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Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan

Anthony T. Kronman—

I can now see that my anxious wish to master my world in thought has from the start been a longing to understand its relation to eternity, but without a God of the sort to whom Christians, Jews and Muslims pray. This is an intellectual longing, of course, but a spiritual one too. The desire to reach what lies beyond history and time, which Kant insists is an inextinguishable demand of the human mind, cannot be called by any other name without demeaning its ambition and converting it to a quest of a more prosaic and less disquieting but also less exalted kind. My youthful wish to understand the meaning of the modern world as a whole has always been a spiritual one in this sense, and if the field of theology is construed broadly to include every attempt to connect the world of human experience to what Aristotle calls “the eternal and divine” and not merely the familiar Abrahamic ways of doing so, then my obsession must be described as a theological one too. 

This seems much clearer to me now than it did before. Perhaps the fiercely anticlerical environment in which I was raised made it difficult for me to acknowledge that my obsession with modernity had anything to do with theology. For a long time, I associated theology with the belief that at a crucial juncture one must be prepared to abandon reason for faith—to make what Weber calls “a sacrifice of the intellect.” Viewed in this light, theology seemed to me to be the enemy of philosophy, which for as far back as I can recall has seemed to me the only intellectually self-respecting path to an understanding of the modern world (or anything else for that matter). My view of philosophy has not changed but my belief that it is at war with theology has. That is because I had not yet considered in a serious way the older theology, which the greatest philosophers of pagan antiquity shared, that declares the study of God to be the highest stage and completing phase in our campaign to comprehend the world by means of reason alone. Nor had I met the principal hero of this book, who shared this view and extended it in ways his pagan predecessors could not have imagined.

When I say that I had not met him, I mean that I had not studied the philosophy of Spinoza with any care. He was for me just a book on a shelf, though I have a dim and self-serving memory of saying to myself sometime in my sophomore year of college that Spinoza’s Ethics might well contain the truth about things and that I would have to make a closer study of it later. In any case, none of this was apparent to me then. I thought of theology in the way most philosophers do, as a swamp of superstition, to be avoided at all costs. I now see how narrow this view is. I understand that it is hostage to a particular conception of God—the one that Augustine made decisive for the later tradition of Western philosophy. I know there is a different conception, which Aristotle embraced and Spinoza extended, that views the study of God as the culmination of the pursuit of knowledge in strictly rational terms for which no sacrifice of the intellect is required. [And I can say without embarrassment, what my younger self would have greeted with astonishment, that this book is a work of theology in the latter sense.]

As a theologian, I find myself unable to subscribe to either of the parties that struggle with such fury on so many fronts in the war over the meaning of religion today. 

On the one side are the true believers those who maintain their faith in the God of Abraham and his prophets. Their God is an obstacle to reason. He puts a sign in its path that reads, “No trespassing beyond this point.” We should allow those who believe in such a God to worship him as they choose. But the demands of their religion cannot be reconciled with the rationalism of the modern world, whose governing principles and dominant practices are all based on the assumption that though its achievements remain forever incomplete, reason is never required to yield to faith. The belief that it must is a capitulation I cannot accept. It cannot be squared with the ambitions of philosophy or the deepest values and greatest achievements of the age in which we live.

On the other side are the self-professed atheists, who delight in mocking the true believers and pointing out that their God is dead. For them, theology is a mistake, or worse, a form of cowardice. They diagnose the longing for a connection to eternity as a childish wish, and advise us to grow up. In their view, this means abandoning the idea of God altogether. They insist that we must learn to live without a meaningful connection to the everlasting and divine—in a world where things come and go and nothing lasts forever, under the all-devouring dominion of time.

I cannot accept this either. That is not just because I feel the personal need for a connection to God, though I do. More fundamentally, it is because the thoroughness with which today’s atheists deny the very intelligibility of the search for God is as antagonistic in its own way to the aims of philosophy as the true believers’ insistence on the need for faith, and as contrary to the spirit of modern life, whose science, art and politics rest on a theology they fail to grasp.

From Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan by Anthony T. Kronman. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Anthony T. Kronman served as dean of the Yale Law School from 1994 to 2004. He currently divides his time between the Law School and the Directed Studies Program in Yale College. He is the author of Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life and The Assault on American Excellence.

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