Why teach and study (and fund) the humanities?

Alexis de Tocqueville; portrait by Théodore Chassériau, 1850Amen! The NYRB has just published a(nother) brilliant piece by Marilynne Robinson. The entire essay is well worth reading, and re-reading. And here’s a snippet:

Why teach the humanities? Why study them? American universities are literally shaped around them and have been since their founding, yet the question is put in the bluntest form—what are they good for? If, for purposes of discussion, we date the beginning of the humanist movement to 1500, then, historically speaking, the West has flourished materially as well as culturally in the period of their influence. You may have noticed that the United States is always in an existential struggle with an imagined competitor. It may have been the cold war that instilled this habit in us. It may have been nineteenth-century nationalism, when America was coming of age and competition among the great powers of Europe drove world events. Whatever etiology is proposed for it, whatever excuse is made for it, however rhetorically useful it may be in certain contexts, the habit is deeply harmful, as it has been in Europe as well, when the competition involved the claiming and defending of colonies, as well as militarization that led to appalling wars.

The consequences of these things abide. We see and feel them every day. The standards that might seem to make societies commensurable are essentially meaningless, except when they are ominous. Insofar as we treat them as real, they mean that other considerations are put out of account. Who died in all those wars? The numbers lost assure us that there were artists and poets and mathematicians among them, and statesmen, though at best their circumstances may never have allowed them or us to realize their gifts.

What was lost to those colonizations? The many regions that bore the brunt of them struggle to discover a social order they can accept as legitimate and authoritative, with major consequences for the old colonizers and the whole world. Who loses in these economic competitions? Those who win, first of all, because the foot soldiers of those economies work too much for meagre, even uncertain pay and are exposed to every insult this cheapening of fundamental value visits on the earth and the air. How many artists and scientists ought there to be among those vast legions? And among their threatened children? There is a genius for impoverishment always at work in the world. And it has its way, as if its proceedings were not only necessary, but even sensible. Its rationale, its battle cry, is Competition.

A great irony is at work in our historical moment. We are being encouraged to abandon our most distinctive heritage—in the name of self-preservation. The logic seems to go like this: To be as strong as we need to be we must have a highly efficient economy. Society must be disciplined, stripped down, to achieve this efficiency and to make us all better foot soldiers. The alternative is decadence, the eclipse of our civilization by one with more fire in its belly. We are to be prepared to think very badly of our antagonist, whichever one seems to loom at a given moment. It is a convention of modern literature, and of the going-on of talking heads and public intellectuals, to project what are said to be emerging trends into a future in which cultural, intellectual, moral, and economic decline will have hit bottom, more or less.

Somehow this kind of talk always seems brave and deep. The specifics concerning this abysmal future are vague—Britain will cease to be Britain, America will cease to be America, France will cease to be France, and so on, depending on which country happens to be the focus of Spenglerian gloom. The oldest literature of radical pessimism can be read as prophecy. Of course these three societies have changed profoundly in the last hundred years, the last fifty years, and few with any knowledge of history would admit to regretting the change. What is being invoked is the notion of a precious and unnamable essence, second nature to some, in the marrow of their bones, in effect. By this view others, whether they will or no, cannot understand or value it, and therefore they are a threat.

The definitions of “some” and “others” are unclear and shifting. In America, since we are an immigrant country, our “nativists” may be first- or second-generation Americans whose parents or grandparents were themselves considered suspect on these same grounds. It is almost as interesting as it is disheartening to learn that nativist rhetoric can have impact in a country where precious few can claim to be native in any ordinary sense. Our great experiment has yielded some valuable results—here a striking demonstration of the emptiness of such rhetoric, which is nevertheless loudly persistent in certain quarters in America, and which obviously continues to be influential in Britain and Europe.

Nativism is always aligned with an impulse or strategy to shape the culture with which it claims to have this privileged intimacy. It is urgently intent on identifying enemies and confronting them, and it is hostile to the point of loathing toward aspects of the society that are taken to show their influence. In other words, these lovers of country, these patriots, are wildly unhappy with the country they claim to love, and are bent on remaking it to suit their own preferences, which they feel no need to justify or even fully articulate. Neither do they feel any need to answer the objections of those who see their shaping and their disciplining as mutilation.

What is at stake now, in this rather inchoate cluster of anxieties that animates so many of us, is the body of learning and thought we call the humanities. Their transformative emergence has historically specifiable origins in the English and European Renaissance, greatly expedited by the emergence of the printing press. At the time and for centuries afterward it amounted to very much more than the spread of knowledge, because it was understood as a powerful testimony to human capacities, human grandeur, the divine in the human. And it had the effect of awakening human capacities that would not otherwise have been imagined ….

In the history of the West, for all its achievements, there is also a persisting impatience with the energy and originality of the mind. It can make us very poor servants of purposes that are not our own. A Benthamite panopticon would have radically reduced the varieties of experience that help to individuate us, in theory producing happiness in factory workers by preventing their having even a glimpse of the fact that there could be more to life. Censorship, lists of prohibited books, restrictions on travel, and limits on rights of assembly all accomplish by more practicable means some part of the same exclusions, precluding the stimulus of new thought, new things to wonder about. The contemporary assault on the humanities has something of the same objective and would employ similar methods. Workers, a category that seems to subsume us all except the idlest rich, should learn what they need to learn to be competitive in the new economy. All the rest is waste and distraction.

(Little wonder that Ben is so excited about his new job!)

A little commendation for The Givenness of Things

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I want to commend Marilynne Robinson’s recent book The Givenness of Things.

The result of this collection of wise and intelligent essays on profoundly human themes, proclivities, and experiences – like poverty, theology, freedom, randomness, fear, fads, greed, faith, science, and alarmism, breathed through with decent doses of Shakespeare, Calvin, Locke, and Saints Matthew and Luke, and marked by a remarkably high christology – is a perspicacious map which assists those of us living in and with Western cultures to read better the signs of the times, and to live better orientated towards those things that will outlast all else. A gift, from one who on her next birthday will be seventy.

I read large amounts of this book while sitting by two kangaroos – a big one, and a little one. They seemed to enjoy my company as much as I did theirs, and that of this book. And nearby hung this sign, another telling commentary on the state of things:

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Marilynne Robinson, Religion in Contemporary America

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Here, until 2 January 2014, is this year’s Theos Annual Lecture delivered on 28 November at One Birdcage Walk, Westminster. The speaker is Marilynne Robinson, and the title of her lecture is ‘Religion in Contemporary America’.

The parable of the Good Samaritan: a sermon by Marilynne Robinson

Rudd - Faith in Politics

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.

The parable of the Good Samaritan is more complex than it might seem at a first or a hundredth reading. Its central point is precious and also clear, that we are to help where help is needed, putting aside every distinction and consideration that might give us an excuse to pass by on the other side. If we are more like the scribe and the priest on too many occasions, sometimes we encounter, and sometimes we are, good Samaritans, people who do the kind and necessary thing, even the difficult and costly thing, when occasion arises, hoping nothing in return but to secure the well being of a stranger. This nameless, and fictional, Samaritan has left innumerable descendants, and they have been a blessing to us all.

Luke gives the parable an interesting context. A lawyer rises to “test” Jesus. He asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what is written in the law. He answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replies, “Do this and you will live.” Good brothers and sisters in Christ, let us ponder the fact that, if Jesus is to be believed, the law of Moses is fully sufficient to the securing of eternal life.

The lawyer is offering an established first-century Jewish understanding of the essence of the law of Moses. Notice that here the lawyer cites the law. In the Gospel of Matthew it is Jesus who quotes it. He does so repeatedly, a fact which might explain, though it cannot excuse, the belief widely held among Christians that the commandment originated with Jesus. I have even seen it argued that this commandment to love, which is found in Leviticus, a Book of Moses, epitomizes the difference between the law of Moses and the law of Christ, between Judaism and Christianity. It’s hard to know sometimes whether to laugh or to weep or to tear one’s hair. Be that as it may. Here Luke gives us two first-century Jews discussing the correct interpretation of a particularly venerated law of Moses.

What is called a “law” here is in fact a phrase taken from a law, Leviticus 19:18, which forbids grudgeholding and revenge. In the New Testament the phrase is consistently understood to have a much broader meaning than its original context would give it. Indeed, it seems to be in its nature somehow to have and to acquire always broader reference. The phrase occurs three times in the Gospel of Matthew. In the first, Jesus enlarges the circle of those to be loved to include one’s enemy, since God “makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” Again, when a young man asks what he must do to be saved, Jesus cites the Ten Commandments, and then, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is remarkable to find this phrase, stripped of its context, given equal standing with the Decalogue. Its great importance is made clear again when Jesus responds to a question put to him by another lawyer – “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus replies, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all the soul, and with all thy mind. This is the great and first Commandment. And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets.” In the Gospel of Mark Jesus quotes the great commandment, to love the Lord, as the first in importance. Then he says, “The second is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, There is none other commandment greater than these.” Paul quotes the phrase in Romans, saying that the law is summed up “in this word, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” He says, “Love worketh no ill to his neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

In the exchange in Matthew that prompts the famous parable of compassion in today’s text, the lawyer who is testing Jesus grants the authority of this commandment, but, being a lawyer, he wants a clarification. “Who is my neighbor?” Luke says he is seeking to justify himself when he asks this question, which might be understood to mean that he is asking “Whom am I obliged to love? and, conversely, who falls outside the range of those to whom love is owed?” Presumably the lawyer in his attempt to be obedient to this law has been proceeding on a definition of his own that allows him to be a little bit selective. The Hebrew word translated “neighbor” can mean kinsman, friend, companion, or neighbor as we understand the word. The Greek word suggests less in terms of personal relationship and more in terms of nearness, physical proximity. In both cases, the concept “neighbor” is potentially somewhat narrow, as it is for us. The lawyer, intent on his own salvation, clearly does not want on one hand to risk loving where he would realize no eternal benefit from it, or, on the other. to allow himself indifference or hostility toward anyone on whom his eternal happiness might depend. In the way of pious people in all times and places, he wants to get it right.

Now, as it happens, there is another law, another commandment to love, in the same chapter of Leviticus, fifteen verses on, which is far too little known, though we must assume Jesus knew it, and probably the lawyer did, too. It says: When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. A phrase very like the one with which we are familiar could have floated free of this context – Thou shalt love the alien as thyself. Here the law specifically draws the stranger, as stranger, into the great defining narrative of the people Israel. Aliens are in effect naturalized, made, in the same language, properly the objects of love just as neighbors are, and on precisely the grounds that they are outsiders. Without reference to origins or any other quality, their circumstance is all the identity that matters. Put these laws side by side, and together they make neighbor and stranger equivalent terms. In the language of the Hebrew Bible there is a structure called a merism. The naming of two extremes – heaven and earth, good and evil – implies everything that falls between them. This is to say that, taken together, the commandments to love in Leviticus are very broad indeed. Whence, perhaps, the energy that makes this fragment of a law, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, rank among the greatest laws.

Boat peopleStill, the lawyer seems to feel that he can love where the law requires, that the requirement of the law can be limited and defined – and that self-interest can inspire a good enough approximation to that exalted emotion to satisfy the commandment, and to serve his eternal purposes. Looking at context again, this characteristic pairing of the laws to love God and neighbor makes them both dependent on the one word “love.” Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, and thy neighbor as thyself. To perform actions that only signify love of God is not sufficient – is in fact reprehensible, offensive to God, as all the prophets tell us. The very emphatic language of the first of the laws – love is to engross heart, soul, strength and mind – makes this point. It is in effect a definition of love, that it is engrossed by its object, and is in that sense selfless. The lawyer is using his own interests, piously defined, to determine the limits of his love as well as its proper focus. Insofar as his thinking influences his feeling, he is preventing himself from really loving anyone. The self-forgetfulness love requires is impossible for him.

I propose that the parable turns on this point. The kindness of the Samaritan has no self-interest behind it, no motive of friendship or kinship. In fact, there was inveterate hostility between Samaritans and Jews. In a broad, cultural sense, the Jew was the Samaritan’s enemy. Freud might have referred this hostility to what he called the narcissism of minor difference, the tendency of friction and conflict to occur most frequently between populations that are most similar to each other. Our own United States has engaged in three wars in which its national survival was at stake – the Revolution and the War of 1812, fought against England, and the Civil War, between our own North and South. Over the centuries Europeans have found differences among themselves that were intolerable to them and trivial or invisible to outsiders. And so with the world at large.

The kingdom of Israel became divided after the reign of Solomon. After the separation, the northern kingdom was called Israel, then Samaria, and the southern kingdom was called Judah, then Judea. This distinction is reflected in the word “Jew,” which means Judean. Both peoples centered their faith and worship around the five books of Moses. The Samaritans did not accept the prophets or worship at the temple in Jerusalem but at a temple of their own in Bethel. These distinctions are reflected in the Old Testament text from the writing of the prophet Amos. Christianity, of course, has its origins in the religious culture of Judea, which might lead to further, sadder reflection on the narcissism of minor differences. In any case, the antipathy felt on both sides, Samaritan and Judean, was very real and is certainly a factor in this parable. The compassion of the Samaritan expresses an utter freedom, on this occasion, at least, from the mean distinctions culture and history seem always to generate and to impose. In making the good man of the parable a Samaritan, another inheritor of the traditions of Moses, and specifically of the commandments to love in Leviticus, Jesus suggests that this “heretic’s” understanding of them and obedience to them were of a higher order than the lawyer’s, a man who had devoted himself to mastering the law, and probably prided himself on his command of it. Jesus is inviting his hearers to put aside these same mean distinctions, to emulate a Samaritan. In putting aside the strictures of religion, they will enable themselves to be truly obedient to the law. We are all painfully aware that the most telling indictment of Christianity is our persistent failure to distinguish identity and adherence from actual, lived faithfulness.

But Jesus broadens the question much further. A commandment to love is mysterious in itself. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God. How is this done? If one’s heart does not incline to love, or to this kind of love, what then? How does one love God, of Whom reverence itself requires us to acknowledge that we can know so little? Jesus says; the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” is like unto the first great law. How is this to be understood? For Christians, the answer lies in Jesus Himself, in the Incarnation. In another famous parable, this one in the 25th chapter of Matthew, the Son of Man, appearing enthroned as apocalyptic judge of all the nations of the earth, says to the blessed, “I was hungry, and you fed me. I was naked and you clothed me.” To the Samaritan he would say, “I was beaten and robbed and left lying by the road, and you bound my wounds and cared for me, bearing every expense of time and effort and money, expecting nothing in return.” This parable in Matthew is also addressed to the question put by the lawyer in the text we have read today, what one must do to inherit eternal life, and there is absolutely nothing sectarian in the answer it gives. Humanity’s remotest ancestors could come under its blessing. The impulse to be kind manifest in the parable of the Good Samaritan is a human impulse, rarer than it ought to be and beautiful wherever it finds expression. Christians can know that they honor God Himself whenever they honor another human being, showing that they understand the value of his or her dignity, life, peace and safety. Jesus, man of sorrows, Son of Man, gives us most explicit instruction on this point. If we fail in our reverence toward others, it is not because we don’t know better.

Still there is a question. Can we oblige God to think well of us by showing mercy and generosity? As children of the Reformation we must answer, no, we cannot. The revelation we are given in Matthew’s parable of the Great Judgment is not simply that heaven blesses acts of mercy, but something vastly more astounding, that Christ is present in those who are vulnerable to our oppression or neglect, and that Christ feels and remembers in his own person every kindness that is done to them. It is not the pathos of the world but its profound sacredness that is shown to us. At issue in our parable is not how the word neighbor is to be understood, but what is meant by the word love.

That one verb expresses the right relation of ourselves to God and of ourselves to whomever circumstance puts in our way. Notice how Jesus’s parable shifts our perspective. The neighbor is definitely not a relative, not the member of the community, not a co-religionist. Jesus’s having made his protagonist a Samaritan suggests that he takes the lawyer to expect the definition of the word “neighbor” to fall within one of these categories, if not more than one. The letter of the law could be used, as it so often is, to deny the spirit of the law. Jesus does not even allow the word to mean “whoever needs our kindness or our help,” though this would be a very broad definition, since everyone does need kindness very often. Instead he defines the neighbor not as the proper object of love – but as the one who acts lovingly. More precisely, his story moves the lawyer to this recognition. If love of neighbor were a commandment honored generally, then its effects would be reciprocal. As neighbors we would receive the benefits of this love, and also extend them to others. We create ourselves as neighbors – and fulfill the law – when we honor our side of this shared bond, whether the bond is acknowledged on the other side or not. The word has as broad a definition as we have insight, engagement and compassion to give it.

And there is always another, much larger, context. The Gospel gives us a scene in which a legal scholar is disputing with a self-taught carpenter about a point of law. A bright fellow, he must have thought, interesting enough to spar with a little. He’s attracting crowds, and that can be dangerous. If I give him a question we specialists have struggled with, I might take him down a peg. No harm in that.

The writers of the Gospels take this carpenter to have been, in fact, the epitome of holiness, the Word made flesh, the universal judge. The lawyer is debating the law with God Himself, whose own commandments are at issue. This makes the scene most remarkable. But it is remarkable for nothing more than for the fact that Jesus, the Christ of Luke’s Gospel, is an ordinary man. On a landscape where prophets have appeared he is taken by some people to be one more prophet. Others have no opinion, or take no notice. But, in light of the utterly singular Presence the writer we call Luke understood him to be, there is the greatest significance in the fact that he really is one of us. He might have been the man lying injured by the side of the road, and he might have been the Samaritan who took him up. His wounds would have bled, his voice and his hands would have comforted, just as theirs did, just as ours do. The deep holiness with which human life is invested, which is so great that the Christ could take on true humanity without the least diminishment of his holiness, should tell us who we are and whom we are among, and why it is that the love of neighbor is “like unto” the love of God.

Let us be truly faithful to the last commandment of Jesus, that we love one another. Amen.

Marilynne Robinson preached this sermon at the Congregational United Church of Christ of Iowa City, 14 July 2013.

[A note on the first image: The first image, of Kevin Rudd, is accompanied with words from Rudd’s essay ‘Faith in Politics’, published in The Monthly, October 2006. It seemed a fitting image to use given the subject of the sermon, and the shameful political context in Australia during recent days from where I first read it.]

Good samaritans

Marilynne Robinson, ‘The Book of Books: What Literature Owes the Bible’

Marilynne Robinson nails it yet again in this recent piece – ‘The Book of Books: What Literature Owes the Bible’ – published in the online version of the New York Times (The print version will appear on page BR1 in tomorrow’s Sunday Book Review). Here’s a snippet:

Literatures are self-referential by nature, and even when references to Scripture in contemporary fiction and poetry are no more than ornamental or rhetorical — indeed, even when they are unintentional — they are still a natural consequence of the persistence of a powerful literary tradition. Biblical allusions can suggest a degree of seriousness or significance their context in a modern fiction does not always support. This is no cause for alarm. Every fiction is a leap in the dark, and a failed grasp at seriousness is to be respected for what it attempts. In any case, these references demonstrate that in the culture there is a well of special meaning to be drawn upon that can make an obscure death a martyrdom and a gesture of forgiveness an act of grace. Whatever the state of belief of a writer or reader, such resonances have meaning that is more than ornamental, since they acknowledge complexity of experience of a kind that is the substance of fiction …

A number of the great works of Western literature address themselves very directly to questions that arise within Christianity. They answer to the same impulse to put flesh on Scripture and doctrine, to test them by means of dramatic imagination, that is visible in the old paintings of the Annunciation or the road to Damascus. How is the violence and corruption of a beloved city to be understood as part of an eternal cosmic order? What would be the consequences for the story of the expulsion from Eden, if the fall were understood as divine providence? What if Job’s challenge to God’s justice had not been overawed and silenced by the wild glory of creation? How would a society within (always) notional Christendom respond to the presence of a truly innocent and guileless man? Dante created his great image of divine intent, justice and grace as the architecture of time and being. Milton explored the ancient, and Calvinist, teaching that the first sin was a felix culpa, a fortunate fall, and providential because it prepared the way for the world’s ultimate reconciliation to God. So his Satan is glorious, and the hell prepared for his minions is strikingly tolerable. What to say about Melville? He transferred the great poem at the end of Job into the world of experience, and set against it a man who can only maintain the pride of his humanity until this world overwhelms him. His God, rejoicing in his catalog of the splendidly fierce and untamable, might ask, “Hast thou seen my servant Ahab?” And then there is Dostoyevsky’s “idiot” Prince Myshkin, who disrupts and antagonizes by telling the truth and meaning no harm, the Christ who says, “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”

Each of these works reflects a profound knowledge of Scripture and tradition on the part of the writer, the kind of knowledge found only among those who take them seriously enough to probe the deepest questions in their terms. These texts are not allegories, because in each case the writer has posed a problem within a universe of thought that is fully open to his questioning once its terms are granted. Here the use of biblical allusion is not symbolism or metaphor, which are both rhetorical techniques for enriching a narrative whose primary interest does not rest with the larger resonances of the Bible. In fact these great texts resemble Socratic dialogues in that each venture presupposes that meaning can indeed be addressed within the constraints of the form and in its language, while the meaning to be discovered through this argument cannot be presupposed. Like paintings, they render meaning as beauty …

In our strange cultural moment it is necessary to make a distinction between religious propaganda and religious thought, the second of these being an attempt to do some sort of justice to the rich difficulties present in the tradition. The great problem for Christianity is always the humility of the figure in whom God is said to have been incarnate, and the insistence of the tradition that God is present in the persons of the despised and rejected. The failure of the notionally Christian worlds of Russia and Mississippi to be in any way sufficient to the occasion of Christ among them would be a true report always and everywhere. But theology is only in part social commentary. Crucially it has to do with the authority of a vision, of a world that is only like this world in essence …

Read the rest here.


Marilynne Robinson on theology and writing

Here’s the ever-captivating and sapient Marilynne Robinson being interviewed by William Storrar, Director of the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, on the topic of doing theology and on writing theology:

 

Saturday Link Love

Marilynne Robinson on forgiveness

‘Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding … If you forgive … you may still indeed not understand, but you will be ready to understand, and that is the posture of grace’. – Marilynne Robinson, Home (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 45.

Recent wanderings: ‘The sudden disappointment of a hope leaves a scar which the ultimate fulfillment of that hope never entirely removes’

  • An attack on liberal Anglicanism – and on art?
  • Some words for teachers on the relationship between teaching styles and learning styles
  • David Fergusson on Rudolph Bultmann
  • Michael Gorman on why Christmas ought not include singing Happy Birthday to Jesus
  • Saddened to hear of the news of Edward Schillebeeckx’s passing. Schillebeeckx’s was one of the great voices in recent years, a true scholar and gentle prophet of reform. Here’s what he had to say twenty years ago: ‘My concern is that the further we move away in history from Vatican II, the more some people begin to interpret unity as uniformity. They seem to want to go back to the monolithic church which must form a bulwark on the one hand against communism and on the other hand against the Western liberal consumer society. I think that above all in the West, with its pluralist society, such an ideal of a monolith church is out of date and runs into a blind alley. And there is the danger that in that case, people with that ideal before their eyes will begin to force the church in the direction of a ghetto church, a church of the little flock, the holy remnant. But though the church is not of this world, it is of men and women. Men and women who are believing subjects of the church’. This mature voice once stated, in God Is New Each Moment, that ecumenism means ‘that we have to bear in mind the great Christian tradition that can be found in all the Christian churches – the Catholica, which does not in itself coincide with the empirical phenomenon of the Roman Catholic Church … In that sense, my work is, I think, a valid contribution to the unity of the church, in which there may be all kinds of differences, but in which the one Church community recognizes itself in the other communities and they recognize themselves in it’ (p. 74).
  • Some disturbing religious activities
  • An interesting interview with Better World Books
  • Robert Minto brings Simone Weil and Graham Greene’s Whiskey Priest into the same frame
  • Andrew Errington shares some Seamus Heaney
  • David Guretzki begins some reflections on Barth’s Credo
  • Jim Gordon posts on the importance of ideas in the practical renewal of the church
  • James Merrick shares some Marilynne Robinson on evangelicalism and Protestant liberalism
  • Finally, as one who has posted on beer before, I was delighted to read Arni Zachariasse’s post on  ‘6 reasons why your church needs (more) beer’:
  1. Beer is good for the community. Beer reduced inhibitions and nowhere are people more inhibited than in church. Congregants want at least one chair between them and the person next them. Even better if they get the entire pew to themselves. With a few pints down them, on the other hand, that invisible wall, that awkward space is all but gone. People will start laughing together, they will start crying together. They will even hug! Paul’s “holy kiss” might once again become commonplace, and not a relic of the Bible sped through by embarrassed readers-aloud. In addition to strengthening the ties between those already in the local church, the stranger will be welcomed with open arms, both his presence and his strange thoughts. Which leads me to the second point.
  2. Beer is good for the church’s communal theological inquiry. Here again alcohol’s inhibition reduction is beneficial. Imagine if people actually asked what was on their mind and weren’t afraid of embarrassing themselves because they weren’t among the chosen few in the front five pews, because they didn’t know the jargon or didn’t worry about having the Bible quoted at them. Imagine if people actually voiced those fleeting thoughts, objections and ideas. Theology would then, at last, actually be done in the church and by the church. Dogmatics, you could say, would finally become church dogmatics. Beer would not only have people doing theology and doing it more freely, but would strengthen people’s ties to the church while simultaneously opening the doors to new ideas from outside the church. (Maybe that’s why church leaders are against alcohol!)
  3. Beer is good for the worship. Have you ever heard drunk people sing? Of course you have! It’s about 80% of what drunk people do. They don’t do it well, no – but they do it with sincerity! With vocal chords and emotional capabilities lubricated by some good brew, the church’s worship would be amazing. It would be loud, brash, unashamed and totally in keeping with that unruly Holy Spirit. Liturgy would be shouted back at the minister. Hymns and choruses would sung on top of lungs along to bands unafraid to actually jam. And I can’t imagine what would happen in charismatic churches with all their tongue speaking and other pneumatalogical craziness.
  4. Beer is good for moral reflection. If you’re like 90% of Evangelicals, you’ve been taught that beer is bad. Consuming of alcohol is something that heathens and liberals do. But look at it this way: Drinking a beer is a physical manifestation of you re-evaluating your morals, of you thinking through, maybe for the first time, how you act out your faith. And it will be an entry into wider reflection, a small, very fun step in the direction of the examined life. And in light of the points raised previously, you’ll do it with your friends and you’ll have a great time.
  5. Keeping with the morals, beer supports Christian brothers and sisters. Or, more specifically, brothers. Some of the best beers in the world, Trappist beers in particular, are made by monks in Belgium and Holland. Trappist monastics brew this heavenly ales in order to keep their communities afloat and to support charitable causes. By buying Trappist beer you not only get some of the best tasting beer you’ll ever try, but you’ll also keep some of your brothers in Christ in their special monastic service.
  6. Beer will introduce you to the finer things in life. Not all beer will do this, granted, but if you do take my advice and buy some Trappist beer you will be introduced to a fascinating world of subtle flavours that will titillate your taste buds and satisfy your soul. Now, I’m not suggesting hedonism for it’s own vacuous sake. I’m suggesting that enjoying God’s gifts can be a worshipful activity and experience. Slowly savouring a glass of fine beer will inspire deep gratitude to the Lord for the blessings he has bestowed upon you, your ability to enjoy them and for existence itself. Fine beer will further introduce you to other tasty beverages like wine, whiskey, brandy and the like. Which means even more thanksgiving. This thanksgiving is great in solitude, but fantastic communally, with brothers and sisters in the church. Imagine a service of beer tasting. No, imagine the Eucharist with gourmet beer. Beautiful!

Marilynne Robinson interview on Radio NZ

Marilynne RobinsonRegular readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem will know of my deep admiration for Marilynne Robinson. Consequently I was delighted to hear (on Saturday) an interview of her by Kim Hill on Hills’ Saturday Morning programme. The interview can be listened to/downloaded here.

Marilynne Robinson on America’s ‘Third Great Awakening’ (i.e. Christian Fundamentalism)

Marilynne Robinson 2‘History is a great ironist, though historians seem rarely to see the joke’. So observes Marilynne Robinson in a delightful essay titled ‘Hallowed Be Your Name’ (in Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel. ed. Peter Laarman; Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, pp. 1–12). One of the interesting things that Robinson does in this wee essay is to contrast the First and Second Great Awakenings (she notes Edwards and Finney respectively) with what some have identified as a Third Great Awakening. Robinson contends that this third movement – which is what American Christianity is currently living under the burden of – differs significantly from the first two in a number of respects, not least its being ‘notably devoid of interest in equality’. She goes on to argue (and I cite at length) that this Third Great Awakening, whose other name is Christian Fundamentalism,

‘… passionately supports a government whose policies have created a sharp rise in the rate of poverty. For a self-declared Christian movement, it shows startlingly little sense of responsibility for the vulnerable in society.

And here is the culminating irony. This movement, which calls itself fundamentalist, subscribes fervently to the principles of laissez faire capitalism. It has helped to push American society toward what the English economist Herbert Spencer called “the survival of the fittest.” Darwin borrowed that phrase from Spencer to name the dynamic of natural selection in the evolution of species, otherwise known as Darwinism. In other words, our anti-Darwinists are Social Darwinists. The great defender of what were then called “the fundamentals” was William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat and a pacifist and a passionate campaigner against what he saw as the economic structures that created poverty. His “Cross of Gold” speech spoke of the poor of America as Christ crucified – not at all the kind of rhetoric we hear these days. Bryan, a liberal by any standard, opposed Darwinism because it was taken at the time, rightly or wrongly, to justify not only economic exploitation but also racism, colonialism, eugenics, and war. He feared the loss of belief in the sanctity of the human person, the only stay against these things.

The neofundamentalists treat the matter as if the central issue were the existence of God or the literal truth of the Bible. They seem to overlook the implications of the dignity conferred on every human being in the narratives of creation. They speak of a right to life, an oddly disembodied phrase which, isolated as it is by them from human context, tends to devalue the incarnate person and is therefore as unbiblical a conception as Bergson’s élan vital. It invokes Jefferson, but Jefferson posited a divine endowment to every person that includes also liberty and the pursuit of happiness – terms that are difficult to define but that clearly imply dignity and hope and the exercise of meaningful agency. These are rights that, though “inalienable,” have to be enabled and respected in society if they are to exist in fact. For example, they more or less require that one come through childhood in a reasonable state of health. Policies that spread and intensify poverty, besides being unbiblical, deprive individuals of what Jefferson called their God-given rights. The thought among anti-Darwinists was, and supposedly still is, that humankind is demeaned by the notion that God was not in every sense present and intentional in the creation of our first parents. The passionate loyalty of the neofundamentalists to the second chapter of Genesis (the first is startlingly compatible with the idea of evolution, though not Darwinism) seems to have prevented them from reading on in the text. Were they to do so, they would find there much to indicate that God continues to be present, and also intentional, in the lives of Eve’s children.

Since these folk claim to be defenders of embattled Christianity (under siege by liberalism, as they would have it), they might be struck by the passage in Matthew 25 in which Jesus says, identifying himself with the poorest, “I was hungry, and ye fed me not.” This is the parable in hallowed be your name which Jesus portrays himself as eschatological judge and in which he separates “the nations.” It should surely be noted that he does not apply any standard of creed – of purity or of orthodoxy – in deciding whom to save and whom to damn. This seems to me a valuable insight into what Jesus himself might consider fundamental. To those who have not recognized him in the hungry and the naked, he says, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels.” Neofundamentalists seem to crave this sort of language – more than they might if they were to consider its context here. It is the teaching of the Bible passim that God has confided us very largely to one another’s care, but that in doing so he has in no degree detached himself from us. Indeed, in this parable Jesus would seem to push beyond the image of God as final judge to describe an immanence of God in humankind that makes judgment present and continuous, and that in effect makes our victim our judge. Neither here nor anywhere else in the Bible is there the slightest suggestion that our judge/victim would find a plea of economic rationalism extenuating. This supposed new Awakening is to the first two Awakenings, and this neofundamentalism is to the first fundamentalism, as the New Right is to the New Deal, or as matter is to antimatter’.

July bests …

CalvinFrom the reading chair: Housekeeping: A Novel, and The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, both by Marilynne Robinson; John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian: The Shape of His Writings and Thought, by Randall C. Zachman; Calvin, by Bruce Gordon; Calvin’s Preaching, by T.H.L. Parker; The Theology of John Calvin by Charles Partee; Why Go to Church?: The Drama of the Eucharist, by Timothy Radcliffe; Christian Worship in Reformed Churches Past and Present, edited by Lukas Vischer; Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ, by J. Todd Billings; Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin, and The Old Protestantism and the New: Essays on the Reformation Heritage, both by Brain A. Gerrish; and A Theology of Proclamation by Dietrich Ritschl. 

Through the iPod: Twist, by Dave Dobbyn; Bruckner’s Symphonies 1–9, by Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan; Troubadour, by George Strait; Lady Antebellum, by Lady Antebellum; My One and Only Thrill, by Melody Gardot; Worrisome Heart, by Melody Gardot.                                                

On the screen: Dogville; Frost/Nixon; Milk; The Pawnbroker; The War on Democracy; The Savages.

In the glass: Speight’s Old Dark.

Modernity’s incurious muffling of theology

Death of Adam‘This great project, theology, which for so many centuries was the epitome of thought and learning, the brilliant conceptual architecture of western religious passion, entirely worthy of comparison with any art which arose from the same impulse, has been forgotten, or remembered only to be looted for charms and relics and curiosities. We are forever drawing up indictments against the past, then refusing to let it testify in its own behalf – it is so very guilty, after all. Such attention as we give to it is usually vindictive and incurious and therefore incompetent’. – Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (New York: Picador, 2005), 182.

Marilynne Robinson on The Art of Fiction

When Marilynne Robinson published her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980, she was unknown in the literary world. But an early review in The New York Times ensured that the book would be noticed. “It’s as if, in writing it, she broke through the ordinary human condition with all its dissatisfactions, and achieved a kind of transfiguration,” wrote Anatole Broyard, with an enthusiasm and awe that was shared by many critics and readers. The book became a classic, and Robinson was hailed as one of the defining American writers of our time. Yet it would be more than twenty years before she wrote another novel.

In the interval, Robinson devoted herself to writing nonfiction. Her essays and book reviews appeared in Harper’s and The New York Times Book Review, and in 1989 she published Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution, a scathing examination of the environmental and public health dangers posed by the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in England— and the political and moral corruption that sustained it. In 1998, Robinson published a collection of her critical and theological writings, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, which featured reassessments of such figures as Charles Darwin, John Calvin, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Aside from a single short story—“Connie Bronson,” published in The Paris Review in 1986—it wasn’t until 2004 that she returned to fiction with the novel Gilead, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Her third novel, Home, came out this fall.

In person, even when clad in her favorite writing attire—a pair of loose pants and a sweatshirt—Robinson carries herself with a regal elegance. While she is humble about her accomplishments and the acclaim they have brought her, the force of her intellect is apparent. In her nonfiction books, as well as in her recent novels, she passionately engages public policy as well as philosophical and theological scholarship. Her experience in academia—she wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II at the University of Washington—made her a devout reader of primary texts, which remain the touchstones of her thought and conversation. Such intellectual pursuits clearly delight her. Her extemporizing on, say, Karl Marx’s Capital is often punctuated with laughter and blithe phrases such as “Oh, goody!” When a question gave her pause during our interview, she’d often shrug and say, “Calvin again,” and then look away as if the sixteenth-century Frenchman were standing in the room waiting to give her advice.

Robinson is a Christian whose faith is not easily reduced to generalities. Calvin’s thought has had a strong influence on her, and she depicts him in her essays as a misunderstood humanist, likening his “secularizing tendencies” to the “celebrations of the human one finds in Emerson and Whitman.”
Her novels could also be described as celebrations of the human—the characters that inhabit them are indelible creations. Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her sister Lucille, who are cared for by their eccentric Aunt Sylvie after their mother commits suicide. Robinson dwells on how each of the three is changed by their new life together. Gilead is an even more intimate exploration of personality: the book is given over to John Ames, a seventy-seven-year-old pastor who is writing an account of his life and his family history to leave to his young son after he dies. Home borrows characters from Gilead but centers on Ames’s friend Reverend Robert Boughton and his troubled son Jack. Robinson returned to the same territory as Gilead because, she said, “after I write a novel or a story, I miss the characters—I feel sort of bereaved.”

Gilead and Home are both set in Iowa, where Robinson has lived for nearly twenty years, teaching at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. For this interview, we met on six occasions over a five-month period. During that time, Iowa City seemed to experience every extreme of weather: two blizzards, frigid temperatures, hail, fog, spring rains, and severe thunderstorms. Shortly after our final meeting, the Iowa River reached record-setting flood levels.

Robinson leads a relatively solitary life. She is divorced, and her two sons are grown with families of their own. Her intellectual and creative ambitions leave little time for socializing. “I have this sense of urgency about what I want to get done and I discipline myself by keeping to myself,” she said. But she also has both a cell phone and a BlackBerry and during our conversations the world would occasionally intrude to interrupt her stream of thought. At one point her BlackBerry beeped to tell her she had an e-mail, and she said it was from a former student. “Blurbs,” she said. “I owe the world blurbs.”
Sarah Fay

INTERVIEWER Are there any unpublished Marilynne Robinson novels lying around that we don’t know about?

MARILYNNE ROBINSON In college, I was in a novel-writing class and I started a novel, which I loathed and detested the minute I graduated. It was as if worms had popped out of it or something. It was set in the Middle West, where I had never been—a little midwestern town with a river running through it. Isn’t that odd?

INTERVIEWER What eventually drew you to Iowa City?

ROBINSON The Workshop. I didn’t have any realistic conception of Iowa at all. I never expected to live in the Middle West because I had the same prejudices that other people have about the region. But when they invited me to teach here I thought it would be an interesting thing to do. So I came.

INTERVIEWER Were you told that it would compromise your creative energies to teach creative writing?

ROBINSON Yes, of course. But everything compromises your creative energies. Years ago I accepted a grant from the American Academy that was supposed to support me for five years without teaching. I lasted about a year and a half before I nearly went crazy. Teaching is a distraction and a burden, but it’s also an incredible stimulus. And a reprieve, in a way. When you’re trying to work on something and it’s not going anywhere, you can go to school and there’s a two-and-a-half-hour block of time in which you can accomplish something.

INTERVIEWER When you were little, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?

ROBINSON Oh, a hermit? My brother told me I was going to be a poet. I had a good brother. He did a lot of good brotherly work. There we were in this tiny town in Idaho, and he was like Alexander dividing up the world: I’ll be the painter, you’ll be the poet.

INTERVIEWER Is it true that Housekeeping started as a series of metaphors you wrote while you were getting your Ph.D. in English literature?

ROBINSON When I went to college, I majored in American literature, which was unusual then. But it meant that I was broadly exposed to nineteenth-century American literature. I became interested in the way that American writers used metaphoric language, starting with Emerson. When I entered the Ph.D. program, I started writing these metaphors down just to get the feeling of writing in that voice. After I finished my dissertation, I read through the stack of metaphors and they cohered in a way that I hadn’t expected. I could see that I had created something that implied much more. So I started writing Housekeeping, and the characters became important for me. I told a friend of mine, a writer named John Clayton, that I had been working on this thing, and he asked to see it. The next thing I knew, I got a letter from his agent saying that she would be happy to represent it.

INTERVIEWER Were you surprised?

ROBINSON I was, but these things always came with little caveats. She said, I’ll be happy to represent it but it could be difficult to place. She gave it to an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who wrote to me and said, We’d be very happy to publish it but it probably won’t be reviewed.

INTERVIEWER But then it was.

ROBINSON Anatole Broyard—God love him—reviewed it early because he thought no one would review it and he wanted to make sure it got attention.

INTERVIEWER How did you approach creating the characters of Ruthie and Sylvie in Housekeeping?

ROBINSON In the development of every character there’s a kind of emotional entanglement that occurs. The characters that interest me are the ones that seem to pose questions in my own thinking. The minute that you start thinking about someone in the whole circumstance of his life to the extent that you can, he becomes mysterious, immediately.

INTERVIEWER Was your family religious?

ROBINSON My family was pious and Presbyterian mainly because my grandfather was pious and Presbyterian, but that was more of an inherited intuition than an actual fact. We would talk more politics than anything else at the dinner table. And they were very Republican politics, I need hardly say. Or perhaps I do need to say.

INTERVIEWER What did your father do for a living?

ROBINSON He worked his way up in the lumber industry the old-fashioned way. The lumber industry was dominant in that part of Idaho. When you fly over the Rocky Mountains now, you see terrible clear-cutting, but back then there wasn’t the level of exploitation that there is now.

INTERVIEWER How did your family come to settle in the West?

ROBINSON We have a family legend about homesteading relatives in the nineteenth century—coming in covered wagons—dark forests, wolves, American Indians coming to ask for pie. My great grandmother was one of the first white people in a certain part of eastern Washington, and supposedly she would see an Indian standing outside the door, and she would go out, and he would say, Pie. That’s just a story, but the women in my family always bake pies. And they’re vain about it.

INTERVIEWER Do you bake pies?

ROBINSON I used to bake pies, when I had people to eat them. But I don’t any more.

INTERVIEWER What was your best pie?

ROBINSON Lemon meringue, which is a family tradition.

INTERVIEWER You’ve published only one short story, “Connie Bronson,” which appeared a few years after Housekeeping. Have you written others since then?

ROBINSON I wrote that story in college. I had a sort of fondness for it because it seemed to me to anticipate Housekeeping, though I had written it more than a decade earlier. So when The Paris Review asked me for something, I sent it off. I am actually interested by the fact that I never feel any impulse to write a short story. It is such an attractive form.
“Connie Bronson” has for me now the interest and charm of anyone’s juvenilia—that is, almost none at all.

INTERVIEWER In your second novel, Gilead, the protagonist is a pastor, John Ames. Do you think of yourself as a religious writer?

ROBINSON I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.

INTERVIEWER You said that Ames came to you as a voice. How did you know that it was your next novel?

ROBINSON I was at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown at Christmas time. Some students had asked me to come to do a reading. I reserved several rooms at an inn in the sunniest part of Provincetown, so that my sons, neither of whom was married at the time, could spend Christmas there with me. But they got delayed, so I had several days there by myself in an otherwise empty hotel, in a little room with Emily Dickinson light pouring in through the windows and the ocean roaring beyond. I had a spiral notebook, and I started thinking about this situation and the voice. And I started writing. Frankly, I was happy for the company.
I ended up writing that book like a serial novel. I would write thirty pages or so and then send it to the editor, and then write thirty more pages and send it to the editor.

INTERVIEWER Do you write longhand normally, or on a computer, or both?

ROBINSON On Gilead I went back and forth. Housekeeping I wrote longhand. I didn’t have a computer, and I’ve always been distracted by the sound of a typewriter.

INTERVIEWER How long did it take you to write Gilead?

ROBINSON I wrote it in about eighteen months. I write novels quickly, which is not my reputation.

INTERVIEWER Ames says that in our everyday world there is “more beauty than our eyes can bear.” He’s living in America in the late 1950s. Would he say that today?

ROBINSON You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be understood as “beauty.” Think about Dutch painting, where sunlight is falling on a basin of water and a woman is standing there in the clothes that she would wear when she wakes up in the morning—that beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary. Or a painting like Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef, where a simple piece of meat caught his eye because there was something mysterious about it. You also get that in Edward Hopper: Look at the sunlight! or Look at the human being! These are instances of genius. Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.
At the same time, there has always been a basic human tendency toward a dubious notion of beauty. Think about cultures that rarify themselves into courts in which people paint themselves with lead paint and get dumber by the day, or women have ribs removed to have their waists cinched tighter. There’s no question that we have our versions of that now. The most destructive thing we can do is act as though this is some sign of cultural, spiritual decay rather than humans just acting human, which is what we’re doing most of the time.

INTERVIEWER Ames believes that one of the benefits of religion is “it helps you concentrate. It gives you a good basic sense of what is being asked of you and also what you might as well ignore.” Is this something that your faith and religious practice has done for you?

ROBINSON Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. It’s only very recently that you couldn’t see how the high arts are intimately connected to religion.

INTERVIEWER Is this frame of religion something we’ve lost?

ROBINSON There was a time when people felt as if structure in most forms were a constraint and they attacked it, which in a culture is like an autoimmune problem: the organism is not allowing itself the conditions of its own existence. We’re cultural creatures and meaning doesn’t simply generate itself out of thin air; it’s sustained by a cultural framework. It’s like deciding how much more interesting it would be if you had no skeleton: you could just slide under the door.

INTERVIEWER How does science fit into this framework?

ROBINSON I read as much as I can of contemporary cosmology because reality itself is profoundly mysterious. Quantum theory and classical physics, for instance, are both lovely within their own limits and yet at present they cannot be reconciled with each other. If different systems don’t merge in a comprehensible way, that’s a flaw in our comprehension and not a flaw in one system or the other.

INTERVIEWER Are religion and science simply two systems that don’t merge?

ROBINSON The debate seems to be between a naive understanding of religion and a naive understanding of science. When people try to debunk religion, it seems to me they are referring to an eighteenth-century notion of what science is. I’m talking about Richard Dawkins here, who has a status that I can’t quite understand. He acts as if the physical world that is manifest to us describes reality exhaustively. On the other side, many of the people who articulate and form religious expression have not acted in good faith. The us-versus-them mentality is a terrible corruption of the whole culture.

INTERVIEWER You’ve written critically about Dawkins and the other New Atheists. Is it their disdain for religion and championing of pure science that troubles you?

ROBINSON No, I read as much pure science as I can take in. It’s a fact that their thinking does not feel scientific. The whole excitement of science is that it’s always pushing toward the discovery of something that it cannot account for or did not anticipate. The New Atheist types, like Dawkins, act as if science had revealed the world as a closed system. That simply is not what contemporary science is about. A lot of scientists are atheists, but they don’t talk about reality in the same way that Dawkins does. And they would not assume that there is a simple-as-that kind of response to everything in question. Certainly not on the grounds of anything that science has discovered in the last hundred years.
The science that I prefer tends toward cosmology, theories of quantum reality, things that are finer-textured than classical physics in terms of their powers of description. Science is amazing. On a mote of celestial dust, we have figured out how to look to the edge of our universe. I feel instructed by everything I have read. Science has a lot of the satisfactions for me that good theology has.

INTERVIEWER But doesn’t science address an objective notion of reality while religion addresses how we conceive of ourselves?

ROBINSON As an achievement, science is itself a spectacular argument for the singularity of human beings among all things that exist. It has a prestige that comes with unambiguous changes in people’s experience—space travel, immunizations. It has an authority that’s based on its demonstrable power. But in discussions of human beings it tends to compare downwards: we’re intelligent because hyenas are intelligent and we just took a few more leaps.
The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave consistently with our own dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this endlessly.

INTERVIEWER Did you ever have a religious awakening?

ROBINSON No, a mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.

INTERVIEWER How would one learn to see ordinary things this way?

ROBINSON It’s not an acquired skill. It’s a skill that we’re born with that we lose. We learn not to do it.

INTERVIEWER On occasion you give sermons at your church. How did that come about?

ROBINSON If we need someone to give a sermon because the pastor is ill or out of town then typically they ask someone from the congregation to give the sermon. Since I write about these things, often they ask me.

INTERVIEWER Do you ever get nervous being the sub?

ROBINSON Yes, I do. You’re talking within a congregation. They know the genre. There are many things that the sermon has to resonate with besides the specific text that is the subject of the sermon. In my tradition, there’s a certain posture of graciousness you have to answer to no matter what the main subject matter of the sermon is.

INTERVIEWER Graciousness?

ROBINSON The idea that you draw a line and say, The righteous people are on this side and the bad people are on the other side—this is not gracious.

INTERVIEWER Your new novel Home is set in the same time and place as Gilead and incorporates many of the same characters. Why did you decide to return to their story?

ROBINSON After I write a novel or a story, I miss the characters—I feel sort of bereaved. So I was braced for the experience after Gilead. Then I thought, If these characters are so strongly in my mind, why not write them? With Jack and old Boughton especially, and with Glory also, I felt like there were whole characters that had not been fully realized in Ames’s story. I couldn’t really see the point in abandoning them.
Then I had to make sure that the chronolog y clicked and certain phrases that occur in the first book occur in the second. For example, the dinner party—Ames is there but doesn’t say a word about it in Gilead. It’s completely consistent with Ames as a character that he would not choose to report a situation that he found painful or that he thought would reinforce unfortunate memories. But I wanted Home to be a freestanding book. I didn’t want it to be a sequel. I wanted it to be true that you could pick up either book first.

INTERVIEWER Whereas Gilead reads almost like a meditation—John Ames is writing it to his son—Home has a different personality.

ROBINSON So much of the novel is dialogue. I was really surprised. I kept thinking, I’ve got to stop doing this—it’s just one dialogue scene after another.

INTERVIEWER Do you plot your novels?

ROBINSON I really don’t. There was a frame, of course, for Home, because it had to be symbiotic with Gilead. Aside from that, no. I feel strongly that action is generated out of character. And I don’t give anything a higher priority than character. The one consistent thing among my novels is that there’s a character who stays in my mind. It’s a character with complexity that I want to know better.

INTERVIEWER The focus of the novel is Jack, but it’s told from Glory’s point of view. Did you ever consider putting it in his point of view?

ROBINSON Jack is thinking all the time—thinking too much—but I would lose Jack if I tried to get too close to him as a narrator. He’s alienated in a complicated way. Other people don’t find him comprehensible and he doesn’t find them comprehensible.

INTERVIEWER Is it hard to write a “bad” character?

ROBINSON Calvin says that God takes an aesthetic pleasure in people. There’s no reason to imagine that God would choose to surround himself into infinite time with people whose only distinction is that they fail to transgress. King David, for example, was up to a lot of no good. To think that only faultless people are worthwhile seems like an incredible exclusion of almost everything of deep value in the human saga. Sometimes I can’t believe the narrowness that has been attributed to God in terms of what he would approve and disapprove.

INTERVIEWER How do you write historical figures in your novels?

ROBINSON My unvarying approach to anything is to read the most primary and proximate material that I can find. I try to be discreet in my use of historical figures. My John Brown is only a voice heard in the darkness.

INTERVIEWER Does your faith ever conflict with your “regular life”?

ROBINSON When I’m teaching, sometimes issues come up. I might read a scene in a student’s story that seems—by my standards—pornographic. I don’t believe in exploiting or treating with disrespect even an imagined person. But at the same time, I realize that I can’t universalize my standards. In instances like that, I feel I have to hold my religious reaction at bay. It is important to let people live out their experience of the world without censorious interference, except in very extreme cases.

INTERVIEWER What is the most important thing you try to teach your students?

ROBINSON I try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is. Usually in fiction there’s something that leaps out—an image or a moment that is strong enough to center the story. If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new. I don’t try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies. I don’t see any reason in fine-tuning something that’s essentially not going anywhere anyway. What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.

INTERVIEWER Do you read contemporary fiction?

ROBINSON I’m not indifferent to contemporary literature; I just don’t have any time for it. It’s much easier for my contemporaries to keep up with me than it is for me to keep up with them. They’ve all written fifteen books.

INTERVIEWER What is your opinion of literary criticism?

ROBINSON I know this is less true than it has been, but the main interest of criticism seems to be criticism. It has less to do with what people actually write. In journalistic criticism, the posture is too often that writers are making a consumer product they hope to be able to clean up on. I don’t think that living writers should be treated with the awe that is sometimes reserved for dead writers, but if a well-known writer whose work tends to garner respect takes ten years to write a novel and it’s not the greatest novel in the world, dismissiveness is not an appropriate response. An unsuccessful work might not seem unsuccessful in another generation. It may be part of the writer’s pilgrimage.

INTERVIEWER Do you have any writing rituals, habits, or peculiarities?

ROBINSON I dress like a bum. John Cheever would wear a suit and a hat and go down from his apartment to the basement of his building with an attaché case. But that’s not me. I like to be as forgetful of my own physical being as I can be.

INTERVIEWER Do you write in your study or do you occupy every room of the house?

ROBINSON I do a lot in the study, but the couch also, and so on. It’s nice to be able to move around and not be completely bound to one place or another, the way some people are. Although I do stay inside my own house. That’s crucial.

INTERVIEWER Why is that crucial?

ROBINSON Because I can forget my surroundings. And I don’t get distracted by thinking, Who chose that painting? I know who chose that painting.

INTERVIEWER Does writing come easily to you?

ROBINSON The difficulty of it cannot be overstated. But at its best, it involves a state of concentration that is a satisfying experience, no matter how difficult or frustrating. The sense of being focused like that is a marvelous feeling. It’s one of the reasons I’m so willing to seclude myself and am a little bit grouchy when I have to deal with the reasonable expectations of the world.

INTERVIEWER Do you keep to a schedule?

ROBINSON I really am incapable of discipline. I write when something makes a strong claim on me. When I don’t feel like writing, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times—I can’t say I exhausted its possibilities—but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to live through the time it takes for it to go up the chimney. Maybe it’s a question of discipline, maybe temperament, who knows? I wish I could have made myself do more. I wouldn’t mind having written fifteen books.

INTERVIEWER Even if many of them were mediocre?

ROBINSON Well, no.

INTERVIEWER Do you keep a journal or diary?

ROBINSON At various times in my life I’ve bought a little finely ornamented volume with a clasp, and written a couple of days’ worth of reflections. And then I come back to it and I think, What an idiot.

INTERVIEWER What about revision? Is it an intensive process or do you let the first draft stand?

ROBINSON If I write something and don’t like it, I basically toss it. And I try to write it again or I write something else that has the same movement. But as far as going back and working over something that I’ve already written—I really don’t do that. I know there’s a sentence that I need, and I just run it through my mind until it sounds right. Most of my revision occurs before I put words down on the paper.

INTERVIEWER Does that happen when you’re sitting at your desk or on the couch or do you write in your head all day long?

ROBINSON If I’m writing, I write in my head all the time. But as far as inventing, I try to do that only when I’m physically writing. If I get an idea while I’m walking home on the bridge, I think, Close that down, because if I think through a scene, I’ll wreck it by the time I get a pen in my hand.

INTERVIEWER Most people know you as a novelist, but you spend a lot of your time writing nonfiction. What led you to start writing essays?

ROBINSON To change my own mind. I try to create a new vocabulary or terrain for myself, so that I open out—I always think of the Dutch claiming land from the sea—or open up something that would have been closed to me before. That’s the point and the pleasure of it. I continuously scrutinize my own thinking. I write something and think, How do I know that that’s true? If I wrote what I thought I knew from the outset, then I wouldn’t be learning anything new.
In this culture, essays are often written for the sake of writing the essay. Someone finds a quibble of potential interest and quibbles about it. This doesn’t mean the writer isn’t capable of doing something of greater interest, but we generate a lot of prose that’s not vital. The best essays come from the moment in which people really need to work something out.

INTERVIEWER How do you decide on a topic for your essays?

ROBINSON It almost always comes as a surprise. I got to Marguerite de Navarre because I was reading a translation of Dante’s Inferno and I started looking into the context in which it was written. The Albigensian Crusades, which killed an enormous number of people, occurred just before Dante wrote Inferno. Whether Dante was influenced by Albigensianism or not I don’t know, but it was the Inferno that made me remember Albigensianism and made me start reading about the culture of southern France and discover Marguerite de Navarre, who was an older contemporary of Calvin.

INTERVIEWER Have you gotten to a point where you welcome that kind of indirectness?

ROBINSON I’ve learned to trust it. I worry about participating in the consensuses of opinion because frankly they don’t bear out very well. When I notice something that seems like an anomaly to me, I try to sort it out. It’s an impulse. I think, Gee, this might lead me to refurnish my mind in a certain way. I find the alternative undignified: you have your little life and live through it and trip along and fall into your grave.

INTERVIEWER In your essay “Facing Reality,” from The Death of Adam, you point out that many Americans have a poor sense of American history—or history in general.

ROBINSON We archaize Abraham Lincoln—he’s somehow premodern—at the same time that we use Marx to epitomize modernity. Yet the two of them were engaged in the same conversation. The slave economy and the industrial economy were interlocked. Marx is considered modern because he describes an ongoing phenomenon, industrialism, which once again is starting to resemble slavery—child labor and so on. You take a course as a sophomore in college called Modern Western Civilization and you get Marx and Nietzsche, but you don’t get Lincoln. The fact that they were all wearing frock coats and stovepipe hats doesn’t register.

INTERVIEWER You’ve also written that Americans tend to avoid contemplating larger issues. What is it that we’re afraid of?

ROBINSON People are frightened of themselves. It’s like Freud saying that the best thing is to have no sensation at all, as if we’re supposed to live painlessly and unconsciously in the world. I have a much different view. The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of this, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.

INTERVIEWER Do you suffer from anxiety?

ROBINSON I probably experience less anxiety than is normal. People who are literate and prosperous by world standards nevertheless choose anxiety. I consider that kind of anxiety to be unspent energy, energy that goes sour because it is not spent. Calvinism is supposed to induce emotional stoicism. One thing that comes with the tradition is the idea that you’re always being posed a question: what does God want from this situation? It creates a kind of detachment, but it’s a detachment that brings perception rather than the absence of perception. And at this point, my children are adults, established in life. They seem to know how to make themselves happy. When they were young I felt anxiety for them. It was a kind of animal alertness: what do I need to head off at the pass?

INTERVIEWER In your essay “Puritans and Prigs,” you reevaluate the idea that a good diet enhances our quality of life. You point out that although fish is purported to be healthier, overfishing is destroying the equilibrium of the ocean: “The sea has been raided and ransacked to oblige our new scruple.”

ROBINSON Europeans are one of the largest importers of fish and predatory fishing fleets are destroying the fish stock off of the west coast of Africa. As a result, the destruction of fishing villages has created a wave of migration from Africa into Europe. People say, Why do they go to France if they’re not happy there? Well, it’s better than starving.

INTERVIEWER Do you eat fish?

ROBINSON I’m generally a vegetarian of the ovo-lacto type, minus the ovo, yet I’m keenly aware of the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian. When he visited Mussolini in Italy he rejected the state dinner. He didn’t drink or smoke. I hold him up as an example of how an aversion virtue can be a negative sign.

INTERVIEWER How did you decide to write about Sellafield nuclear plant in Mother Country?

ROBINSON I didn’t really expect to write Mother Country—heaven knows. I was living in England, and it was all over the newspaper and all over television. I was surprised of course because it’s a terrible thing. Sellafield extracts plutonium239 and other salable isotopes of transuranic elements, very sloppily, and sends vast quantities of radioactive waste from the process into the sea. It’s a real disaster. They’ve been doing this since 1956. It’s amazing that people could have been up to this particular kind of mischief for fifty-two years, but they have.
When I came home from England, I didn’t even unpack my bags, I just sat down and wrote the article and sent it to my agent. And I said, You don’t have to deal with this if you don’t want to. But she sent it to Harper’s and they published it almost immediately. Then another publisher called and asked if I would write a book about it.

INTERVIEWER Mother Country was published in 1989. How do you view the book today?

ROBINSON If I could only have written one book, that would have been the book. It was a real education for me. It did as much as anything to undermine the education I brought with me when I started the project. It was as if I was writing a dissertation over again in my mind, trying to establish what would be the relevant thing to know and where to look next. Also, if I had not written that book, I would not have been able to live with myself. I would have felt that I was doing what we are all doing, which dooms the world.

INTERVIEWER Which is what?

ROBINSON Pretend we don’t know what we’re really up to. We know that plastic bags are killing animals in Africa at a terrific rate, but everybody still uses these things as if they just float away. We know that these new lightbulbs cut down on electricity, but where do they come from? China? Hungary? They have to be dealt with as toxic waste because they have mercury in them. So who’s being exposed to these chemicals when they’re manufactured and what are the environmental consequences in China or Hungary? What is the tradeoff in terms of shipping them long distances to save a little bit of electricity? I’m also partial to the Sellafield book because I think it exposes the ways in which we’re racist. We assume that Europeans are white and therefore more rational than other populations and to find something weird and unaccountable and inhumane we must go to a darker continent.

INTERVIEWER Did you ever worry about it coming across as a polemic?

ROBINSON Eh! Not among my worries. I was angry when I wrote that book. Nothing has happened to make me feel otherwise about the issues I raised in it. Sellafield is only larger now.

INTERVIEWER Mother Country appeared during the more than twenty-year gap between Housekeeping and Gilead. Why did it take you so long to return to writing fiction?

ROBINSON It was largely as a consequence of the experience of writing Mother Country that I began what amounted to an effort to reeducate myself. After all those years of school, I felt there was little I knew that I could trust, and I did not want my books to be one more tributary to the sea of nonsense that really is what most conventional wisdom amounts to. I am not so naive as to imagine that I have escaped that fate except in isolated cases and small particulars. But the research and criticism I have done have helped me to be of my own mind in some degree, and that was a feeling I had to achieve before I could enjoy writing fiction.

INTERVIEWER You once said that you “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.” Do you ever worry that you’re too pessimistic?

ROBINSON I worry that I’m not pessimistic enough. My own life is full of profound satisfactions, and I’m distracted from the fact that the world is not in good shape. I cherish time, for instance, and for the most part I have control over my time, which is a marker of a very high standard of living as far as I’m concerned. At some point I created an artificial tropic for myself, where I could do exactly what I wanted to do and be rewarded for it. There’s a puritanical hedonism in my existence.

INTERVIEWER Puritanical hedonism?

ROBINSON I read books like The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine. Oh, terrific. I’ve almost never done anything that I didn’t want to do. My life has been laid out to satisfy any aspiration of mine to the power of ten or a hundred. I can only make sense of my unaccountable good fortune by assuming that it means I am under special obligation to make good use of it.

INTERVIEWER As opposed to always wanting more or something else?

ROBINSON I don’t think I could want something else. For instance, I’m kind of a solitary. This would not satisfy everyone’s hopes, but for me it’s a lovely thing. I recognize the satisfactions of a more socially enmeshed existence than I cultivate, but I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it. It’s a predisposition in my family. My brother is a solitary. My mother is a solitary. I grew up with the confidence that the greatest privilege was to be alone and have all the time you wanted. That was the cream of existence. I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone. It’s a good predisposition in a writer. And books are good company. Nothing is more human than a book.

INTERVIEWER You were close with Frank Conroy before he passed away. Are you close with other writers?

ROBINSON The social life of the Iowa Workshop seems to have changed to a certain extent. It’s the quietest among us who are left now. It’s a wonderful faculty, a wonderful working environment, and I like the way that the students who come to me have been prepared by the people around me, but I have a sense of urgency about what I want to get done and I discipline myself by keeping to myself. It’s a nice opportunity to be able to know these people, but I have to do other things, which take hours, days, weeks.

INTERVIEWER Have you always felt that urgency or is this something new?

ROBINSON It’s a little new. Years ago, I was younger than I am now.

INTERVIEWER You’ve said that reading a footnote in Jonathan Edwards’s “The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended” changed your consciousness. What was the footnote?

ROBINSON It’s not an attractive title for an essay, but in it he talks about the arbitrariness of “being” itself. He uses the metaphor of the reflected light of the moon, which we see as continuous light. Yet it is not intrinsic; it is continuously renewed as light. No physicist can tell you why things persist as they are, why one moment follows another. The reality we inhabit and treat like an old shoe is amazingly arbitrary.

INTERVIEWER Does that arbitrariness include the supernatural?

ROBINSON I’m not terribly persuaded by the word supernatural. I don’t like the idea of the world as an encapsulated reality with intrusions made upon it selectively. The reality that we experience is part of the whole fabric of reality. To pretend that the universe is somewhere else doing something is really not true. We’re right in the middle of it. Utterly dependent on it, utterly defined by it. If you read somebody like Wallace Stevens, he’s basically saying the same thing.

INTERVIEWER Do you believe in an afterlife?

ROBINSON I assume immortality, but religion doesn’t teach me to assume immortality. I assume immortality and this reinforces religion. But there’s a qualitative difference between actually confronting death and thinking about death in the abstract. By the grace of God, it has been an abstract concept to me up to this point.

INTERVIEWER It doesn’t keep you up at night?

ROBINSON No, I have benevolent insomnia. I wake up, and my mind is preternaturally clear. The world is quiet. I can read or write. It seems like stolen time. It seems like I have a twenty-eight-hour day. When I do think about death, the idea that life will be going on without me makes me melancholy. There’s so much to miss: history and architecture! But it won’t miss me.

INTERVIEWER Is religion a way to feel comforted in the face of death?

ROBINSON Faith always sounds like an act of will. Frankly, I don’t know what faith in God means. For me, the experience is much more a sense of God. Nothing could be more miraculous than the fact that we have a consciousness that makes the world intelligible to us and are moved by what is beautiful.

INTERVIEWER Someone once said that there has to be a problem with Christianity because four hundred denominations later they still can’t get it right.

ROBINSON People in the churches worry about that, but would we be richer for the loss of Catholicism? Would we be richer for the loss of the Quakers? Isn’t it true that every one of these traditions expresses Christianity in a way that the other traditions could not? It’s prismatic.
Religion, however, has presented itself in some extremely unattractive forms. It has recruited people into excitements that don’t look attractive to their neighbors. People seem to be profoundly disposed toward religion, yet they’re not terribly good at it.

INTERVIEWER Do you ever censor yourself in order to try to live up to a religious standard?

ROBINSON It’s not so much that I censor myself—I have to prod myself more often than not. I just get engulfed in whatever I’m thinking about, and I tend to forget that other people exist. I just don’t do right by people in every circumstance. It’s not that my religion inhibits me, it’s that my religion is not always sufficient to overcome certain failings of mine, which tend toward solipsism.

INTERVIEWER Do you feel like there’s something you’ve missed out on in life?

ROBINSON There’s always something that I feel I’ve missed. I should travel more, for instance. I went to Paris last fall, which was a great departure for me. I flew Air India, which in itself was quite remarkable. I had a lovely time in France and I thought, I should do this more often. But then I come home and I think, I have all of this work to do. Look at all of these books I haven’t read. Frankly, you get to a certain point in your life where you can do unusual things with your mind. So then, I think, do them.

[Source: The Paris Review]