Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

a born-again pagan

An Interview with anthony t. kronman


Anthony T. Kronman is a Sterling Professor at Yale Law School, where he served as Dean from 1994 to 2004. In addition to the courses that he teaches at Yale Law School, he also teaches undergraduate classes in literature, philosophy, history, and politics. His books include Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, The Lost Lawyer, and 2016's Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, which was called "a gift from another epoch" by The New York Times' David Brooks. For more information, visit Kronman's page on the Yale Law School website.

Q:  Based off of your work with born-again paganism, what would you say the effect of Abrahamic religions has been throughout history?

ATK:  In Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, I have a lot to say about the Abrahamic religions. Christianity in particular, though with respect to the whole of western civilization.

American life has been, in important ways, motivated from the beginning with religious concerns. Everyone who came to these shores in the seventeenth century had God in mind. The Puritans who founded the New England colonies did, even though the crucial periods of the founding—the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and then the Constitution—were shaped by enlightenment values of a non-religious kind. Ever since, American life has been punctuated by great outbursts of religious fervor and feeling, almost all of them Christian in character.

Beginning in the early 19th century, there emerged in American literature and philosophical writing a strain of religiosity that can't be accurately described as Abrahamic at all. I'm thinking of the great New England transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau, and I would include Emily Dickinson in that group as well. And then of course, Walt Whitman, who I view in many ways as the culmination of that strain of thought in American life.

Emerson, as an example, is a deeply religious thinker, but not obviously Abrahamic. He's perhaps more comfortably classified as a pantheist of some variety. I use the term “born-again pagan” to describe a specific variety of pantheism. I don't use the broader term because I think it carries too many confusing connotations to be really helpful for purposes of understanding. But Emerson, Dickinson, and Walt Whitman are filled with a spirit and a mood of religiosity, one that tends in a more characteristically pantheistic direction. There is something about that way of thinking, about God and the relationship of God to the world, that resonates with American life and history.

Many of our public symbols still carry the badge of their Christian origins, where the dollar bill says, "In God We Trust." We know that's not Emerson's God.

America is still, in some very broad but loose sense, a Christian country. Americans still identify themselves as Christians more than as members of any other religion. Although, you and I know that Christianity in America covers such a wide-ranged spectrum of denominational beliefs and practices that it's kind of an omnibus term. Many of our public symbols still carry the badge of their Christian origins, where the dollar bill says, "In God We Trust." We know that's not Emerson's God. It's the God of our Puritan ancestors.

Against that broad background of Christian belief and practice—which is more a cultural phenomenon than anything—in philosophical terms, the most interesting religion is the born-again paganism of Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, and Walt Whitman.

Q:  Would you say that these transcendentalist writers and those who identify on the spectrum of born-again paganism are resonating more with younger generations today?

ATK:  This is not the first "younger generation" to have rediscovered Walt Whitman and Thoreau. When I was a young man in the 1960's, which was a period of great upheaval and ferment in this country, Whitman and Thoreau had another renaissance. Many of us turned to them because we were hungry for some spiritually gratifying picture of the world that didn't come with all of the traditional Abrahamic baggage attached. It seemed to us then a more attractive and satisfying way of thinking about God and God's relationship to the world.

The term "born-again pagan" is a term that I made for the purposes of this book, partly because I wanted a catchy title that would grab people's attention, but also because it very accurately described  my own theology. I don't think it's a foreign import to this country. It has its own native strain, which is why I chose to end the book with a chapter on Walt Whitman.

After having spent most of the preceding 900 or so pages talking about European figures of one kind or another, ancient as well as modern, Whitman is the first American to make an appearance in the book. I save him for last because I wanted to remind my American readers that the story I've been telling isn't one that pertains only to matters that happened long ago and far away, but belongs very much in the American story of religious experience and expression.

Q:  Why do you feel that Whitman continues to resonate with people in the modern age?

ATK:  With respect to the body in particular, Whitman's treatment of the body—his ecstatic reverence for the body, and for physical life, and for human sexuality in particular—is an attitude that's very difficult for most orthodox Abrahamists to embrace as wholeheartedly as he does. The reason why is pretty obvious. If you start with the proposition that God and the world are separated by  a chasm, God is a creator who exists beyond the world. He summons the world into being, as something separate and apart from Himself—you'll forgive the gendered pronouns, but that's the way it's traditionally been described. If the world is not God, then the body, which is the essence of our human worldliness, is what tethers us to the world. When it dies, we leave the world. The body is our world, and Abrahamists of all persuasions have been very uneasy toward the claims of the body.

Whitman can be so exuberantly celebratory of physical life: feelings, appetites, touchings, embraces, and all of the rest of it, because the world, for Whitman, is itself suffused with divinity.

Whitman can be so exuberantly celebratory of physical life: feelings, appetites, touchings, embraces, and all of the rest of it, because the world, for Whitman, is itself suffused with divinity. There is no chasm between God and the world, and Whitman's view is that the world is God. They are just different words for the same thing. Everything in the world, your body and mine—the turtle which is slowly making its way across the road, the storm cloud in the sky, and every human being regardless of their station in life—is a source of endless wonder and curiosity. He puts this in a very summary way at one point by saying, "Every one of us is divine." It's just that we don't know it—only the poet really sees that and can express it.

Q:  How does this theology of divinity translate for so-called "bad people" who commit bad things?

ATK:  Every one of us is a singular representation or manifestation of the divinity of the world as a whole. But we are also severely limited in our abilities to see and understand our own divinity, let alone the divinity of our neighbor. And because of that, we are constitutionally unable to ever see all there is to be seen about anyone else, or even about ourselves. There's so much about other human beings that remains in the dark for us. Because we are finite, limited beings, we don't have the luxury of waiting for an endless stretch of time to allow more of the full complexity of their being to come into view.

We have to act in order to live at all, to survive from day to day. We have to make decisions, we have to make choices, we have to take things from the earth and consume them. We have to organize into communities with others, and to protect those communities against the various dangers, natural and human, that beset them. If our powers were themselves infinite, we wouldn't depend on anything or anyone else. But they're not infinite. We can only know so much, we can only feel so much, our sympathy can only extend only so far.

And when an individual—Hitler is an extreme example but let's take it—actively disrupts the communities on which we and others depend for our peace and safety and freedom, we don't have the luxury to stop and for an endless stretch of time probe his character and attempt to understand it. If we could understand him completely, all the way down, we would know exactly why he did what he did. We would see with a clarity that we will never have that he was himself the victim of his own early life and experience. Maybe we could bring ourselves even to forgive him, in the way that we forgive a grown-up neurotic whose life is compromised or stunted by childhood experiences. But we don't have the luxury for that. We have to fight him, and we have to control him, and we have to destroy him, if the threat is serious and present enough.

Q:  What was it like forming these ideas into a 1,000+ page book?

ATK:  I wrote it slowly, bit by bit, and as I did, I tried to keep two things in mind: the first was to be as rigorous and demanding of myself as I was able to be. Every step along the way I had to ask myself whether the argument that I was developing stood up under critical inspection. I wanted the argument to be rigorous, tight, and as complete as I could make it. That was one thing.

The other was, I very badly wanted to put that argument in words that would be directly accessible to anyone who was curious about the subject and thought it important enough to take the time to read the book. Of course, most people won't, and that's completely understandable and doesn't bother me at all.

For many people, spiritual questions don't occupy a central lasting place in their lives. There may be moments or times when they do come to the center, but for moment people, they tend to fall away to the margins of things.

For many people, spiritual questions don't occupy a central lasting place in their lives. There may be moments or times when they do come to the center, but for moment people, they tend to fall away to the margins of things. I think that most people, if they are spiritually serious at all, are only episodically so. But there are some who really do have a deep curiosity about these matters, and the patience to want to explore them.

I wrote the book in my study at home in New Haven. I have a sun-filled study on the second floor of my home, next to the bedroom, overlooking my beautiful garden which changes with the seasons. Right in front of me, there's a panel of windows that stretches across the whole wall. I'm an early riser, generally up by six or six-thirty, and I’d make a cup of coffee and let the dog out, retrieve the morning paper, and then go up to my study on the second floor. I would take a deep breath and read what I had written the day before and begin again. I would try to add another four or five pages to the growing pile before it was time to turn the computer off and begin the rest of my day. You'd be amazed at how quickly the pages pile up, writing five pages a day.

The big challenge with this book was keeping the full architecture of it in view. Every section belonged to a chapter, every chapter belonged to a part, and every part belonged to the whole. I had to have all of those levels of interconnectedness in the back of my mind as I was writing each page so that I didn't lose my way. That was a challenge. I'd written books before, but not on this scale. Keeping all of it together, I almost needed a whiteboard in my office.

I knew pretty much where I was going all the way through, but there were plenty of times when I found that I needed to back up and adjust course a little bit, and that maybe would even require some revisions in earlier parts of the book that had already been written. That's the natural back-and-forth process that every writer is familiar with. It's just that this was on a much larger scale.

Q:  What do you want this book to do for people, and did you consider that while writing?

ATK:  Very often, when I'm writing, I will have not only an audience in mind, but some particular individual with whom I may have discussed whatever it is I'm writing about. I've always found it helpful to be thinking about presenting what I'm writing to him or her or an identifiable group of people. I find that helps me to focus and concentrate and make it consistent.

My target audience shifted as I wrote the book. It varied depending upon what part of the book I was writing. There are some people with whom I've had a lifetime of conversations about ancient philosophy, Aristotle in particular; others with whom I've talked about Spinoza, or Walt Whitman. I knew there would be particular individuals who would have a lot to say about each of the component parts of the book. I would be thinking about them as I was writing that part and wanting it to be as clear and persuasive to them as I could make it.

I had the presumptuous hope that some of my readers would find this book to be not only intellectually intriguing or even instructive, but that it would touch them at a deeper and more personal level. That it would resonate with not yet expressed spiritual longings, feelings, that were powerful but still inchoate in the reader themself, and that their reaction would be: "This expresses my feelings in a hopeful way!"

I've gotten a couple of extremely thoughtful and very personal communications from readers, and when I get one, I think to myself: That makes the whole thing worthwhile. The entire adventure, and however many hours it took me to do it, was all worthwhile because at least one other person, with whom I had no prior relationship, and who had no reason at all to look on the book with favor other than what the book itself contains, found it to be helpful in a personal way. There are lots of books that aim to be of personal use. There are about a million of them published every year. I wanted this book to be like that, but to be a serious book, and not the kind of book you would pick up in an airport between flights. I wanted this book to sink down in the souls of a few people at least, and to last.