A Life Between Worlds
Samuel Loncar is a philosopher and historian of religion, poet, and writer working at the intersection of spirituality and modern life and teaching at Yale Divinity School. His writing has been read at Google, taught in writing classes and universities across the world, and translated into Chinese and Farsi. As a consultant and speaker he has recently worked with the United Nations, Oliver Wyman, and Redbull Arts. He blends scholarly and creative concerns and seeks to revive the ancient and marginalized voices of the gods and their peoples, and show how patterns of oppression in the past shape the exploitation of power today.
He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Marginalia Review of Books, a leading journal for the integration of religion, scholarship, and cultural criticism. Marginalia’s articles have been assigned in the European Parliament and to White house staffers and are used in classrooms across the country. Samuel has written and spoken about philosophy, science and religion, the economic and cultural consequences of automation and AI, ethics, the future of work, sustainable finance and climate risk, and the crisis in education.
Samuel earned three graduate degrees at Yale University, where he is completing a Ph.D and lecturing. He is currently working on a book, Philosophy as Religion, and a collection of poems, After the Gods Died There Was Still Rain.
Healing the Divide: My Work
In all my work I look for connections between separated spaces that need each other's wisdom, particularly philosophy and poetry, science and religion, and theory and practice. My projects orbit around a few big questions, all concerned with what it means to be human:
(1) What is the relationship between science, religion, poetry, and technology?
(2) Why did theology and philosophy begin a slow death with the rise of modern science, and why was philosophy's greatest advocate in the twentieth century, Martin Heidegger, both a Nazi and an opponent of humanism and technology?
(3) Are humans capable of possessing awareness of and control over the whole earth without destroying it?
My search for answers to these modern questions has led me to two, even more basic, questions about the ancient world:
(4) How did a Jewish messianic sect in the first century turn into a non-Jewish religion, become the imperial cult of the Roman Empire, and end up the most persistent producer and perpetrator of prejudice and violence against the Jews in human history, culminating in the Holocaust, and how has anti-Semitism affected other forms of prejudice, like Islamophobia?
(5) How did philosophy, an ancient way of life rooted in spiritual practices, and integrating practical and intellectual skill, poetry and theory, art and science, transform into a mere academic discipline, into something which often seems impractical, unpoetic, unscientific, and reserved for a cognitive elite, and how could we change this, bringing philosophy closer to its origins, and thus to religion?
These are huge questions, raising the specter of modernity as the bringer of material benefits but killer of spiritual reality. Yet precisely this narrative has played easily, and horribly, into the hands of the worst reactionary forces of our times. Can we take the problems modernity poses for human life seriously, while affirming and defending its unique and hopefully irreversible benefits? Doing so is the goal of my work.
It starts with big questions, true, but it can’t end there.
Asking big question is crucial but it does not constitute scholarship. Scholarship requires converting big questions into maps which we draw as we go, leading us to disciplined research and writing, recognized as valuable by our specialized colleagues, with the goal of producing new knowledge and insight that matters. If we lose our big questions, questions that matter to and for everyone, then scholarship becomes sterile at best, a marriage of pedantry and social injustice at worst. It’s difficult to balance these demands, and our occasional failure to do so as scholars is undeniable, but it does not undermine the importance and validity of the university and our task: without it, many of the things we value would not exist.
Our failures do, however, highlight our need for accountability, and accountability means, for me, quality recognized by my academic colleagues, and significance recognized by both academic and non-academic audiences. Academics are servants of knowledge for the sake of the public: our colleagues guide us responsibly in the search for knowledge, students teach us if we are transmitting it well, and the public helps us understand whether it matters. This, at least, is my professional credo.
In light of it, I strive to do even highly specialized scholarship so that its style, subject, and significance is clear, and aim to be ready, if asked, to connect any specialized topic I work on to questions of universal human significance. My projects extend beyond the academy because I am a philosopher, trying to be human in a helpful way. This includes my writing, speaking, and teaching, and my work to help others realize they are philosophers, too. We live for the world, whether we know it not.