[Unless otherwise indicated, page numbers are from Martin Hagglund, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (New York: Pantheon Books, 2019)]

Hagglund: “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 … 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 … The highest good is an embodied life of reciprocal freedom and responsibility” (emphasis added).

Process and other relational theists (including  Hegel!) over the past two centuries (tweaking Hagglund’s words): “an immanent critique of [Hagglund’s immanent critique] must transform [Hagglund’s] assumed meaning of God and show that the divine cannot be anything other than [the uniquely all-inclusive] form of social life. The divine is not an independently existing substance. The divine [continually] lives and dies through [the living/dying/living of all others’] historical existence … The highest good is not [separate from] us, in an eternal peace. The highest good is a society that makes our freedom actual through the mutual recognition of [ourselves and all others, including the all-inclusive self-othering,] as ends in [themselves] … The highest good is [the ever all-renewing] embodied life of reciprocal freedom and responsibility” (emphasis added).

Here’s what I take to be the overall difference between us and Hagglund: As far as I can tell, for Hagglund the social life most worthy of our devotion is an exclusively human social life, where we humans are the only ends in ourselves. What I’ve seen of his concern for our non-human environment (e.g, p. 380) looks purely instrumental—the non-human world has value only as it affects human values. But I may have missed something.

But for process theists reality as such is dynamically social, always and everywhere, and the social life most worthy of our devotion is all social life, involving the uniquely all-inclusive social life that intimately includes and thereby renews not only human but every other social life, where all of us together are both ends in ourselves and means to others’ ends in themselves. To be utterly devoted to God is thus to be utterly devoted with God to the flourishing of all others, with whom we are inextricably linked.

“The divine is not an independently existing substance,” Hagglund insists. Process theists sort of agree, but this needs clarifying. The divine is not any sort of “substance” but a process, the uniquely all-inclusive way of newly interacting. Is the divine “independently existing”? In one sense, no, but in another sense, yes. The bare, utterly abstract fact of the divine reality (that God is), while intrinsically related to others’ nondivine existence, is nevertheless independent of any specific others’ existence, whether human or earthly or galactic, etc. But the concrete actuality of the divine reality (how God is, here and now) is utterly dependent on how specifically everything else has been and is, here and now. Like many popular theists, Hagglund never considers this crucial and, to me, elementary distinction between “that” and “how.”  And because he doesn’t consider it, practically everything he says against a religiously viable version of God-talk is irrelevant.

It’s revealing that Hagglund hardly ever bothers to examine the work of any prominent Christian theologians in the 20th and 21st centuries, or of their preaching, or of preachers informed by their works, except of course for Martin Luther King (more about King in a moment).

He does devote a lot of attention to his own readings of St. Augustine, Soren Kierkegaard, and a very reductive reading of G. W. F. Hegel, but he seems totally unaware of how process theists read and critique these and other classic figures. See Charles Hartshorne, Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983). (Also, whenever anybody says, “This is what Hegel really meant,” beware!) For my part, I can’t help seeing Hagglund’s reduction of Hegel’s God-talk exclusively to talk about human social norms (pp. 351-369) as one more desperate but futile attempt to make Hegel look more respectable to “theophobes.”

He devotes one page (77) to a very short popular book by Paul Tillich that only shows how superficial his reading of Tillich is. He likes Tillich’s definition of faith in terms of having an ultimate concern. But he mistakenly attributes to Tillich the idea that the goal of religious faith “is to reach a state in which ‘the element of distance is overcome and with it uncertainty, doubt, courage and risk’.” Tillich, however, is quite clear that he is talking about religious mysticism, and that mysticism is not faith, nor is it faith’s goal—Dynamics of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 1957), p. 120. Tillich consistently insists that the “complete security” to which mysticism aspires must itself be transcended by the insecurity-embracing courage of the experience of faith. (See The Courage to Be, 2nd ed. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000 (1952)], pp. 156-157). Hagglund lets his own assumptions about religious faith obscure what a theologian like Tillich is really saying.

He apparently knows absolutely nothing of process theism, or of how influential it has been in mainline and even Catholic and some evangelical seminaries. Process theists have long ago recognized that, not only the divine, but reality itself “cannot be anything other than a form of social life.”  Thus Charles Hartshorne: “God is not viewed as a being that could exist in solitary independence, but as the being uniquely able to maintain the society of which it is a member, the only social being unconditionally able to guarantee the survival, the minimal integrity, of that society, and of itself as a member of that society.”—Reality As Social Process (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953), pp. 43-44. To reiterate, the society whose survival is guaranteed is literally everything, not just us. Our survival is not guaranteed, so we can’t afford complacency.

As I mentioned earlier, Hagglund does passingly engage the powerful preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr., but he fails to see how King’s homiletical God-talk (indebted not only to Hegel but to Boston Personalism) actually reinforces King’s this-worldly concerns. He assumes that King’s God-talk is still referring to a God who is “independent of our practice of faith” (p. 373). King would, I’m sure, affirm the sort of utterly abstract independence I mentioned earlier, but he would also unhesitatingly affirm the utterly mutual and vulnerable involvement of God with the concrete here and now. In fact almost everything King says in the following testimony (of which Hagglund quotes only a phrase or two) could be affirmed by a process theist:

“God has been profoundly real to me in recent years. In the midst of all the dangers I have felt an inner calm. In the midst of lonely days and dreary nights I have heard an inner voice saying, ‘Lo, I will be with you.’ When the chains of fear and the manacles of frustration have all but stymied my efforts, I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power.”—Strength to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1963) p. 141.

A process theist would quibble with only one word: control. True, Rufus Burrow points out, “King believed God to be ‘a Personal Being of matchless power and infinite love,’ and that ‘creative force’ in the universe who ‘works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole’” (Burrow, p. 30). But “King does not characterize God’s power as absolute or omnipotent, but as ‘matchless’. This seems a subtle qualification of the classical view of divine omnipotence” (Burrow, p. 40). Indeed, following the philosophy of personalism, King, like Hartshorne, would insist that reality is “through and through social, relational, or communal” (Burrow, p. 31). Given all of that, it seems clear that what King means by “control” is what he so memorably spoke of as the bent towards justice in the long arc of the moral universe:

“I believe [‘we shall overcome’] because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: ‘No lie can live forever.’ We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: ‘Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.’ With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day.”

Any process theist could affirm everything said here without any fingers crossed. There is no disconnection between King’s God-talk and his this-worldly concerns. Hagglund simply misreads him.

Unlike Hagglund, process theists do affirm some sort of “postmortem existence” for each of us, but not, I believe, in a way that undercuts the finality, the irrevocable passing, of this life as we know it, indeed the irrevocable passing of every moment in this life. Hagglund is right to point out that there are many inherited ways of imagining our participation in God’s endless life that, upon reflection, we couldn’t even desire with any consistency (pp. 4-5). Still, I and other process theists would insist, first, that all that we are and all that we have been will irrevocably continue to enliven the endless life of God, and through God, the life of all others who come after us; and second, that somehow our finished, embodied lives irrevocably remain a living presence in the ever-embodying life of God. I have more to say about this elsewhere, both theologically and homiletically. For me and other process theists, the point of any of these affirmations is to emphasize the everlasting significance of our and God’s thoroughly social life here and now, not, as Hagglund presumes, to shift our focus to a future devoid of concern for our world.

Process and other relational theists agree that Hagglund‘s immanent critique succeeds against much of what passes for religious faith, but that is because it is, unwittingly, remarkably close to their own centuries-old critiques. But his critique does not succeed against the inescapably legitimate desires that underlie these less reflective forms of religious faith. Perhaps he is simply tone deaf to these. In any case there are prominent theologians and preachers who will continue to insist on healthier forms of religious faith, and despite how Hagglund repeatedly misreads them, they do not fall prey to his immanent critique.