Book ReviewsReviews

Book Review: “Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan”

Epically ambitious” is a good way to describe Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, Yale professor Anthony Kronman’s magisterial evaluation of Western theology, history and philosophy. Kronman’s grand goal—advancing and defending a theological “third way” between theism and atheism—is staggering in scope, a project that canvasses thousands of years of Western culture. And despite its voluminous page count, Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan is a spellbinding read. Confessions deftly weaves together art, philosophy, science, history, music, and countless other disciplines into a Charles Taylor-style metanarrative of Western secularity. Ultimately, Kronman contends, a concept of God derived from the work of Baruch Spinoza can be the only plausible God of modernity.

Amazingly, despite the brilliance of Kronman’s work, I have yet to encounter any review that’s seriously engaged the book’s extensive arguments. And it strikes me as a real shame, given the weightiness of the issues involved, that some of the most interesting minds in philosophy and theology haven’t weighed in. To paraphrase Francis Fukuyama, Kronman’s book is a story of “the end of intellectual history” that treats the emergence and spread of contemporary secularity as the natural terminus of a philosophical trajectory set long ago. Thinkers of this caliber can’t afford to be ships passing in the night: the theories they offer center on the most significant questions of existence, with implications for virtually every field of human knowledge.

Given the vast scope of this question (and the fact that I’m certainly no expert in the field), I’m hesitant to even venture into these waters. But while there’s obviously no way to do these themes justice in any one-off article, this is a conversation that seems worth starting.

Kronman’s story begins with the “pagan theologies” of the early Greek philosophers, which metaphysically intertwined God and the world while advancing an ethical framework focused on living virtuously on earth. The Christian tradition radically reconfigured this vision of reality, sundering God from the world and outlining an otherworldly afterlife to come. This “Christian interruption,” Kronman argues, sowed the seeds of its own destruction–-a collapse that has played out slowly across the last two millennia.

To make a (very) long story short, Kronman’s case against orthodox Christianity is built around the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, which Kronman finds untenable. In Kronman’s telling, any account of the world predicated on a creative act of divine will must ultimately fail: it demands that human beings express a degree of gratitude to God that they can never properly voice. Moreover, according to Kronman, such an explanation of the world must at some point throw up its hands and claim that some questions are unanswerable—a concession that will always place such a theology in opposition to modern science, and always push God further and further back into the gaps.

The history of Western philosophy, Kronman contends, has been a long process of reckoning with the tensions inherent in the Christian philosophical project. That history came to an end with Kant, Heidegger, and Nietzsche, who revealed that the West’s “God-concept” was so withered as to be philosophically useless.

The answer to the demise of Christian philosophy, Kronman argues, isn’t the pop atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Instead, the solution is found in a rehabilitated pagan metaphysics—but wedded, this time around, to modern ideas about individual dignity. The two prophets of Kronman’s “born-again paganism” are Spinoza and Walt Whitman: Spinoza as the intellectual bricklayer, and Whitman as the aesthete who could bring such a theological vision to life. What demands our reverence, in Kronman’s account, isn’t some white-bearded God beyond the world, but rather the eternality of the world itself. This, obviously, makes “God” identical with “the world” (though it’s never quite clear what Kronman means by the latter term).

Confessions is by no means a beach read, but it’s a deeply rewarding text even if one fundamentally disagrees with Kronman’s claims. Like Taylor’s A Secular Age, Confessions is the work of a master at the height of his powers—a book that takes aim squarely at the biggest questions of life and reality, and attempts to offer satisfactory answers. Very few books of this sort come close to matching the sophistication, readability, and sheer brio of Kronman’s tome.

But despite the massive scope of Kronman’s book, its engagement with seminal theological texts is woefully incomplete (astoundingly, the Eastern Orthodox tradition is practically ignored). Many Christian readers of Kronman will thus find Confessions singularly frustrating, given how very close Kronman comes to grasping core principles of classical theism. One is left thinking that with a slightly deeper dive into the corpus of Christian metaphysical theology, Kronman’s work would end up far more orthodox than “pagan.”

Several key points warrant mention:

First and most crucially, Kronman appears wholly unfamiliar with the centrality of the analogia entis—the doctrine (decried by Karl Barth, but recently rehabilitated by Erich Pryzwara) by which we come to understand that God’s “way of being” is radically different from our own—to classical Christian metaphysics. In other words, God is not merely a bigger and stronger being among other beings, but that Ultimacy upon which anything that exists must always depend for its essential reality. (This idea is explored in greater depth by patristic theologians Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory of Nyssa, among many others, and finds contemporary expression in the work of Paul Tillich.)

The concept of the “univocity of being”—the notion that God’s reality is merely a more eminent mode of our reality, often attributed to Duns Scotus—was certainly not inherent to the original Christian tradition, but Kronman treats it as if it was assumed within the Church from Pentecost on. As a result, Kronman misconstrues the Thomistic idea of God as some kind of deistic kickstarter who creates the world and subsequently withdraws. That God—a God who is transcendent but never really immanent—would be largely unrecognizable to the tradition of Christian thought, and Kronman is entirely justified in rejecting it.

Kronman’s misunderstanding of this point has far-reaching consequences: he ends up importing a thoroughly modern God-concept, heavily steeped in fraught assumptions, into his assessment of Christian scholastic thought. This blunts the entire thrust of his “pagan” critique of Christianity.

Second, Kronman’s alternative theology fails its own test of reasonableness. In building a theology centered on “that which is eternal in the world,” but that identifies eternality with the world itself, Kronman breaches the boundaries of the naturalism within which he attempts to remain. For his theology to work, we must eradicate all sense of transcendence from our metaphysics: “the world” is nothing but that which we see and experience around us, a collection of cosmic “stuff.” But no particular thing within the world is eternal and unchanging—buildings wear down, trees die, atoms decay, energy slides inevitably toward thermodynamic equilibrium, and so on. Where, then, is the “eternality of the world” to be found, if not in its constituent parts? Contra Kronman, “eternality” must necessarily transcend any particular thing within the world, and thus transcend the materialist description of reality.

It’s entirely possible Kronman would agree with the argument I’m sketching here—indeed, he goes to great lengths to distinguish his theology from unvarnished atheism. But conceding this point means that Kronman’s attempt to jettison “transcendence” must fail. We are then left with the task of understanding how both transcendence and immanence are attributes of God—a debate squarely within the fold of the Christian tradition Kronman tries to disavow.

Third, Kronman’s project is ultimately contingent upon certain value commitments, from which he attempts to construct a metaphysical foundation a posteriori. From the beginning, Kronman is explicit about his goal: he seeks to construct a theology for the “God of the modern world.” This God “works” if He/It can effectively underpin diversity, science, modernity, self-actualization, and pretty much everything else favored by modern cosmopolitans.

But for an author that displays such incredible perceptiveness about the evolution of philosophical traditions, Kronman seems astonishingly blind to the historical contingency of his own moral framework. What if, say, Hobbes and Nietzsche were right? What if the “order of being” of the world is necessarily characterized by the subjugation of the weak and the destruction of liberal ideals? What if a coldly Darwinian ethic of domination and destruction is, indeed, most consonant with the nature of the “God of the world” that Kronman asks us to embrace? In short, Kronman never satisfactorily justifies the neoliberal values from which he begins his analysis.

Fourth, with the (large) caveat that my thoughts on this are developing and that I have a great deal yet to learn, I think there are significantly more plausible accounts of secularity than the one Kronman advances. Kronman leans hard on the argument that Christianity offers humankind no sufficient way to express its gratitude to God for both existence and salvation. But Confessions never satisfactorily demonstrates that anyone (other than Kronman) has ever found this “gratitude imbalance” particularly problematic. And Kronman’s point is easily rebutted from an orthodox perspective: the grace of God is sufficient to cover any moral failure associated with our inadequate gratitude—our sin of omission, if you will.

Personally, I find myself drawn to some version of the following “secularization account”: any human attempts to comprehend the incomprehensible, in however limited a sense, require enduring institutional structures that preserve and delineate orthodoxy. The preservation of distinctive and delicate theological tensions (the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, the coexistence of God’s immanence and transcendence, and so on) demands an organized structure with longstanding traditions of expertise. Thus, deinstitutionalization and democratization—insofar as they work, intentionally or not, to break apart those institutions—will inevitably lay the groundwork for secularization. And so, as a Protestant, I can accept that the Reformation was in some sense terribly paradoxical. Perhaps it helped rescue the language of divine grace from corrupted systems that had hidden it for venal purposes, but at the same time, it shattered the systems that had long made that grace intelligible. Modernity—and the total breakdown of religious authority—naturally followed.

By raising these critiques, I don’t mean to suggest that Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan isn’t an outstanding book—because it most certainly is, and it deserves close attention. And perhaps its assessment of contemporary philosophical dilemmas will prove prescient. Indeed, in Kronman’s telling, his is the God that the modern world already accepts, whether it realizes it or or not.

In reflecting on Kronman’s volume, what I find perhaps most interesting is the way in which its normative approach parallels Mike McHargue’s Finding God in the Waves. Like McHargue’s book, Kronman’s Confessions invokes religious language as a means of justifying liberal democratic ideals, while simultaneously attempting to sidestep any notion of real transcendence. The theologies Kronman and McHargue offer are largely undemanding, seemingly ideal props for the decaying eschaton of progressive internationalism.

But when juxtaposed against R.R. Reno’s resurgent “strong gods” of national culture and identity, the Spinozist “God of the world” looks quite fragile indeed. And time alone will tell which deities prevail.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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