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On Marilynne Robinson's "What Are We Doing Here?"
Marilynne Robinson’s latest book—a meditation on religion and politics, science and civilization—is a gift to the nation worthy of being discussed in congressional campaigns across the country. Perhaps best known for her novel, Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, Robinson was interviewed by President Barack Obama in 2015 for the New York Review of Books.  In her latest work she argues that we have needlessly obscured the contributions that the Puritans’ generous love, and their commitment to social reform, made to our civilization by adopting a mythology about them that falsely presents them as particularly theocratic and as oppressively prudish about sex. Doing so, she suggests, removes vitally needed understandings of where we have come from as a civilization as well as where we should aspire to be going as a nation:

“New England, so far from being the isolated refuge of an austere religious minority, was a laboratory for a kind of social order being tried in parts of Europe and soon to be tried in England itself. Winthrop’s speech aboard the Arabella anticipates the Interregnum by more than a decade. It is only its inexplicable isolation from British and European history that allows it to be read as a very early celebration of an American nation. It is in fact a utopian vision of a society whose relations are based on charity, using the word in the biblical sense, meaning love. The religious critique of existing social order from the Puritan side was that it was unbiblical, un-Christian, in the fact of its being based on status, wealth, and power, all of which preclude the thoroughgoing mutual liberality Winthrop calls for, using just this word. He was the governor of the colony, and might have been expected to mention the usual texts about how authority is to be honored as an instance of God’s providence. Instead, he sees the bonds of society in mutual care and service. This particular vision has a long and deep history in English culture, going back to Piers Plowman and forward to William Blake. It was the vision of the Quakers and the Levelers. Shakespeare pondered it as the regime of his forests and wild places. This is not to say that anarchy in any sense of the word lies behind Winthrop’s vision, only that the essential, primary order for his commonwealth would be a matter of maintaining these bonds of mutual affection.”

In trying to recover the truth of the religiously-based reformist impulse in our nation’s history, Robinson stresses the fact that the Puritans were the backbone of the abolitionist movement, that they founded numerous institutions of higher learning that were open to women, and that they were much *less* likely than those in the South or in Europe to punish people for heresy or to impose capital punishment for a whole host of crimes. To this list I would add, on the basis of my own research, that the Puritans formed the backbone of popular opposition to Indian “removal” in the 1830s—the opposition to what would become the Trail of Tears and Death.

While people of deep Christian faith continued, and continue, to be involved in subsequent reformist endeavors, at some point the common culture of mobilizing on behalf of social justice ceased to be simply or even predominantly Christian-inspired. In his fine book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor suggests that this breach with the culture of Christendom was probably necessary “for the impulse of solidarity to transcend the frontier of Christendom itself.” “We might even be tempted,” Taylor writes, “to say that modern unbelief is providential.”

As late as the early twentieth century, Charles H. Vail, the first National Organizer of the Socialist Party of America, could claim that “socialism is Christianity in action.” This was a conviction that resonated in the social gospel being articulated by various Protestant theologians at that juncture, a conviction whose influence can be seen later in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s thinking, and in the history of the civil rights movement more generally. Robinson quotes the seventeenth century Puritan writer Thomas Watson: “The mercies of God work compassion to others. A Christian is a temporal savior. He feeds the hungry, clothes the naked … Charity drops from him freely, as myrrh from the tree.”

For myself, after a twentieth century in which both the Nazis and the Communists sought to usurp the word “socialism” for their own purposes—and did so much damage to its popular reputation—I prefer to speak about what I hope will replace liberal capitalism in a religious idiom, to speak of what I believe is involved in the Kingdom of God. Early on in this campaign for Congress, I gave a speech on that subject to the 144-year-old Chicago Literary Club that is available on my website. That speech is part of an effort to come up with an interfaith language about the Kingdom of God that I hope will be acceptable to people of diverse faiths—and even to some of no faith at all—and that can contribute to revivifying the promise of the American Revolution by providing a higher standard against which it can be measured.

What I want to stress here is that neither Robinson—nor I under her influence—are attempting to revive either Puritanism or socialism, but rather to help us fashion a “theology for our time.”  At the heart of that theology, Robinson offers a religious humanism grounded in our being made in the image of God, a metaphysical truth that she defends by reference to its compelling beauty:

“Our sample of existence—that is the growing sum of whatever we can observe, test, describe, derive, or know in any meaningful sense—is too small and untypical, too contaminated with error and assumption, too prejudiced by accident and limitation to yield a metaphysics. Yet we need a metaphysics, an unconfirmable parallel reality able to support essential concepts such as mind, conscience, and soul, if we are to sustain the civilization culture and history created for us. To quote Flavel, ‘The soul of the poorest child is of equal dignity with the soul of Adam.’ All men are created equal. Nothing about these statements is self-evident. Yet they can shape and create institutions, and they can testify against them when they fail. They have only their own beauty and the beauty of their influence to affirm them.”

Our civilization—I am tempted to say the future of civilization in the world—is at a crossroads. If we are to succeed in the imperative mission that faces us—the mission to reconstruct and then improve the moral order whose foundations we have been so willfully and ruthlessly eroding—then we will need to learn all we can from the national treasure that Marilynne Robinson’s writings constitute. Her own assessment of where we stand provides a succinct warning:

“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…. And is there any particular reason to debase human life in order to produce more, faster, without reference to the worth of the product or to the value of the things sacrificed to its manufacture? Wouldn’t most people, given an hour or two to reflect, consider this an intolerably trivial use to be put to, for them and their children? Life is brief and fragile, after all. Then what is this new economy whose demands we must always be ready to fill? We may assume it will be driven by innovation and by what are called market forces, which can be fads, or speculation, or chicanery. Oh, yes, rowdy old capitalism. Let it ply its music. Then again, in the all-consuming form proposed for it now, it is a little like those wars I mentioned earlier. It is equally inimical to poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought. It is equally disinclined to reward gifts that cannot be turned to its uses. The urgency of war or crisis has been brought to bear on our civil institutions, which is to say, on the reserves and resources of civility we have created over many generations.”