Secular Scripture

Sean Lynch

This Life, by Martin Hagglund, Penguin Random House, 464 pp., $29.95

Depending on which road you take, leaving Omaha can be a religious experience. Take one of the highways leading into the country, and you are bound to encounter the risen Lord on a billboard. Beneath him, the words, Jesus, I trust in you. If you drive for any significant distance, this same image appears again and again, as if rural Nebraska were the front of some missionary campaign. But given the religiosity of the area, where the welcome signs as you pass through its small towns invite you to please worship at the church of your choice, this scenario seems unlikely. Why then the ubiquity of these billboards?

The answer may lie not in the billboards themselves, but in the people who put them up. Staking one in your yard is, after all, perhaps the most public way of displaying your faith that there is. This aspect of the display, alongside the first-person address, suggest that these billboards speak not so much to their viewers as to their sponsors. Place them in the context of hysterical news reports that proclaim Christians to be ‘under attack,’ and you begin to understand them as emblems of a community that sees the secularization of America as an existential threat. No longer a fringe movement, but a way of life for a quarter of Americans, secularism has withstood the dire warnings that it would lead to lead to societal collapse, and its seeming inevitability has left religious communities at the margins. As you pass these billboards, you get the feeling that they are speaking to the void.

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 In his latest book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, the philosopher Martin Hägglund takes on the premise that underpins this anxiety. As he notes in the introduction, a majority of Americans, including many who profess themselves to be secular, believe that some kind of religious faith is necessary for individual and communal wellbeing. The sense of personal and social responsibility that religion instills, in other words, is still seen as desirable, even if religion itself is not. Hägglund responds to this belief by denying religion as the basis of responsibility. How we treat other people and our own identities as students or friends, he argues, demonstrates an awareness of the finitude and fragility of our commitments. We recognize that we can act too soon or too late, and that our failure to act at the right time can lead to unalterable consequences. Calling this awareness ‘secular faith,’ Hägglund contrasts it with religious faith, which bases our ethical responsibility on the authority of a timeless divinity. Arguing that these two types of faith are incompatible, he attempts to show that if we actually scrutinize how we understand our commitments, we will realize their ultimate grounding in secular faith, and in this life rather than in a ‘life to come.’

Hägglund advances this argument for secularism by analyzing the writings of major religious thinkers—among them C.S. Lewis, Augustine, and Søren Kierkegaard—and elucidating the tension between secular and religious faith within their works. By exposing the contradictory ways that these thinkers approach basic human experiences like love and death, he argues for the impossibility of reconciling a metaphysical faith with any sort of humanism grounded in our everyday experience. Belief in an eternal God is, for Hägglund, ultimately at odds with the temporal nature of our reasoning. More so than address every manifestation of religion, then, his book focuses on this particular strain of it: This Life turns on its head the Christian intellectual tradition that, since Augustine, has sought to unify faith and reason. While this focus comes at the cost of incorporating non-Christian religious thinkers into his analysis, it does allow him to draw on a wide range of genres that range from philosophy to memoir and literature. Making use of his background in comparative literature, Hägglund aggregates these various genres to abstract out a general picture of religion as a fundamental orientation towards the eternal—a picture which he subsequently seeks to dismantle.

Exemplifying how Hägglund shows religious faith to undermine our experiences of mourning, love, and responsibility is his treatment of C.S. Lewis’ work, A Grief Observed. Underscoring Lewis’ grief over the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, Hägglund demonstrates how the former’s Anglican beliefs prevent him from acknowledging her death as a tragedy; her immortal soul, now freed from the confines of her body, remains intact. Instead of consoling him, however, this fact heightens his anguish, as he realizes that even if he does join Joy in heaven one day, their eternal life together will bear no likeness to the life they experienced together on earth. Because the Christian afterlife exists outside of time, the stuff of this life—relationships, actions, commitments—is rendered meaningless. Lewis’ grief, for Hägglund, thus reveals temporality as a constitutive element of human relationships. In order to have any meaningful connection to other people, we have to reckon with their mortality. By removing the possibility of mortality in guaranteeing a ‘life to come,’ religion eliminates the possibility of truly caring for other people while they are still with us.

This Life is not the only book in recent years to critique religious faith, but it advances a more compelling and nuanced argument than those of the formerly dominant New Atheism movement. At their best, New Atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris sought to make the case for atheism accessible to ordinary individuals and challenged the sacred space afforded to religion in public discourse. All too often, however, New Atheists sacrificed argument for polemic, with titles like Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. This penchant for theatrics damaged the secular movement as much as it raised its profile. By equating all religion with fundamentalism, Hitchens, Dawkins, and others gave the impression that atheists were unable to distinguish between ordinary churchgoers and terrorists and are thereby perhaps responsible for the acute anxiety of religious communities to secularization. Rejecting their invective, Hägglund adopts a more conciliatory approach that acknowledges the meaning that religious faith can offer. His work illuminates the fact that for most people, religion represents a way of life more than a set of beliefs. A church brings together a community and gives to its members a sense of their responsibility to themselves and to others. Hägglund’s claim, however, is that whatever meaning this community can have exists only within time. A church’s ability to care, in other words, rests on the fragility of its members. Religion, as an embodied practice, is therefore not so much the target of Hägglund’s critique as are the metaphysical principles that underlie it.

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Preserving the social while rejecting the metaphysical aspects of religion leads Hägglund to turn his attention in the latter half of This Life to the notion of spiritual freedom. While calling this freedom ‘spiritual’ may seem to associate it with religion, Hägglund construes it as our ability to set our own purposes in life. Our spiritual lives are therefore the lives that we make for ourselves in light of our desires, dreams, and ambitions, as compared to our ‘natural’ lives that revolve around fulfilling basic instincts. In a similar vein, Hägglund defines freedom as the ability to choose which norms to adopt. We are free insofar as we choose these norms—whether ethical, social, or otherwise—without pressure or coercion. To be spiritually free is thus to be able to choose our purposes in life with all the norms that they entail. By establishing this freedom as an essential part of being human, Hägglund accounts for the finitude and fragility of our commitments that he elucidates earlier. Our responsibilities towards others are fragile because we always have the possibility of giving them up. Remaining faithful to them is, as a result, just that—an act of faith rather than necessity.

Presented as an abstract fact, this notion of spiritual freedom runs the risk of sounding out of touch. Even if we are spiritually free, most of us don’t have the ability to choose how we want to live our lives. Not only factory workers and subsistence farmers, but also millions of middle-class Americans cannot simply up and leave their day-to-day commitments. If they were to pursue their spiritual freedom, they might very well lose their jobs and other means of satisfying their needs. Living up to metaphysical principles, in other words, requires changing material conditions. Recognizing the need for a critique of these conditions to accompany his existential claims, Hägglund focuses on perhaps the greatest obstacle to realizing our spiritual freedom: capitalism.

Hägglund’s critique of capitalism rests on the value of our free time. Once we have worked enough to fulfill our needs, the time that remains is ours to devote to our relationships and personal projects. By framing this relationship between the value of our free time and that of our labor time as a general truth, Hägglund adopts the same method as he does in addressing religion of exposing how capitalism contradicts this truth. By defining an individual’s economic value as equal to her productivity and time spent working, capitalism downplays the worth of her freedom. Choosing to leave the workforce to raise children, for example, is seen as a loss, because the benefits of doing so are invisible to the market. Raising children is not something that can be understood merely as one job interchangeable with any other. By reducing the value of our time to GDP numbers and growth targets, capitalism, for Hägglund, violates our basic intuition regarding the source of value in our lives.

This sketch of Hägglund’s argument makes clear how he stands apart from most mainstream critics of capitalism. Whereas many have blamed capitalism for increasing income inequality and other social ills, they frame this blame in terms of excess or overreach. Corporations, according to them, have become greedy and must therefore be reined in. Their proposals to redress this excess, however, do not necessarily suppose that there is anything wrong with the system itself and imply that reform is possible. Hägglund’s critique, by contrast, construes capitalism as fundamentally incompatible with our freedom. Reforming capitalism may help mitigate some of its problems, but resolving them requires transcending it altogether. In arguing that an economy of good-faith actors can still alienate individuals from their spiritual freedom, Hägglund offers a refreshing alternative to the narrow economic discourse that dominates contemporary politics.

Hägglund’s argument differs from more mainstream critics also in his methods; those expecting him to produce empirical economic analysis or a clear political vision will be disappointed. The lack of such features, however, is not without intention. If spiritual freedom is the ability of individuals to make decisions about their personal ends, democracy for Hägglund is the ability of communities to do the same on a social level. These communities can choose to prioritize education, the arts, or other activities that require large amounts of resources. Prescribing a singular set of economic policies would contravene this communal freedom by overlooking the particular makeup of the community. The different needs, history, and character of Newark, New Jersey as compared to Billings, Montana, for example, is going to lead to different visions of how capitalism might be overcome. The work of changing the material conditions of society, in other words, must come from the bottom up.

The book’s discussion of democratic socialism—Hägglund’s proposed replacement for capitalism—manifests the consequences of refusing to articulate specific policies. Instead of presenting a platform to expand social welfare programs or raise corporate taxes like most reform-minded progressives, Hägglund enumerates three general principles to guide any future set of policies: the revaluation of value in terms of free time, collectivization of the means of production, and the commitment to fulfilling individuals’ self-selected purposes, as well as their basic needs. Of these three principles, the second is by far the most fraught, given the violent history of previous efforts to collectivize industry. More so than elsewhere, Hägglund’s ambiguity here makes it difficult to see how his idea of collectivization might come about, although he clearly rejects top-down approaches. Nationalizing industry, in other words, is not his vision for socialist economics. This ambiguity also forces us as readers to imagine for ourselves how transforming our economic life might happen peacefully and productively. By leaving the details up in the air, Hägglund awakens us to the freedom that we have in our individual and social lives to change our circumstances and the terrible responsibility that having this freedom entails. 

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Notwithstanding the critical approach that he takes towards religion and capitalism, This Life reveals Hägglund to be at heart an optimist about the human condition. To expose the contradictions within these ideologies is to believe that doing so ultimately matters. Hägglund’s wager is that once we are shown how religion and capitalism violate our more basic approaches towards life, as embodied in his ideas of secular faith and spiritual freedom, we cannot remain the same. This wager is also the book’s greatest liability. On such a gamble will Hägglund’s work succeed or fail. On us does its outcome depend.