Anthony Kronman thinks that Christianity contains the seeds of its own undoing. A “born-again pagan” and former dean of Yale Law, Kronman argues that the Incarnation, which seems to link God with the world in unimaginable intimacy, ends up separating us from God.
Kronman’s critique, presented in the opening chapters of his mammoth Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, turns on the Christian understanding of gift and gratitude. God saves by giving the infinite gift of his Son, and that infinite gift demands a return of “perfect” thanks, “as limitless as the gifts of love he bestows upon us.”
At the same time, Christianity insists that we are wholly incapable of offering a fitting return gift. In fact, the very thought that we might be able to make an adequate return is an act of pride, humanity’s original sin. To imagine that we can smooth over the asymmetry between divine Giver and human recipient only adds to our misery. Christianity evokes the desire for—and demands—infinite gratitude, only to frustrate that desire.
In this respect, Christian gratitude functions differently than does gratitude in social life. I can’t “make a gift of equal magnitude” to repay my parents for what they have given me, since they have given me life itself. But I can make a return of equal value with “a gift of comparable value to those who follow me.” I can pay it forward, partly by having children of my own, and so balance the books with Mom and Pop.
Christian gratitude also differs from gratitude in the other Abrahamic religions. Ancient Israelites knew they were “infinitely less powerful” than Yahweh, yet he had bound himself by covenant, which “put the Israelites in the position of being able to complain—as they often did—that their partner had forgotten them or was neglecting his duties.” The Incarnation raises the stakes, rousing “intense feelings of dependence on God’s undeserved love” while eliminating the possibility of a satisfying response.
“Unrequited gratitude” stirs us to rage, envy, and rebellion. To preserve the primacy of God’s gift, theologians make God vanish into a faceless Kantian transcendental. As God retreats from the world, we take over his earlier role as creator and savior. Christianity gives birth to humanism, then to nihilism, a contempt for this world that arises from wistfulness for an “other world” that, we eventually learn, never existed. Beyond Christianity and nihilism lies paganism, Kronman’s Spinozist pantheism.
There’s an internal contradiction in Kronman’s account of gratitude. He distinguishes sharply between entitlement and gift, linking the former with rights and the latter with undeserved love that reveals our “abysmal dependence.” Armed with rights, I can argue for fair treatment. Love, however, has “no arguments at all. I have no claim on anyone’s love and no right to complain that I’ve been deprived of what is mine if I don’t get it.” It’s a peculiar idea of love: Does my wife have no grounds for complaint if I have an affair? And it contradicts what he says about gratitude: If a gift is an expression of love, how can it impose any obligation of gratitude? Where does the giver get his arguments?
Beyond that, the Christianity Kronman describes isn’t the Christianity taught by generations and practiced by millions. According to Kronman, God cannot have “a body or a face.” Orthodox Christians confess that God has shown himself in the human face of Jesus. In Kronman’s Christianity, the idea of analogy between God and creation is a brief Augustinian aberration; in fact, however, analogy is a central theme of theology from the patristic age to the present. Kronman writes of the “psychologically unbearable demand that we acknowledge our complete dependence on God,” but for Christians it’s so easy a yoke that it’s not a burden at all.
Kronman stresses again and again that “the central meaning of the cross” is that I “can never measure up to [the gifts] he has given me.” He cites no theologians to support this characterization, and no wonder. It’s flat wrong. Jesus bears burdens. The cross is, in David Bentley Hart’s lovely phrase, “a gift exceeding every debt.” It’s the Son’s perfect human return of thanks.
To assume that we have to respond to God with an equal gift is already to resent that God is the source of being. Kronman claims to show that the unbearable burden of Christian gratitude produces “envy toward God.” In reality, Kronman’s account begins from envy, from the Nietzschean dictum, “There cannot be a God because if there were one, I could not believe that I was not He.” And, as a born-again pantheist, Kronman can say what Nietzsche couldn’t: “I am He.”
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.