Hägglund’s Defense of Faust

In less than five years, with an inkwell's worth of revolutionary writ and an ocean of ecclesiastic blood, the French Revolution blotted out France’s erstwhile official religion, Roman Catholicism. On the newly blank canvas, colorful radicals, chiefly Antoine-François Momoro, Joseph Fouché, and Anacharsis Cloots, painted a wholly novel religious tableau: the Cult of Reason. Its aim was the perfection of man through truth, liberty, and, of course, its namesake, reason—all of which were venerated with many of the rituals and rites that had attended its loathed predecessor, though not as new-crowned gods, but as Momoro was always careful to note, “abstract beings . . . part of ourselves.”

Hastily, the cult’s champions swept away or repurposed the relics of French Christianity. Fouché, for instance, decreed that crucifixes and statues be removed from graveyards and that such places bear solely the inscription “Death is an eternal sleep” upon their gates. Likewise, the Marquis de Sade—newly freed from prison—authored a petition calling for the conversion of churches to temples of the Cult of Reason. In the petition, de Sade wrote, “Legislators: The reign of philosophy has finally annihilated that of imposture . . . There can be no doubt but that with new morals we must adopt a new religion.”  

The petition prevailed, the churches were converted, and the revolutionary clergy organized a nationwide “Festival of Reason.” In Notre-Dame de Paris, the altar was transformed into an “altar to Liberty” and the role of Liberty was played by various young women. In his history of the period, Thomas Carlyle described one such personified “abstract being” in the festival procession being escorted by “men in roman costume . . . wind-music, red nightcaps, and the madness of the world.” Amid the revelry, Cloots declared to the congregation that henceforward there would be “one God only: the People.”  

Prominent critics of the cult who scorned it as atheistic and theologically vacuous—especially Robespierre—were not impressed. Within a year of the festival, the cult was officially repudiated and its advocates sent to the guillotine. Remarkably, the very same antipathy to deistic religion, which had been the cult’s catalyst and proven too revolutionary for even the French Revolution, wholly shed its radical tinge. Nowadays, such an attitude is so common that it is on the verge of becoming déclassé. Yet, despite this seeming triumph, no new Momoros or Fouchés have taken up the task of creating a suitably secular faith—until now. 

Martin Hägglund, a Swedish-born philosopher, is unique among famous proponents of atheism. Rather than grandstanding in lecture halls, pointing upward while gleefully noting the absence of empirical evidence for cherubs, Hägglund works to address the questions that arise when birth and death are seemingly bounded by nothingness. His first two books, Dying for Time and Radical Atheism, met with much acclaim and his latest book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom seems to be garnering a similar reception with positive reviews in the secular media. The book sketches out what the Cult of Reason lacked—a compelling account of an explicitly secular faith.


“To have secular faith,” Hägglund writes, “is to be devoted to a life that will end, to be dedicated to projects that can fail.” Within the typical framework of religious thought, our finitude is lamentable and ought to be overcome, but according to Hägglund, the opposite is true: “any life worth living must be finite.” Hägglund’s choice of the word “secular” is no accident, rather he uses it explicitly in the sense of its Latin forebear saecularis; meaning “worldly” and “temporal”; for Hägglund, meaning cannot be derived from anything beyond the world. Particularly, Hägglund takes issue with the notion that, as Max Weber put it, secular life inherently suffers from “disenchantment” since moderns do not appeal to “mysterious incalculable forces,” and “the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life,” rendering death into a no longer “meaningful phenomenon.”

Contrary to Weber, Hägglund argues that it is precisely the secular, not the transcendent, that animates our desires and most deeply held notions of meaning. In illustration, Hägglund quotes gratuitously from C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, wherein he wrestles with the love he held for his late wife:

Suppose that the earthly lives she and I shared for a few years are in reality only . . . two unimaginable, supercosmic eternal somethings. Those somethings could be pictured as spheres or globes. Where the plane of Nature cuts through them—that is, in earthly life—they appear as two circles . . . the point at which they touched, is the very thing I am mourning for, homesick for, famished for. You tell me, “[S]he goes on.” But my heart and body are crying out, come back, come back. Be a circle, touching my circle on the plane of Nature. But I know this is impossible . . . Unless of course you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions “on the further shore,” pictured in entirely earthly terms. But that is all unscriptural.

With this excerpt and others from Martin Luther recounting the loss of his daughter, Hägglund accentuates a picture of the apparent mismatch between what things we think animate our lives and what things really do. In this vein, he argues that all the allegedly religious visions of heaven as a place where people reunite with their loved ones “are not directed toward God as the End, but at most treat God as a means for retrieving the mortal beloved.” Relatedly, he argues that conceptions of heaven as a timeless place are inherently a space where such human relationships, even if they were to manifest, would become meaningless: “an endless life is just as meaningless as a timeless one. The risk of tragic loss—the loss of your own life and the loss of what you love—is not a prospect that can be eliminated but an intrinsic part of why it matters.” 

Next, Hägglund posits that it would be undesirable to be in eternity at all, initially by critiquing Charles Taylor, a metaphysician who argued that “God’s eternity,” rather than being above or outside of time, “does not abolish time, but gathers it into an instant.” Taylor’s proposition sounds like it would make eternity a space where the sort of desires we cherish in our lives could manifest. Yet, Hägglund objects:

There is no intelligible difference between abolishing time and gathering time into an instant. If time is gathered into an instant there is no time, since the instant does not give way to the future and become past. Rather, everything is present. There is no time for anything to happen, since everything that can possibly happen is already contained in the eternal now. 

Hägglund reasons that Taylor conflates the desire to prolong life with a desire for eternity. Ultimately, he maintains, all the lofty religious language of eternity, which according to Taylor should bring people comfort at funerals, does not actually mirror what even religious folk express when in mourning: profound irreconcilable loss. 

With regard to the notion of heaven as a state where humans could be in God’s eternity, Hägglund notes, “This religious consummation does not fulfill the wishes that animated their life and their lives; it rather obliterates them, as they are literally lost in the rapture of God.” Thus, religious visions of eternity entail, to use Hägglund’s phrasing, “unfreedom” because “In the consummation of eternity, there would be no question of what we should do with our lives. We would be absorbed in bliss forever and thereby deprived of any possible agency.” 

Accordingly, Hägglund quotes Paul Tillich’s oft-cited observation: “there is no faith in the quiet vision of God . . . But there is infinite concern about the possibility of reaching such a vision.” Contrastingly, Hägglund writes, “being concerned is part of what I strive for.” This concern spans the gamut of human possibilities—especially loss, which is why Hägglund rails against the stoic defense of religious faith as desirable because it releases the faithful from the temporal onslaught of human emotion:

Absolute fullness is inseparable from absolute emptiness and absolute presence is inseparable from absolute absence. My argument is that we should reject the idea that such a state of being is a goal worth striving for. A religious redemption from loss—whether through an imminent detachment or a transcendent eternity—is not a solution to any of our problems. Rather than making our dreams come true, it would obliterate who we are. To be invulnerable to grief is not be consummated; it is to be deprived of the capacity to care. And to rest is not to be fulfilled; it is to be dead.

This increasingly sharp contrast and conflict between religious and secular aims predictably leads Hägglund to bring Augustine to the fore. Hägglund quotes, among many others, the following passages from Augustine’s Confessions: “My sin was in this—that I looked for pleasure and exaltations, truths not in God Himself, but in his creatures . . . so I fell straight into sorrows, confusions, and mistakes” and “God must be loved in such a way that, if at all possible, we would forget ourselves.”

As Augustine does, Hägglund argues that this mismatch between religious and secular commitments manifests in every aspect of life from the smallest of pleasures to the most passionate of loves. Though Augustine himself regards temporal attachments as, at best, instrumental to achieving a glorious self-abnegation and thereby harmony with God—Hägglund favorably cites the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård as a sort of anti-Augustine. In his monumental multi-volume work, My Struggle, Knausgård, like Augustine, details his secular life with Proustian precision, but unlike Augustine, he does not reject it as a proper end in itself.

Knausgård, according to Hägglund, embodies the careful attention to life of someone with secular faith. Yet, as Hägglund admits, Knausgård, especially in the final volume of My Struggle, occasionally laments his secularism. For instance, Knausgård writes that he sees himself as “one of the world’s many soulless and banal human beings” and speaks admirably of “the devotion of the mystics,” especially the Church Fathers. Hägglund acknowledges this digression and argues that this feeling is part of secular faith—a sort of parallel to doubt for the religious faithful. The important takeaway from Knausgård is, according to Hägglund, that despite these doubts, Knausgård persists in living his life as its own end; his sense of meaning is inextricable from his temporality.

These two modes of living, Hägglund explains, cannot be reconciled and nowhere is that irreconcilability made clearer than in Kierkegaard’s account of the sacrifice of Isaac in Fear and Trembling. Whosoever possesses true religious faith, according to Kierkegaard, must be ready to sacrifice the finite, symbolized by Isaac, for an infinite God. In Hägglund’s words, “To prove your religious commitment, you must be able to renounce your secular devotion to any form of living on—including the living on of your most beloved child—by virtue of your complete faith in the eternal.” Such a faith “means not being responsive to anything that calls your faith into question, even if it is the cry of your child as you are taking his life.” In this sense, religious faith “must be completely irresponsible with regard to any other concern.”

Whereas Kierkegaard furnished his readers with a daunting account of the obligations inherent in religious faith, as illustrated by the example of Abraham, and exhorted them to embrace it, Hägglund proffers the same account, but advises his readers that not only is such a faith absurd (Kierkegaard himself acknowledges this), but that the alternative is far more reasonable. He writes, “Only by loving Isaac for his own sake—while recognizing that his life is essentially fragile—can you care for him. And yet it is precisely such a care that religious ideals of absolution demand that you give up.”

Largely, people who identify as religious love their finite kith and kin not as means but as ends. Yet, as Augustine, Kierkegaard, and Hägglund make clear, such a temporal orientation is incompatible with a faith directed toward the infinite. In a further illustration Hägglund quotes Meister Eckhart: “The man who is in absolute detachment is carried away into eternity where nothing temporal affects him . . . true detachment means a mind as little moved by what happens, by joy and sorrow, honor and disgrace, as a broad mountain by a gentle breeze.” Correspondingly, Hägglund writes, “to look at Jesus on the cross and see an image of salvation rather than irrevocable loss” one must make the “double movement” that Kierkegaard describes in Fear and Trembling—one must resign the world and simultaneously have faith that all is possible through God.

So, if all is truly possible through God, Hägglund continues, then nothing can be at stake for God in the secular sense of the term (God bears no risk), meaning that “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.” Certainly, this is a provocative narrative, but carefully understood within Hägglund’s secular lens, it is an intelligible way of describing a correspondent image to the sacrifice of Isaac: Abraham is ready to sacrifice his beloved son because all is possible through God and God does sacrifice his beloved son because all is possible through God. Both instances demonstrate a love wherein the sense of risk that characterizes temporal commitment is not only absent, but intrinsically rejected. If it can be said that Abraham and God love their sons, it would only be true in the religious sense: such love is “empty” of secular commitment. 

Thus, if you were Abraham and you possessed secular faith, “you would never take his [Isaac’s] life, even if God commanded you, because you understand that death does not make sense and does not redeem anyone.” Remarkably, this tangent distinguishes Hägglund’s position from virtually all of its peers within the school of atheistic humanism, which all entail the necessary absence of God to make their claims reasonable.   


At this juncture in the book, Hägglund, after providing an attractive account of secular faith relative to its religious counterpart, shifts to politics:

The question of who we ought to be is alive for us, since it is at work in all our activities. In engaging the question “What should I do?” we are also engaging the question “who should I be?” and there is no final answer to that question. This is our spiritual freedom.

Yet, Hägglund is not quite preaching freewheeling subjectivism; he notes that this notion “does not entail that we can question all the norms of our lives at once, and we are not free to invent our principles out of nothing.” Rather, in a manner that parallels some fundamentalist religious approaches to ethics, Hägglund asserts that particular ethical obligations derive not from reason, but from secular faith. For instance, he remarks, “my commitment to being a father is not reducible to the reasons I have for being a father . . . the commitment itself is sustained by faith.”

Far more than fatherhood, however, secular faith—in a somewhat integralist fashion—obliges political action; Hägglund writes, “the cultivation of secular faith is indispensable for progressive politics.” As it turns out, capitalism, Hägglund explains, does not order society in a fashion that recognizes the value of our finite lives, which is notable because, Hägglund argues, value is derived, as Marx would have it, via labor—which Hägglund claims is actually based upon “the originary measure of value”: a finite lifetime. So, in an effort to draw an immanent critique, Hägglund alleges that capitalism “treats the negative measure of value as though it were the positive measure of value,” since “the value of disposable time—is the real measure of wealth because it is internal to the value and measure of labor time in the realm of necessity.”

Essentially, Hägglund’s claim is that in capitalism, though one’s time is the true measure of value, the economy functions by putting it to use to generate only more abstracted time in the form of capital:

When people in our society are not needed for wage labor . . . we regard this as a problem that needs a solution (“unemployment”) rather than as an opportunity to be seized. The idea that wage labor—which by definition is a means—is required for the sense of purpose and meaningful activity (an end in itself) is entirely specious.

Thus, Hägglund contends, we ought to abandon capitalism and build an economic system aimed at giving people and the body politic at large time to actualize spiritual freedom. This sort of grand political project, Hägglund claims, was inherent in Marx’s vision of communism as a system that would allow for, as Marx put it, “the free development of individualities,” which Marx specified as “The artistic, scientific etc. development of individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all.”

So, employing that critique and coupling it with the observation that we in the United States seem to value the free use of our finite time as an inherent component of our commitment to liberal democracy, Hägglund surmises, “for democracy to be true to its own concept of freedom and equality, capitalism must therefore be overcome.” In order to affect this great leap to Hägglundist-Marxism, which Hägglund himself humbly terms “democratic socialism,” he suggestively quotes Marx’s famous insight, “Democracy is the solution to the riddle of every constitution,” and adds as garnish, “In a democracy, we are answerable not to God but to one another.”

Yet, despite Marx’s famous distaste for mere theorizing and his commitment to practical reform, Hägglund does not devote so much as a single full page to the vagaries of the policies that would reify his political vision and admirably admits it. Instead, Hägglund uses this section of the book to focus on outlining the principles on which his system should be built. In general, Hägglund is leery of actual, historical communist regimes and approvingly cites the Canadian political economist Moshe Postone’s oft-cited critique—that under Stalinism, for example, the state, instead of acting in a truly revolutionary fashion, actually functioned as a massive capitalist that used its authority to force its subjects to do proletarian labor to get by. Likewise, Hägglund denounces utopian socialists who advocate for what is essentially capitalism minus the costs because they all refuse to engage in what Hägglund (borrowing from Nietzsche) calls “the revaluation of value,” by which Hägglund means making finite time—and by extension spiritual freedom—the new summum bonum of politics. Furthermore, Hägglund roundly condemns more radical, esoteric socialists as well as wonkish social reform schemes likes Universal Basic Income as respectively either crypto-religious or inherently capitalistic. 

Hägglund’s ideal state, based on the principles that he outlines, would look something like this: A radically democratic, but highly powerful centralized authority would direct—with the enthusiastic consent of the citizenry—a society’s resources toward the pursuit of the automation of all the basic goods and services necessary to the fulfillment of the citizenry’s spiritual freedom. Until full automation is achieved, the citizenry would help cultivate the conditions that would make such a fulfillment possible, either of their own volition or as a sort of civic duty. Additionally, the citizenry would, by use of the state, work toward larger societal secular commitments.

Finally, nearing the end of the book, Hägglund, in the fashion of Marx, exhorts his readers to remember, “The critique of religion—like the critique of capitalism—must . . . be an immanent critique,” and that “We must locate the resources for overcoming the religious understanding of finitude within the practice of faith and its commitment to a shared social life.” Precisely in that vein, Hägglund lionizes the words of Martin Luther King—painting his rhetoric of Christian salvation as the veneer on top of a more sensible secular project to ease people’s suffering and pave the way for temporal freedom. 

In the conclusion, perhaps the book’s weakest section, Hägglund offers a revisionist account of Hegelian philosophy. For instance, he unironically asserts that “Hegel agrees with the general Enlightenment critique of religious faith, which maintains there there is no God,” and, regarding Hegel’s theology,

Whereby Hegel is read as promoting some form of theology of Cosmic Spirit or Absolute God who actualizes himself in human history. Nothing could be further from the truth. The absolute knowing of absolute spirit is not the act of God, but our philosophical grasp of the conditions of spiritual life.

Furthermore, Hägglund writes, “for Hegel”—perhaps the most orthodox absolute idealist in the history of philosophy—“the mortality of Jesus should lead us to recognize fragile material embodiment as inseparable from any form of spiritual life. Spiritual life does not descend or ‘fall’ from or into finitude. Rather, spiritual life is from the beginning subject to—and a subject of—a finite form of life.” Thus, he concludes: “The command of or the will of God only makes sense if we understand the term in a Hegelian way, ‘God’ is a name for the communal norms that we have legislated to ourselves.”

At long last, Hägglund provides a brief, suggestive glimpse of what his ideal society would actually look like:

Under democratic socialism, we will not be baptized in the name of God, but it will make sense to have ceremonies that acknowledge and celebrate the newborn as unique, fragile individuals to whose well-being we are committed: from each according to her ability, to each according to her need. Likewise, the institution of marriage will no longer be mediated by religious faith or capitalist property rights, and there will be multiple forms of institutionalizing partnerships.

Shifting from prophecy to praxis, Hägglund notes, “To complete our emancipation, we ought to remove all remaining forms of political theology by removing any appeal to ‘God’ in favor of the explicit democratic recognition that what ultimately matters is our relations to one another.” Thus, Hägglund picks up the pen just where Momoro, de Sade, and Cloots had left off and with a grandiose flourish adds, “The movement toward democratic socialism is thus inseparable from the overcoming of political theology and the withering away of religious faith.” Strangely, but perhaps intentionally, Hägglund does not mention even one of the French revolutionaries who heralded virtually the same notions a little over two centuries ago.  


Altogether, This Life is far more than a mere distraction for leftwing academics with a theological bent; it is a solution to that quandary on the lips of our era’s autochthons that must have first seemed like a joke, but which has lately taken on a more serious tone: whether it is possible to be spiritual without being religious. Ever since the Cult of Reason followed its founders into the grave, no credible solutions have been proffered to such searching souls barely wading above modernity’s oceanic depths. Yet, now, with an outstretched hand, Hägglund seems to offer a solution, a brand-new orb and scepter: a faith and politics guaranteeing safe passage through the tempest—which looks all the more tempting since the religious ships of yesteryear seem to be long sunk by the Enlightenment. If This Life were just orb or scepter, it would be a tamer creature for a critic to wrestle, but being both, it is a fiercer exercise. Perhaps, it is best to work backward—starting with Hägglund’s appropriation of Hegel. 

Hägglund’s claim that “Hegel’s God” and the Heglian notion of “the will of God” are sensible only as stand-ins for “communal norms” is inconsistent with even the most casual reading of Hegel’s philosophy and theology. While it is certainly true that Hegel’s conception of God was not of some sort of finite agent—a being qua being—it would be ridiculous to call Hegel’s God, which he understood to be the thing by which the world is animated—merely another name for our “collective norms,” as if Hegel’s God had its start and end with humankind. Hegel’s God is inherently infinite, self-aware, and that which we ourselves participate in when we become more fully real. Hegel himself writes in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy,

What is now often said, that man need not know God, and may yet have the knowledge of this relation [the relation of man to God], is false. Since God is the First, He determines the relation, and therefore in order to know what is the truth of the relation, man must know God. Since therefore thought goes so far as to deny the natural, what we are now concerned with is not to seek truth in any existing mode, but from our inner Being to go forth again to a true objective.

It is extraordinarily insightful that Hägglund tries to appropriate Hegel in this way for his political project. Hegel’s philosophy grounds the particularity of temporal history on the bedrock of the infinite. In a sense, Hegel’s philosophy allows for conceiving of something as human as the state to be divine and civic life holy. Yet, any intellectually sincere reading of Hegel shows him to be, in precisely Hägglund’s sense of the term, an (unorthodox) religious thinker. This is not a bold assertion. Marx himself, whose political project Hägglund claims to be furthering, specifically rejected Hegel’s account of the Absolute’s relation to Man in the world: it was exactly this relation that Marx inverted when he developed his own theory of historical progress that emphasized not the foundational primacy of Absolute Spirit, but material conditions as the rudder of historical progress.

Relatedly, when Hägglund contends that religion can be overcome via an immanent critique, which juxtaposes “the religious understanding of finitude” with religious commitments to “a shared social life,” he ignores that it is precisely the religious conception of finitude that typically underlies religious commitments to social life (especially social justice). Benedict XVI, in his moving encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, illustrates:

I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians. We become “one body”, completely joined in a single existence (Deus Caritas Est §14). 

In the vein of “commitment to a shared social life,” Hägglund’s politics is neither inherently tied to any orthodox Marxist account of class struggle (for instance, it is not particularly concerned with empowering the proletariat) or aimed at providing something that approximates familiar conceptions of the good life (for instance, socializing utilities to make fatherhood more financially feasible). Rather, Hägglund aims at an unprecedented goal: freedom for people and society to engage their time, not for some ideal end, but purely for its own sake. Fundamentally, this constitutes an inversion of the relationship between liberal politics and the concept of freedom. 

Certainly, freedom is inherent in liberalism, but it is at most a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to realizing the ends toward which liberalism aims. For instance, liberalism does not sanction the free-yet-vain engagement of one’s time—for example, in excessively playing video games. Rather, freedom within the schema of liberal commitment serves as a vital (or inextricably holistic) means, which allows people to realize aims like social justice, human dignity, and so on. Contrarily, Hägglund is not quite as concerned with what particular ends are pursued (which obligations people take on), so much as he is with the ability to engage in that pursuit (spiritual freedom). Yet, it is exactly this radical, inverted model of freedom, not liberalism’s, that Hägglund uses within his allegedly “immanent” critique of capitalism.

Hägglund’s chief line of attack against capitalism—that it treats the free use of time as a means in a fashion ostensibly antithetical to liberalism’s commitment to freedom—necessarily ignores the place of freedom within the mechanism of liberal commitment: without its commitment to humanitarian aims as the proper use or position of such freedom, freedom becomes insensible within a liberal framework. Unlike liberalism, Hägglund does not order individual and societal obligations toward particular, humanitarian ends. For example, while secular faith could manifest in obligations that would be consonant with liberalism, such as caring for the poor, it could also manifest in inconsonant obligations, like building pleasure palaces. Such a glaring mismatch between political possibilities hardly paints a politics directed at enabling “spiritual freedom” as something deriving from a liberal, immanent critique of capitalism.

Further, that Hägglund’s notion of spiritual freedom allows for such variety in secular obligations undermines its sensibility. Certainly, as Hägglund notes, the ethics and politics of secular faith are not wholly subjective; individual commitments borne of secular faith must be coherent, entail the possibility of failure, and be directed at aims squarely within the world. Yet, when formulated precisely, such commitments become somewhat deflated: saying “I am obliged to work toward X on the basis of my secular faith” sounds less profound than “I am obliged to work toward X, a coherent and temporal project, because I am willing to risk the possibility of not achieving X—an eventuality that I’d find objectionable.”

If an individual were to derive obligations from such a shallow deontology, it would be troubling, but if a whole society were to do so, it would be horrifying; while a “secular” society could superficially resemble a liberal one, there is nothing in Hägglund’s deontology that would prevent a “secular society” from devoting itself to social projects characterized by abject vanity or hedonism. Arguably, this is not a problem stemming from a lack of mere deontic sophistication on Hägglund’s part (meaning it would not go away if, for example, Hägglund added more rules about what sort of things are temporal). Rather it stems from Hägglund’s fundamental rejection of mankind’s relationship to the Absolute—the thing that underlies all ostensibly objective ethical systems.

This rejection thoroughly informs Hägglund’s project: secular faith and spiritual freedom are intentionally reverse-mirror images of their religious counterparts. Extraordinarily, this rejection is not made on the familiar assumption that such a relationship is impossible or unknowable. Rather, Hägglund’s rejection is made on the radical basis that such a striving toward the Absolute is insensible in the face of our apparent commitments to our loved ones and selves—even within the framework of religion.  

Hägglund devotes roughly a tenth of the book to gratuitous excerpts from Christian theological literature with the intention of illustrating the unsettling incongruence between their authors’ yearnings and religious beliefs. In each instance, Hägglund first establishes that these authors were invested in the world and then points out that such temporal investments clash with their religious faith—creating the strong implication that within religion their exists room for an immanent critique. Yet, while the implication is dramatic, it is never quite established. 

All of the religious authors Hägglund cites recognized that wholly temporal yearnings are intrinsically disordered: Luther, for example, despite his emotional conflict, still instructed his congregation following the death of his daughter, “we Christians ought not to mourn.” Yet, in the first quarter of the book wherein Hägglund knocks down familiar “religious” notions like heaven as a domain of reunion or joyous immortality—he illustrates, like Kierkegaard, that religious faith, properly understood, is not quite as humanitarian as it is commonly regarded. Simultaneously, he exposes much of what passes for “religious” notions or attitudes to be secular—the sort of stuff antithetical to a theology oriented toward the infinite—which is perhaps the most persuasive element of Hägglund’s argument. 

In the most romantic sense of the term, when we love, it is the other that we love—not instrumentally as a means of achieving salvation or even as a veiled revelation of the Absolute—just the other. Nowhere better is this exampled than in Gottfried von Strassburg’s 12th century adaptation of the Tristan and Iseult romance wherein Tristan, when asked if he would suffer death for love, affirms that not only would he suffer lifelong pain and the condemnation of society, but even everlasting hellfire. Such love is existentially prior to the whole superstructure of politics and religion, which exists in large part to sublimate it. It is the stuff of humanity at its most fundamental level: it is why Lewis’s account of his grief seems so profound and why Luther’s admonition against mourning seems so alien. Hägglund’s gamble, so to speak, is that once readers understand the character of secular and religious faith, they will begin to intuit that the former is sensible and the latter insensible—if not outright inhumane.

Hägglund’s long discussion of Kierkegaard and the Sacrifice of Isaac magnifies this impression and by the time Hägglund thrusts the crucifixion into the same light, it would not be surprising if even religious readers found themselves confused. This is why Hägglund is comfortable quoting lengthily from Augustine, Kierkegaard, Tillich, and Eckhart—thinkers who usually get short shrift in books propounding the merits of secularism. The conclusion to which Hägglund seeks to lead readers is simple: the Crucifixion, the sacrifice of Isaac, and religious faith do not make sense. From this, the rest of the book follows as an answer to how to live life in light of such information. Yet, such a finite way of life, even for secular saints like Knausgård, has a small problem. 

Secular life, like an unfertilized egg, is ever-pregnant with a strange hollowness. Far from ignoring or denying this, Hägglund addresses this sense of hollowness directly, identifying it as a sort of doubt that dissipates in the face of one’s loved ones. Yet, aside from a mention in the book’s introduction by way of Weber’s formulation, Hägglund does not quite sketch the extent of the relationship between this sense, the larger sociopolitical phenomenon of spiritual emptiness, and the correspondent transcendental longing that arises from both. That this longing exists parallel to and despite more understandable yearnings directed at worldly subjects is, of course, not a novel notion. Perhaps Goethe put it best in Faust:

In me there are two souls, alas, and their

Division tears my life in two.

One loves the world, it clutches her, it binds

Itself to her, clinging with furious lust;

The other longs to soar beyond the dust.

In the vein of Marx’s oft-cited characterization of religion as the “opium of the people,” perhaps this longing is nothing more than the pangs of withdrawal from an ultimately detrimental drug or perhaps it hints at a profound truth that contradicts the lynchpin of Hägglund’s project: the insensibility of religious faith. 


Amid the clamor of every debate over sensibility and insensibility, there hums the mystery of sense: what it is, how it is, why it is, et cetera. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein laid out a series of numbered propositions that, among other things, addressed this mystery and intrigued his contemporaries—especially those that would later become known as the Vienna Circle. At their urging, Wittgeinstein agreed to explain himself. When the appointed hour arrived, he sat down, turned his chair to the wall, and recited some works by the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore. The explanation, if it was one, was not well received. Perhaps the Tractatus’s most enigmatic proposition on the matter is the following:

6.41 The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists—and if it did exist, it would have no value. If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case. For all that happens and is the case is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie within the world, since if it did it would itself be accidental. It must lie outside the world.

To understand this proposition, one must grasp the reasoning that precedes it. At the start of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein characterizes the world as “all that is the case,” which is “the totality of facts, not things.” Thus, to make a proposition about the world is to say something that is either true or false about it. For instance, a proposition regarding Isaac’s face is in part a representation of Isaac that is either true or false and if such a proposition were true, one could by understanding it recognize Isaac even if one, for instance, had not seen him before. In the words of the Tractatus, “A proposition shows its sense,” which means it “shows how things stand if it is true.”     

Ethical statements do not seem to do this. For example, the ethical statement, “it is wrong to mourn the dead,” does not describe anything in particular about the world. Certainly, a statement such as “it is worse to mourn Isaac than Ishmael” says something about how things stand in the world, but it does not say anything about the basis on which they stand. Thus, such statements, according to Wittgenstein, are strictly speaking nonsensical. Yet, that does not necessarily mean that such statements are pointless.

Though statements about logic, for instance, are tautologies that do not depict anything in particular in the world, they—according to Wittgenstein—show something about the world, which is, to use his phrasing, the world’s “scaffolding”: they show what things can be and cannot be. And since these sorts of statements both have no content yet show something about the world, Wittgenstein argues that logic, as well as ethics, and aesthetics are transcendental; these things constitute the metaphysical requirements of our being able to make sense of the world. 

It is not obvious that ethics belongs in this rarified category. While it would be easy to imagine a law of logic being just as true on some far flung planet as it is on ours, laws of ethics, with all their specificity, seem as if they are fundamentally dependent on particular facts of the world like the peculiar dynamics of human civil society or the quirks of human biology—which is a way of saying that perhaps Wittgenstein is wrong when he states that “The sense of the world” lies “outside the world.” 

In his Lecture on Ethics, Wittgenstein addresses this issue by making an insightful distinction between relative and absolute values. Relative values, according to Wittgenstein, can be reformulated as factual propositions, meaning that if the value statement “Martin is a good philosopher,” can be reformulated, as “Martin is a philosopher who has tenure”—the former statement contains a relative value; were the former an absolute statement, such a reformulation would be impossible. In explaining the significance of this distinction, Wittgenstein asks his students to consider two scenarios: in the first, a man plays tennis badly and in the second, he is “behaving like a beast.” In the first scenario, a critic criticizes the man for playing badly and the man responds that he does not wish to play better. The critic cannot really take the matter further. In the second scenario, the critic criticizes the man for behaving like a beast and likewise the man responds that he does not wish to behave better. In the second scenario, it makes sense for the critic to object that the man “ought to want to behave better.”

The critic’s responses are dictated by the grammar of each situation. In the first, the value in question is relative and is appropriately addressed via an implicit reference to the fact to which the value refers. In the second case, however, the value in question is absolute and addressing it in such a fashion is impossible. This is part of the nature of any ethical system, which must allow us to tell someone who is behaving badly that he absolutely ought to behave better. Yet, there arise two parallel issues: how the critic can make a sensible objection without referring to a fact and how the man can make sense of the critic’s objection despite the critic’s lack of factual reference. 

The basis underlying the grammar of the second scenario is perhaps best discussed not by the use of pure reason, but, as Wittgenstein does, through showing—particularly through examining some cases of paradoxical speech. Toward the end of the Lecture on Ethics, Wittgenstein asks his students to consider what we have in mind whenever we say such things as “absolute good” or “absolute value.” No state of affairs that we can talk about has such a quality of being absolutely good or valuable, yet we still find ourselves using such phrases. He argues that when trying to explicate experiences that come close to being, for instance, absolutely pleasant—we might recall eating a candy as a child or embracing a loved one. Wittgenstein asserts that such experiences often cause one to “wonder at the existence of the world.” Similarly, he recounts a related experience: “feeling absolutely safe.”  

Wittgenstein points out that such a description of an experience is nonsense: “To be safe essentially means that it is physically impossible that certain things should happen to me and therefore it is nonsense to say that I am safe whatever happens. Again this is a misuse of the word ‘safe’ as the other example was of a misuse of the word ‘existence’ or ‘wondering.’” For Wittgenstein, this “characteristic misuse” of language that pops up in ethical and religious expressions is insightful. They all seem to be similes of a sort. Yet, similes must refer to something—meaning if a fact can be described with a simile, it must be possible to describe that fact without the aid of the simile. Yet, with religious expressions, such a thing is impossible. Thus, when we have an absolute experience which we feel can only be described with such paradoxical speech, Wittgenstein argues that we must say, “It is a paradox that an experience, a fact, should seem to have supernatural value.”

Wittgenstein speculates that some folks might be tempted to say that there is no paradox—that these expressions are sensible because there really is a fact which is their proper point of reference, but that we simply have not discovered a way of referring to it. Wittgenstein rejects this possibility: “these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions . . . their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world.”   


Even with all this copious explanation, there remains a disconcerting indefiniteness in this argument—as there usually is with such arguments regarding the mystery of sense. It is almost as if they are not arguments at all, but rather elaborate language games meant to rationalize an ecstatic awareness crystallized within religious language: The sort of thing Nietzsche prophesied would persist even after the supposed death of God as an object of devotion which would linger like an immense shadow in the caves of human consciousness. Thus, it is profoundly ironic that such an adumbral image is likely the thing that served as Wittgenstein’s inspiration.

Exactly which of Tagore’s works Wittgenstein read in ostensible explanation of the Tractatus is not known. Yet, one work, a play, is a decent candidate: “The King of the Dark Chamber.” In a letter to a friend, Wittgenstein wrote that he disagreed with the work’s “object of inquiry.” But, a few months later in a letter to another friend, Wittgenstein wrote regarding the play, “I now believe that there is indeed something grand here.”

The play’s plot is simple. A king is invisible throughout the drama. His queen is in a dark chamber where she cannot see him. Since the darkness does not allow the queen to see the king, she tries to construct a perception of the king to fulfill her desire to think of the king as handsome and good. Though the king’s most loyal subjects know when he is nearing and departing and do not ask for proof of his existence or greatness, the queen cannot reach him. In one poignant bit of dialogue, the queen asks a servant, “How can you perceive when he comes?” The servant replies, “I cannot say: I seem to hear his footsteps in my own heart. Being his servant of this dark chamber, I have developed a sense—I can know and feel without seeing.” 

Like Faust, we are faced with a dilemma: On one side stands Tristan and Iseult in passionate embrace, and on the other lies Isaac bound upon the altar, his father with a knife standing over him. From these two visions spring two corresponding political modalities: one oriented within the world and the other without. Hägglund’s choice, secular faith and spiritual freedom, was by no means made on the basis of a sloppy calculus. Rather, Hägglund has rigorously assessed the greatest treasures that religious faith offers—love, heaven, sacrifice—and found that they bear no relation to their worldly parallels: the love of Abraham in worldly terms seems like cruelty, heaven like a glorified grave, and sacrifice murder.

To spell out the reasoning for why the treasures of this world are indeed treasures is simple, but to try to do the same for the treasures of religious faith yields only abstruse arguments and allusions yoked together in a vain assault on the bounds of language. Relative values are explicable; absolute values are not. Secular faith is sensible insofar as it is explicable, but religious faith by being inexplicable demonstrates its absolute sensibility—yet this demonstration rests on a foundation of paradoxes. Simply put, whether Hägglund’s project is worthwhile rests wholly on the answer to an old question: “What shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

Featured Image: Author unknown, Faust and Mephistopholes, 19th century; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Michael Shindler

Michael Shindler is a writer living in Washington, DC. His work has been published in outlets including University Bookman, National Review Online, The American Conservative, and New English Review.

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