Book Review: This Life
Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom
Martin Hägglund is a professor of comparative literature and humanities at Yale, and a 2018 winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship. His past books include Dying for Time: Proust, Woolf, Nabokov, and Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life, among others. And oh, he has six languages, including Danish, French, and German, listed as his “working languages.” Hägglund’s intellect is clearly impressive, but equally so is his grasp of what makes human life, from the private to the political, meaningful.
Hägglund points out that notions of infinite bliss (reaching nirvana) or perpetual life (heaven, the afterlife) actually remove the vitality from relationships
In his new book, This Life, he argues the idea of a secular faith, sharing that it is not devoid of fullness or of meaning. If we are not turning to an all-powerful deity as a higher authority, he says, we must “acknowledge that we are essentially dependent on—and answerable to—other persons who cannot be mastered or controlled, since we are all free, finite beings.” It’s this last part, the finite part, that I found most interesting in his thesis. Hägglund points out that notions of infinite bliss (reaching nirvana) or perpetual life (heaven, the afterlife) actually remove the vitality from relationships. “The risk of tragic loss—the loss of your own life and the loss of what you love—is not a prospect that can be eliminated but an intrinsic part of why it matters what you do with your life,” he writes.
How do we make choices, then, as a society, without religious faith as a tether? His book presents a vision, in a liberating and robust way. Secular faith is to know this life will end, and to not see that as unbearable, but rather as a catalyst to creating a life that is worth living. —Kathryn Drury Wagner