Many of us look for role models to guide us in our lives, our work, our faith traditions. I like to honor people who defy categorization, who are thoughtful enough to recognize that life’s palette contains more than black and white, who are humble enough to bow before mystery, bold enough to embrace truth and wisdom wherever they may be found.
This is why I’ve appreciated people like Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Eugene Peterson, Marva Dawn, and Robert Webber. This is why I love Marilynne Robinson.
Robinson is the author of one of the best American novels ever written, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead (see the IM review HERE). She has also written books of essays critiquing contemporary culture. Ms. Robinson is a mainline Protestant in the Calvinist tradition, a Congregationalist (United Church of Christ) who gets kudos from conservatives like Rod Dreher as well as words of gratitude from President Obama about the impact of her writings. Dreher says that, for him, “Robinson serves as a corrective from the leftish side of Christianity in the same way that Pope Francis does. That is, she challenges me to rethink my positions, and to go deeper into my understanding of my Christian faith and its implications for living in the world.”
A fine appreciation by Robert Long at the American Conservative credits her “with a thoughtful Christianity that transcends our current political divisions and economic ideologies.”
Marilynne Robinson represents a voice that has been all but lost in the cacophony of the culture wars: that of a traditional and, in many ways conservative, mainline Protestantism. She embodies a form of Christian humanism that is rooted in solid theology, immersed in church tradition, and committed to both intellectual integrity and a compassionate society. This is a woman who takes Calvin, the Western heritage of Christian thought, and the straightforward words of Jesus in the Gospels seriously.
Long quotes her as saying:
Well, what is a Christian, after all? Can we say that most of us are defined by the belief that Jesus Christ made the most gracious gift of his life and death for our redemption? Then what does he deserve from us? He said we are to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek. Granted, these are difficult teachings. But does our most gracious Lord deserve to have his name associated with concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws, things that fly in the face of his teaching and example? Does he say anywhere that we exist primarily to drive an economy and flourish in it? He says precisely the opposite. Surely we all know this. I suspect that the association of Christianity with positions that would not survive a glance at the Gospels or the Epistles is opportunistic, and that if the actual Christians raised these questions those whose real commitments are to money and hostility and potential violence would drop the pretense and walk away.
Political conservatives find some of the conclusions she draws unacceptable. For example, this is her take on how Americans should view governing themselves and caring for the needy:
As Christians, we must be concerned with outcomes—are the hungry fed, are the naked clothed, are the sick visited. The more strategies that are brought to bear on the problem—which current policy or lack there of has made a pressing problem—the greater the likelihood that it will be dealt with as Christ, who identifies himself unambiguously with those in need, tells us it must be. There is no analogy to be drawn between a beleaguered community governed, in effect, by a hostile and alien occupation and a modern society that can indeed govern itself and care for its own as it chooses. If we were indeed a Christian country I think we would be making other choices than many self-proclaimed Christians are trying to impose on us now. No talk of compassion impresses me when the tone of all reference to those who are struggling is hostile and judgmental. And of course anyone can be open-handed. But, as an American, I want to be able to help an American child in Detroit, an American family in Alaska, because they are as much my own as my dear Iowans. The national government is without question the most efficient means for this kind of ‘redistribution,’ a word that distracts from the deeper fact that one naturally wishes to share one’s blessings with one’s own.
Now I happen to think that is a pretty brilliant analysis and an eminently sane point of view. Others may disagree, but as conservative Rod Dreher opines, “I totally respect that position, which is not to say I entirely agree with it. But see, Robinson and I could have a conversation, and work together, across political and religious lines.”
On the other hand, Robinson’s insistence that we do not abandon the intellectual and moral heritage of our forbears is thoroughly conservative and difficult for many liberals to swallow.
I think Dreher is asking the right questions when he reflects on the challenge of someone like Marilynne Robinson:
Question for the room: if you are someone who counts yourself as a conservative or traditionalist religious believer, are there any voices from the liberals in your faith that you take seriously, and listen to? Likewise, if you are a liberal within your faith tradition, are there any conservative or traditionalist voices that speak to you, and serve to challenge you in a constructive way? If so, who are they, and what is it about them that captures your attention and respect?
Let’s do all we can to avoid “hardening of the categories.”