This Life

James Wood wrote a tremendous review of Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom called If God Is Dead, Your Time Is Everything. Since I’ll be quoting a review that quotes the book, we’re two degrees removed from the source, but I don’t have the book yet and there are tons of ideas here I want to mark. Here’s one:

The problem with eternity is not that it doesn’t exist (Hägglund is uninterested in the pin dancing of proof and disproof) but that it is undesirable and incoherent; it kills meaning and collapses value. This is a difficult truth to learn, because we are naturally fearful of loss, and therefore attached to the idea of eternal restoration.

So you could write a book (or, heck, a novel) about this one point, but Hägglund is going to continue to pull the threads of this logic and see what we can learn both about how to live our daily lives and how to conceptualize life itself.

The great merit of Hägglund’s book is that he releases atheism from its ancient curse: its sticky intimacy with theism. Hägglund has no need for a parasitical relationship to the host (which, for instance, contaminates the so-called New Atheism), because he’s not interested in disproving the host’s existence. So, instead of being forced into, say, rationalist triumphalism (there is no God, and science is His prophet), he can expand the definition of the secular life so that it incorporates many of the elements traditionally thought of as religious. Hägglund’s argument here is aided by Hegel’s thinking about religion. For Hegel, as Hägglund reads him, a religious institution is really just a community that has come together to ennoble “a governing set of norms—a shared understanding of what counts as good and just.” The object of devotion is thus really the community itself.

These two ideas together force one who has grown up in religion (could be any religion, could be many religions, doesn’t matter) to ask themselves (a) which of their human anxieties are they salving with religious conceptions and (b) what societal ills are quelled by the existence of religion. Asking these questions allows one to recontextualize religion in life: only then can you choose or reject religion itself. In the absence of this deconstruction, you are simply choosing or rejecting religion’s idiosyncrasies, specificities, and people, not the ideas put forth by it or the social institutions buttressed by it.

And to sidestep the fact that I don’t have the time to read Ludwig Feuerbach’s “The Essence of Christianity”, I have to avoid Wood’s deep dive into Feuerbachian thought and instead head to this conclusion:

Feuerbach wanted to liberate human beings from their harmful self-deceptions, but Hägglund sees no imperative to disdain this venerable meaning-making projection, no need to close down all the temples and churches and wash them away with a strong dose of Dawkins. Instead, religious practice could be seen as valuable and even cherishable, once it is understood to be a natural human quest for meaning. Everything flows from the double assumption that only finitude makes for ultimate meaning and that most religious values are unconsciously secular. We are meaning-haunted creatures.

Dayum. I’d wear a t-shirt that read MEANING-HAUNTED. So let’s look at meaning more:

Savagely compressed, Hägglund’s argument goes something like this: If what makes our lives meaningful is that time ends, then what defines us is what Marx called “an economy of time.” Marx is, in this sense, probably the most secular thinker who ever lived, the one most deeply engaged with the question of what we do with our time. He divided life into what he called the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom. Hägglund adopts these categories: the realm of necessity involves socially necessary labor and the realm of freedom involves socially available free time. Rationally, Hägglund says, we should strive to reduce the realm of necessity and increase the realm of freedom. But capitalism is systemically committed to exploiting most of us, and to steadily increasing the amount of labor at the expense of our freedom. Capitalism treats the means of economic life, labor, as though it were the purpose of life. But, if we are to cherish this life, we have to treat what we do as an end in itself. “The real measure of value,” Hägglund says, “is not how much work we have done or have to do (quantity of labor time) but how much disposable time we have to pursue and explore what matters to us (quality of free time).”

So at this point, with these enormous excerpts, I’m just providing thin and ill-informed color commentary on Wood’s great piece of writing. I’ll stop. Just go and read the thing! I have to leave with one more quote, though:

…as Hägglund puts it, “our own lives—our only lives—are taken away from us when our time is taken from us.” We are familiar with the secular charge that religion is “life-denying.” Hägglund wants to arraign capitalism for a similar asceticism. Religion, you might say, enforces asceticism in the name of the spiritual; capitalism enforces asceticism in the name of the material.

And one more thought: ask yourself why capitalism works. Sure, it’s a way for us to specialize, to agree on a system where we barter our effort and our skills not onesie-twosie by individual transactions but rather in service of the whole scorekeeping system called money. And what happens when there’s a system of scorekeeping? We get to declare winners and losers, villains and heroes, us and them. Humans LOVE “us and them”. It’s like their favorite thing in the whole world to do: exclude and judge. So while I love love these ideas of annihilating fundamentally inhumane capitalism, doing so means you still have to solve a tougher problem: replacing the human need to count dollar by dollar why they are winning a game (only some of us agreed to play) with something else, to satisfy the desire to score-keep.

It sounds tautological, but we love games and capitalism persists because it is a game we love. You have to find a game that’s just as pervasive and distracting to the human animal, without being so harmful. And then: world peace, right?

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