Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Tyler M. Williams reviews This Life

Martin HägglundThis Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. New York: Pantheon, 2019. 464 pp.

Review by Tyler M. Williams

This Life presents nothing less than a theory of the meaning of life. In this ambitious, highly persuasive book, Martin Hägglund challenges the religious teleology that posits a transcendent, eternal afterlife as the culminating aspiration of a meaningful, mortal life. Arguing that all religious faith in eternal salvation depends upon a sense of value and responsibility that can only be accounted for secularly, Hägglund guides his reader through early Christian confessional literature, modern philosophy, contemporary literature, the American civil rights movement, and ongoing debates about the limits of capitalism to highlight the intrinsic—indeed, the constitutive—role temporal finitude plays in oureveryday commitments. Finitude, the mortal fact of this life, rather than a divinely timeless afterlife, solely motivates why and how we live our lives the way we do. “The depths of life are not revealed through faith in eternity,” Hägglund writes in sum. “Rather, our spiritual commitments proceed from caring for what will be irrevocably lost and remaining faithful to what gives no final guarantee” (p. 36).

Take, for instance, those profound experiences of grief or love so often evoked to justify a religious faith in eternity. A husband grieving the death of his wife longs for their reunion in the afterlife. A man reflects on his adolescence and realizes that the misdeeds he committed in his youth to win the affections of his friends were actually veiled cravings for the incorruptible love of God’s friendship. Hägglund argues that both of these scenarios work against themselves because the eternal fulfillment in which they profess faith is incompatible with the value they yearn to preserve. The sorrow C. S. Lewis feels for his deceased wife in A Grief Observed (1961) is irreconcilable with religious faith in their heavenly reunion. Hägglund argues that Lewis grieves the loss of his wife for strictly secular reasons. On the one hand, Lewis can only grieve her death because she is finite and irreplaceable. Faith in their eternal reunion would eliminate this grief, since death would not be perceived as a loss at all. On the other hand, the relationship over which Lewis now grieves would have never been possible without temporal finitude, since care and devotion can only be bestowed upon something vulnerable to loss. The prospect of eternity would nullify both the ability for care and devotion and the need to care or devote oneself. I neither could—nor would I need—to care for something (or someone) eternally guaranteed to me (p. 66). Likewise, Augustine’s desire for God’s incorruptible friendship in Confessions is anathema to the mortal condition of friendship itself. Friendship is constituted by the time one devotes to sustaining that friendship, always and necessarily in the face of its possible ruin or betrayal. Friendship with an eternal, perfect, unbetrayable, and unbetraying God would eliminate the temporal commitment that constitutes any chance of friendship in the first place (p. 90). 

Rather than deriving their value from the religious faith in eternity they claim, these experiences of grief and love are only meaningful because of their secular commitment to this (mortal) life. They depend intrinsically on what Hägglund calls “secular faith.” As a concept, “secular faith” names the basic temporal horizon that sustains my hope for the future (p. 140). In its most existential sense, secular faith amounts to “the faith that life is worth living,” which Hägglund argues can only be accounted for secularly, since how I ought to live my life depends fundamentally on the commitments I make for myself in the face of a future that remains uncertain to me. My secular faith means that I care for my life, I protect my commitments, and I aspire to fulfill my goals. Yet, all of these motivational, relational, and protective aspects of this life hinge on their finitude, on the fact that they are vulnerable to future loss. Precisely because my life is not eternal, because it matters what I do with my time, I can care about my life, commit myself to its betterment, and have faith in its meaningfulness (pp. 50–51). A commitment to enhancing secular faith ultimately builds the possibility of “spiritual freedom,” which for Hägglund means the ability to question and decide how I ought to live my life (p. 176). The second half of This Life thus extends Hägglund’s earlier critique of religious faith to a defense, via an extensive reading of the concept of “value” in Marx, of the existential necessity of “democratic socialism” and progressive politics more generally. Exactly what “democratic socialism” pragmatically entails remains relatively unclear in Hägglund’s account (p. 284), especially concerning the ambiguous connection he draws between “spiritual freedom” and “state sovereignty” (pp. 266–67). However, the philosophical basis Hägglund offers for a future of progressive politics remains crucial: capitalism, as a socioeconomic and political paradigm that limits “spiritual freedom,” not only denies us the ability to value ourselves but, moreover, demands a politics of “secular faith” committed solely to the improvement of the material conditions of this life alone (p. 332). 

Readers who are already familiar with the spatiotemporal logic of “survival” Hägglund develops via Jacques Derrida in Radical Atheism (2008) and his “chronolibinal” reading of modernist literature in Dying for Time (2012) will recognize this core argument that animates This Life. Yet, This Life remains a distinct and important contribution to contemporary philosophy not only because of its impressive lucidity (by now a Hägglundian trademark), but also because its wrests “faith” from religion’s grip and builds on its back a fundamentally secular structure of emancipatory politics and social justice. This Life is a rare accomplishment. Hägglund has written a book that is as rigorous as it is approachable, as incisive as it is patient. A veritable trove of ideas and provocations, This Life is a rewarding book that deserves exactly what it demands: close, engaged reading by a wide readership.