Gratitude So Burdensome? – First Things

Posted: August 11, 2017 at 5:59 pm

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.

Kronmans 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, humanitys 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 forand demandsinfinite gratitude, only to frustrate that desire.

In this respect, Christian gratitude functions differently than does gratitude in social life. I cant 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 complainas they often didthat their partner had forgotten them or was neglecting his duties. The Incarnation raises the stakes, rousing intense feelings of dependence on Gods undeserved love while eliminating the possibility of a satisfying response.

Unrequited gratitude stirs us to rage, envy, and rebellion. To preserve the primacy of Gods 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, Kronmans Spinozist pantheism.

Theres an internal contradiction in Kronmans 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 anyones love and no right to complain that Ive been deprived of what is mine if I dont get it. Its 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 isnt 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 Kronmans 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 its so easy a yoke that its 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. Its flat wrong. Jesus bears burdens. The cross is, in David Bentley Harts lovely phrase, a gift exceeding every debt. Its the Sons 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, Kronmans 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 couldnt: I am He.

Peter J. Leithart is President ofTheopolis Institute.

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Gratitude So Burdensome? - First Things

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