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Martin Hägglund talks about freedom, faith, and the emptiness of infinity



I went to Boston’s Harvard Book Store to hear Yale Professor Martin Hägglund speak about his new book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, because books such as this are exceedingly rare. It is rare to find someone exploring the basis of what Hägglund calls secular faith. Faith is a difficult word for nonbelievers such as myself, who identify as a humanist. Faith has a difficult to define meaning, but is commonly understood to be belief in that which is unprovable, such as God, souls and the afterlife. These are religious concepts, because faith is commonly understood in religious terms.

For Hägglund, secular faith is a “commitment to the flourishing of finite life – sustainable forms of life on Earth – as an end in itself.” It is not the promise of salvation and a never-ending life in heaven that motivates humanity, says Hägglund. It is the fact that lives end and existence, even the existence of the Earth itself, is not guaranteed. It is finitude that makes things precious and worthy of protection, value and love, not eternity.

“Even though it is painful and difficult to be finite, that is also the condition for anything mattering, anything to be at stake, anything being valuable and worth caring about,” said Hägglund to the crowd of over fifty people who came to hear him speak in Boston. The event was organized in conjunction with Mass Humanities and Hägglund was interviewed by Harvard Professor James Wood.

Hägglund doesn’t just talk about religion. Freedom from religion’s promise of immortality necessitates a discussion about what freedom means in the here and now.

“To live a free life, it is not enough that we have the right to freedom,” writes Hägglund. “We must have access to the material resources as well as the forms of education that allow us to pursue ou freedom and to “own” the question of what to do with our time. What belongs to each of us – what is irreducibly our own – is not property or goods but the time of our lives.”

We are not infinite beings. We are finite, and that finitude makes our brief time the most precious thing we have. It is the essence of our freedom.

“An emancipated life is not a life that is free from work, but a life in which we pursue work on the basis of our own commitments,” writes Hägglund. “Even our socially necessary labor can be an expression of our freedom if it is shared for the sake of the common good.”

People who decry secularism sometimes say that without religion, without a promise of God, miracles and an afterlife, the world becomes denuded of meaning – grayer, emptier, less full, what Hägglund characterized as an apparent “existential and normative deficit in secular life.”

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“My point… is not to say that everything is great about secularization, but rather that what we’re missing is not religious faith or the supernatural,” said Hägglund to his audience. “What we’re missing are social institutional forms that enable us to lead flourishing lives.”

Before getting to the video, let me quote Hägglund’s book one final time:

“…if we are engaged in a project of creating greater social justice, we share an existential commitment to a set of principles and a form of practice that the principles demand. We believe in certain values and in the importance of upholding them through contestation and struggle. This existential commitment is subject to the necessary uncertainty of secular faith. We cannot be certain that our collective project will hold together and the consequences of our actions are not given in advance. This necessary uncertainty puts the project at risk – it may not succeed and it may fall apart through internal dissent or external conflict. Yet the risk is also the motivational force that sustains our commitment to the project. We devote ourselves to social justice because it is not given as fact but requires our efforts for its continued existence. This dynamic of faith does not come o an end when we have achieved the social justice for which we strive, since social justice is a form of life that always has to be sustained. To be committed to social justice is to be committed to a project that lasts for as long as their are social relations.”

There is much more in this book of interest than I can do justice to in this short piece. Here’s the video from Harvard Book Store:

Here’s the question and answer section:

Here’s the introduction:

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.


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