Marilynne Robinson and the Mystery of Progressive Democracy

My favorite novelist is also Barack Obama’s. That shouldn’t be a problem, you might say—two people of widely different political opinions can love the same beautiful things. As Paul Seaton has observed on this site, studying Marilynne Robinson’s nonfiction, marked as it is by her very conventional academic-liberal political opinions, is not very conducive to appreciating the exquisite subtlety of her fiction.[1]

The New York Review of Books late last year published an extensive conversation between the President and the novelist (which Joe Knippenberg commented on here). Obama and the author of Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), and Home (2008) come to an immediate meeting of minds, or rather hearts, on their faith in “democracy,” which, the ostensibly Calvinist Robinson posits, is based on “the willingness to assume well about other people.”

Asked by the President to explain the convergence between her Christianity and her “concerns about democracy,” Robinson offers the simplest possible explanation: she believes “people are images of God” and that “democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level.” To the President’s and the novelist’s joint chagrin, though, the “loudest voices” for Christianity in American politics don’t really take their Christianity seriously; supposedly they fail to follow Christ’s injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Robinson has gone so far as to describe Christian America as “associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism.”

She at least acknowledges that the Christian standard of love is a “sort of superhuman feat” that runs “against the grain.” But she does not explain how this superhuman feat of overcoming all distinction between friends and enemies is supposed to be a presupposition of democratic political life. The only enemy we have to worry about, apparently, is the pathological Christian conservative.

Just how is a human being an “image of God,” and how is this, for Robinson, a “democratic” insight? A critical clue is provided by observations she published in the Nation magazine in October. In “Humanism, Science, and the Radical Expansion of the Possible: Why We Shouldn’t Let Neuroscience Banish Mystery from Human Life,” she associates—reasonably enough, up to a point—a critique of the reductionist anti-humanism of the prevailing practice of neuroscience with the “joyless urgency” of global technological capitalism.

One is reminded of Leo Strauss’s critique of the Lockean-American “joyless quest for joy.” Unlike Strauss, however, Robinson does not look to premodern thought for an alternative; rather, she writes, “the antidote to our gloom is to be found in contemporary science.” She finds it in the emerging theory of “quantum entanglement,” which “implies a cosmos that unfolds or emerges on principles that bear scant analogy to the universe of common sense.” And since Robinson associates common sense with the mechanism and reductionism of classical physics and economics (which recognizes self-interest but not the self, a.k.a. “soul”), this scientific rout of common sense is for her good news.

Robinson acutely discerns the contradiction in reductionist scientism’s rejection of soulful anthropomorphism at the same time it assumes a “naïve anthropocentricity” that takes its own narrow methods “as the test and standard of reality.” The self-aware, Christian, and humanistic anthropocentricity that she recommends eschews any effort to pronounce on “an essential human nature” in favor of an embrace of the mystery of the human: “the human mind, the human self, history, and religion—in other words the terrain of the humanities.”

In the place of an insight into a shared human nature Robinson offers individuality pure and simple: “The brain is certainly more profoundly individuated than its form or condition can reveal.” (My emphasis.) And this notion of pure individuation or individuality as the mysterious Christian meaning of humanity is a central theme of Robinson’s Dwight H. Terry lectures at Yale, which were collected in her 2010 volume Absence of Mind:

Then there is the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word “I” and mean by it a richly individual history of experience, perception, and thought. For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently. Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM. Putting to one side the question of their meaning as the name and character by which the God of Moses would be known, these are words any human being can say about herself, and does say, though always with a modifier of some kind. I am hungry, I am comfortable, I am a singer, I am a cook. The abrupt descent into particularity in every statement of this kind, Being itself made an auxiliary to some momentary accident of being, may only startle in the dark of night, when the intuition comes that there is no proportion between the great given of existence and the narrow vessel of circumstance into which it is inevitably forced.

The human self is thus, for Robinson, a mysterious center of awareness that somehow echoes the “I Am” of almighty Jehovah. The self is mysterious because its exceptional quality has no place within a knowable hierarchy of being, but instead comes to awareness only by an “abrupt descent into particularity”; the mystery of existence lies in the absolute disproportion between the ultra-generality of “the great-given of existence” and the unqualified particularity of the self’s historicity. On this account of human exceptionalism, there is no possible way of ascribing any general quality to this mysterious link between divinity and humanity; no teleology links man to God, but only the sheer mystery of the self-awareness of existence.

It is, appropriately, in Robinson’s fiction that the mysterious beauty of this post-classical Christian humanism is best expressed. In her greatest work, Gilead, the elderly Protestant minister in 1950’s Iowa, John Ames, who is facing the approaching prospect of death, reflects on the beauty of life in a diary intended to be read by his very young son.

For the Calvinist Ames, and indeed for the Calvinist Robinson, God’s absolute transcendence of our conceptual grasp—that is, of the categories of discursive reason—undercuts any effort we might be tempted to make to articulate heaven on the basis of the elevation of a supreme good or of certain goods that reason might claim to abstract from our experience in this world.

As Ames says in Gilead:

The right worship of God is essential because it forms the mind to a right understanding of God. God is set apart – He is One, He is not to be imagined as a thing among things (… the sacredness of the Word, the creative utterance … is not of a kind with other language).

Ames wants to avoid suggesting “a reality that is simply an enlarged or extrapolated version of this reality.” He wishes “to suggest a much more absolute unlikeness” that disqualifies reason’s pretensions either to support or to contest an understanding of divinity. For Ames, the Creator altogether transcends the plane of the creation on which the contest between “rationalism and irrationalism” takes place. As he states,

The Lord absolutely transcends any understanding I have of Him, which makes loyalty to Him a different thing from loyalty to whatever customs and doctrines and memories I happen to associate with Him.

The Reverend Ames understands heaven, not as an elevation of privileged features of this world, but as an enhancement of the conscious experience of the world in general, the enhancement of worldly experience itself without reference to any vertical differentiation. Observing with wonderment the conduct of some “decent rascally young fellows,” he confesses “I really can’t tell what’s beautiful anymore.” He looks at the world with the wonderment of a child, except that, unlike children, he knows by now that he will never “grow into it and understand it;” he is “each morning … like Adam waking up in Eden.”

In another passage this intensification of the ordinary experience of the world, this time prompted by moonlight’s shimmering and mysterious transcendence, is explicitly linked with the individuation of the self: “The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of the morning. Light within light.”

Ames points us to the deep link in his sense of transcendence between the light of the horizon and the light of human existence, or human self-awareness. “It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. . . . like poetry within language.”

This undifferentiated or horizontal transcendence of the world is intimately linked with the mystery of self-awareness or individual self-consciousness. The wonder of the sheer existence of things in the world is grounded in or bound up with the wonder of individuated self-awareness.

“This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it,” says Ames. He develops this observation through a meditation on the use of the word “just,” as in “the sun just shone and the tree just glistened,” a usage that calls attention to “a thing existing in excess of itself.” This “excess” of the thing points to the miraculous connection between worldly things and human awareness; not knowledge of a hierarchical order but sheer consciousness of existence, being aware of being here, is experienced as a divine gift.

Ames’s witnessing of two girls being showered by the shaking of a glistening tree branch after a heavy rain prompts the thought that “water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash.” Thus, remembering again the miraculous horizon illuminated by the sun and the moon, which he witnessed with his father as a child, Ames recalls “the sweet strength,” the rare “joy … and assurance” he felt at that moment, and is moved to tell his son “what an amazing instrument you are, so to speak, what a power you have to experience beyond anything you might ever actually need.”

When Ames remarks that “existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined,” he is talking about the sheer, gratuitous existence of things, and at the same time about the availability of the world of things to human awareness, the “twinkling of an eye … that little incandescence you see in people when the charm of a thing strikes them.” The splendor “He has hidden from the world … the eternal breaking in on the temporal” apart from any hierarchy or teleology, any logic of “cause or consequence” is understood as “a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality,” but the pre-eminent site of this glimpse, the privileged point of eternity’s breaking into temporality, is the human face: God’s splendor is “revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face.”[2]

I find this Christian humanism of the mystery of Being and of the self both beautiful and true—or true, up to a point. The risks involved in taking it to be the whole truth become apparent as Robinson translates the mystery she glimpses into a rather self-satisfied political ideology.

There is one principle or tendency in contemporary life that, as far as I can tell, is spared from any and all criticism in Robinson’s spirited polemics: “democracy.” As can be seen most clearly in her essays in When I Was a Child I Read Books (2013), “democracy” is an ideal that apparently needs no justification or even much description. It seems to stand as the unquestioned axis of Robinson’s moral-political universe, exercising more substantive authority than the “Calvinism” concerning which she is so protective, not to say irritable.

Certainly there is more of a tendency to judge and to interpret Calvinism by the (implicit, assumed) standards of “democracy” than vice versa. Whatever may have been the contribution of Calvinism to modern liberalism (and I have argued that the contribution is significant), it seems a stretch for her to claim the legacy of Calvinism for the view that “it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.”

In keeping with the fundamental mystery of human existence, Robinson reduces the idea of soul to sheer “self-awareness,” which of course leaves the soul without any stable, intelligible purpose. This emphasis on the poverty of our understanding might seem to imply political quietism, or, as tended to be the case for Calvin himself, authoritarianism. But for Robinson, as for Rousseau and the revolutionary Progressivism he begat, the mystery of the self somehow yields a confidence in History as the matrix of Democracy; the evacuation of order in the cosmos yields the affirmation of some implicit, emergent meaning in history:

To identify sacred mystery with every individual experience, every life, giving the word its largest sense, is to arrive at democracy as an ideal, and to accept the difficult obligation to honor others and oneself with something approaching due reverence. It is a vision that is wholly religious though by no means sectarian, wholly realist in acknowledging the great truth of the centrality of human consciousness, wholly open in that it anticipates and welcomes the disruption of present values in the course of finding truer ones.

 “Mystery is openness to possibility” and all possibilities, it seems, are to be welcomed. “Wisdom, which is almost always another name for humility, lies in accepting one’s own inevitable share in human fallibility”– and fallibility is but another term for confidence in the progress of democracy.

Humility, or “recognition of our radically imperfect understanding,” can thus be embraced as “a principle of liberation.” And since this ideal is inherently indefinite and open-ended, in practice it can only be defined negatively, that is, in terms of what it opposes, what it transforms, what it destroys. “Essentially, decisively, we are at odds with nature.”

This is the fundamental kinship between Robinson’s Progressive Calvinism and the modern scientism she deplores. For Robinson the mysteries of Christianity and Progressive democracy converge in their movement away from all traditional categories and constraints, with their implicit teleological assertions, a movement guided by the “vision of the soul, all souls, realizing itself in the course of transforming everything that has constrained it and them.”

From this point of view, any attempt to affirm and preserve a community’s particular understanding of the good, any defense of a substantive way of life, is a threat to equality and a closure of possibilities. In this historicized democratic idealism, this distrust of all substantive consensus except that grounded in an enthusiastic openness to emergent meaning, a meaning always projected upon the “other” or deferred to some vanishing point of “progress,” we see the ultimate complicity of Marilynne Robinson’s “Calvinist” distrust of actual communal goods and her affinity for a “humanism” in which the meaning of humanity is reduced to sheer mystery.

[1] Parts of this essay are drawn from my chapter in A Political Companion to Marilynne Robinson, edited by Shannon Mariotti and Joseph H. Lane, Jr. (forthcoming from the University of Kentucky Press).

[2] The natural gratuity or miraculous character of water informs the religious ritual of baptism: “for us the water just heightens the touch of the pastor’s hand on the sweet bones of the head, sort of like making an electrical connection” (Gilead, p. 63).