faith still presumes that inconsistencies will be revealed as consistencies in due time, that we have some kind of friend in the universe (a god or a force or a fact) that is less unknown than yet-to-be-known and for this reason, the priest is ultimately subscribing to the same essential fallacy as the philosopher. But Unger is not just a priest or a philosopher, he is a politician. Politics is the field where waffling and hypocrisy are the original sin. Is it too much to ask that we stop characterizing our desire to grow futureward as a method of resolving the hypocrisies and ironies that are the very bedrock of our humanity?
Unger has some good (although vague in a policy sense) ideas about how we might go about improving the daily lives of people, how we might increase our perfection and claim for ourselves those divine aspects of character that previously we gifted only to our gods. He has some weird combination of neoliberalism and Marxism going on, like a more pragmatic and Westernized version of Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Félix Guattari. If you’re laughing because you see how easily those two ideologies contradict each other, I’m right there with you. But let’s recall: humans are hypocritical creatures because of these inevitable tensions that Unger identifies; holding two contradictory things to be simultaneously true is perhaps the only truly unchanging facet of human existence.
If only Unger himself would acknowledge this. Death, groundlessness, and insatiability are not defects in our existence; they are the definition of the human condition. Unger agrees that they cannot be solved, but does not go far enough in taking his criticisms to heart against his own alternative. There is no solving, no beyond in our religious and philosophical and political efforts to circumnavigate human experience. Ironically then, Unger reifies the half-problem into a self-fulfilling, full-blown consequence of his own project: he belittles the human condition itself by claiming not only that it’s defective but that it’s possible to eradicate its three defects.
So that’s pretty funny, and I like him more for falling into his own traps. That’s very human. The awesome mysteries and hilarious contradictions of human progress over time should always be front and center. This is like Derrida 101, which applies to everything and is therefore quite meaningless, and haha and oh well. Aloha, you know? What Unger is actually doing is just shedding light on his little corner of daily things, and that’s fine and good. We must. That usage of our space is pragmatic because time is incremental. We don’t know the future. I would vote for Roberto Unger because he’s wrong. He’s very serious about it, which does annoy me because I’m invested deeply into the laughter part of what Nietzsche offers, but that’s just a sign of our mutual insatiability.
This has only been an examination of the way The Religion of the Future collapses in on itself from a philosophical standpoint. I’ve not yet said much of anything about whether it’s viable as a religion or a politics. My best guess is that it ‘s at least as viable as the systems it criticizes because it deploys as its underpinning some of the very same bogus dilemma-making as those systems do. And hey, going to church or running for office or writing a book have gotten us undeniably pretty far in this life in its most practical sense.
Unger wants us to face our limitations in order to exceed them, an excellent contradiction. That’s always going on; it’s not a religion of the future. This book is 90 percent of the way there, but it should stand explicitly in praise of the tensions of the human condition. Unger is work-affirming instead of life-affirming. So I’d at least vote for his work, which seems great right now but in the future will surely fail. He almost certainly knows it, but I don’t understand why he doesn’t laugh about it. On that score, he’s a mystery to me. A fine one.