This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom

464 PP.; $29.95

While a life without belief in a god is often discussed these days, less examined is the corollary to that lack of belief, which is the absence of a belief in any sort of afterlife. And yet, Martin Hagglund contends in his new book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, it is accepting the fact that life is finite that is essential to understanding and shaping life itself. In fact, he argues, it’s only because life is finite that it has meaning. Religion’s mistaken concept of immortality robs our life of real meaning.

In This Life Hagglund lays out his argument in an extended, thirty-three-page introduction that alone is almost worth the read. He then outlines what he means by “secular faith,” the most basic tenet of which is that “life is worth living” (this cannot be proved, and therefore is a matter of faith). As he writes later, “only someone who is finite can sense the miracle of being alive.” Secular faith also deals with the commitments we hold in this life that we feel are possibly more important than life itself, such as a commitment to family or to social justice.

Hagglund states that a finite view of life is not only what’s required by a secular view, but strongly argues that secular faith is morally superior to a religious faith that promises eternal life. “Religious faith holds that our ultimate aim should be to transcend the finitude we share. As a consequence this life [his emphasis] is devalued.”  It is the devaluing of this life in favor of eternal life that Hagglund finds most distressing about religious faith. The horrifying truth of the biblical near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham is that it can only be justified by belief in an immortal life. “Because Abraham believes that he ultimately cannot lose his son, he can take Isaac’s life.” That is the danger of religious belief.

While capitalism alienates us from our own time by subordinating it to the purpose of profit, religions offer the consolation that our time ultimately is insignificant and will be redeemed by eternity.

If this sounds like heady stuff, it is, and Hagglund’s book isn’t for the faint of heart. Hagglund is a professor of comparative literature and the humanities at Yale University and a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard, and this book is written for the serious student of philosophy. The chapters engage the reader in critical examinations of philosophical thought, taking on the concept of love through an analysis St. Augustine’s 
Confessions and finds a response and elucidation to Augustine through the literary work of Karl Ove Knausgaard. 
Elsewhere Hagglund undertakes a lengthy analysis and working through of his views through the perspective of the work of Soren Kierkegaard. Other chapters deal with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich 
Hegel, Friedrich Hayek, Aristotle, Dante Alighieri, and Marcel Proust. But even they pale in comparison to Hagglund’s later exploration of the writings and thought of Karl Marx, whose work he finds most illuminating and relevant.

Capitalism, he argues, values profit over wellbeing, and as long as we as a society embrace that value, we are doomed to constantly devalue human existence as merely a source of labor in pursuit of profit. Instead we must embrace a society where the prime motivation is to “cultivate freely the graces of life.”  And this leads to another major argument of the book, that in order for people to have fulfilled lives, democratic socialism must be embraced as the best means of providing the best and most free life for the most people. Hagglund echoes and expands upon Marx by stating that both capitalism and religion are “forms of self-alienation.”

Both capitalism and religion prevent us from recognizing in practice that our own lives—our only lives—are taken away from us when our time is taken away from us. While capitalism alienates us from our own time by subordinating it to the purpose of profit, religions offer the consolation that our time ultimately is insignificant and will be redeemed by eternity.

Religion, by not recognizing that life is finite, causes people to “misrecognize the suffering we seek to overcome.”

This Life concludes with a chapter focusing on Martin Luther King Jr., and finds in him the most recent and relevant views that help Hagglund elucidate his own views. This may seem odd, as King was a pastor, and regularly invoked God in much of his work. But Hagglund focuses more on MLK’s later works, which he finds to be almost bereft of arguments of eternal life and God, and more concerned with the state of humankind in and of this world. Hagglund’s handling of King’s thought evolution is both instructive and illuminating. In King’s famous last speech, given the night before he was assassinated, 
Hagglund finds an evocation of the type of secular spirituality he argues for: “I looked over and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.” King’s recognition that he likely wouldn’t reach the promised land himself, either before or even, and most significantly, after death, while still fighting to get his people there is the perfect example of secular faith in Hagglund’s assessment—working for something bigger than one’s own self and something that may not happen in one’s own finite lifetime.

Although Hagglund’s style is straightforward and clear, the book isn’t easy reading. He delves deeply into both the ideas he promotes and builds on, and into the ideas he seeks to challenge throughout philosophical history. He does a good job of explaining the philosophies of Aristotle, Augustine, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, and others, but he takes no shortcuts in doing so. This Life is a book filled with insight for those who take it on. I found myself highlighting passages every few pages, and the cumulative effect of his arguments is strong.

Hagglund has written an important work that pushes forward a secular, rational, and fulfilling view of humankind’s place in the world. If the reader is up to the challenge of engaging deeply and historically about their life philosophy, this is a book that rewards that effort.