Review of This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, by Martin Hägglund

New York: Pantheon Books, 2019 



In 1927, Martin Heidegger wrote Karl Jaspers, his then still “comrade-in-arms,” a gloomy letter about his last hour with his mother before she died. He expressed agony over a decision that features prominently in Martin Hägglund’s thought-provoking and ambitiously sweeping book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom: Should we be committed to eternal or finite life? For Heidegger this question turned this last hour into a “lesson in practical philosophy” because his mother asked him a final time to return to Christianity, which made him realize that “the question of theology and philosophy is no longer purely for the writing desk.” Heidegger felt pressed to side with or against his own conviction, with or against his mother, speak or belie the truth. But what is the truth? His commitment to reflection against revelation conflicted with his commitment to the wellbeing of his mother. How can he express his love for his mother and still own up to his secular faith? 

It is clear from the letter that Heidegger decided against his mother and the belief in eternal life, which he implicitly justified with his own freedom that remains in irreconcilable conflict with salvation. Although Hägglund only mentions Heidegger in two footnotes (in which he expresses a deep indebtedness), the book can rightly be regarded as a powerful translation of Heidegger’s notoriously difficult existentialism into an admirably lucid fabric of thought. One substantial agreement consists in their focus on temporality and death which renders the idea of eternity at best meaningless, at worst detrimental to our freedom to shape our own lifetime. But does this suggest that Hägglund would concur with Heidegger’s decision against his mother? 

To understand the stakes of this conflict, it is worth pausing to consider another possibility. In his reply to Heidegger’s letter, Jaspers tried to move beyond what he considered a wrong-headed dichotomy between religion and philosophy, which he believed Heidegger misunderstood as an either/or decision because his concept of truth remained possessive—Heidegger sought to own the time of his life and the authentic core of his finite Dasein. Jaspers suggested a third response that straddles the divide:

You are having a difficult experience with your mother, which I can comprehend from a distance. That the alternative philosophy-theology can play a role here is heart rending. If I were to inject myself into it, I would—in the consciousness of knowing nothing, but respecting the belief of the loved one, more than that, recognizing it as truth—perhaps speak in its forms and representations, and ask [her] to put in a good word for me in heaven, and promise on my side to do what I could. But to you that will seem very remote and hopeless.[1]

Given his lack of response, this suggestion might indeed seem useless to Heidegger. But is this also the case for Hägglund’s imaginative book, which not only navigates the tensions between philosophy and religion but links a bold concept of secular faith to a robust political project? At first sight, Heidegger’s either/or is similarly cast in This Life as an irreconcilable dichotomy which could easily provoke conflict and self-negation. But Hägglund’s idea of secular faith also sounds reminiscent of Jaspers’s suggestion for at least three reasons. First, secular faith is not interested in rejecting religion but in clarifying the motivational directionality of belief and showing that what frequently passes as religious commitment is indeed deeply secular. Secondly, Hägglund’s secular faith is rooted in the genuine acknowledgment that purpose and meaning can only arise in relation to vulnerable and finite life; it might therefore be fundamentally bound up with “the consciousness of knowing nothing.” And finally, this vulnerability marks a potential common ground where all different beliefs can meet. We explicitly or implicitly care for people, projects, and things because they can be lost. To be human means to be finite. But rather than viewing this as a deplorable condition which we should seek to overcome in following religious promises of eternal happiness, we should fully embrace our fragility as the precondition for our individual and collective freedom. 

The book’s argument is highly original and provocatively refreshing. It is also very timely as it responds to the crisis of faith in liberal democracy and a return of religion and extremism in politics as well as a widespread concern about the motivational and spiritual resources in increasingly secular times. Its most powerful message might be that secular life forms are not indicative of a motivational deficit—they are not disenchanted and, thus, bound to a deeply religious narrative of an irremediable loss of faith in eternity. Instead, secular believers have realized that the problem with God is not that he is dead or might not exist but that he is indifferent and thus undesirable

Unlike the New Atheists, Hägglund is not interested in proving or disproving religion on a scientific level. He wants to know how to transform world-views, not develop a scientific theory about the (in)significance of religion.[2] But Hägglund’s avowed intention to remain on the level of world-views also comes at a cost: They tether him more firmly to the dichotomy of religious versus secular values which does not help him move beyond its inherent either/or structure and encourage religious believers to engage with his arguments – a wish he explicitly communicates (13). Indeed, there seems to be a gap between an ethical and an ontological view of secular faith. If he remains on the level of values, how can he normatively establish secular faith as the universal grounds of rationality without implying that people holding religious faith are necessarily in bad faith, or, in Marxist terms, succumb to forms of false consciousness?

There are two main problems in Hägglund’s account that suggest a confusion of ethics and ontology. First, he argues for an ontological account of secular faith that identifies faith with commitment to such an extent that the certainty of a personal decision is privileged over the communicative suspension of convictions. Second, despite all contrary efforts, Hägglund’s concept of secular faith reflects a traditional understanding of secularity as the negation of religious transcendence that ultimately remains bound to disenchantment. I wish to discuss both points and end by suggesting a more genuine engagement with political theology. 



Starting with the first problem, the conflation of commitment and faith, Hägglund sees secular faith as the transcendental condition for commitment. To be faithful, in other words, is built into the commitment itself, either implicitly or explicitly. But does this imply that basically every action is grounded on faith? Wouldn’t such a trivialization of faith turn Hägglund’s account into a thin theory that loses its concrete pull and discriminatory force? Hägglund denies and points at his distinction between secular and religious faith. Whether faith is secular or religious depends on the “animating principle” and directionality of the commitment to which it gives rise, namely whether this commitment is oriented toward this life or the afterlife. It is worthwhile engaging with this argument, which most lucidly surfaces in his discussion of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling

The relation of faith and commitment is most dramatically at play in Abraham’s conflict between his commitment to his son Isaac and his commitment to God, who commanded him to sacrifice his son. According to Kierkegaard, Abraham’s faith retains both his love for Isaac and his trust in God. Abraham trusts that God will take care of Isaac in ways unknown to him and so, eventually, he receives both “delight in finitude” and certainty in eternity. Hägglund claims, however, that there is no way to have both: Finite life is not intelligible if we live eternally, because such a life precludes the experience of irrevocable loss. A knight of secular faith, on the contrary, would not give in to Kierkegaard’s delusion. While religious ideals absolve from the pain of loss and despair, the knight of secular faith is fully at stake in making decisions that might risk everything in the here and now. “If I have a life-defining commitment, there are things I cannot do and a world I cannot lose on pain of losing myself” (158). 

The undertone of Heideggerian decisionism with its peculiar combination of “thrownness” and resolve is hard to miss. The flipside, however, of tying faith so closely to commitment within this implicit framework of Heideggerian ontology is a conspicuous silence about doubt, hesitation, and ambivalence in Hägglund’s account of faith, be it religious or secular. On the one hand, Hägglund asserts that we have secular faith if we are aware of our fragility and believe in the importance of failure, risk, and contingency as the preconditions for love, responsibility, and freedom. The ethos of this kind of faith is most beautifully illustrated in his interpretation of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which he subtly contrasts with Hitler’s totalitarian and ideological version of Mein Kampf (90-123). On the other hand, Hägglund does not illustrate ways in which secular faith navigates crises, revises decisions, and broadens the horizon of people. If faith is expressed in or even identical with commitment, then what makes people transition from a state of depression, unrest, anger, and aggression to a loving and responsible commitment to the world? Since the book hardly grapples with the concrete, often tragic, reality of secular commitment, we find the concepts of freedom, care, dependency, responsibility, and love on almost every page, but the book remains curiously abstract about the practical meaning of these terms.

An alternative interpretation of the same Biblical story which links faith with doubt is reflected in Emmanuel Levinas’s critique of Kierkegaard’s Abraham. Levinas criticized the voluntarism of the “knight of faith” and the “madness of a direct contact with the Sacred,” which, he believed, results in the loss of care and communicative sensibility.[3] Most significantly for Levinas, the highest point in the drama is not that Abraham followed God’s command and “obeyed the first voice” but that “he had sufficient distance with respect to that obedience to hear the second voice,” which led him back to the secular order “in forbidding him to perform a human sacrifice.”[4]

This concept of religious faith doubly complicates Hägglund’s account. This Life is quiet about Judaism, whose practices rely on interpretations of divine law that have traditionally been highly immanent, including powerful atheist voices. Hägglund does not say much about Hinduism either and remains silent about the deep dialectics of secularity and transcendence in Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian thought, which frequently offer a more intellectual and less voluntarist account of faith. Of course, a book can only do so much and its scope is already admirably broad. But picking a contested “outlier” like Kierkegaard as the representative or ideal type of religious faith might not only be hard to justify, it might also preclude other notions of faith that help us distinguish faith from commitment. 

To be sure, Hägglund invokes an alternative story of Abraham that similarly finds Abraham doubtful and struggling with God. But he does not interpret Abraham’s doubt in terms of distance, suspension, and the pluralization of total demands. He reads it as the disobedience of God that represents an affirmation of secular faith, because it shows how Abraham makes a clear decision on the basis of finitude and entirely commits himself to Isaac “as an end in itself” (164). Doubt here becomes the ground for a new certainty and self-possession. 

In applying the Abraham-Isaac relationship to God and his son Jesus, Hägglund eventually turns his analysis of Abraham as careless and brutal into an ontology of God. Most importantly, he argues that God’s love (agape) is completely irresponsible and unmoved, just as Abraham’s. 

He loves those who kill his son as much as he loves the son himself…In theological terms, his love is entirely spontaneous and ‘unmotivated,’ since it has nothing to do with the qualities or the fate of what he loves…What the Crucifixion reveals, then, is the emptiness of divine love. The reason God has abandoned his son is that he could never care about him in the first place. It makes no difference to God that his beloved son is tortured and put to death. Curiously enough, he is eternally just the same (166-167).

Where does the certainty come from with which Hägglund can assert that God is unable to care? Given that the theological thesis of an unmoved God has been frequently contested, both in positive and negative theology, how does he know that divine love is empty? Hägglund’s secular faith denies Jesus’s resurrection (“Jesus died, as every beloved has always died, with no afterlife apart from those who cared to remember him” (167, emphasis added)) and declares that “God has nothing to teach you about moral responsibility, since he cannot even understand a moral problem” (170). Indeed, Hägglund does not shy away from absolute language, which can also feel liberating as it allows the reader to question many supposedly self-evident assumptions. 

Pitting salvation against freedom in this radical manner could also seem honorable, if this move acknowledged that the tensions between revelation and reflection remain irreconcilable–that we, to quote Jaspers’s letter again, “speak in the forms and representations” of different faiths. But Hägglund’s secular faith is too close to Hegel’s rationality and his subsumption of religion under a universal idea of secular Sittlichkeit to pay closer attention to these irreducible tensions.

Comparable to Hegel’s difficulties in showing the superiority of philosophy over religion and art, Hägglund’s existential ontology of finitude reaches clear philosophical limits. Where does the degree of confidence come from which asserts that there is nothing but this life? How do we know what happens after death, that there is no afterlife and that entire religious traditions are “wrong”? And finally, isn’t faith, unlike religious dogma, suspicious of a language of absolutes and deeply related to doubt and its ability to generate a sensibility for the unprovable manifestations of transcendence? Hegel’s Tragödie der Sittlichkeit seems to acknowledge that we cannot stand outside of time, overcome finitude and death, and assume an Archimedean standpoint of absolute truth. In light of irreconcilable notions of truth, we rather know that we do not know and that the questions common to secular and religious faith continue to return and remain – thank God! – ultimately irresolvable. 

Not grappling with these problems, however, Hägglund’s universalizing turn to a death-of-God existentialism at best conceals and at worst falls into the trap of Carl Schmitt’s well known suspicion: Allegedly secular ideas remain dependent on what they negate and elevate claims in disguised theological garb. This is not to say that I agree with Schmitt’s political theology. But I would argue that any account of secular faith easily succumbs to a version of political theology, if political theology is not genuinely addressed. 



Schmitt is not mentioned in This Life, but political theology is, especially in relation to Max Weber and Charles Taylor. In fact, the term forcefully shows up at critical junctures when Hägglund insightfully juxtaposes his democratic socialism to the escape strategies of political theology. 

We live in an epoch when social inequality, climate change, and global injustice are intertwined with the resurgence of religious forms of authority that deny the ultimate importance of these matters. A dominant response is to retreat from a secular faith in the possibility of progress, in favor of asserting the necessity of a religious sense of “fullness” to sustain our moral and spiritual lives. This book seeks to combat all such forms of political theology (27).

Weber and Taylor would probably agree with Hägglund. A growing sense of disorientation and crisis can lead to forms of re-enchantment. But they would caution against his remedy, namely a political rhetoric of combat which asserts that “the movement toward democratic socialism is … inseparable from the overcoming of political theology and the withering away of religious faith” (388-89). Hägglund does have a compelling response to this critique: To him, political theology is indeed the problem because it takes away the possibility that people can own the responsibility for their life together. In assuming that we must defer to a transcendent authority in order to hold a community together, political theology is inherently antidemocratic and at odds with the realization of freedom. Only if we have faith in this life, can we follow Marx in criticizing religion (and capitalism) for its deep-seated rationalization of human suffering and understand that the world is not God- but human-made. It is only we who can feel responsible and effectively reduce suffering. 

Completing this transition to Marx, Hägglund summarizes that “only someone who is committed can care and only someone who is finite can be committed” (170). That those “who are enslaved or live in poverty may need faith in God to carry on with their lives” is therefore “not a reason to promote religious faith but a reason to abolish slavery and poverty” (27). Even if this treatment suggests that Hägglund confuses political theology with theological politics, which aims at securing rather than contesting the place of religion in politics, Hägglund rightly worries that political theology asserts the significance of an eternal sense of fullness and completion for human beings which can “convert us away” from our secular faith, “disown” our trust in finite life, and “devalue” our freedom. But while the book powerfully traces the Christian presuppositions in the political theology of Weber and Taylor, it misses a fundamental dimension it would need to consider if it does not want to turn political theology into a mere straw man. Indeed, there is one fundamental parallel in both Taylor’s and Hägglund’s argument which raises the question about possible similarities.  

Hägglund acknowledges that Taylor introduced three different notions of secularity. Next to secularity understood as (1) the loss of clericalism in the public sphere and political institutions and (2) the loss of transcendence in private life and a decline in religious belief, Taylor introduced a third aspect of secularity understood as the loss of certainty or immediacy. While before belief in God was axiomatic, now there are many possibilities among others. Different values appear as alternatives that contest each other, one belief can no longer dismiss another belief and the notion of truth itself falls into a crisis—symptomatically expressed in terms like post-truth. Even though the parallels between this notion of secularity and Hägglund’s own notion of finitude are astonishing and even though Taylor’s reconceptualization of Weber’s theory of disenchantment is rooted in his third definition of secularity against the other two, Hägglund does not discuss this matter further. The problem of difference, relativism, and nihilism—so fundamental to all value pluralists, including Weber—is of no real concern in the book. 

Instead, Hägglund conflates Taylor’s third notion of secularity with the second narrative of the decline of religious faith. Writing like an atheist, Hägglund welcomes the kind of pressure that the diversification of society has put on the “hegemony of religious belief.” It almost seems as though the atheist position is as privileged in Hägglund’s account as Christian agape is for Taylor—both being a response to human finitude and ultimately embedded in a Heideggerian ontology. Unlike Hägglund, however, Taylor has repeatedly acknowledged his own bias and that “the search for a universally acceptable term [such as fullness] might be a mission impossible.”[5] 

In addition to this unacknowledged similarity, the implications of Hägglund’s curious silence about this type of secularity are also apparent in his discussion of democratic socialism, where the book offers a more resolute rhetoric of revolution and a principled account of how to revalue everything we value. Weber and Taylor, being attuned to the problem of value conflict and the voluntarist flight into ideologies, sought to address how plurality can be maintained and not give way to radicalization and bigotry. Hägglund, however, does not mention inevitable conflicts and how debates about people’s needs can be had in a system where, ideally, everyone lives according to their needs. Historically, democracy has offered an institutional framework which promises a solution: People compete for the best political visions and the rule of law guarantees peaceful transitions of power. But Hägglund is critical of liberal rights and does not discuss how democracy and socialism are supposed to work together. 

With regard to this issue, we are again left with ethical/political and ontological/moral questions. Who is to decide the rules of the political contest? Who makes the ultimate decision of who should value what? And most critically, how can Hägglund’s ontology of secularity inform a political theory of re-valuated value that is both democratic and socialist? Weber would certainly raise skepticism and suggest that history so far has demonstrated a polytheism of rationally irreconcilable values that cannot be subsumed under one unifying sense of value. 

If secular faith were able to respond to Weber’s challenge, then, I assume, it would need to show how divisiveness can be turned into solidarity and how totalizing world-views can transform themselves. It would have to encourage a notion of purpose that overcomes meaninglessness and despair and prevent people from ending up in tribalism or fighting violently over the scarce resources of this planet. Weber suffered from disenchantment, as Hägglund rightly notices, but he did so also because he knew how hard it was to grapple adequately with this task. It seems that the originality of Hägglund’s account derives, at least in part, from its political and philosophical naïveté. And this, in turn, might also explain why he is able to so glibly sidestep Weber and Taylor and appear refreshingly unimpressed by their worries.



As a result, and despite Hägglund’s attempt to liberate the secular from the religious, he remains bound by disenchantment. Both Paul and Dostoyevsky, who the book judges to be in the wrong (168-69), haunt its main narrative. Paul famously wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians that if there is only this life, then life is vain and futile; all that is left is to “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (I Cor. 15:32). And Dostoyevsky claimed in The Brothers Karamazov that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. Even if we do not agree and seek to develop an alternative account of faith, the nihilism to which both allude cannot be countered by Hägglund’s deconstruction of an indifferent God, because this indifference has long been part and parcel of the third dimension of secularity as described by political theology. 

If we therefore wish to distinguish Martin Luther King’s commitment to spiritual freedom, (discussed at the end of the book) from the commitment of, for instance, Alexander Dugin or Steve Bannon, Hägglund’s concept of secular faith cannot really help us. All three would affirm that they fight for a revaluation of what we value and an end to capitalism; and each of them would relate their sense of purpose to their experience of failure and a consciousness of finitude. What seems to distinguish King, however, is the firm openness and animating humility of his faith. I agree with Hägglund that King’s faith was secular, but not primarily because it trusted in the value of this life against the value of an afterlife. Instead, because it believed that things could be otherwise in the here and now. Rather than the second secularity of horizontal immanence versus vertical transcendence, he was motivated by the tragedy implied in a world that clings to distraction and dogmatism in light of his life-transcending vision. King therefore did not negate “the talk about New Jerusalem” but spoke in its forms and representations when he turned “the New Jerusalem” into a metaphor that he translated into “the New New York, the New Atlanta, the New Philadelphia, the New Los Angeles, the New Memphis, Tennessee.” 

The question of how we should live with difference in light of what we come to understand as finite, limited, and scarce remains surprisingly absent from this ambitious and well written book. Hägglund’s combination of a Heideggerian voluntarism with a Hegelian focus on freedom universalizes finitude in a rational way. The highest good consists in the practice of coming together as finite beings and, on this ground, recognizing each other’s dignity as an end in itself. This might sound like a Rawlsian existentialism and result in the unconventional combination of an abstract thinness of principles and a thick ontology of human existence. This existentialist rationality privileges certainty and makes it difficult to grasp the tragic and ambivalent dimensions of secular faith, which interprets religion as human not in order to secularize it in terms of worldly commitment but, dialectically, to preserve its transcendence as the knowledge not to know. It is this latter ethos which I find in all religious and philosophical traditions alike. It would be wonderful if Hägglund’s demanding theory of secular faith could be deepened and its implications for democratic socialism reconsidered. This Life offers an immensely promising start.


[1] Jaspers to Heidegger, March 2, 1927, in Heidegger and Jaspers, The Heidegger-Jaspers Correspondence (1920-1963), 76 (emphasis added).

[2] His use of religion can therefore itself be considered innovative, which is nicely illustrated by various examples such as his discussion of secular funerals. Contrasting himself with Charles Taylor, who observed that secular people either feel awkward at religious funerals or have recourse to them precisely because “here at least is a language which fits the need for eternity, even if you’re not sure you believe all that” (A Secular Age, 723, quoted on page 57), Hägglund’s own participation in secular funerals does not confirm this sense of embarrassment and anthropological need for religious transcendence: “Rather, these funerals have provided a space for profoundly felt expressions of secular faith in the irreplaceable value of a finite life – faith in the value of its past, faith in the importance of carrying it with us in the future – as well as devastation at the loss of this life” (61).

[3] Emmanuel Levinas, “Loving the Torah More Than God,” in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 144.

[4] Emmanuel Levinas, Proper Names (Stanford University Press, 1996), 77 (emphasis added).

[5] Charles Taylor, “Afterword: Apologia pro Libro suo,” in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, ed. Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen & Craig Calhoun (Harvard University Press, 2010), 300-321 and 320.


Posted on 18 September 2019

CARMEN LEA DEGE is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Theory at Yale University and works on questions of religion and politics, secularism and plurality. In Fall 2019, she will be a Polonsky Fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.