I was raised to fear death. My parents were devout Evangelicals who practiced a charismatic, joyful version of Christianity, but their faith was also rooted in the hellfire-and-brimstone tradition of the Great Awakening. Sermons in the churches we attended often focused on the consequences of sin, and the looming certainty of Judgment Day—always presented as a fearsome, humiliating taking of accounts rather than a celebration of one’s ultimate unity with God—was used to motivate both religious conversion and righteous behavior. Salvation was a part of this story, of course, but the fear that death may lead to eternal suffering was one of my core childhood experiences. Even in adulthood, having developed convictions that have little to do with salvation or damnation, the thought that hell awaits is something I grapple with when thinking about my own mortality.
That being said, fear of death doesn’t motivate my behavior. I am not sure that it ever has, to be honest, not even when talk of Judgment Day was offered as motivation. And yet I still find the prospect of death deeply disconcerting. I do not want to lose my life and all of the commitments, struggles, and pleasures that it holds. I do not want to die. This is not to say that I welcome the idea of eternal life in the hereafter, or even that I desire immortality in this world. The idea of eternal life is dreadful in its own right. But I do relish a strong connection to my lived experience, and I am unsettled by the knowledge that life will someday come to an absolute end.
Martin Hägglund’s recent book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom takes up the question of mortality in order to probe what it means to live a moral life.1 He argues that, as finite beings, we live in direct relation to death, and that the knowledge of our own mortality serves as a powerful catalyst for acting on our commitments in this world. Maintaining strong commitments in the face of certain death is, in Hägglund’s thinking, what it means to have secular faith. This is in contrast to religious faith, which encourages people to pursue eternal results in whatever comes after this life. He writes, “To have secular faith is to be devoted to a life that will end, to be dedicated to projects that can fail or break down” (5-6). The acceptance of finitude and fragility is central to this devotion, for fidelity to the finite, when valued for its own sake, frees those with secular faith from nihilism and allows them to transform their acceptance of death into a passion for living. At the core of Hägglund’s theory, therefore, is the idea that existing in relation to death is the ground from which the good life springs.
I am sympathetic to this view. Nobody can know for sure what comes after death, but what we do know is that we have this life now. Anything more is speculation and must be taken on faith. If this is true—as seems obvious to me—then it makes perfect sense to value life as an end in itself, and I don’t see any reason why doing so cannot produce behaviors that are every bit as desirable as the best behaviors that religion promotes. Unlike some religious people, I do not believe that we need religious laws or fear of eternal damnation to live moral lives. Morality can emerge from our commitments to the people, places, communities, and institutions that we value and love. Such faith in the value of finite life is central to Hägglund’s project, and he is right to argue that the certainty of death, and the uncertainty that anything lies beyond our finite lives, should motivate us to commit ourselves to the only world of which we can be assured.
Where I take issue with Hägglund is in his insistence that secular faith is the only authentic means of committing oneself to this life. While it may be true that religion subordinates material life to spiritual ideals, including the ideal of eternal life, Hägglund’s argument strikes me as overly rigid in excluding religious faith as an authentic means of valuing the material world as such. This is true even when he acknowledges that religious people are often deeply invested in caring for this life. For example, he writes:
Of course, even if you identify as religious you can still care intensely for the fate of our life on Earth. My point, however, is that if you care for our form of life as an end in itself, you are acting on the basis of secular faith, even if you claim to be religious. Religious faith can entail obedience to moral norms, but it cannot recognize that the ultimate purpose of what we do—the ultimate reason it matters how we treat one another and the Earth—is our fragile life together. (9)
I am at a loss to explain why religious faith cannot encompass an authentic commitment to our fragile life together. Are religious faith and an absolute commitment to material existence really mutually exclusive? Hägglund maintains that they are, and this leads him to draw conclusions that participate in an unfortunate form of fundamentalist thinking that cuts against his vision for a cooperative, mutually-sustaining life together.
Hägglund’s fundamentalism is most apparent in the absolute terms with which he discusses the limits of religious faith. For example, his argument rests on the premise that the “ultimate goal” of religious faith is “to be absolved from vulnerability,” and that this absolution “requires that we renounce our commitment to finite life. To achieve absolution we cannot love any mortal beings as ends in themselves but only as means toward the end of suffering” (47). This assumes that the desire to transcend suffering is the sine qua non of religious faith, and it elides the many other principled reasons that people embrace religion, including love of God, commitment to family and cultural traditions, submission to moral laws, the near-universal sense that there exists something beyond material reality, and indeed the obligation to nurture life on this Earth. By ignoring these factors, Hägglund limits the meaning of religious faith, which is precisely what he must do in order to reserve secular faith as the only means of cultivating an authentic concern for the finite, fragile lives we share together.
A more complex critique of religious faith would acknowledge its relationship to social justice. There are many examples for Hägglund to drawn on, both historical and contemporary. Two that spring immediately to mind are Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights activism and Pope Francis’s advocacy for an environmentally-conscious faith. Hägglund would likely say that these are actually examples of religious people practicing secular faith, but careful attention to how King and Francis frame their Christian activism yields a more nuanced understanding of how religious faith can encompass the sort of care and concern for finite life that Hägglund wants to see flourish in the world.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King explicitly rejects the distinction between secular justice and the divine justice of eternity. Expressing his disappointment that more White clergymen had not joined the struggle for civil rights, King writes:
In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
King even goes so far as to assert that “the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands” [emphasis added]. This is a far cry from Hägglund’s claim that the ultimate goal of religion is to transcend the limits of material existence. King’s argument is that the divine will can be found in the struggle for justice in this world, that the finite embodies the eternal, and that those who seek to draw a distinction between the sacred and the secular misunderstand—or intentionally disregard—the scriptures that structure their faith.
King’s belief that the “eternal will of God” is embodied in the struggle for social justice expresses a very different understanding of the relationship between religious faith and temporality than Hägglund develops in This Life.2 Whereas Hägglund argues that the religious belief in eternity renders time irrelevant, King develops some of his most forceful arguments in direct relation to temporality—arguments that are both secular and religious. He argues that the limited nature of temporal experience creates a moral imperative to act on behalf of justice before time deprives another soul of their God-given human dignity. In his famous rebuttal to the status quo argument that segregation would ease in due time, King writes:
I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
The central thrust of King’s argument is that it is immoral to defer justice precisely because the experience of human dignity is bound by time, and when people are denied that dignity, even for a moment, they suffer a grievous spiritual wound. His example earlier in the letter of being forced to explain to his “six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people” is a poignant illustration of how deferring justice corrupts the inner purity that is such an important aspect of religious faith. For King, racial injustice is both a secular and a spiritual crisis. Not only does it debase people’s material conditions, but it also deprives them of the human dignity that is part of God’s eternal will. This is why King considers those who work for justice in this temporally bounded, finite life to be “co workers with God,” for achieving justice in this life is a spiritual calling, a religious obligation, and a divine end in itself.
A similar concern is evident in Pope Francis’s encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato si’, a document that repeatedly calls attention to the fusion of material existence and divine will. Arguing that human beings are “spirit and will, but also nature,” Francis writes, “The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement.” In opposition to Hägglund’s emphasis on the religious concept of eternity, Francis emphasizes the material dimension of human experience—the gift of life itself—as being every bit as worthy of care as the soul. And like King, who called on people to be “co workers with God” in achieving racial justice, Frances urges his readers to “cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation.” Nowhere in Laudato si’ does Frances appeal to eternity as a justification for doing what is right vis–à–vis material life. On the contrary, his encyclical is very much about understanding “how faith brings new incentives and requirements with regard to the world of which we are a part.”
Even in those sections of Laudato si’ that are explicitly theological, Frances makes clear that a key purpose of human existence is to care for one another within the material context of the Earth, and he frames this duty as an essential part of religious faith. Focusing on the Christian concept of creation, he argues that everything in existence is an expression of God’s love, and that all beings contain a God-given dignity that must be protected. This dignity even extends to non-human beings, which Francis insists “have a value of their own in God’s eyes.” The presence of such inalienable dignity throughout nature compels Christians to treat finite creation as an absolute value in itself. Indeed, just after claiming that “creation is the order of love,” Francis draws the reader’s attention to the most finite of living things: “Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection.” Whereas Hägglund posits that “we cannot love any mortal beings as ends in themselves but only as means toward the end of suffering,” Francis would say that the material universe itself is an expression of love, and to participate in that love by caring for finite things is what it means to keep faith with the divine plan of creation.
None of this is to say that Hägglund is wrong when he identifies the tendency within religioun to treat secular life as a means to religious ends. Even in Francis’s progressive theology, which is very much concerned with the material conditions of the poor and the oppressed, as well as with the ecological health of our planet, care for this world is understood as a means of glorifying God. Secular faith, on the contrary, doesn’t compel people to care for this world for any other reason than that sharing a good life together is a worthy end in itself. I appreciate this aspect of secular faith, but I struggle to understand why it matters if the religious faithful care for this world because they believe doing so fulfills a divine plan or brings glory to God. Does it really matter what motivates people to fight for justice and equality, so long as they do it? And what exactly is at stake in denying and/or mischaracterizing that aspect of religious faith that has long been concerned with human dignity? If the point is to promote the virtues of secular faith, that effort gets lost in the narrowness and inaccuracies that always attend fundamentalist thinking.
I share much in common with Hägglund’s argument, particularly when it comes to his critiques of Saint Augustine, Søren Kierkegaard, and C.S. Lewis, which are the most astute and persuasive sections of his book. And the way he frames issues of mortality is an important contribution to how we think about life. However, I see his fundamentalism as a flaw, for the absolutism with which he excludes religious faith from any authentic concern for finite life doesn’t hold up when considered alongside Christian thinkers such as King and Frances. Hägglund would benefit from a more nuanced understanding of how different faiths are invested in shaping this life we share together. There is no one single way of developing authentic love for mortal beings as ends in themselves, and to dismiss the ancient traditions that billions of people practice as a means of achieving this end strikes me as needlessly divisive and self-defeating, especially when there are so many opportunities for cooperation between the world’s religious communities and those who live by secular faith. Such cooperation may prove vital in facilitating the culture of care This Life so passionately promotes.