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Tuesday, November 22, 2016
Everlasting and Divine
Professor Tony Kronman’s new book, Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, discusses the theology of life—from politics to art.
For the past twelve years, Sterling Professor of Law Tony Kronman ’75 has been teaching in the Directed Studies Program in Yale College—a traditional ‘great books’ course for freshman. In Education’s End (2007), he described the principles of liberal education that underlie DS and other programs like it. Now Kronman has written a new book that addresses one of the central questions that he and his students in Directed Studies confront each year: Is the modern world a godless one, or are its most characteristic features shaped by a novel and distinctive understanding of what Aristotle called “the everlasting and divine?” In Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan (Yale University Press, 2016), Kronman defends the latter view, and while Confessions is a big book and covers a lot of ground, it is mainly a work of theology—or more exactly, one that seeks to put theology back at the center of our thinking about politics, science and art, from which it has been banished in recent years.
Kronman admits that he has never been a religious person in the sense in which that phrase is most commonly used today. He doesn’t believe in a God beyond the world, sitting in judgment on our doings down below, parceling out rewards and punishments according to our deserts. But at the same time, he’s never been comfortable with those skeptical atheists who declare that only fools believe in God. Kronman has always regarded himself as a spiritual person for whom the numinous aura that surrounds all things is even more impressive than the things themselves. But what does it mean to be spiritual yet not religious, in the world we inhabit today? In his sweeping new book, which traces the arc of Western civilization from the Greeks to quantum mechanics and Walt Whitman, Kronman tries to answer this question, which countless others have asked themselves as well.
In Kronman’s view, most of those who today either assert the existence of God or deny it have the same God in mind. This is the God of Abraham—an all-powerful creator who exists apart from the world and demands an obedience that cannot be rationally justified. By contrast, the God to whom Kronman leads his readers is compatible with a boundless commitment to reason and closer to the world than the supernatural God of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed can possibly be. Kronman finds one source for such an idea of God in the philosophy of Aristotle, for whom the divine is nothing but the eternal intelligibility of the world itself. From a modern perspective, however, Aristotle’s theology has a fatal flaw. It is incapable of explaining how the uniqueness of any individual can be invested with a meaning and value that no human inquiry can ever exhaust, as all the Abrahamic religions insist, and modern science, politics and art likewise presume. The reason why Aristotle’s theology falls short in this regard is that his God, though immanent in the world rather than separate from it, and coincidental with reason instead of conflicting with it, lacks the infinitude of power, being, and reality that is the most distinctive feature of the God of Abraham. To find the God we need for the world we inhabit today, Kronman argues, we must join the immanence of Aristotle’s God to the infinitude of Abraham’s. He finds the model for such an idea in Spinoza’s Ethics and to describe his own reworking of it, coins the term “born-again paganism.”
Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan is a panoramic survey of modern life. It attempts to explain how the modern world came to be and what its scientific, literary, and political ideals mean. But most of all, it is a passionate plea for the belief that no human life is imaginable outside the shadow of eternity—even, as Kronman says, in our world today, where all ideas of God seem, but only seem, to have been swallowed by the voracious mouth of time.