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I know the reason why you think you gotta leave
Promises of future glory don’t make a case for me
I did my best and all the rest is hidden by the clouds
I can’t carry you forever, but I can hold you now

Vampire Weekend

By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.

Genesis 2

Martin Hägglund’s book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom explores questions about meaning and human finitude. He does this by differentiating between religious faith, which derives meaning from a transcendent source, and secular faith where meaning is found within finite life. Love is at the center of finite life because the things we care about are fragile—they have an end. For Hägglund, this fragility is precisely why we care about them; we give them attention and concern because we know they will not last, our time is limited, so we pay attention.

The religious appeal to eternity, for Hägglund, is a misguided attempt to circumvent death and loss. Instead of affirming life, religious faith diminishes it by subordinating it to something higher, something beyond. We are given permission to hold back, to reassure ourselves that this is not the end, which means we don’t have to fully commit to the concrete person or experience in front of us. We don’t have to be fully present because we look ahead to a transcendent, eternal, future. Hägglund summarizes it this way:

An eternal life is not only unattainable but also undesirable, since it would eliminate the care and passion that animate my life…Concern presupposed that something can go wrong or can be lost; otherwise we would not care. An eternal activity—just as much as an eternal rest—is of concern to no one, since it cannot be stopped and does not have to be maintained by anyone. (4)
From a religious perspective, our finitude is seen as a lamentable condition that ideally should be overcome. This is the premise with which I take issue. I seek to show that any life worth living must be finite and requires secular faith. (p.6)

It’s easy for Christians to dismiss Hägglund’s critique, to unleash a barrage of bible verses or theological platitudes that undercut any questions about love, death, and human finitude. In my part of the world, we’re so busy regulating sexual desire that we miss the larger question of why we love at all. In John’s letter the reply is “because God first loved us”. And how does God love us? Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Which brings us back to Genesis 3:

By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.

Adam and Eve are told not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The tree represents a boundary, the line separating Creator from creature. God alone determines what is right and wrong, and true wisdom is found only in right relationship with God. The concern in Genesis 3 is that humanity has crossed this boundary, they have eaten from the tree of knowledge, and now they have their sights set on the tree of life.

The problem in Genesis is not a “fall”, which is the residue of a Platonic privileging of the eternal. The problem is that humans want to be more than what they were created to be. They were created to be finite, to exist in the flow of time, to have a beginning and end—to have a life. The curse of Genesis 3 is that humans will toil until they return to the ground—you are dust and to dust you shall return. The curse is toil; until is descriptive, not punitive.

Maybe these words demonstrate God’s grace that overcomes every attempt to become eternal—to become gods. Maybe they point to salvation in Jesus Christ in whom we encounter God’s love that frees us to be human creatures.

Vampire Weekend’s song Hold You Now speaks about the fragility of human love and the need to pay attention.

The first voice begins:

I know the reason why you think you gotta leave
Promises of future glory don’t make a case for me
I did my best and all the rest is hidden by the clouds
I can’t carry you forever, but I can hold you now

The second responds:

Whys your heart grown heavy, boy, when things were feeling light?
Turning this June morning into some dark judgment night
This aint the end of nothing much, its just another round
I cant carry you forever, but I can hold you now

In between we hear Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to Tarrence Malik’s The Thin Red Line:

God, yu tekem laef blong mi
Mi mi givim nao long yu
Bak mi giv evride
Blong leftemap nem blong yu

(God, take my life
I offer myself to you now
And I shall everyday
Cherish your name)

The invitation to “take my life” is embedded within a conversation between lovers. “I can’t carry you forever, but I can hold you now” is a call to let go, stop trying to eternalize everything, and pay attention to what is at hand. To love and be loved, as it slips through our hands, this is what it means to live a human life. This is the revelation of divine love in Jesus Christ, not a holding on to the eternal, but a cherishing of our name—an embrace of the embodied imperfections that make us unique.

This is what is beautiful about Valentine’s Day—the awkward first dates, the anxious first expressions of love, the impending heartbreak, the embrace of another human body, and the fiery passion between lovers. These expressions of love are precious because they are fragile, they take time, they take intention and care.

So, on this Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday, take time to embrace someone you love, awkwardly express your affections, and, when appropriate, make passionate love. Do this because you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Good. Good for honoring Haegglund’s premise, and not being defensive, and yet witnessing to the nevertheless offer of the Gospel.

  • Jane Porter says:

    My “yes” to this blog.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Yes, it’s this passing life that makes love and loving so needed and so precious!

  • Adrian Helleman says:

    A passionate and loving “yes”!

  • RZ says:

    Thank you Jason. There is much to reflect on here! I read this while reflecting on criticism of the ” He Gets Us” commercials, which reportedly did not go far enough in explaining the salvation formula.
    “The problem is that humans want to be more than they were created to be.” Yes. Hagglund cannot impact the inevitability of eternity any more than hundreds of denominational groups can nail down the “right” definition of a “good” life. The two trees of Eden are not “gotcha” trees, but rather reminder trees. There are two things that creatures cannot bestow upon themselves: immortality ( tree of life) and the ability to define good and evil ( tree of g and e). They are simply ( yet gloriously) dust creatures and not divine-DNA creatures. The story is not intended to give us someone to curse or blame for sweat, toil and pain, but rather to point to the only one who is above that. And that One promises the gift of loving and being loved, presently and ultimately.
    I give Rick Warren credit for stating this correctly decades ago in The Purpose Driven Life. Who am I? Why am I here? Before answering that, one must first declare: It is not about me.

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