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The Religion of the Future: The End of the "Death Denial" paradigm"

By       Message Herbert Calhoun     Permalink
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Professor Unger is that rare trail-blazing genius that like a bolt out of the blue, comes along only once in a generation. Like a Buckminister Fuller or a Sigmund Freud for instance, he rethinks and resynthesizes everything from scratch, and then comes up with his own reformulations. The most obvious contribution of this approach is being able to fill in the cracks between our willful ability to delude ourselves in our own theorizing and his much more careful reformulation of what is actually to be found in the world at large.

Thus, the reader of Dr. Unger's book "The Religion of the Future" must be forewarned that Unger's theorizing, reformulating and re-synthesizing from scratch is often difficult to fathom, if for no reason other than because its differences from the canonical models, often lies in the nuances, in the subtleties, in the refinements and in the fine points of his reformulations. Therefore reading him is like trying to see the difference between Newton's theory of gravity and Einstein's. Plus, necessarily, Professor Unger has his own language, with its own grammar put together in his own way. With him, it is not just a case of simply dismissing the old model, but one of tweaking it and making the necessary mid-course corrections and refinements that will fundamentally change it. It goes almost without saying so that some of these changes may not show up until after the fifth decimal point.

Despite this, the reader can rest assured that these subtle refinements, however small they may be, do indeed constitute a "fundamental new way," one that when it is sufficiently tested and its power attested to and acknowledged, will indeed replace the "old way," leading us into a new social reformulation that amounts to nothing less than a new social order.

And thus, the reader is forewarned that it takes some effort to understand Professor Unger and to be able to see clearly where he is headed and to see the slenderness of the threads that often make up the differences between his theories and the ones they are replacing. With that caveat in mind, here is my summary of this book.

The old Paradigm: "The fear of Death Model."

Anyone who has read Ernest Becker's award winning book, "The Denial of Death," knows that because we fear death, we seek visions of the world that will allow us to hold on to, and then live out, an illusion that in some way leaves open the possibility of eternal life. In fact, the author argues here that because we are unable to grasp the totality of the universe, or of our own existence in it, we anchor and orientate our lives and our world-views around reassuring myths and institutions that confirm our wish-fulfilling thinking about the possibility that we may somehow be able to overcome the certainty of death. We use "god" and "religion" to fill in the gaps between what we don't know and the illusions that allay our fears and give us comfort, so that together they help provide a more comprehensible and soothing explanation of our fears of nature and death. As well, they appear to give us answers to other cosmological mysteries that continue to bedevil our minds.

Due primarily to the last three hundred years of the scientific revolution, we have a better grasp of nature, and as a result, the emphasis of religion has shifted from a preoccupation with the unknowns of nature to the four primary flaws in man: his fear of imminent death; the groundlessness resulting in his failure to understand his existence, his inability to understand and explain the beginning or the end of time; and his own social and personal flaws as an individual.

According to Professor Unger, the future of religion lies in our ability to give up our fears and illusions, and embrace our mortality; that is, to be able to embrace the certainty of our death despite our wish-fulfilling myths.

In order to better understand how we might do this, and thus be better able to shape a new kind of social understanding on the backside of such a revelation, Professor Unger focuses-in on what living in a world of illusions has done to man. As he understands it, there are three major responses in the history of human thought to man's four flaws: escapism, humanization, and confrontation. Each of these of course is doubled-edged, having both good and bad sides.

Escape from the world has led us to deny our subjectivity, opting instead for a crude kind of objectification of mankind. At the same time, the humanization of the world has allowed us to create meaning out of nothing. It has led us to use only our social interactions and an emphasis on our reciprocal responsibilities to each other, to create worlds of meaning. This benevolence towards others, however, comes at the expense of an indifference to suffering and change. And, finally, there is the result of confrontation, our struggle to survive in the world. Through struggle, suffering, and moral action, our illusions have taught us to believe that through sufficient goodness, we can be transformed into the next dimension into something near god-like -- to a place where immortality is guaranteed.

These are the only paths down which the responses that the author sees as the existing paradigms of death denial have allowed our religions to take us. As we travel down these limited paths, our illusions have been framed as being "spiritual," and this essentially spiritual orientation to our struggle with the world has left the gate wide open to, and has given rise to, secular movements that seek to emancipate us from our illusions. It is through secular emancipation from our illusions of "death denial" that Unger sees the religion of the future.

Emancipation from the "Fear of Death or Death Denial Paradigm:" Religion of the Future

The problem, as Professor Unger sees it, is that established religion, as a societal institution, has not been true even to its own raison d'etre of protecting us against the fear of death. Consistently it has betrayed its own stated reasons for existing, opting instead for a coziness with the established social order that is often closer to maintaining the existing status quo than it is to religious dogma or to god himself. Conventional religions without exceptions, have betrayed their own religious tenets and principles in favor of accepting the hierarchies and the structures of class and power in society.

They have accepted the transfer of money as the basis of human solidarity. In short, existing religions are more heavily invested in reaffirming and preserving the conservative basis of the existing status quo and its political, economic, and social institutions, than they are in promoting the tenets of their religious ideology and doctrine.

Thus, in order to redress this institutional, human and spiritual betrayal, Unger has proposed that the "new democratic religion" must be radicalized against both established institutions and society's dominant powers, beliefs and hierarchies.

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)
 

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