Philosopher Martin Hägglund challenges our received notions of faith and freedom. The faith we need to cultivate, he argues, is not a religious faith in eternity but a secular faith devoted to our finite life together.
...an audacious, ambitious, and often maddening tour de force ... This Life asks secular readers to take their own secularism seriously, reminding them that their worldview can and ought to influence their politics as fully as it might for religious believers ... his project is to be applauded. Its iconoclasm and sweep provide an example of what intellectual activity can and should look like in an era of emergency ... The answers certainly are not banal: starting from first principles, Hägglund seeks to reconstruct what a worthwhile human life might look like, and what institutional arrangement might make it possible. The most interesting feature of his analysis is the great attention he gives to temporality ... the great virtue of the book: it provides a regulative ideal, and a reminder of what kind of world we are actually fighting for. However secular he might be, Hägglund’s is ultimately a project of restoring faith ... The problem is that, for a book so concerned with theology, Hägglund does not really have a theory of religion. He does not, in other words, have a theory to explain why so many people, today and historically, have devoted themselves ... After a half century of anti-utopian suspicion, This Life calls us back to a nearly forgotten style of thinking and imagining.
For a work that aims to outdo everyone from preachers and self-helpers to political pundits and economists, This Life spends little time orienting itself to 2019. There are no assertions about internet tribalism, resurgent populism, or the spiritual void of modernity; there isn’t even a Trump cameo ... Superficially at least, economic reasoning, the elite common sense of our time, is as much concerned with the stakes of our choices as This Life is. Hägglund doesn’t entirely discard this reasoning. Instead he deepens it ... Hägglund can give the impression of gliding over the problems this society might face ... Every age invents respectable formulas to convert local limits of imagination and experience into universal limits on reality. A book that presses against these limits does more service than one that dresses them up with libertarian bromides and a little evolutionary psychology, as too many of our 'big thinkers' do ... To the extent that readers find his argument persuasive, it is up to them to make it useful ... Whether or not Hägglund needs to save devotion from religion, This Life presents a vital alternative to certain kinds of nihilism that today’s politics can produce ... I am not sure that anyone who has signed on contentedly for growing inequality mitigated by a little redistribution will be moved to democratic socialism by Hägglund’s conception of freedom. But for those who start with some version of his politics, the idea that we should be fighting for control over our time might prove powerful.
As it turns out, 'secular faith' and 'spiritual freedom' each have precise meanings in Mr. Hägglund’s argument. Together they make up an overarching theory that is meant to place This Life in dialogue with the classics of modern philosophy ... The concept of 'secular faith' would be enough for a book all by itself. But in This Life it is only the prelude to Mr. Hägglund’s discussion of 'spiritual freedom' ... democratic socialism is Mr. Hägglund’s name for a utopia in which everyone divides all necessary tasks, allowing us all to enjoy more free time. What this might mean in practice remains vague, but Mr. Hägglund gives one example: As a professor at Yale, he could contribute to the general good by 'spending an hour per day mopping classroom floors and running the dishwashers in the cafeteria' ... This suggestion inadvertently points to some of the problems in Mr. Hägglund’s utopian vision ... But the unreality of Mr. Hägglund’s socioeconomic vision is not the main problem with This Life, which is not, after all, a work of economics. More important is the thinness of its understanding of human psychology ... This Life is undone by its failure to reckon convincingly with sin and death—precisely the themes of human experience about which religion has so much to say.