In literary terms, Marilynne Robinson is a national treasure. In political terms, not so much. “When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad she was horrid,” as the nursery rhyme has it. Robinson might not even mind my saying that, by the way. As an essayist she deliberately tries to make countercultural moves, intellectually and spiritually.
Unfortunately, Robinson’s political views as expressed in her latest collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, are far from countercultural if by that we mean unusual. They’re off-the-shelf liberal. Like her hero, President Obama, she is disinclined to be fair to those who disagree with her—social conservatives, Tea Partiers, Republicans, the Right. Social conservative concerns for the moral standards and social fabric of the country, reasonable apprehensions about entitlements, the national debt, the injustice of burdening following generations because of our shirking of responsibility, and serious concerns about constitutional infidelity, become distorted by her into ungenerosity and rank partisanship.
For example, former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and those who share his fiscal concerns perversely worship something called “Austerity.” In no way do the points they make deserve consideration on their merits. Creating a capital-letter bogeyman rather than engaging honestly should be beneath so distinguished a writer as Robinson, author of the novels Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), and Home (2008). Her high intelligence and humane sensibility seem to flee her when she looks to her right.
In conjuring up conservative caricatures, moreover, Robinson violates her own poetics, which she says require of her “imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.” It’s therefore warranted to call her on them.
When it comes to the creative process itself, Robinson offers some wonderful insights:
When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire—a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. None of them is active by itself, and none of them is determinative, because there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability to consider and appraise one’s own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul.
That, by the way, is the most robust her religious faith gets. Robinson’s religious beliefs, metaphysical views, and moral commitments are those of a self-described liberal and Calvinist, and these sides of her are far more interesting than her take on the political issues.
With that I turn, happily, to areas in which she merits attentive consideration. These include the Bible and American culture, the nature of democracy, and, perhaps especially, Christian faith and modern science. What brings them together is her focus on the amazing reality of the human person, what she calls “the miraculous privilege of existence as a conscious being.” She uses this understanding as a touchstone for her understanding of the “ideal” of democracy, as an important component of her reading of Biblical religion and American culture, and a criterion for critical appreciation of modern cosmology and evolutionary theory.
In coming to terms with the soul—in her description, the “human presence in its mystery and distinctiveness”—Robinson draws upon faith and reason. This is already a conciliatory move on her part in the midst of our cultural divisions. Still, her distinctive combination of faith and reason requires her to critique adherents of each separately, especially in what she deems their shortsighted and/or arrogant forms.
“We live in a time,” she writes, “when many religious people feel fiercely threatened by science. O ye of little faith. Let them subscribe to Scientific American for a year and then tell me if their sense of the grandeur of God is not greatly enlarged by what they have learned from it.” Some carry a religious understanding of the human soul that has “little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life.” One ought not consider souls merely “as saved or lost, [as] having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it.”
By the same token, throughout these essays, she argues against the materialism of shallow-pate atheists and purveyors of a scientistic version of the world:
Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes “soul” would do nicely.
As the foregoing indicates, her mixture of faith and reason is capacious or “liberal” in a fairly complex way, from which one can learn a good deal even if, ultimately, it fails to do justice to its sources.
I certainly concur with her call for people of faith to be open to the genuine findings and plausible speculations of contemporary astrophysics and cosmology. But her saying that the soul is reduced to a dramatic moment of decision by, let’s say, evangelical Christians—strikes me as criticism directed at a straw man, and points to some of her own defects as a liberal Christian. For a Calvinist she’s more than a little shy about speaking of the eternal stakes of the human psychic drama. Robinson needs some of the evangelical soul-worry that she dismisses too quickly, else she is at risk of promoting a Christianity-lite.
She’s better when she turns to the secular side of the aisle and considers contemporary science in its cosmological and anthropological instantiations. In both cases, she convincingly punctures the hyperrationalists’ pretensions. The twin blind spots she constantly exposes are: their reductionism and their hubristic extolling of modern science as the chief form and norm of knowing. She shows why they fail to see the cognitive value in alternatives, including metaphysics and faith, not to mention great literature.
It’s not an original thought, but it is an invaluable one: too much of science today is a science that is so full of itself that it lacks self-knowledge and measure. Robinson demonstrates this in many areas: cultural anthropology’s view of “religion” as merely naturalistic; evolutionary anthropology’s demeaning view of proto- and primitive human beings despite remarkable evidence to the contrary; and physics’ and astrophysics’ failure to wonder at the paired miracles of a hospitable world in the midst of the vast cosmos and a self-conscious form of life capable of responding as a microcosm and more (that is, as the image of its Creator).
These are illuminating polemics executed with learning and piquancy. It’s instructive to see a thoughtful nonscientist engage with credentialed experts on their own turf. She is also good about showing the contributions that humane letters, especially great literature, make to our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. Science can make no sense of Virgil’s lacryimae rerum, the tears of things, but classical wisdom and the Bible can.
On the other hand, there’s the dubious stuff. Her mind in important respects is rather too open-ended and she has an unreasonable aversion to “definition.” She prefers the oxymoron, “open definition.” It’s a progressive tic: One must procure not to be pinned down; one must be “inclusive” and open to the new, the emerging, the different.
Tellingly, Robinson opens this essay collection with a lengthy quote from that poet of open-endedness, that bard of the dawning democratic dispensation, Walt Whitman. Any problems in Whitman’s antinomian, anticreedal, antitraditional stance go unacknowledged. From Leaves of Grass, she quotes him breathlessly intoning:
All parts away for the progress of souls; All religion, all solid things, arts, governments—all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.
She places Whitman in a cohort of like minds—Emerson, Melville, Dickinson, William James, and Wallace Stevens—and says that “for all of them, creeds fall away and consciousness has the character of revelation.” The political conclusion to be drawn from her immersion in these great American authors:
To identify sacred mystery with every individual experience, every life, giving the word its largest sense, is to arrive at democracy as an ideal, and to accept the difficult obligation to honor others and oneself with something approaching due reverence. It is a vision that is wholly religious though by no means sectarian, wholly realist in acknowledging the great truth of the centrality of human consciousness, wholly open in that it anticipates and welcomes the disruption of present values in the course of finding truer ones.
A democratized and progressive religiosity is to be preferred to traditional religion, which stands, in (her) contrast, as sectarian and retrograde. And yet, and yet. The “exclusivist or backward-looking tradition” of faith that she stigmatizes would hardly accord with the accounts given by, among others, Mark Noll, the esteemed historian of religion in the United States. There simply aren’t two stark American religious choices, one open and good, the other closed and bad.
It is striking how little Robinson speaks of Catholicism, the Christian denomination par excellence for combining faith and reason (and far and away the largest in America). For her, American religion is largely a Protestant affair. In any event, it is not hard to infer where she comes down on the question of same-sex marriage; nor a surprise that she mouths bromides about Jesus being more concerned with poverty than sex. She wants contemporary Americans to consider adopting the human self-understanding of Genesis 1, but she always fails to note that the divine image was cast as male and female. She might want to read N. T. Wright on the importance of this complementarity in the Bible.
I do not want to be unfair. There are countervailing commitments in her thought, and a number of them tie her to an authoritative past, starting with scripture. As a believing Christian, Robinson strives mightily to be a faithful and self-aware one. In her case, that means exploring the biblical and theological sources for Christian liberalism or “liberality.”
Two essays, “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism” and “The Fate of Ideas: Moses,” are particularly conscientious and revealing in this regard. They present her characteristic mixture of insight and progressive myopia. On the one hand, she wants to show contemporary secular liberals that they need not be afraid of Christianity as such, for there is something rightly called “Christian liberalism.” On the other hand, she wishes to address her coreligionists and remind them of their precious legacy. She writes:
Contrary to entrenched assumption, contrary to the conventional associations made with the words “Calvinist” and “Puritan,” and despite the fact that certain fairly austere communities can claim a heritage in Reformed culture and history, Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of Christian liberalism in the modern period, that is, in the period since the Reformation.
Even more counterculturally, she adds that “this liberalism has had its origins largely in the Old Testament.” It would appear that, along with Calvin, Moses was another unsuspected liberal.
She is acutely aware that this is a daring line to try to advance. However, she wishes to argue that “in a general sense it is not only true but a clarification of history important to contemporary culture and to that shaken and diminishing community, liberal Protestantism.” What is at stake is “a model of true social justice and an ethos to support it,” an “ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity.”
And what she writes in fleshing out that argument is, in many ways, a tour de force: a defense of the Old Testament, of its God and its legal code, in both letter and spirit, as solicitous and not just commanding, formative of a “humane” community, and a remarkable conduit of grace; the rightness of Calvin’s holding fast to the Old Testament in the articulation of the Christian faith; and Calvinism’s significant contribution to colonial and “nation-forming” America’s spiritual and moral ethos.
In an apt use of the Biblical image, Robinson says that Moses and Calvin were “old wine” in the new bottles of democratic America. The laws of Moses
establish a highly coherent system for minimizing and alleviating poverty, a brilliant economics based in a religious ethic marked by nothing more strongly than by an anxious solicitude for the well-being of the needy and the vulnerable.
Jewish provisions for “the rights of gleaners and of those widows, orphans, and strangers who pass through the fields . . . all work against the emergence of the poor as a class, as people marked by deprivation and hopelessness.”
As for Calvin the liberal, the verse from Genesis with which he was familiar read: “At liberalis liberalia agitabit, et liberaliter agendo progredietur.” In English: “But the liberal man will do liberal things, and in acting liberally, shall proceed/make progress.” And Calvin’s Christological commentary emphasizing ready assistance to the poor was, she says, “central to his piety and teaching.”
Now for John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop is highlighted as having, like Calvin, proposed a “‘modell of Christian Charity’ based largely on the teaching of the Old Testament, that urges a literally unconditional generosity or, to use his word, liberality.” And similar to the Jews, whom she commends for their self-criticisms in the Bible, the American Puritan leader warns that the “city on a hill” being built by his fellow Puritans will be subject to the judgment of God and man, if its denizens fall short of the standards of righteousness, and turn to the pursuit of “our pleasure and profitts.”
In making this stout defense of biblical, theological, and colonial figures who are not exactly favorites in the faculty lounges, the author reminds us of earlier countercultural American thinkers like Christopher Lasch and Wilson Carey McWilliams, the latter of whom devoted three chapters to the Puritans in his magisterial The Idea of Fraternity in America (1973). She has their “humane imagination,” to use her phrase, even if she lacks their depth.
To be sure, Robinson is aware that solicitude and provision for the poor, the needy, and the stranger are not the sole or even highest rationale of Moses’s law or the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She adverts to “the holiness codes” of the former and the capital punishment for “idolatry” of the latter. Nonetheless, she never tries to see the full logic of the Mosaic “moral regime,” or that of the colony as an ecclesiastical-civil whole. Hers is a selective and useable past, not a full-fledged effort to take in the letter, spirit, and logic of truly theocratic or godly regimes.
Applying her version of Moses, Calvin, and the Puritans in an impressionistic way to contemporary America, to the churches and the wider society alike, she does not do the work of social- or regime-analysis of the sort that Lasch and McWilliams practiced (in their rather different ways). Thus, when she calls for “the government” to be the instrument of this religious ethic, she blithely skirts a host of problems that attend such a proposal, whether problems of principle or practice.
Instead, her analyses are binary: this religious ethic versus free market economics or its “ideology” (if somewhat qualified by vague acknowledgements that “I know that there are numberless acts of generosity, moral as well as material,” carried out by business-owning Americans all the time). There is a certain prophetic power, if you will, to her invocation of the old standards, but they fall well short of enabling useful analysis, much less prescriptions for reform, of either the economic order or the provision of social welfare.
The “brilliant economics” of Moses can only go so far. Perhaps even more important, in terms of Robinson’s overall sensibility, acknowledging human mystery is not, or at least should not be, a warrant for the failure to make discerning, sometimes exclusionary, judgments, including in the domains of morals and politics.
It would be wrong to end on this note, for it fails to convey a proper appreciation of Marilynne Robinson. Her voice in fiction has graced our literature; her essays always stimulate the mind and often enlarge the heart. As a most worthy representative of her point of view, Robinson gracefully reminds us, in the cacophony of the American conversation, that there are better angels of our nature. Her book tells us that the dialogue of faith and reason, which has always engaged the American soul, continues to do so. For that we should be grateful—to her and to the God to whom she directs our attention.
Paul Seaton is associate professor of philosophy at St. Mary’s Seminary & University. This essay was originally published in August 2014 at Liberty Fund’s Library of Law and Liberty, and it is republished here with gracious permission from that web-magazine.