Marilynne Robinson is afraid we are losing our “loyalty to democracy” in America, though her reasons for fearing this might (or might not) surprise you. Tribalism and austerity—a general lack of generosity—will kill America. Individuals are generous enough, she admits, but what is lacking is a generosity in our public discourse and public programs. This is the gist of her sometimes insightful, but too often frustratingly vague, collection of essays.
Robinson, a generally gifted novelist and essayist, is no kowtowing liberal. In her previous collections of essays, she has skewered the modern caricature of American Puritans as repressed and oppressive fundamentalist yokels, and she has often attempted to save John Calvin from uninformed and biased dismissal. She has joined many others in debunking that fanatical fundamentalism of the 20th and 21st centuries, philosophical materialism. And she has not-too-infrequently defended the Old Testament against charges of barbarism.
She does some of this here. In the first essay, Robinson takes on the “tedious, fruitless controversy” of science against religion. The idea, she writes, that the physical world, “as a distinct category,” is somehow “antithetical to the spiritual” is wrongly accepted as fact by scientists and the religious alike. She chides Christians for accepting this Manichean duality, but focuses mostly on scientists who worship at the altar of the scientific method. While science is “a great contributor to what is beautiful and also terrible in human existence,” Robinson writes, “there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos.”
In other essays, she defends Calvin’s Geneva against wrongheaded claims that it was an uncaring theocracy, and puts paid to the condescension and anti-Israel bias still too common in much modern biblical criticism. Yet most of the essays deal with America’s loss of community, charity, and greatness, and it is in these essays that Robinson’s penchant for the ignored fact and the counterintuitive argument (as well as her professed spirit of generosity) fails her.
First, there is “Imagination and Community,” an essay on the importance of education in developing the empathetic capacities of our students and the role of empathy in building a civil society. “I am persuaded,” she writes, “that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.” She goes on to claim indirectly that the humanities are central in developing this capacity for empathy. This is neither a new nor uncommon statement for literary folks to make; I myself have presented this argument to my students—though I always point out that Seneca rejected the idea that studying the liberal arts necessarily leads to virtue. (At best, he said, “they prepare the soul for the reception of virtue.” He has a point. Are readers and artists, poets and philosophers, generally more empathetic, more virtuous, than uneducated migrant workers?)
Dismissing the catastrophic decline in students’ reading and writing skills over the past 20 years by complaining that all this talk about the “dumbing-down” of America is un-Christian, Robinson quips that the pressure put on educators to train efficient workers makes it sound like we actually “lost the Cold War.”
“I think,” she continues in a more serious tone, “we ought to reconsider the pressure, amounting sometimes to hostility, that has lately been brought to bear on our educational culture at every level, particularly in the humanities and the arts.” It must certainly be a law of modern discourse by now that whenever someone laments the lack of understanding exhibited by others, it is immediately followed by a statement that is at least a little pig-headed.