I was wrong.
In my blog post about a review of "This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom," I said that because the book is over 400 pages, it would take me a while to write about it after I'd started reading "This Life" following my Amazon purchase.
But here I am, writing about Martin Hägglund's book, because I'm loving it so much, I can't help but share my enthusiasm. For me, this truly is a life-changing book.
I'm understanding what life is all about in a clearer fashion. I'm acting differently toward the loved ones I'm in daily contact with, my wife and dog. I'm appreciating precious moments in my life with more passion, intensity, thankfulness.
After reading the introduction and first chapter of "This Life," I'm resonating with Hägglund's central message. Expressed in my own words, it is that we all find meaning in the finitude of life, the uncertainty of life, the realization that what we love and value is precarious, so it needs our caring.
This is secular faith.
Hägglund says the following in his Introduction. I'm quoting him at length because this is a good overview of his viewpoint, which I heartily agree with -- and almost certainly will be writing more about.
Secular faith is committed to persons and projects that may be lost: to make them live on for the future. Far from being resigned to death, a secular faith seeks to postpone death and improve the conditions of life. As we will see, living on should not be conflated with eternity.
The commitment to living on does not express an aspiration to live forever but to live longer and to live better, not to overcome death but to extend the duration and improve the quality of a form of life.
...To have secular faith is to acknowledge that the object of our faith is dependent on the practice of faith. I call it secular faith, since the object of devotion does not exist independently of those who believe in its importance and who keep it alive through their fidelity.
The object of secular faith -- e.g., the life we are trying to lead, the institutions we are trying to build, the community we are trying to achieve -- is inseparable from what we do and how we do it. Through the practice of secular faith, we bind ourselves to a normative ideal (a conception of who we ought to be as individuals and as a community).
The ideal itself, however, depends on how we keep faith with our commitment and remains open to being challenged, transformed, or overturned.
The object of religious faith, by contrast, is taken to be independent of the fidelity of finite beings. The object of religious faith -- whether God or any other form of infinite being -- is ultimately regarded as separable from the practice of faith, since it does not depend on any form of finite life.
The most fundamental example of finitude in our historical moment is the prospect that the Earth itself will be destroyed. If the Earth were destroyed, all life forms that matter to us would be extinguished. No one would live on and no aspect of our lives would be remembered.
Yet, from the standpoint of religious faith, such an end of life is only apparent. Even if all forms of living on are terminated, nothing essential is lost, since the essential is eternal rather than finite.
...For the same reason, climate change and the possible destruction of the Earth cannot be seen as an existential threat from the standpoint of religious faith. To grasp the existential threat to yourself and to future generations, you have to believe not only that life is finite but also that everything valuable -- everything that matters -- depends on finite life.
This is exactly what religious faith denies. If you have religious faith, you believe that all finite life can be terminated and yet what is truly valuable will still remain.
Now, part of what makes Hägglund's book so intriguing and important is that his critique of religious faith doesn't rest on an assumption that eternity, and the supernatural realm where eternity resides, is fantasy. Sure, this is extremely likely. But Hägglund persuasively argues that eternity/infinity simply isn't desirable.
Hopefully a couple of concrete examples will make this clearer.
Living as I do in Oregon, where much of the state is still quite wild and dangerous, every winter the local evening news will feature a story of climbers on Mt. Hood who either are lost or in serious trouble. Bad weather often makes it impossible for search teams or a helicopter to locate the climbers.
Timberline Lodge, whose name reflects the fact that it is the highest substantial structure on Mt. Hood, is where relatives and friends of the climbers congregate.
In all the many years I've watched coverage of searches for lost climbers, I've never heard a loved one say, "It really doesn't matter to me if he (or she) lives or dies. After all, life is eternal." This shows, as Hägglund points out in his book, that what almost everybody cares about the most is living on, not an abstract belief in eternity.
But if the search team finds that the climbers have died, usually a relative is heard saying, "I'm confident that he (or she) is in a better place now." Well, not really -- because if the relative had been truly confident that life is eternal, not finite, they wouldn't have been crying before, and praying that the search will result in the rescue of their loved one.
This shows that even religious people embrace secular faith in their everyday life. And that this secular faith is at odds with their religious faith.
Hägglund shares quotes from C.S. Lewis, a devout Christian, where Lewis bemoans the death of his wife, saying that he doesn't want her to live on in heaven, he wants her to be living on with him here on Earth, and it is unbearably sad that this is impossible.
ZuZu and me
Recently I shared a post, "Our dog likely is dying, but we had a good time today." This day, Friday, was another good day.
My wife had to go to Portland to meet her sister from Kentucky, who is visiting some relatives in Oregon. So I had the sole care of our dog, ZuZu. Given her late stage liver disease and precarious health, I do my best to always take her with me in the car. I want to spend as much time as possible with ZuZu, since probably she doesn't have much time left to live.
Knowing that her days are numbered makes me more aware that everybody's days are numbered.
You, me, every person and every animal and every other living thing on Earth. We just do our best to shunt that fact to the back of our minds, since the prospect of death is painful, given that everybody we love (which includes ourselves) is going to die one day.
After going to the pharmacy, returning some shoes, and buying some socks, I took ZuZu to the Minto Brown Dog Park. She still has enough energy to be enthused about the sights and smells of other dogs, and the humans who pat her when she runs up to them.
It was one of those Oregon days when the sun comes out, then it sprinkles for a while, then the sun returns. During a sunny spell ZuZu would walk for a while, then roll over on her back and wiggle back and forth in the grass. It's one of her favorite things to do, which includes me kneeling beside her and scratching her stomach and under her chin while she lies in the grass.
I've got tears in my ears as I write this.
I love ZuZu so much. I don't want her to die. I want to scratch her tummy in warm grass for a lot longer than I'm going to be able to. I felt an unbearable sadness at the dog park, at the same time I was feeling ever-so-grateful for another good day with ZuZu.
Such is secular faith.
I want to do everything I can to make ZuZu's remaining life as pleasant as possible, as, of course, my wife does, and her vet does. We know that while death is certain at some point for all living beings, length of life and quality of life largely depends on our caring.
It's painful to love. It's painful to care. But I wouldn't trade that pain for eternity. It would take too many words for me to explain why, and this post is long enough. I'll let Hägglund have the last words.
I am asking us to let go of a way of thinking that leads to a dead end, to recognize that the peace of eternity only resides in the grave.
Rather than try to become invulnerable, we should learn to see that vulnerability is part of the good that we seek. Thereby we can learn to see that our finitude -- and the finitude of what we love -- is not in itself a restriction.
Our bonds to finite life are not only what constrain us but also what sustain us, opening us to the world and to others.