Modern Ciceronian Musical English Prose
“At a certain point I decided that everything I took from studying and reading anthropology, psychology, economics, cultural history, and so on did not square at all with my sense of things, and that the tendency of much of it was to posit or assume a human simplicity within a simple reality and to marginalize the sense of the sacred, the beautiful, everything in any way lofty. I do not mean to suggest, and I underline this, that there was any sort of plot against religion, since religion in many instances abetted these tendencies and does still, not least by retreating from the cultivation and celebration of learning and of beauty, by dumbing down, as if people were less than God made them and in need of nothing so much as a condescension. Who among us wishes the songs we sing, the sermons we hear, were just a little dumber? People today - television - video games - diminished things. This is always the pretext.” (pg. 5)
Robinson entered the literary scene with her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980, which became a finalist for the Pulitzer prize. Her second, and probably most acclaimed novel, Gilead in 2004, actually rightly won the Pulitizer prize for fiction in 2005. Her third novel, Home, was published in 2008, and has only made those of us who read it disappointed that, now, we have to ponderously wait for whenever she takes to fiction again. Not soon enough.
Before this year, Robinson also had three books of essays published: Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989), The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998), and Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of Self (2010). All of her essays could be said to be devoted to challenging conventional ways of thinking.
Now, the collection of ten essays, Robinson brings to us this year in When I Was a Child I Read Books are a joy to read. With them, she continues her habit of asking you, as the reader, to reconsider ideas that you have been taught and just accepted without question. Conventional thought never fares well when Ms. Robinson writes her own thought down for our benefit, and the results are always to our benefit. All in all, Marilynne Robinson has now given us a sum total of seven books. All of them are easily obtained and it's not that difficult to begin reading her and then to find that, less than a year later, you've finished and joined the ranks of readers who now enthusiastically await her next publication.
It's not just Robinson's asking you to rethink your assumptions that makes her so engaging to read. It's that her writing is a pleasure to read because of the pure turns of phrase, the pure coherence and music of her English prose. There are plenty of novelists and essayists out there, there are not many who are as good writers as Robinson. Not many books that you open up will reward you with comments like "... in changing, our vocabulary has not always advanced." (pg. xiii) or "To put it another way, we have entered into a period of rationalist purgation." (pg. 56) or the phrase “... the habit of mutual condescension, tending always toward mutual impoverishment ...” (pg. 161) You will be reading a passage from her book, then you'll suddenly stop, go back and spend a good amount of time thinking and reveling over one single thought. For example, when she writes - "There is an old saying: Act in haste and repent at leisure. Perhaps we understand this in an inverse and diabolical sense." (pg. 56) - you can't help but reread those two sentences carefully and then find what she just said means far more than you thought it did.
When she is critiquing another scholar's historical interpretation, she'll easily give us statements like:
"This analytical method is so perfectly suited to conforming the text to the critic’s assumptions about it that it establishes nothing." (pg. 118)
"In my Bible, Jesus does not say ‘I was hungry and you fed me, though not in such a way as to interfere with free-market principles.’" (pg. 139)
As you read her, you imagine that her writing could occasionally be the final winning thrashing notes in a debate in an old ancient Senate or public forum:
"When I praise anything, I proceed from the assumption that the distinctions available to us in this world are not arrayed between good and bad but between bad and worse." (pg. 89-90)
"To put the matter another way, to begin with the assertion that we are primates after all, and on that basis to discount the vast differences between us and other primates, and to conclude on that basis that we are, when all is said and done, simply primates with a great many epiphenomenal qualities is circular reasoning to say the least." (pg. 148)
At other times you will be reading her appraisal of another line of thinking, and it's not till you get through half of it that you realize she has been sort of gently making fun the whole way through. Sentences like - "I have never heard anyone speculate on the origins and function of irony, but I can say with confidence that it is only a little less pervasive in our universe than carbon." (pg. 189) - suddenly clue those of us who are slower than she is to what she is actually doing.
- The Unholy in Holy Scripture: The Dark Side of the Bible (1996) - by Gerd Ludemann
- God: A Biography (1995) - by Jack Miles
- Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (1997) - by Jan Assmann
- The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (1997) - by Regina M. Schwartz
- The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2008) - by Jeff Sharlet
- Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God (1990) - by Adolf Harnack
By the time she's finished with them, you get the impression that Messrs. Assmann, Harnack, Ludemann, Miles, Sharlet and Schwartz are, if not crackpots, examples of the product of a very poor education system that never bothered to teach even a rudimentary level of logical reasoning.
But don't let me give you the impression that Robinson's essays are only literary or historical criticism. The above mentioned authors are dispensed with in groups in only a couple essays. Each of the ten essays in this book have something special to offer. For example, in her ninth essay, "Who Was Oberlin?" - she somehow combines the likes of Jonathan Edwards, Charles G. Finney, J.F. Oberlin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Theodore Dwight Weld, and Arthur and Lewis Tappan to thoughtfully tell a rip-roaring historical tale that inspires you, and makes you look differently at a couple historical characters, by the end
If you have not read Robinson before, then you have probably guessed by this point. Yes, Marilynne Robinson is a Christian. And, in fact, there is a considerable argument to be made that she is one of the greatest published Christian writers alive today. I would take it as Exhibit A in the case alleging the utter worthlessness of the "Christian" bookstore that Robinson is not to be found in any of their stores. Searching the largest "Christian" book publishers in the world - go ahead, try for yourself, it won't take long - you will find them completely ignorant and oblivious to her existence. Instead, like C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers and Frederick Buechner before her, Marilynne Robinson writes for and to everyone. And when Robinson writes, The New York Review of Books on the left and The Claremont Review of Books on the right both take notice. NPR, The New Yorker, The New Criterion and National Review all take pleasure in reading her works and speaking to her. Her writing is not aimed for only one little sub-group of people, neither does it only criticize one side or preach to any subculture. No matter what your beliefs are, you will find her writing refreshing and educating.
And you can tell, she loves writing. She teaches it:
Not only does she clearly love the use of language itself, but, after expressing her love for it, she takes this a step further and considers what a beautiful language means.
“Some students in France drew my attention to the enormous number of English words that describe the behavior of light. Glimmer, glitter, glister, glisten, gleam, glow, glare, shimmer, sparkle, shine, and so on. These old words are not utilitarian. They reflect an aesthetic attention to experience that has made, and allows us to make, pleasing distinctions among, say, a candle flame, the sun at its zenith, and the refraction of light by a drop of rain. How were these words coined and retained, and how have they been preserved through generations, so that English-speaking people use them with the precision necessary to preserving them? None of this can be ascribed to conscious choice on the part of anyone, but somehow the language created, so to speak, a prism through which light passes, by means of which its qualities are arrayed. One of the pleasures of writing is that so often I know that there is in fact a word that is perfect for the use I want to put it to, and when I summon it it comes, though I might not have thought of it for years. And then I think, somewhere someone was the first person to use that word. Then how did it make its way into the language, and how did it retain the specificity that makes it perfect for this present use? Language is profoundly communal, and in the mere fact of speaking, then writing, a wealth of language grows and thrives among us that has enabled thought and knowledge in a degree we could never calculate.” (pg. 21-22)
Not only is the joy Robinson takes in the use of words evident as you read her, but she'll occasionally even criticize her own use of them. Yet another proof of a great writer is when she humorously acknowledges when she falls short of the standard she sets for her own writing.
"A man in Alabama asked me how I felt the West was different from the East and the South, and I replied that in the West 'lonesome' is a word with strongly positive connotations. I must have phrased my answer better at the time, because both he and I were struck by the aptness of the remark, and people in Alabama are far too sensitive to language to be pleased with a phrase such as ‘strongly positive connotations.’" (pg. 88)
Just buy the book and wait till you get to the passages where she explains why she loves reading the prose and poetry of Edgar Allan Poe.
Now I said earlier that this book is enjoyable to read because it asks you to reconsider some of your prior assumptions about things. The reason the book is able to do this is because this is the sort of thing Robinson has done herself.
"For the educated among us, moldy theories we learned as sophomores, memorized for the test and never consciously thought of again, exert an authority that would embarrass us if we stopped to consider them." (pg. 3)
Therefore, we ought to consider and rid ourselves of the embarrassing ones as soon as possible. Robinson has a sense of humor about this habit of thinking of hers, and with another more humorless writer, a book about challenging your assumptions would probably not have been as good of a read. For example:
How can you read something like that and not smile?
In her second essay, "Imagination and Community", we are given further evidence for why she writes as well as she does. She loves, and all her life has loved, books. Reading is one of her favorite things, and she credits all that she has read for giving her the imagination and critical skills that have made her into the author that she is.
“First, books have taught me most of what I know, and they have trained my attention and my imagination. Second, they gave me a sense of the possible, which is the great service - and too often, when it is ungenerous, the great disservice - a community performs for its members. Third, they embodied richness and refinement of language, and the artful use of language in the service of the imagination. Fourth, they gave me and still give me courage. Sometimes, when I have spent days in my study dreaming a world while the world itself shines outside my window, forgetting to call my mother because one of my nonbeings has come up with a thought that interests me, I think, this is a very odd way to spend a life. But I have my library all around me, my could of witnesses to the strangeness and brilliance of human experience, who have helped me to my deepest enjoyments of it. Every writer I know, when asked how to become a writer, responds with one word: Read. Excellent advice, for a great many reasons, a few of which I have suggested here.” (pgs. 22-23)
There is something about reading that changes you. The greatest of writers are the greatest of readers. In our modern society with the short-attention spans that it encourages, a well-read writer is becoming more and more rare. Out of all the great books that are out there that I have yet to read, I spend and waste so much time that would be better spent with books of whose contents my limited imagination has not yet begun to fathom. I was thinking the other day that, with the short amount of time that I have, I do not read nearly as much as I ought. Hell, I'm lucky if I read a single book in a week. That's 4 books a month, less than 50 books a year. At that rate, I am going to end up reading practically nothing at all. And one single book a week - when I mention this to other friends - is viewed by them as a daunting and, perhaps, even impossible goal. How have we call become like this? - especially, when, as Robinson describes, the benefits to spending time with good books are so incredibly valuable?
I enjoy watching television. But, when I think about it, usually I can read most books in six hours or less. This is slower than people used to read, but it's still not very much time, particularly spread out over the seven days of a week. So for every three films that I watch, I could have read a book instead. There are a large number of great and nourishing films out there, but not every film I watch is worth the riches I lose by not reading something better. And this is just films - when you start taking TV shows or merely surfing the web into consideration, you start to realize how much time you are really chucking into the dust-bin.
Robinson herself is so worth reading because of her sense of the treasures that literature, history, the arts, religion and philosophy have given us. When you consciously work on disciplining your reading and thus, your thinking, habits, your perspective on a number of other things in the world is deepened. I'm still thinking over, for example, the critiques Robinson is able to make of the American evangelical church and the religious right's involvement in politics. It's amazing what results you get when you apply a generous sense of history and literature to modern day problems.
ON AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY AND MODERN CULTURE
In her seventh essay, “Wondrous Love" for example, she writes:
In the modern age, history, religion and Scripture are discussed and debated without any coherent or objective standard or system by which to judge the very questions that are up for discussion. Increasingly partisan and ideological goals end up predisposing participants to use Scriptural texts, works of literature or facts of history in support of their own prejudices, rather than looking at these things to see what can actually be learned from them. Robinson is willing to criticize both sides for this error.
“Simple faiths tend to be driven to distraction by anomalies, and to bring an especially acerbic moralism to bear on whatever their belief systems cannot account for.” (pg. 152)
Legalism takes many forms. But the result is that both sides consider honest disagreement with their positions as morally wrong. This is not conducive to discussion or persuasion, and it is a narrow kind of thinking that a better educated sense of history and literature would frown upon. Robinson finds another example of this kind of thinking among those who believe there to be a conflict between faith and science.
“We live in a time 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.” (pg. 11)
It's not just atheists who think modern science contradicts religion. Many Christians believe this as well. But the belief is assuming that one's religion is going to conflict with scientific truths. This does not have to be so.
“It would seem that Americans have internalized a great prejudice against Christianity, assuming that it could not withstand the scrutiny of what they take to be a more intellectually sophisticated culture. How much anti-intellectualism, how much resentment of Europe and its influence, can be traced back to this prejudice? And how is it consistent with the belief that the church is the body of Christ, a belief I share, to think it has no intrinsic life to be relied on, and must, for the sake of its survival, be fastened to a more vigorous body, that of the nation? As I have said, this is precisely the wrong conclusion to be drawn in light of the many examples of nationalized and officialized religion that persist in the modern world. In general, this posture, this preemptive assault on secularism with all it entails, strikes me as frightened and antagonistic. Neither of these are emotions becoming in Christians or in the least degree likely to inspire thinking or action of a kind that deserves to be called Christian.” (pg. 136)
Robinson speaks with the authority that she does because she believes Christianity is really true. If you really find that you believe Christianity is true, then this ought to free you to consider and engage with other truths no matter from where they derive. This enables her to confront new scientific discoveries and theories without being intimidated by them (a quality she very well may have cultivated from reading St. Thomas Aquinas). For example, Quantum Mechanics has been advancing by leaps and bounds over the years and atheists use some of its new theories as arguments against religion. Robinson almost casually brushes these problems aside:
If a positivist test were brought to bear on this idea, the multiverse, it would be discarded as meaningless because it can never be falsified. But in fact the idea is interesting and relevant for just this reason. Given what we think we know about the origins of the universe, there is nothing implausible in the idea that like phenomena of creation might have occurred any number of times. Biblical and traditional conceptions of God have enough grandeur in them to accommodate the theory without difficulty, so there are no religious grounds for rejecting it. Its importance to the new atheist argument lies precisely in the fact that, true or not, falsifiable or not, it amounts to a statement of the fact that our experience of being is special and parochial.” (pg. 196)
But if you follow Robinson's reasoning, even the proposition that the existence of mankind is unique and limited does not have to be challenged by adherents to Christianity. There are many traditional Christian theologians who would argue for this exact point. Modern science has been making incredible discoveries over the years and there is no good reason for Christians to reject most of what a reasonable person would view as scientific progress. But science reveals truths to us without addressing other questions. A purely scientific viewpoint provides no means for interpreting some of the facts about ourselves upon which we now have an increased understanding.
In her first essay in the book, "Freedom of Thought," Robinson writes:
"... 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. Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word 'soul,' and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.
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.” (pg. 8)
“Now we seem to feel beauty is an affectation of some sort. And this notion is as influential in the churches as it is anywhere. The Bible, Christianity, should have inoculated us against this kind of disrespect for ourselves and one another. Clearly it has not.” (pg. 6)
Robinson expresses concern that the pettiness of the terms in which many within the American church think will turn others away from both Christianity and the rich treasury of literature that religious tradition has given us. When modern Christians act as if they are threatened by humanism, by philosophy, by differing historical traditions, by scientific advances, by universities and learning then they are going to cause others to reject Christianity. Americans make a number of claims about their own Christianity, this, in another sense, even represents modern day Christianity to the rest of the world.
“The world will see what we make of ourselves. These self-induced panics do nothing to enhance the respect the world has for us or for religion or Christianity. And to the extent that we are associated with Christianity we run the risk of defacing it in the world’s eyes. I know there are those who feel it is unpatriotic to care what the world thinks. But just as discredited institutions close the path to Christian faith for many good people, undignified, obscurantist, and xenophobic Christianity closes the path for many more.” (pg. 137)
As you read Robinson, you get the impression that we've lost some things that used to be very important. Our forsaking of the arts and humanities (for whatever reason) and our insistence on what can often reasonably be called an anti-intellectualism is crippling us. We have, by one way or another, limited our knowledge and understanding of the past. We are not as reading to consider or accept ideas that are outside of our own limited time and place. We have turned into the bad sense of the phrase "close-minded." This type of thinking has not just damaged how Christianity appears to the rest of the world, it also has affected our discourse within the public square.
ON MODERN POLITICS AND CONVENTIONAL THOUGHT
When you only use history and literature as a mere tool to support your own partisan side of an argument, you are going to inevitably misinterpret and misunderstand what has happened in the past and misconstrue truths about human nature. Public dialogue in the United States has been in a downward spiral for some time.
“... the language of public life has lost the character of generosity, and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical memory.” (pg. xiv)
The thing about Robinson is she just doesn't bemoan the growing lack of civility in the public square neither is she interested in one side over another. Instead, she is interested in why something like public discourse dissolves. Applying her knowledge of history and philosophy to our modern day phenomena, Robinson is able to trace the roots of current problems and current ideas back in time. For example, she finds Gnostic and Manichean influences in how we view things in our modern debates between that which is spiritual and that which is secular.
"We are much afflicted now by tedious, fruitless controversy. Very often, perhaps typically, the most important aspect of a controversy is not the area of disagreement but the hardening of agreement, the tacit granting on all sides of assumptions that ought not to be granted on any side. The treatment of the physical as a distinct category antithetical to the spiritual is one example. There is a deeply rooted notion that the material exists in opposition to the spiritual, precludes or repels or trumps the sacred as an idea. This dichotomy goes back at least to the dualism of the Manichees, who believed the physical world was the creation of an evil god in perpetual conflict with a good god, and to related teachings within Christianity that encouraged mortification of the flesh, renunciation of the world and so on.
For almost as long as there has been science in the West there has been a significant strain in scientific thought which assumed that the physical and material preclude the spiritual. Their assumption persists among us still, vigorous as evil, that if a thing can be 'explained,' associated with a physical process, it has been excluded from the category of the spiritual. But the “physical” in this sense is only a disappearingly thin slice of being, selected, for our purposes, out of the totality of being by the fact that we perceive it as solid, substantial. We all know that if we were the size of atoms, chairs and tables would appear to us as loose clouds of energy. It seems to me very amazing that the arbitrarily selected 'physical' world we inhabit is coherent and lawful. An older vocabulary would offer the word 'miraculous.'" (pgs. 9-10)
There are many reasons for rejecting the thinking and discoveries of our ancestors. But whatever errors and abuses they may have been guilty of does not mean they contributions to the discussion are worthless. Robinson is careful to try and not neglect what we have been given to work with.
“Those of us who accept a historical tradition find ourselves feeling burdened by its errors and excesses, especially when we are pressed to make some account of them. I would suggest that those who reject the old traditions on these grounds are refusing to accept the fact that the tragic mystery of human nature has by no means played itself out, and that wisdom, which is almost another name for humility, lies in accepting one’s own inevitable share in human fallibility.” (pg. 27)
Sure, there are an impressive collection of evils and horrors from the past. There are legitimate reasons to blame different historical generations for ignoring important truths or hypocritically and selectively applying or refusing to apply them. Some of them made mistakes. Some of them committed errors that appear to us, in hindsight, to have been of incredible proportions. You are unlikely to find a single great classical theologian or philosopher who didn't get a couple important things wrong. But why is that a reason to ignore them? Who is to say that we are really any different from they? Robinson firmly concludes that all "thinking about the good society, what is to be wished for in the way of life in community, necessarily depends on assumptions about human nature." (pg. 143) If you believe that human nature is fallible, then you also have every reason to believe that our modern society and culture is doing a number of things wrong that past civilizations did right. If this is true, then we have much to learn from them.
This is an insight that popular political thought does not take into consideration.
"There is a great deal of cynicism at present, among Americans, about the American population. Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, ‘The United States is in spiritual free-fall.’ When people make such remarks, such appalling judgments, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree. They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the ‘us’ who presume to judge ‘them.’ This tedious pattern has repeated itself endlessly through human history and is, as I have said, the end of community and the beginning of tribalism." (pg. 30)
“There are excitements that come with abandoning the constraints of moderation and reasonableness. Those whose work it is to sustain the endless palaver of radio and television increasingly stimulate these excitements. No great wonder if they are bored, of if they suspect their audiences might be. But the effect of this marketing of rancor has unquestionably been to turn debate or controversy increasingly into a form of tribal warfare, harming the national community and risking always greater harm. I think it is reasonable to wonder whether democracy can survive in this atmosphere.” (pg. 27)
Anyone interested in questions of modern day justice and reform ought to attempt to build a well-rounded view of the literary traditions that one finds inevitably addressing the very questions that we are interested in now. Historically, the purer a democracy becomes the shorter is it's lifespan. We seem to always support change in our institutions in favor of anything that is more democratic, but it would be wise to consider the consequences that fell upon others in the past who tried the same thing.
Our society has changed. It is worth understanding how - beyond truncated politicized explanations from agenda driven college professors (whether secular or Christian, whether marxist, socialist or capitalist). In her fifth essay, "When I Was a Child," Robinson comments on how American viewpoints have changed over time.
"My grandparents and people like them had a picture in their houses of a stag on a cliff, admiring a radiant moon, or a maiden in classical draperies, on the same cliff, admiring the same moon. It was a specimen of decayed Victorianism. In that period mourning, melancholy, regret, and loneliness were high sentiments, as they were for the psalmist and for Sophocles, for the Anglo-Saxon poets and for Shakespeare. In modern culture these are seen as pathologies - alienation and inauthenticity in Europe, maladjustment and depression in the United States." (pg. 89)
It is fascinating how different our thinking can become after so short a time period. There are virtues we no longer value. There are time periods from history that we look down our noses upon.
So it is not surprising that their heroes lived outside society, and neither did nor suffered the grueling injuries that were the stuff of ordinary life. In Whitman the outsider is a visionary. In Thoreau he is a critic. In the vernacular tradition of Western myth he is a rescuer and avenger. In every version he is the creation of generations that accomplished more radical reforms of society than had ever been attempted anywhere before." (pgs 91-92)
Modern conventional wisdom often does not value the ideals of those Americans who participated in Western expansion. When even the idea of "American Exceptionalism" is brought up, it is scoffed at. Our current President does not think there is anything special about being an American anymore than there is anything special about being English, French, German or Italian. But another possibility is that it is possible to value the good in our history and our founding's principles without discounting the good from other civilizations around the globe and throughout time.
Americans have been taught a certain amount of self-loathing in the modern history classrooms. National self-loathing has it's own consequences. Particular scientific theories teach us that there is nothing that meaningfully distinguishes us from animals - that we are merely the products of a natural process formed and shaped by powers outside our control. This sort of thinking also has it's own consequences.
"The lowering of ourselves in our own estimation has been simultaneous with the rise of an egoism based on the assumption that it is only natural to be self-serving, and these two together have had a destructive effect on public life." (pg. 160)
But, in spite of what we have lost and neglected, Robinson doesn't reach many of the conclusions you would expect her to. After critiquing how bad conventional thought can get, I began to reach the feeling that I was about to read a couple essays full of pessimism. Lamenting the decline and fall of Western civilization seems like a common trope for Christians and conservatives these days. But, instead of joining them, Robinson argues that a cultivated sense of history and tradition does not necessarily lead to an impending sense of decline.
Our political rhetoric may frequently predict impending doom, but it's obviously not a very balanced approach to confronting any of our society's problems. I know a large number of conservatives who are predicting the fall of American civilization, declaring that we are now hell-bent on socialistic government policies that will destroy everything we know and love about our country. Having participated in religious right circles in the past, I've also frequently heard, even from church pulpits, how our country has been taken from us and how we need to take our country back for the secular humanist.
Robinson has been exposed to this sort of thing too, and she writes:
“A narrative has emerged lately, a narrative of decline. It is about the loss of our religious and cultural essence, and it is stimulating in its way, like a horror movie or a panic attack. There is nothing especially American about this story. Indeed, Oswald Spengler and many others have made extravagant use of it. For our purposes it begins with the assertion by certain excitable people that this is a Christian country. So it is, demographically. And since this is true both historically and at present, attitudes and institutions that are Christian in their origins are profoundly influential in our culture. But this is not good enough. This influence is both unconscious and unforced, and it is therefore invisible to those who think that the majority religious tradition in the country, by virtue of its being the majority tradition, ought to be asserted very forcefully as an intrinsic part of our national identity. These people see an onrush of secularism intent on driving religion to the margins, maybe over the edge, and for the sake of Christianity they want to enlist society itself in its defense. They want politicians to make statements of faith, and when merchants hang out their seasonal signs and banners they want them to say something much more specific than ‘Happy Holidays.’ They say that the Founders meant to establish freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Well, in fact, the Founders meant to give us freedom from established religion, from state-sponsored religion.” (pgs. 134-135)
And this is another reason why I love reading Robinson. She inevitably ends up challenging how I've been taught to think. Many Christians think in terms of religion vs. secularism. They view "secularism" as an enemy that is determined to force religion out of public life and influence. And yet, from another legitimately Christian perspective, humanist secularism could be viewed as simply another facet of a multifaceted view of General Revelation. Secularism includes science and philosophy and history. Fighting a "battle" for the sake of your religion may ultimately result in evidencing your lack of faith in the strength of your own religion.
ON THE VALUE OF HUMAN LIFE
Because of the literary tradition of which she is a part, Marilynne Robinson can reasonably be said to be a conservative. But she is a conservative who challenges blindly accepted assumptions. She's a conservative who refuses to look at the world as a choice between sitting in one of two camps. Unlike many of her Christian fellows, she is willing to find that which is of value wherever it exists.
There is a broadmindedness here that goes against the grain of the conventional. In her tenth essay, "Cosmology," Robinson, who had spent some time earlier questioning some of the assumptions of capitalism, takes a close look at evolutionary psychology. What she finds is that the thinking of Sigmund Freud, and his assumptions about how each and every human being is engaged in only looking out for their own self-interests, has infiltrated almost every aspect of our thinking - even in regards to something like literature.
"The givens of Freud’s system are the conventional assumptions of evolutionary anthropology ... All this came up recently in a writing class when I asked the students to describe their assumptions about human motivation. It became clear that a number of them took for granted that the substratum of all behavior was self-interest, t his understood as gratification of certain of those same uncountenanced impulses Freud had in mind ...
And it has had significant consequences for their fiction ... At either end of this very short spectrum we find persons understood as having radically limited self-awareness, a minimum of meaningful inwardness, very little real ability to choose or appraise their actions. In other words, they have little true individuality - that is, character. From a fictional point of view, this is a problem. From a political point of view, it is a particularly unattractive example of class bias, poorly compensated by the fact that the bias cuts both ways. When I laid out my sense of the origins and nature of the problem, when I suggested that it was indeed a problem, there was a moment of thoughtful silence. Then one of them asked, ‘If you reject Freud, what else is there?’ She was asking what other model could be found for interpreting human nature. If a well-educated woman a third my age has to ask the question, and none of her peers is able to propose an answer, then the authority of Freudianism is clearly undiminished. And if at this point it has the potency of common wisdom or of folklore more than of science, its influence on thinking is perhaps only greater for this fact." (pgs. 190-191)
We do live in a society where self-interest is virtually worshiped. All mass-media, all advertising, all new cool hip church outreach, all entertainment - it's all geared to promoting a culture of narcissism at it's worst. In one sense, our society is an Ayn Rand "Virtue of Selfishness" fantasy come true (minus the government bureaucrats, of course). Pop culture turns science into pseudo-science. Education turns the arts into self-obsessive-expression. The assumptions of simplified Darwinist thought are even channeled into promoting free market capitalism into it's extreme form - where pure self-interest is the god of the marketplace. The United States economy is not run by any coherent set of free market principles by a long shot, but we sure like to talk it up.
One is reminded of Alexis de Tocqueville's warnings of what could happen to education and art in a dehumanizing mass-consumer driven economy. Robinson is aware of these warnings and she places the blame where it belongs.
FORSAKING THE HUMANITIES
But, in spite of everything, there are still truths about mankind that modern society will never be able to explain away. However much critical analysis is done over the supposed origins of art, philosophy and religion, however much historical criticism is done over which sections of Christian doctrine have no basis in scientific reality, the meaningful questions about our purpose and our origins, about human experience, love and emotions - these are things critics will never bring down.
As you continue to read Robinson's writing, you start to wonder what would happen if anyone ever bothered to apply classical history and literature to the current questions facing our modern civilization.
“I was taught, more or less, that we moderns had discovered other religions with narratives resembling our own, and that this discovery had brought all religion to the level of anthropology ... I think much religious thought has also been intimidated by this supposed discovery, which is odd, since it certainly was not news to Paul, or Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas, or Calvin. All of them quote the pagans with admiration.” (pgs 11-12)
When you read ancient literature, it's about far more than the evolutionary psychologists or someone like Dennis Dutton says it is.
“Another answer, favored by those who claim to be defenders of science, is that religion formed around the desire to explain what prescientific humankind could not account for. Again, this notion does not bear scrutiny. The literatures of antiquity are clearly about other business.” (pg. 12)
“The notion that religion is intrinsically a crude explanatory strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science is based on a highly selective or tendentious reading of the literatures of religion. In some cases it is certainly fair to conclude that it is based on no reading of them at all ... In fact there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos. Art, music, and religion tell us that.” (pg. 15)
Why aren't we seeking out and cultivating works that address the most important questions of all? Wouldn't it be relevant to discover what, if anything exactly, Paul the Apostle had to say about helping the poor or about debt and economics?
“Our problem with ourselves, which is much larger and vastly older than science, has by no means gone into abeyance since we learned to make penicillin or to split the atom. If antibiotics have been used without sufficient care and have pushed the evolution of bacteria beyond the reach of their own effectiveness, if nuclear fission has become a threat to us all in the insidious form of a disgruntled stranger with a suitcase, a rebuke to every illusion of safety we entertained under fine names like Strategic Defense Initiative, old Homer might say, ‘the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.’ Shakespeare might say, ‘There is a destiny that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.’” (pg. 16)
Without claiming that Western civilization is doomed, one can still claim that modern day education is bitterly failing the majority of its students.
Without predicting the end of America as we know it, one can still posit that, every now and then, we might want to reevaluate how we are educating the young.
How many radio talk show hosts and TV news channels are there? And how many of them ever bother to look at Shakespeare or Dante for use in historical application? None. I may enjoy NPR or The New Yorker now and then for a little more of a cultured take on the issues of the day, but even they aren't really into studying the arts and humanities anymore. Our younger generations are being bombarded by more electrical stimuli than has ever been known to man.
“If we educate them well, we give them the means to create a future that we cannot anticipate. If we cheat them, they will have the relatively meager future we have prepared for them. If Mozart is good for the brain in utero, it is no doubt good for the brain in middle age. And so with culture generally, which provides us with the paradigms of thought.” (pg. 55)
In her eighth essay, "The Human Spirit and the Good Society," Robinson suggests that a number of our current ideas would never see the light of day if we still ever bothered to read some history.
Thus, we are not learning from lessons that are sitting right there for us to learn. The result is that our thinking ability is significantly limited and unimaginative. Robinson is firm on this point:
"I have felt from a long time that our idea of what a human being is has grown oppressively small and dull. I am persuaded as well that we educate ourselves and one another to think in terms that are demeaning to us all." (pg. 159)
PERFORATING CONVENTIONAL IDEAS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
I mentioned earlier than one of the advantages to reading Marilynne Robinson's book is that she provokes you into taking another look at some of your old assumptions. Once in a while, for those who care, if you look at your presuppositions, you may just find that a few of them have turned out to be untenable all along. This is a book where Robinson goes into extensive detail in questioning whole lines of accepted thought. Another example of this would be her fourth and sixth essays in this book, "Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism" and "The Fate of Ideas: Moses," both of which are worth the price of the book alone.
If you have ever questioned or wondered about the morality of sections of the Old Testament, then reading Robinson's take on the subject will most likely treat you to a viewpoint that you have never heard before. She admits how - "It is usual to see the Old Testament treated as a sort of dead weight on Christianity, if not a positive embarrassment to it, by scholars as well as clergy." (pg. 62) - and she even gives some historical acknowledgement to this view:
“It has been orthodox through most of Christian history to treat the Old Testament as rigid, benighted, greatly inferior to the Gospels. This error has never been truly rectified. The Old Testament is very difficult to read, and the churches seem to do little in the way of making its hard texts accessible, so it is known largely by reputation, and its reputation is daunting. It is generally thought of as a tribal epic which includes the compendium of strange laws and fierce prohibitions Jesus of Nazareth put aside when he established the dominion of grace.” (pg. 96)
We are generally taught to have the impression that Old Testament law is harsh - too harsh, and that Jesus changed all that with his teaching on love, tolerance and forgiveness. But Robinson calls the reader to a halt, and asks the reader to actually take a closer look at what the books of the Old Testament, as a whole, really do say. The results, according to Robinson, would be fairly surprising for anyone who has never bothered with a careful reading of the text.
“Israel’s extraordinarily high valuation of life in the world and in community led naturally to the centrality of law. ‘Law’ is a word that has had a special place in Christian thought on the basis of certain understandings of Paul’s use of it. For Harnack, at least in his interpretation of Marcion, it means the opposite of grace. That is, it runs contrary to the will of God, incurring misapprehension of the kind that is not only erring but damnable. Like most Christian commentators, Harnack never pauses to sort through the varieties of teaching or instruction that are called ‘law,’ though for him they are for all purposes of one kind with the most precisian of the Levitical laws.” (pg. 70)
In each of the two essays, Robinson presents the reader with a large selection of texts that, for some unspoken reason, are plainly ignored by both liberals and conservatives alike.
Take, for instance, Deuteronomy 15:11
“Because there shal be ever some poore in the land, therefore I commande thee, saying, Thou shalt open thy hand unto thy brother, to thy nedie, and to thy poore in thy land.”
Exodus 23:9 commands the Hebrew nation not to oppress non-Jewish immigrants who are entering their country. Deuteronomy 15:7-8 mandates that they give part of their wealth to the poor. Numbers 43 limits criminal punishment in ways that are incredibly historically rare. Deuteronomy 23:15-16 declares that escaped slaves or indentured servants are not to be returned to their masters. Deuteronomy 24:17 gives further commands against oppressing immigrants or harshly collecting debts. Deuteronomy 24:14-15 mandates the prompt payment of fair wages to the working classes.
“One Mosaic law of unambiguous relevance, which goes unmentioned ... is Deuteronomy 23:7: ‘You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land.’” (pg. 116)
There are many rules about the Sabbath, Deuteronomy 5:12-15 for example, mandating a weekly day of rest for everyone. Instead of looking at this as a silly prohibition, Robinson asks what affect this would have on the poorer laboring classes in comparison to almost any other economic system in the history of man.
“Exhaustion was as endemic as malnutrition among the laboring classes of European cultures into the twentieth century. Moses obliged manservant and maidservant, stranger and sojourner, ox and ass, to share in God’s rest one day in seven. This is profoundly humane, quite unexampled.” (pg. 109)
Exodus 23:11, Leviticus 25:1-7, and 20-23, Deuteronomy 2:4-11, chapter 15, chapter 24, 25:3, Isaiah 32:6-8 and others are all of interest in how humane Jewish law really was. There is an understanding that poverty helps increase crime, but the laws of ancient Israel set up a national system that guards against deep-ridden poverty. In fact, all debts are periodically mandated to be forgiven, and compared to the modern day United States (let alone compared to physical criminal punishment of crimes of property throughout the history of Europe, which is forbidden by Jewish law), it looks like we are much more harsh. In fact, we have a whole number of things to learn from the Old Testament about how a system of government could be built to be compassionate of the poor.
“The tendency to hold certain practices in ancient Israel up to idealized modern Western norms is pervasive in much that passes for scholarship, though a glance at the treatment of the great class of debtors now being evicted from their homes in America and elsewhere should make it clear that, from the point of view of graciousness or severity, an honest comparison is not always in our favor.” (pg. 72)
How is this even possible? Is Robinson saying that there are Biblical grounds for government provided social welfare? - that there are Old Testament grounds for regulations which require for the provision of the poor? Yes, that is exactly what she's saying. She goes into much more detail and I'm only briefly summarizing here, but when we criticize Old Testament Israel for not remedying problems that we are proud of having fixed in modern times, the fact is that we are ignoring a whole large collection of instances of mercy and justice that our modern views often completely ignore.
It's a result of not reading the Old Testament carefully. And speaking of now reading things very carefully, Robinson also points out that we treat other parts of history with exactly the same strangely selective viewpoint. Take the Puritans for example. I don't know how many times I've heard religious right teachers quote John Winthrop's allusion to "a city set upon a hill" as a way of explaining how great America's example is to the rest of the world.
How many of the preachers, teachers or politicians point out that Puritan John Winthrop's sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity" (from which the allusion is taken) was actually discussing just that ... charity and provision that Christians ought to provide for the lost and the needy.
“This address, which must be very little read, has nothing of the prophetic triumphalism our politicians have claimed to find in it. As ‘a city on a hill,’ Winthrop says, the colony’s failures will be conspicuous and notorious. He says that if they ‘shall fall to embrace this present world and prosecute our carnall intentions, seeking greate things for ourselves and our posterity ... the Lord will surely breake out in wrathe against us.’ And ‘if our heartes shall turne away, soe that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced and worshipp and serve other Gods, our pleasure and profitts ... it is propounded unto us this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good land whither we passe over this vast sea to possesse it.’ That profit should be called a false god follows inevitably from this very Calvinist ethic of radical openhandedness.” (pg. 81)
That doesn't sound like what I was always taught Winthrop was saying. His "city on a hill" reference is a warning that, when we fail, everyone else will see us fail? He is calling economic profit a false god? I don't remember that. I guess I'm to be included in the collection of ignoramuses who never even bothered to actually read what Winthrop was saying.
We have a number of political issues in politics at this very moment that have to do with exactly the same problems these Old Testament passages, and John Winthrop's famous address for another example, were dealing with. In fact, since apparently Robinson is one of the only thinkers alive today who has ever even bothered to pay attention to and study this, I'm afraid of disagreeing with her when she concludes, looking at the prohibition of criminal physical punishment for property crimes, that:
“The entire economic and social history of Christendom would have been transformed if Moses had been harkened to only in this one particular.” (pg. 101)
I'm still a little leery of parts of the Old Testament, but suddenly Robinson has convinced me that I have not been very fair or even-handed on the subject in the past. It's easy to blame Old Testament laws for crazy religious fanaticism and legalism, both today and in the past. It's even easier to do so if you just say all that Old Testament nonsense was chucked by the wayside once Jesus came along. But it's time I, and the rest of us, were a little more careful about what we think and what we say about Old Testament law. As it turns out, the pure ideal of free market capitalism would be strongly frowned upon by the old Hebrew lawgivers. And, when you look at their society, it turns out they provided for and took care of their poor, their laboring classes, and their immigrants in ways that we wouldn't even give a second thought.
Robinson hammers us all on this one:
“It is often said that Europeans learned religious intolerance from the Old Testament. Then how did we happen to skip over the parts where the laws protect and provide for the poor, and where oppression of them is most fiercely forbidden? It is surely dishonest to suggest that we learned anything at all from the Torah, if we have not learned anything good from it. Better to say our vices are our own than to try to exculpate ourselves by implying that our attention strayed during the humane and visionary passages. The law of Moses puts liberation theology to shame in its passionate loyalty to the poor. Why do we not know this yet?” (pg. 102)
Why, indeed, do we not know this yet?
Because we don't read.
And, apparently, because we don't think - not very coherently, anyhow.
Marilynne Robinson still reads books.
If we have any hope at even beginning to catch up with her, then maybe we should start doing the same thing a little more often. In fact, you could even start with this one.