Mortality and spiritual freedom

In an August 2020 talk to Bluegum Sangha in Sydney, Australia, Winton Higgins offered some thoughts on This life: secular faith and spiritual freedom, a recently published book by the Swedish philosopher, Martin Hägglund. He explored some of the ways the book might prompt us as dharma practitioners to refocus our practice by clarifying some of our underlying assumptions.

Below is the text for  Winton’s talk. To watch a video of his talk, click here.


Last year an important new book was published, one with implications for how many of us practise the dharma. It’s the Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund’s This life: secular faith and spiritual freedom – accessibly written, and now in paperback.[1] Tonight I’ll explore with you some of the ways it might prompt us to re-focus our practice by clarifying some of our underlying assumptions – ones we often file under ‘Let’s not go there’.

Hägglund starts out from this premise: we’re all vulnerable and dependent on others all of the time; our lives will end in death; and death is final. Our lives entail finite life spans and possibilities, so philosophers call this widely accepted premise ‘finitude’. Some of you might question our finitude, out of a belief in rebirth or some other post-mortem existence that implies endless life, like going to heaven. If so, you can treat the rest of what I’m going to say as an interesting counterfactual hypothesis that still might have implications for your spiritual practice.

Those of us who acknowledge our finitude, on the other hand, must take this, our one and only life, extremely seriously – hence the book’s title, This life. But we may scratch our heads and wonder about the first term in Hägglund’s sub-title: ‘secular faith’. I mean, isn’t ‘faith’ what religious people talk about when committing themselves to achieving  ultimate salvation in eternal things – things different from us mere mortals, then, such as God, heaven, eternal life, or the nirvana of conventional Buddhism?

Faith, secular and religious

So isn’t ‘secular faith’ an oxymoron, because ‘secular’ refers to something that’s bound to a limited time and to specific situations like we ourselves are? Well no, Hägglund suggests: anyone who wants to lead a meaningful life must commit themselves heart and soul to other people, things, and/or ideals that s/he sets up as central values in her/his life.

We must practise fidelity to whatever it is we feel we owe our ultimate loyalty. We must care about them, deeply. This goes for secularly-minded people who by definition accept the finitude premise, as much as it goes for the religiously-minded who focus on the hereafter.

From this point Hägglund sets up a contrast between two pure models of faith: religious faith in the eternal and the certain, versus secular faith in beings, causes and things which, like us, are at risk and time-bound. The model of religious faith implies devaluation of this-worldly life and its elements as an inferior, fallen state of being, a testing ground or prelude before entering into some promised superior existence and timeless bliss – the only worthy objects of our care and loyalty.

We need to treat these two kinds of faith as pure models, because in practice many of us are drawn in both directions. There are blindingly obvious examples of this mismatch in very rich, powerful people who showily attend church on Sundays and frothily proclaim their Christian credentials, but spend the rest of their time in destructive pursuits that flout the Christian ethos. And we’re confronted by the sight of equally showily Buddhist powerholders who collude in genocide and other human-rights abuses.

But the much more significant cases of people torn between these two forms of faith – of fidelity – exemplify the incoherence of religious faith and the strength of secular faith. Hägglund spends some time introducing us to the existential crises of three prominent Christian proponents of religious faith: St Augustine, Martin Luther, and CS Lewis (who took us to Narnia, among other wonderful places). Each of them suffered an overpowering bereavement on the death of someone close to them – a close friend, a daughter, and a wife respectively, and left eloquent ‘confessions’ (memoirs) about them.

All three wrote of their inconsolable agony, compounded by the fact that their grief seemed to them to constitute a form of infidelity to their professed exclusive commitment to God and eternal truths. They were supposed to care only for God, but instead nurtured an overwhelming care for fellow mortals.

When it comes to the crunch (as it inevitably does for all of us) we owe our overriding loyalty to finite people and things just like us – the objects of our secular faith. As finite beings ourselves, they are what we depend on and care about. And nothing can or should assuage our grief at their endings – a grief that honours our care for them and shows us where our true allegiances lie.

Religion offers death-denying analgesics, of course. Mary hasn’t really ceased to exist, just passed on to a new life in a better place, ‘in sure and certain hope in the resurrection’, as my favourite prayer book puts it.[2] Now she’s re-united with Fred, her beloved pre-deceased husband, the death notice in the newspaper informs us.

But the ultimate religious balm to salve our losses follows the ancient Stoics (and Buddhist monastics) in counselling detachment from the concerns of this world. If we’re not attached to anyone or anything, if we don’t care about them, then we can’t be hurt when s/he or it suffers or ceases to exist.

The Stoics called this happy condition apatheia (hence our modern word ‘apathy’); in conventional Buddhism it’s called ‘liberation’. As Kris Kristofferson summed up this life strategy in his deathless blues number, Me and Bobby McGee:

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free

Salvation or spiritual freedom?

Hägglund offers a more inspiring concept of freedom, namely, spiritual freedom. Whereas the object of religious faith is salvation, the object of secular faith is spiritual freedom. Secular faith has no use for salvation, but values above all the spiritual freedom that (in his words) ‘requires the ability to ask which imperatives to follow in light of our ends, as well as the ability to call into question, challenge, and transform our ends themselves’ (p. 175). So: salvation promises freedom from finite life; secular practice seeks the liberation of finite life (208).

Every freedom, according to the old truism, implies a corresponding responsibility. Like Socrates before him, Hägglund sees the good life as consisting of constantly re-posing afresh the (ethical) question, what comprises the good life, for me in my situation.  In this we must remain conscious of our working towards the horizon of our own certain death at an uncertain point in time. We must work with our irreducible anxiety (not to be dismissed as a mere psychological disturbance) about whether we’re living our one life meaningfully and intelligibly. We must enter as deeply as possible into our everyday experience and our memory of past experience.

What’s a dharma practitioner to make of Hägglund’s argument?

On important points Hägglund’s perspective converges with the dharma’s: impermanence, the uncertainty implied by dependent arising, conscious life understood as an ethical path to be lived mindfully and responsibly, one emphasising compassion, generosity and wisdom.

But he brackets conventional Buddhism with Christianity and nails both for offering salvation in the form of blissful eternal life (which, when looked at critically, amounts to effective death), for devaluing this life, for disparaging the attachments that make this life so significant and challenging, for setting up a life-impoverishing ideal of renunciation, and precluding the fundamental questions that go to the heart of spiritual freedom.

On the other hand, his work implicitly sharpens the profile of secular dharma practice. It emphasises the importance of asking and re-posing the big, hard questions about what makes for a flourishing life free of metaphysical certitudes that occlude those questions. In the Satipatthana sutta and elsewhere, the Buddha encourages us to see for ourselves the transitory, precarious, shifting ground on which we stand, and invites us to treat it as our spiritual home base.

Coming to see life in this way constitutes the thrust of insight meditation. The Buddha doesn’t encourage us to then disparage and renounce our worldly commitments as religified Buddhism does. Rather, he leaves the door open to our enriching this life with insight and understanding, as Hägglund would have us do. And we can do in secular insight meditation.

A central issue here is the treatment of dukkha (suffering, anguish, stress). Conventional Buddhism shrinks the dharma down to a flight from all suffering as such. Certainly we can skilfully avoid the self-induced miseries that spring from our own greed, hatred and confusion, as the dharma teaches. But in his first discourse the Buddha presents dukkha in different terms, as consisting of birth, ageing, sickness, death, separation from what we love, being thrown together with what we detest, not getting what we want, and our overall fragility.

No-one who has come of age can avoid any of these vicissitudes, which inhere in life itself. To flee from them is to flee from this life. Being human is a tough gig; we’re all going to get hurt. But if we bravely exercise our spiritual freedom and shoulder our ethical responsibilities, we can become deeper and more spacious beings, not least as we work through our toughest moments. In this way we can all flourish together.

Let’s hear it from Mary Oliver in her poem, ‘The summer day’:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

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[1] New York: Anchor Books, 2020.

[2] The Anglican Book of common prayer:  ‘The order for the burial of the dead’. In the original (1549) version, the words ‘to eternall life’ follow ‘resurreccion’. The Catholic cemetery prayer no. 2 starts with the same formula.


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