In September, President Barack Obama sat down with the writer Marilynne Robinson to talk about the intersection of democracy, citizenship, and spirituality.
“There’s all this goodness and decency and common sense on the ground,” Obama said, “and somehow it gets translated into rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics.”
When the apparent leader of the Western world wants input on the “direction the country should be going in,” the notion that we ought to listen is clear.
How we can be generous folks who “take care of somebody’s who’s sick” and yet oppose Medicaid lies at the heart of Robinson’s new collection of essays, The Givenness of Things. The author of the stunning trilogy of Home, Gilead (which won the Pulitzer), and Lila, Robinson is, at once, a very contemplative and a very American writer, drawing both resilience and humility from her grounding in scripture. With elegant and unblinking forthrightness, the characters in Robinson’s fiction grapple with faith, mercy, and striving to love thy neighbor (or son or father) as thyself.
In her new book, Robinson considers these same questions of grace on a national scale, urgently calling readers to task as citizens who must take responsibility for both the present and the future of this country. With titles such as “Memory,” “Fear,” and “Awakening,” each chapter was originally presented as a lecture. Taken together, the prose is powerful and fluid. In “Value,” Robinson praises the American spirit of generosity, particularly when it comes to “rescuing each other” in the wake of natural disasters. She is, however, bewildered at the absence of this same response following the financial crisis, condemning the growing self-righteousness in blaming the poor. In her chapter on “Fear,” Robinson maintains it is not a “Christian habit of mind” and, therefore, that pervasive anxiety is not only reprehensible logic for justifying racism and violence but also a breech of faith for a Christian country.
Throughout the book, she pulls equally from Shakespeare, Calvinism, and other seminal influences of Western thought while turning over timeless Biblical impasses, such as the reconciliation of “sin and forgiveness,” through the lens of 21st century circumstances. Arguing that our individual wellbeing and our collective welfare are interdependent, Robinson also tackles discrimination, the decline of the study of the humanities, and the commonplace American obsession with the “acquisition of homicidal weapons.” Woven throughout is her claim that the country has lost sight of its benevolence, its commitment to meaningful education, and its charity—traits that, not that long ago, were common American and Christian ideals.
In looking to restore our collective morality, Robinson gives voice to the soul and the heart. Advocating for the necessity of a rich inner life, Robinson reminds us that acceptance and understanding are the most powerful means of finding security, as much for the country at large as in one’s own heart. “To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error,” she writes.
“I defer to no one in my love for America and for Christianity. I have devoted my life to the study of both of them… And I take very seriously Jesus’ teachings.”
Robinson—who has “spent most of her life in Presbyterian and Congregational churches”—is a Biblical scholar as well as a practicing Christian and a professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. As an American Buddhist, I felt a particular admiration of Robinson’s bold, even proud, invocation of her religious identity, not least of all because it also forms the underpinning of her tremendous literary accomplishment. At a time when many Western intellectuals assume that to be “religious”—to believe in the unseen or the unproven or the unscientific—inherently detracts from one’s legitimacy as an artist or thinker, Robinson’s conviction is refreshing. Her stance contrasts both what the liberal left might assume about writers and what the conservative right might assume about Christians. That Robinson’s relationship with God bolsters both her art and her political agenda feels almost radical, precisely because, as a culture, we’ve become so accustomed to the expectation that one is either religious or intellectual.
In reflecting directly on the current state of religion, Robinson expresses equal concern for the hypocrisy of Christian fundamentalists as well as for those whose staunch secularism has replaced a sense of awe or wonder in the universe. “There is at present an alienation from religion, even among the religious, that is a consequence of this privileging of information, for want of a better word, over experience, or of logic over history,” she writes. Urging us not lose connection with our own humanity in the face of expanding technology and scientific data, Robinson’s brings to the fore the obligation and honor we have in cultivating an ordinary, which is not to say unexceptional, compassion—a compassion that often arises when we contemplate the mysteries of both the “cosmic and microcosmic.”
As I considered not only the book’s content but also its grounding in an empathic, spiritual pragmatism, it seemed all the more timely. In April 2015, as PEN America was awarding French weekly Charlie Hebdo the “Freedom of Expression of Courage Award,” a protest that began with six prominent writers, including Francine Prose, Teju Cole, and Michael Ondaatje, soon evolved into a much larger international debate. At the crux of the writers’ objection was the concern that while the murder of the newspaper’s staff was undeniably horrid, PEN’s celebration of the magazine was tantamount to rewarding what they saw as shameful post-colonial bullying of the disenfranchised.
Both support for and disapproval of the protest grew publicly in the following days, giving rise to many worthwhile conversations about free speech as well as about the portrayal of religious observance in the Western world. In her individual letter of protest to PEN, novelist Rachel Kushner objected to what she identified as a “kind of forced secular view.”
While Robinson, as far as I understand, was not directly associated with the PEN debates, I couldn’t help but think of Kushner’s refusal of a “forced secular view” as I read this book, particularly because during that same spring, I attended a separate PEN event as part of their annual World Voices Festival in New York City. Entitled simply “Prayer and Meditation,” the evening brought together a stage full of a writers and artists, including Kushner, who’d been commissioned by PEN to create an original “prayer for our time.” Against the backdrop of a roaring international debate about censorship and religion, this small, quiet night of prayer and meditation was, to me, just as significant. While not at all an explicit act of protest, it was still act of bravery: artists and intellectuals giving voice to their faith and supplication—unabashedly and communally. It was a beautiful reflection of faith as common ground, not in the specifics of how we pray, but rather in upholding the importance of room to do so.
With this collection of essays, Robinson accomplishes two things at once. She calls for solitary and national self-reflection in order to find and protect meaning in our everyday lives and provides a place for that very contemplation within the substance of her work. Robinson’s rhetoric may seem quiet from the outset, but deceptively so in that, like meditation itself, the results are galvanizing, even radical.
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