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This Life and Grief Observed


This week, I started reading Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (2019). I look forward to returning to the post-Kantian philosopher’s exploration of time each durée I’m working on something else, like writing this Sabbath school commentary. Hägglund is a professor of comparative literature and humanities at Yale University, and he won the discipline’s highest award for this book. The commendation states:

A work of great critical ambition that confronts religion and capitalism, freedom and mortality, threats on the planet, and the history of the left, it projects itself as a bold secular sermon and posits a radical morality for our times. Readers cannot remain indifferent: the notion of secular faith here presented will ruffle many feathers across the political spectrum. It is a work of literary criticism, with readings of Dante, Proust, and Knausgaard, and it is a work of philosophy, with readings of Augustine and Kierkegaard inspired by an original interpretation of Heidegger and, at its heart, it is a new thinking of existence in time. It is simultaneously a radical (and practical) case for democratic socialism, arrived at by a powerful juxtaposition of Karl Marx and Martin Luther King, Jr. It is also a work of what is sometimes called wisdom literature, speaking as it does with extraordinary directness and success to the general reader about the ever-timely question of how to live. It is a book against which alternative life projections must be measured. Balancing its bold universalism with a case in favor of modesty and sensitivity to the finitude of all human identities and projects, This Life is absolutely unique.

The beautifully written book is also breathing new life into an old friend for me: C.S. Lewis. Exploring his 1960 book A Grief Observed, on the death of Lewis’s wife Joy Davidman, Hägglund observes the following about the mourning man. “In contrast to his religious faith in eternity, Lewis describes a passionate commitment to a finite life. . . . Love is not something that can take place in an instant. Rather, love expresses a commitment to caring for another person across time. The temporality of such love is not merely an unavoidable condition; it is intrinsic to the positive qualities of being with the beloved. In loving another, one cherishes a projected future, the repetition of acts, and the ongoing time of living together. It is the end of such a temporal life that one mourns when the beloved is lost. And as Lewis makes clear, the hope for eternity is not a consolation. Even if the hope for eternity is fulfilled, it would not bring back the life they shared together.” Here Hägglund shares a profound quote from Lewis about the depth of grief that surpasses popular religious understanding. Surprisingly, this week so does the Adult Bible Study Guide. “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like.’ ” 

The lesson continues its theodical quest and offers, perhaps, helpful answers for some. But this weekend, I’m in the mood to immerse myself in the questions that Hägglund and Lewis raise about life and the temporal. Speaking of a good time, I’ve enjoyed this online audio version of Lewis’s A Grief Observed, as well as a good 13-minute video essay exploring Shadowlands (1993), Richard Attenborough’s film version of Lewis’s book.


Alexander Carpenter is executive editor of Spectrum

Title image: Among the Sierra Nevada, California, Albert Bierstadt, 1868 (public domain). 

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