March 15, 2021 • By Martin Hägglund
THIS ESSAY DEVELOPS further the immanent critique of religion that I pursue in my book This Life. Following Marx, I argue that social freedom is our highest good and that religious projections of a being beyond our mortal existence would wither away under emancipated conditions. Showing why Marx is right, however, requires an argument that he himself does not provide. In response to the reception of This Life, I elaborate how my argument provides the ground for both Marx’s emancipatory critique of religious faith and Hegel’s secular notion of the divine.
I. In recent decades, the critique of religion has largely been associated with the dismissal of religious beliefs as superstitions, which are debunked in the name of scientific knowledge and liberal democracy. The approach has been called a “new” atheism, but in fact it is a traditional critique of religion and holds little appeal for the progressive left. The so-called new atheism treats beliefs in isolation from their social conditions and does not link the persistence of religion to our alienated forms of life under capitalism. By contrast, the resurgent interest in Marx’s critique of capitalism should recall us to the possibility of a different kind of engagement with religion. For Marx, the critique of religion must be carefully attuned to its social causes and be pursued in terms of the vision of human emancipation that underpins his critique of capitalism. If we want to harness the renewed interest in Marx to open a new political horizon, it is crucial to grasp his vision of emancipation, which transforms the religious hope for another world in light of a secular understanding of ourselves as essentially finite living beings.
Marx’s vision of emancipation is committed to freedom as the highest good. The freedom at stake should not be understood as freedom from the constraints of social and material life. Rather, leading a free life is being free to engage, transform, and recognize ourselves in the social world of which we are a part, as well as in the material interchange with nature that is necessary to sustain our lives. As Marx underlines, an emancipated form of life would overcome “the antagonism between human being and nature, and between human beings,” effectively providing “the solution to the riddle of history.”
These proclamations have often led both critics and followers of Marx to conflate his secular vision of emancipation with a theological vision of salvation, which would entail the end of history and induct us into an everlasting harmony. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Emancipation is not a matter of being liberated from history but of recognizing that there is no higher form of being than historical activity. As Marx argues in his critique of Feuerbach, such recognition cannot be merely theoretical. Rather, affirming the form of our historical activity as the highest good requires a practical transformation of the social and material conditions of our lives. Feuerbach holds that the notion of a divine being is an alienated projection of “the human essence,” but he fails to grasp that the essence in question is not given and reflects historically specific conditions that can be overcome. As Marx points out, Feuerbach “does not see that the ‘religious sentiment’ is itself a social product, and that the abstract individual whom he analyzes belongs in reality to a particular form of society.” If we project a fulfillment beyond our shared finite lives, it is because our current form of society is inimical to our flourishing as human beings. Likewise, if we take ourselves to be subjected to a transcendent law, it is because of historical forms of alienation, which prevent us from recognizing that we are subjects of the laws that govern our lives: responsible for organizing and legislating our society.
Fundamental forms of alienation have characterized all human history hitherto, but Marx holds that they can be overcome through the emancipation he envisages. To be clear, overcoming alienation does not mean overcoming objectification. For Marx, the need to objectify ourselves through material practices and social institutions is not in itself alienating. On the contrary, we are essentially social and material beings. To overcome alienation is not to be free from objectification but to achieve a form of life that enables us to own our responsibility for our objective existence. The responsibility always comes with risks of failure and loss, but such risks are intrinsic to freedom itself. To be emancipated is to be able to acknowledge in practice that we are wholly at stake in what we do and in our intersubjective relations: that we are answerable to one another rather than to a higher being. This is why Marx’s critique of religion is inseparable from his vision of human liberation. “The criticism of religion,” Marx emphasizes, “ends with the doctrine that human being is the highest being for human being. It ends, therefore, with the categorical imperative to overthrow all those conditions in which human being is an abased, enslaved, abandoned, contemptible being.”
Marx’s invocation of human being as “the highest being” (das Höchste Wesen) should not be understood as an assertion that we are the sovereign lords of nature. The point is not that we are inherently better than other animals but that we are the only kind of animal who can be held responsible for our relation to nature. It would be absurd to reproach other animals for how they relate to their environment and their prey, since they cannot question the norms that govern their actions. We can demand of ourselves, however, that we treat other species as ends in themselves and develop a form of metabolism with nature that is responsive to the demands of the environment of which we are a part.
Such an emancipated form of life would not release us from being embodied finite creatures who essentially depend on others. Rather, it would enable us to recognize our social and material existence as the highest form of responsibility for living beings. As Marx maintains in a remarkable passage, if we achieve an emancipated form of life, “then the question of an alien being, of a being above nature and human being” will “become impossible in practice,” since it will no longer have a grip on us.
Marx’s approach can thus be seen as an immanent critique of religion, which does not criticize religious ideas from an external standpoint. Rather, Marx interprets explicit commitments to theological transcendence as implicit commitments to secular emancipation. Religious ideas of the highest good are “the heart of a heartless world” because they can be read as dreams of being at home in the world (in our social and material practices) rather than as dreams of transcending the world.
To develop such an immanent critique, however, one must challenge the religious notion of finitude, which Marx himself does not address in a sustained way. The religious notion of finitude holds that the flourishing of a fragile form of life cannot even in principle be the highest good for us, since on the deepest level we desire to be liberated from our mortal existence. This religious notion of finitude runs counter to Marx’s approach, since it maintains that the alienation from our own lives is caused by a metaphysical lack rather than by social forms of domination. Our finitude is then regarded as a lower form of being that we aspire to transcend or as a lack of being to which we are condemned. If this is true, we cannot be at home in our social and material life — not even under emancipated conditions — since our mortal embodiment is itself a form of alienation. Such a notion of finitude is not limited to religious and mystical doctrines. Even many atheists still regard our finitude as a lamentable condition, which prevents us from achieving the highest good.
An instructive example is Jean-Paul Sartre. His atheism retains the religious idea that to be finite is to suffer from a lack of being, which is why he thinks we inherently strive to become God. “Whatever the myths and rites of any religion we may consider,” Sartre writes, “God is in the first instance ‘felt by the heart’ of man, heralding and defining him in his ultimate and fundamental project.” Indeed, Sartre explicitly describes “human being as the being whose project is to be God.”
By “God” Sartre means a being that would create itself in absolute independence from material and social conditions. This theological notion of an “uncaused cause” (ens causa sui) is at the root of Sartre’s negative conception of freedom, which holds that we aspire to be free from the constraints of social recognition and material existence. According to Sartre, what we fundamentally desire is to be “the ens causa sui that religions know as God […] but the idea of God is contradictory and we lose ourselves in vain.” Thus, while Sartre acknowledges that the very idea of an uncaused cause is contradictory, he thinks that such an idea of absolute freedom expresses our deepest longing, which condemns us to a sense that our existence is fundamentally lacking. “Human being is fundamentally the desire to be God,” Sartre asserts, and for the same reason “human being is a useless passion,” since we cannot be God.
In contrast to Marx, Sartre maintains that the sense of lack — the sense of human being as a “useless passion” — is not caused by historical conditions that can be overcome. Rather, Sartre holds that human being is “in its nature an unhappy consciousness, without any possibility of surpassing its state of unhappiness,” since we will always long for a form of absolute being beyond our own finite and social existence.
The same problem emerges in a different way in one of Sartre’s most famous critics, Theodor W. Adorno. Adorno is committed to emancipation, but he conflates a secular notion of freedom (the liberation of finite life) with a religious notion of salvation (the liberation from finite life). While Adorno does not adhere to a religion, he regards our finitude as a negative restriction and assumes that we fundamentally suffer from the lack of a utopian life that would be exempt from death. “I believe,” Adorno maintains, “that without the notion of an unfettered life, freed from death, the idea of utopia, the idea of the utopia, cannot even be thought at all.” Adorno places great emphasis on this overcoming of finitude. “The elimination of death is indeed the crucial point,” he underlines, since the idea of utopia “cannot be conceived at all without the elimination of death; this is inherent in the very thought.” If this is true, no form of human emancipation can be the highest good for us. Regardless of how we transform our society we will fall short of Adorno’s ideal, since we will still be vulnerable to death.
For Marx, by contrast, there is nothing inherently alienating or degrading in leading a finite life. Religious dreams of eternal being are not taken to express our deepest desire but to be symptoms of a secular world marked by social forms of domination. If the forms of domination are overcome, the religious dreams will wither away, since they are animated from within by a desire for social freedom rather than eternal bliss.
We can thus identify the logic of Marx’s immanent critique of religion, which I seek to ground in This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. Following Marx, I argue that social freedom is our highest good and that religious projections of a being beyond our mortal existence would wither away under emancipated conditions. I hold that Marx is right, but showing why he is right requires an argument that he himself does not provide. In contrast to prevailing conceptions of our finitude as a lack of being — as a negative state from which we long to be liberated — we must show that our mortality is not in itself a form of alienation. Rather, our mortal embodiment is a condition of possibility for the social freedom we desire.
Moreover, to make Marx’s critique of religion truly immanent, we must show that religious commitments to eternal life can actually be reinterpreted as commitments to the living on of an emancipated society, which would not absolve us from death but enable us to lead flourishing finite lives. To that end, I analyze our constitutive commitment to living on and how it tends to be misrecognized as a longing for eternity. The commitment to living on — to prolonging and improving our shared lives, as well as the life possibilities of future generations — is not oriented toward an eternity that would secure our existence once and for all. Rather, the commitment to keep something alive presupposes that it can die and must be sustained by us. No matter how robust it may seem, only something that is fragile can solicit care. This does not mean that we care about something merely because it is fragile: we care about something because we take it to be good. Something can be good or bad, however, only for mortal beings who are committed to sustaining what matters to them. Even if a form of life is maintained for an indefinitely long time, it will always be mortal, since it will always run the risk of falling apart if we do not uphold it through our social and material activity. The inherent risk of failure, withering, and death does not testify to a lack of being. Rather, the finitude of flourishing is an essential part of why we are devoted to making flourishing actual and keeping it alive.
Thus, to ground Marx’s emancipatory critique of religion, we must show that our finitude is not a restriction but is intrinsic to the highest good itself, since finitude is constitutive of any possible social freedom. A form of life that is not embodied and mortal could not fulfill our desire to lead free lives, since it would not be a form of life at all. That is what I set out to demonstrate through the immanent critique of religion in This Life.
Rather than dismissing religious traditions, my immanent critique seeks to show that “God” is best understood as a name for the form of social life to which we are implicitly committed in our practices. The divine is not a higher being but the normative idea of the good: the idea of what is worth doing and which ends are worthy of devotion. This is a secular understanding of the religious, which binds the divine to the temporal and historical. The divine is not above or beyond us but between us: in the social and institutional forms that we sustain. The divine designates the values that govern our shared life: the norms through which we acknowledge one another in practice and through which we become who we are, since it is in our nature to be socially formed.
Hence, the divine can be a source of liberation or domination, depending on the social norms that govern our lives. To grasp that truth in both theory and practice is the key to emancipation. If we understand the divine as a higher being to which we are subjected, we cannot own our responsibility for the norms that in practice form our lives and our relations to one another. A society that actualizes our freedom should not be understood as a society in which we can do anything whatsoever. Rather, it is a society in which we can recognize both our rights and our duties as conditions of our own freedom. By the same token, the rights and duties cannot be given once and for all — they must always be justified anew and remain open to contestation or transformation. That the divine only exists between us entails that we are answerable to one another and our shared institutions rather than to a higher being. No form of virtue, responsibility, or love can be imposed from above but must be developed and sustained by our form of social life.
For the same reason, the divine itself is mortal, since it is constituted by our normative practices. This point is crucial for the critique of religion to be immanent. If we merely reject the invocation of the divine, we have no resources to transform a religious self-understanding from within. An atheist like Sartre denies the existence of God but does not question the idea of God as an eternal substance. Whether God is held to be transcendent (as in negative theology) or immanent (as in Spinoza), the divine is taken to be independent of our mortal lives. In contrast, an immanent critique of religion must transform the assumed meaning of God and show that the divine cannot be anything other than a form of social life. The divine is not an independently existing substance. The divine only lives and dies through our historical existence: flourishing or withering, progressive or regressive, depending on the norms to which we hold and are held in practice.
The mortality of the divine is not a fallen condition but renders intelligible why everything is at stake in how we lead our lives. Institutional practices are of absolute value (“divine”) because they are the source of any possible normative authority, constituting our sense of the good that makes life worth living. To be clear, institutional practices include the questioning of institutional practices. The normative authority of a practice is never given once and for all; it always requires reaffirmation by those who participate in the practice and who may call it into question. The possibility of questioning a given normative authority can certainly be denied — as in religious fundamentalism or political authoritarianism — but the denial is always self-contradictory. Normative authority itself depends on the recognition of authority, which is why even the most authoritarian form of life bears within itself the possibility of revolutionary transformation.
What matters absolutely, then, is whether the norms that bind us are emancipating or alienating, enabling or disabling our freedom as social individuals whose lives are of intrinsic worth because we are ends in ourselves. To acknowledge that the divine is not above us but between us is to acknowledge that normative authority depends on forms of mutual recognition or misrecognition, which are always embodied in our material and social practices. This is why the immanent critique of religion and the immanent critique of capitalism go together. The existential questions of our lives — what we value, how we acknowledge one another — cannot be separated from the economic organization of our society. We may profess that we value our lives and the lives of other species as ends in themselves. But as long as we live under capitalism, we are in practice subordinating ourselves — and our interchange with nature — to a measure of value that treats all forms of life as means for the end of profit. What counts in a capitalist economy is that we are producing and consuming commodities, rather than that we are leading flourishing lives. Our well-being, and the well-being of the ecosystem of which we are a part, does not have any economic “value” in itself, but only insofar as we can profit from it.
Hence, This Life seeks to demonstrate that the overcoming of capitalism requires a revolutionary revaluation of value, which would make it possible for us to lead our lives in mutual recognition of our dependence on one another and the environmental conditions of our shared planet. In the reception of This Life, however, a recurrent question concerns how to understand the relation between the overcoming of capitalism and the overcoming of religion. In particular, responses to the book by James G. Chappel, Peter E. Gordon, Stephen Batchelor, and Brandon M. Terry provide an opportunity to address the stakes of the immanent critique of religion and its relation to the possibility of emancipation. Chappel offers an insightful account of my immanent critique of capitalism and my post-capitalist vision of democratic socialism. The latter involves a fundamental transformation of the relation between time and value that shapes our economic system, which would enable us to treat and acknowledge one another as ends in ourselves, all the way from our production of goods to our forms of education and other social institutions. As Chappel generously emphasizes, This Life provides “a reminder of what kind of world we are actually fighting for” and “a vision of justice that is plausible and compelling enough to organize our efforts.”
Turning to my critique of religion, however, Chappel charges me with a counterproductive form of “secularism,” which supposedly holds that we first need to “convince the world’s population to abandon religion, and then to convince them that secularism entails democratic socialism.” Such a political program would indeed be a dead end. But this is not what I propose, and my actual arguments regarding religion are misrepresented by Chappel. On his account, I assert that religious believers “cannot have any concern for the finite world,” and enforce a strict binary choice: “[Y]ou can either love the world in its finitude, or you can love the eternal creator.” This account of my argument is spurious. I explicitly argue against the possibility of such a binary choice and maintain that everyone necessarily is animated by the care for a finite world. Yet Gordon saddles me with the same binary, claiming that I “see in religion only a stark choice: either this world or the next. Either you invest all of your values in the here and now or you evacuate your life of all meaning by turning to the afterlife.”
These are dualistic misconstruals of my dialectical argument. If Chappel and Gordon were right, my critique of religion would be an external critique. However, my critique of religion is emphatically an immanent critique, which seeks to unearth emancipatory resources within religious practice itself. Both Chappel and Gordon recall that many religious traditions have helped nourish commitments to social justice, but they disregard that I explicitly take this into account. As I underline in the book, the practice of religious faith has often served as an important communal expression of solidarity, and religious discourses have often been mobilized in concrete struggles against injustice. This Life is not a book about the beliefs that separate us but about the faith we share in practice. I do not divide the world into atheists and believers but make a distinction between what I call secular and religious faith. The point of the distinction is not to separate us into two camps but to proceed from the secular faith we have in common. Thus, we can ground Marx’s ambition “not to turn secular questions into theological questions” but rather “to turn theological questions into secular ones.”
Following Marx, I use the term secular in the most capacious sense and in accordance with its etymological root: “secular” means worldly, temporal, historical. Everything that depends on our practices is thus secular. Every historical practice — including any religious practice — is essentially secular, since it is a temporally and socially constituted activity that must be upheld by us. I call it “secular faith” because the ideals to which we are committed do not exist independently of those who recognize their normative authority and seek to live in light of their demands. Even if we achieve an emancipated form of life, it will always depend on our intersubjective activity to be what it ought to be.
The dynamic of secular faith holds for all historical practices, since it is the temporal form of any possible commitment. The demand to keep faith is built into any commitment, since to be committed is an activity that has to be maintained. For example, if I say I love you, I am not stating an independently existing fact. Rather, in saying I love you, I am avowing a commitment that demands my fidelity. Even if we move in together or get married, our love exists only through our continuous practice of being responsive to the demands of our relationship. Our love is always something that we have to cultivate, since it lives or dies by virtue of what we do. As such, our love must be responsive to the possibility of transformation and contestation, as well as to the risk of loss and breakdown. If we could not conceivably fail to love one another, we could not even try to love one another, since the very concept of an intentional activity entails that we can fail to sustain it. The categories of fidelity and betrayal are thus constitutive of intentional action. The risk of failure is an intrinsic part of what animates any commitment, since without the risk of failure there would be nothing at stake in being committed. Any form of commitment — any form of trying to do something and trying to be someone — can make sense only in relation to the possibility of failure, loss, and death.
This does not mean, as Gordon claims, that I hold death to be the “highest reality” and that “only death gives life meaning.” On the contrary, I argue that life is the highest form of reality. Even the highest forms of life must be mortal, but the constitutive relation to death does not entail any guarantee that our lives will be meaningful. The prospect of our death opens the question of what we ought to do with our finite time — and thereby makes it possible to lead our lives in the first place — but it does not offer any answer to the question. Our reasons for action do not come from the prospect of our death but from the practical identities for the sake of which we act — e.g., being a parent or a political activist. We are parents or activists not because we will die but because we are committed to a child or a political cause, which makes us answerable for what we do and gives us reasons for action. We can only have reasons for action, however, because what we care about is fragile. If the persons or causes we affirm as good in themselves were not at risk and in need of support, we could not act on their behalf. Likewise, if we ourselves were not fragile and mortal, our lives would not have any intelligible form that we could care to sustain and transform.
As a supposed counter to my argument, Gordon recalls that the sense of finitude can also be devastating. He gives the example that an imminent climate catastrophe may lead us to a disabling fatalism rather than encourage us to take action. This is not a refutation but a confirmation of my argument, since I highlight the essential risk that our sense of mortality may break us. The sense of mortality is not only intrinsic to what makes life meaningful but also makes life susceptible to lose meaning and become unbearable. The point is not to overcome this vulnerability but to recognize that it is an essential part of why our lives matter and why everything depends on how we keep faith with one another.
In contrast, what I call “religious faith” is the idea that there is a special object of faith, which ultimately does not depend on our practice of faith: someone or something that exists independently of our social activity. Contrary to what Chappel claims, my definition of religious faith is not limited to the notion of an “afterlife” or something “otherworldly.” On my account, religious faith is any form of belief in an eternal being or an eternity beyond being: either in the form of a transcendent God, an immanent divine Nature, or a complete peace of mind achieved through contemplation. This is why Charles Taylor’s definition of the religious as “an irrepressible need” for an absolute “good beyond life” plays an important part in This Life. As Taylor emphasizes, the common denominator for religious understandings of existence is the idea that the highest good is not the flourishing of our finite, fragile, socially shared lives. Rather, religious notions of the highest good appeal to an absolute fullness — or an absolute emptiness, as in Buddhism — which is held to be “independent of” and “beyond” the flourishing of our finite lives.
To be sure, many people take themselves to be devoted to our life together because of their religious faith. As Gordon recalls, “For many religious believers, the recognition of a higher meaning beyond life is precisely why they care so much about their moral and political conduct in this world.” This is certainly true, but it is an explicit part of my immanent critique of religious faith. My point is not that this life becomes meaningless from the standpoint of religious faith, but that the meaning of our actions becomes subordinated to a purpose beyond our shared social life. By appealing to the judgment of God or the laws of karma, we seek to acknowledge that we are accountable for our actions. But we fail to recognize that we are accountable to one another rather than to a God or a cosmic calculation of karma.
An instructive example is the notion of karma that Gordon invokes. “[S]uppose I believe in karma,” he writes. “Even the simplest act in my current life will bear upon who I will be in the life to come. In this case, it seems that a belief that points beyond my death might very well encourage me to care a great deal about each and every aspect of my present conduct.” Moral action here serves as a means for the end of being reborn into a better life and ultimately of being released from rebirth altogether. The aim is to help sentient beings to achieve “liberation” from all forms of “suffering,” which ultimately demands that we be “released” from life itself. In Buddhist metaphysics, everything that is subject to birth, aging, and death is held to be fundamentally “unsatisfactory” (a matter of dukkha). True satisfaction requires being released into what Buddha describes as “the sorrowless and stainless bliss” of final nirvana, which is an “unconditioned” form of existence beyond all forms of conditioned existence.
The ideal of eternal bliss recurs across religious traditions, but in many strands of Buddhism there is a remarkable honesty regarding the implications of transcending finitude. In Nirvana, there is no death but also no birth, no unrest but also no activity, no aging but also no growth, no distress but also no passion. Rather than promising that your life will continue, or that you will see your loved ones again, final nirvana entails the “cessation” of all life activities. The Buddhist conclusion may seem extreme when stated this way, but I argue that it makes explicit what is implicit in all ideals of eternal bliss and opens the way for an immanent critique. Any form of eternal liberation would make it impossible to lead any form of life, since we would be released from the need to do anything at all. Through such an immanent critique, we can recognize that finitude must be intrinsic to even the highest and most desirable forms of life. When we acknowledge that an eternal life would not be a form of life at all, we can see that our finitude is not in itself a restriction.
Drawing on This Life, the prominent Buddhist Stephen Batchelor has developed an immanent critique of both Theravada and Mahayana traditions. Despite their significant differences, both these strands of Buddhism maintain that nirvana is “the end of suffering,” which requires “the end of life.” Indeed, life itself is conceived as a form of suffering that ultimately should be overcome: “[N]ot to be born and not to die are preferable to birth and death […] not-life is preferable to life.” This principle is espoused even by the bodhisattvas who supposedly “choose” to be reborn. As Batchelor explains, “While Mahayana Buddhists renounce nirvana and vow to be reborn out of compassion for others, they do so only as long as there are sentient beings still trapped in the cycle of birth and death. Once the bodhisattva has liberated all these beings, she too enters nirvana and is born no more.” This final extinction of all living beings is promoted as the ultimate “liberation” in both Theravada and Mahayana teachings. Yet, as Batchelor carefully shows, these same traditions offer profound resources for “turning Buddhism on its head” through an acknowledgment that the fragility and interdependence of living beings is intrinsic to the highest good itself. To that end, Bachelor mobilizes my notion of secular faith. “Secular faith,” Batchelor writes, “calls for a secular nirvana, a nirvana for everyone, a naturalized and democratized nirvana, a nirvana that is not the end of suffering — but the beginning of human flourishing.”
The notion of secular faith enables us to recognize that the highest good to which we are committed is not the end of suffering but the flourishing of our social freedom. This commitment can be traced within religious traditions themselves, as we acknowledge our mutual responsibility for the form of life we sustain. For the same reason, the relation between religious and secular faith should not be understood as a binary opposition. On the most fundamental level, all forms of faith are secular. Any religion in itself (in its practices) is responsible for the authority of the social norms that are taken to be divine, even if the religion for itself (in its doctrinal content) claims that the normative authority stems from an independently existing God or a monitoring system of karma. Religious faith is a disowned form of secular faith, since it restricts our ability to own our responsibility for the form of life that we institute and maintain through our practices. In the last instance, the responsibility for what counts as good and just is disowned since it is delegated to divine or karmic laws.
In contrast, emancipation requires us to own our secular faith, in the sense of recognizing our responsibility for the norms that govern our lives and to which we hold one another in our practices. Before we can decide anything, we are already formed by the social world into which we are born, which gives us a sense of who we are and what matters to us. Nevertheless, we are responsible for sustaining, contesting, or changing the norms that shape our world. We are not causally determined by natural instincts, a divine will, or karmic laws, but act in light of norms that we can challenge and transform.
We can thus understand why Hegel’s notion of religion is central in This Life. In religious traditions, Hegel sees an implicit acknowledgment of the primacy of social practice. Through congregational worship and edifying instruction, a religious community institutes a governing set of norms — a shared understanding of what counts as good and just — while bestowing a sense of dignity on its individual members. By worshipping or meditating together, the members of a congregation or a monastery bring into being a form of spiritual life: they hold one another responsible, treat one another as committed, and acknowledge one another’s personal dignity. The religious community, however, does not understand its own activity to be the highest good. Rather, the individual members take the religious community to be subordinated to an independently existing God or an eternal peace such as nirvana, which transcends the shared congregational life. The object of religious faith — whether God or an eternal peace — is ultimately regarded as separable from the practice of faith, since it does not depend on finite life.
On Hegel’s account, the self-understanding of religious believers is thus at odds with their own practical activity. The actual object of devotion is the community itself, which means that the object of faith is inseparable from the historical practice of faith. The Christian Trinity, for example, is not an independently existing reality but a pictorial representation of the structure of the community of believers. “God” is a name for the self-legislated communal norms (the principles to which the congregation holds itself); “Christ” is a name for the social actors who sustain the norms through their embodied practices; and “the Holy Spirit” is a name for the institutional relations of the Church through which the norms are actualized.
Hegel thus provides vital resources for an immanent critique of religion, which does not merely translate religious beliefs into philosophical vocabulary but transforms the meaning of the divine by showing that it must be understood in a secular way. The stakes become particularly vivid through Hegel’s reading of the incarnation. Religious believers may hold that the incarnation of God is a transitional stage through which the divine descends into history and leads us to the overcoming of finitude in eternal life. For Hegel, by contrast, the actual meaning of the incarnation is that any form of the divine must be born historically and must be vulnerable to death. The life-defining norms to which we hold ourselves (God) can exist only by being embodied in our material practices as individual social actors (Christ), who can live on only through the institutional forms of recognition that we share (the Holy Spirit).
With a remarkable sleight of hand, Gordon claims that I ignore “the astonishing doctrine of the incarnation,” even though an explicit and elaborate reading of the incarnation is at the heart of This Life. Through my reading of the incarnation, I show why the divine itself must be mortal, in accordance with the logic of immanent critique that Gordon misconstrues. I argue that the incarnation of the divine does not point to another reality beyond our shared, mortal lives. On the contrary, the incarnation of the divine illuminates that everything is at stake in our only life: from our past to our future, from the memory of the dead to the freedom of the living. Our mortal embodiment is not a transitional stage on the way to consummation but the only form in which the highest good can be realized: the only possible form of the highest good itself. The highest good is not beyond us, in an eternal peace. The highest good is a society that makes our freedom actual through the mutual recognition of one another as ends in ourselves.
Hence, my immanent critique of religion seeks to show that the divine cannot be anything other than a form of social life. The idea of the divine holds out the promise that there is someone who will not desert you even when things fall apart, someone you can trust even in your darkest hour. In a response to This Life, Brandon Terry movingly describes such religious faith as the trust that God is with you even when everyone else has forsaken you. As he emphasizes,
[I]n those moments where it seems that one has truly been forsaken by her fellows and forced to bear the fullest burden of society’s contempt, the idea of a God that is with you, hoping against hope that you might endure and that something more just might emerge from that endurance, remains a powerful source of sustenance and survival.
This is certainly true, but the crucial question is how the appeal to God should be understood. Terry himself acknowledges that my secular interpretation is possible: “‘God’ is a placeholder for a solidarity yet to come, or a signifier of fidelity to communities of struggle and traditions of resistance.” Thus, on my reading, what is at stake is the ability to endure in a struggle for emancipation and the possibility of achieving a form of mutual recognition. If we are able to sustain the struggle, it is not due to a supernatural God but to the forms of virtue and courage that have been socially fostered. Even when we appear to be all alone, we are sustained by the memory and the hope of a historical community. If we carry on, we are carried by the legacy and ideals of the struggle for emancipation, rather than by a transcendent being.
In contrast, the religious notion that we are saved by an eternal God fails to recognize that we can only be saved by one another. Our practices — our history, our social formation, our solidarity, our care, our institutions — are the source of any possible trust. We are the spirit that sustains one another, for better or for worse, and the highest good is an embodied life of reciprocal freedom and responsibility. What we are striving for is not communion with an eternal being but a form of mutual trust that would be grounded in our actual social life.
My secular reading of the divine negates the notion of an eternal God that can save us, but it does so in order to preserve and fulfill the commitment to building a life of mutual trust. The recognition that our institutional practices constitute the divine — that we are responsible for giving one another reasons to trust and that the divine cannot be anything other than a form of social life — entails the demand for a revolutionary transformation of our society. Our reasons to trust must be objectively embodied in our institutions, which requires that our society is reorganized in light of the principle from each according to her ability, to each according to her need.
Such a society cannot be a matter of blind trust, since it depends on social practices that are fallible and must recognize the right to question reigning norms. The flourishing of an emancipated life will itself be something that can fall apart, demanding our continued care and responsiveness to self-correction even in its fullest actuality. Accordingly, my immanent critique of religion calls for both an emancipatory reorganization of our society and an emancipatory reinterpretation of our finitude as a constitutive condition rather than as a negative restriction. The reorganization and the reinterpretation are both necessary and jointly sufficient, but they must be embodied in a concrete process of historical emancipation.
The link between the immanent critique of religion and the possibility of emancipation is brought to a head in the engagement with the work of Martin Luther King Jr. that concludes This Life. Attending closely to King’s historical practice, I distinguish between how the notions of God and the promised land figure in his sermons as a Christian minister, and how the nominally same notions figure in his speeches as a political activist. In his religious sermons, King claims that “the universe is guided by a benign Intelligence whose infinite love embraces all mankind,” namely, “the one eternal God” who has “strength to protect us” with his “unlimited resources” and on whose grace we depend. From this religious perspective, we cannot save ourselves through collective action. Rather, we must have faith in an eternal Savior who is beyond our comprehension, since “his will is too perfect and his purposes are too extensive to be contained in the limited receptacle of time and the narrow walls of earth.” As King emphatically maintains in his role as a Christian preacher, “Man cannot save himself […] and humanity is not God. Bound by the chains of his own sin and finiteness, man needs a Savior.”
King’s religious sermons are thus an expression of what Hegel calls “the unhappy consciousness.” In Hegel, the term refers primarily to various forms of Christian faith, but it should also be understood more broadly as any standpoint that regards our finitude as a negative restriction. The unhappy consciousness acknowledges that there can be no absolution from finitude in this life, but it regards our dependence on material support and on the fragile recognition of others as a lamentable condition, which falls short of how our lives ideally should be. The unhappy consciousness of religious faith will always be alienated even from the most flourishing forms of our finite life, since it cannot even in principle recognize the highest good as the institutional actuality of our social freedom.
In contrast, I argue that King’s living faith — the faith that is implicit in his practical commitment to emancipation and often explicit in his political speeches — is better understood in secular terms. For example, when King says that “God” has commanded us to help the poor to emancipate themselves — and that he is doing “God’s will” in pursuing social freedom for all — he cannot be referring to his religious notion of an eternal God, since by his own admission he cannot determine the will of such a God. The command or the will of God only makes sense if we understand the term in a Hegelian way, where “God” is a name for the form of social life to which we are committed.
Thus, when King in his final speech declares that he has seen “the coming of the Lord,” he is not invoking a supernatural vision but recalling us to our commitment to achieve social freedom for all. Indeed, King’s final speech reverberates with a profound secular transformation of the religious notion of the promised land. King’s vision of the promised land is not a vision of eternal life — not a vision of the new Jerusalem — but a vision of what we the people can achieve, a vision of the new Memphis. Because it is a vision of collective emancipation that can become a reality only through our generational efforts, it does not project a timeless eternity where we will all come together as one. Rather, the vision of the new Memphis is committed to a temporal future that we may not achieve in our lifetime. Moreover, even in being achieved, the new Memphis will always remain fragile, always depend on what we do and how we recognize one another. What matters is that we can overcome our alienation and be emancipated in this life. Our finitude is not a chain from which we need to be released by an eternal Savior but the condition of possibility for our freedom and our care for one another.
Gordon objects that King could not have intended a secular meaning of terms like God and the promised land, since King was a self-professed religious believer. Gordon’s presupposition is that we should not question the self-understanding of agents but only reconstruct their own explicit take on themselves. If we were to abide by this presupposition, we could never pursue any critique of ideology or indeed any form of immanent critique, since we would be denying that there can be a contradiction between who individuals are for themselves (what they take themselves to be saying or doing) and who they are in themselves (what they are actually saying or doing). There would be no philosophy or critical theory, only empirical psychology and descriptive anthropology.
Moreover, when it comes to a historical figure like King, what matters is not his individual psychological motivations, but what we take ourselves to learn from his example for the present and the future. Even if the religious faith of the historical individual King did not come into conflict with his emancipatory struggle as far as it went, we will ultimately have to overcome such religious faith if we are committed to the actualization of our freedom, since the religious faith professed by King denies that we can overcome our alienation and be emancipated in this life. We can still honor the fact that religious communities played an important role in the Civil Rights movement and in many other historically specific moments of the struggle for social freedom. But if we assume that an emancipatory political movement depends on religious faith, we will be stuck with an unhappy consciousness and the paternalism of political theology, which holds that we cannot ultimately own the responsibility for our life together and affirm this life as the highest good.
The Hegelian insight — that “God” is a name for our self-legislated social norms — is therefore necessary but not sufficient. Actualizing our freedom ultimately requires that our institutional practices overcome any form of political theology in favor of the explicit democratic recognition that we are answerable to one another for the commitments we espouse and the actions we undertake. Hegel himself did not follow through on this insight, since he assumed that the general masses cannot overcome their need for the religious representation of an independently existing God, who is the source of the norms to which we hold ourselves. On Hegel’s account, only the philosopher can attain the “absolute knowing” that we are the source of the authority of our norms and that our freedom — the highest good — is possible only through our mutual recognition of one another as essentially social, historical, material, and finite living beings.
For Marx, on the contrary, absolute knowing cannot be limited to a theoretical achievement of the philosopher. Rather, absolute knowing must be a practical achievement that in principle can be taken up and sustained by everyone. As Marx rightly emphasizes, “the lightning of thought” — which is Marx’s beautiful name for Hegel’s philosophy of freedom — must strike all the way into the soil of the people for our emancipation to become actual. As Marx puts it, emancipation “is only possible in practice if one adopts the point of view of the theory according to which the highest being for human being is human being.” Thus, the proletariat must find “its spiritual weapons in philosophy,” while philosophy must find “its material weapons in the proletariat.” “Philosophy,” Marx writes, “is the head of this emancipation and the proletariat is its heart. Philosophy can only be realized by the abolition of the proletariat, and the proletariat can only be abolished by the realization of philosophy.”
Hegel himself opens the way for such a conclusion, since his idea of freedom articulates the most revolutionary demand possible, namely that “no one is free until everyone is free.” Moreover, Hegel’s radical philosophical claim is that the idea of freedom is inseparable from material and social conditions. The idea of freedom is not abstract but must be embodied in concrete practice, which requires that we participate in institutional forms that acknowledge the freedom of everyone to lead their own lives as social individuals. For Hegel, an actual free society requires that we can recognize our commitment to the common good as the condition of possibility for our own freedom. Yet Hegel does not follow through on the demands of his own idea of freedom. As I show in This Life, the failure to achieve institutional rationality under capitalism is not reducible to historical or psychological contingencies, but is due to what Hegel himself concedes is a “deep defect” in the production of capital wealth, which prevents it from being conducive to social freedom. Only the radicalization of Hegel’s idea of freedom through Marx’s critique of capitalism can own up to the institutional transformations that are required for an actual free society to be possible.
For the same reason, the overcoming of religion must be accompanied by an overcoming of the existing form of our life together, which is capitalism. If we merely criticize religious notions of salvation — without seeking to overcome the forms of social injustice to which religions respond — our critique is empty and patronizing. The task is to transform our social conditions in such a way that we can let go of the unhappy consciousness of religious faith and recognize in practice that everything depends on what we do with our finite time together. We are not lacking eternal bliss but rather social and institutional forms that would enable us to lead flourishing lives.
Martin Hägglund is Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities at Yale University. His most recent book, This Life, won the René Wellek Prize and is the subject of a symposium in Los Angeles Review of the Books, as well as a special issue of The Philosopher.
Martin HägglundMartin Hägglund is professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities at Yale University. He is the author of four books and his work has been translated into a dozen languages. His most recent book, This Life (2019), won the René Wellek Prize and is the subject of a special issue of The Philosopher. He tweets @martinhaegglund.
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