A magisterial effort at reconstruction

Last Updated 21 November 2020, 19:13 IST

The rise of the Christian Right sits along with the corporate stranglehold over the American polity, the deep-rooted fetish for consumerism, and an open racism as a phenomenon that makes it tough to imagine America as a liberal society in recent years. Remarks that Trumpism was still going strong even when Trump had lost the presidential election are the latest acknowledgement of how worse the state of affairs has become.

Led by the desire to avoid religious strife, the American political seriousness about separating religion and the State had also meant an exclusion of theological reasoning from its mainstream intellectual life. The Church-State separation could have enabled a milieu for the flourishing of religious conversations in public, but the power and attractions of secular intellectual culture saw an indifference, if not active hostility, among the universities, media and other public institutions towards it.

Amidst this scenario, though, a small number of American writers and thinkers have offered theological responses to their country’s predicament. In mulling over the work of reconstructing their liberal tradition, poet and agriculturist Wendell Berry and the philosophers Cornel West and Michael Sandel, among others, represent noble efforts to engage religious thinking as a vision of humanity, as a source of moral appeal in contemporary times.

What are We Doing Here? (Virago, 2018), a recent book of collected lectures by the distinguished American novelist Marilynne Robinson extends this minority intellectual tradition in scintillating ways. Observing that “We have surrendered thought to ideology,” she bemoans the hesitation to think in terms of “wisdom, courage, generosity, personal dignity,” – both by the Right that wants to be readily “excused from these ideals, standards that have been historically invoked in order to mitigate the uglier impulses, greed prominent among them,” and by the Left “which cannot account for these civic virtues in theoretical or ideological terms and feels awkward about speaking about them in religious terms.”

While American society is now commonly seen as polarised, Robinson observes, the false assumptions that unite the factions in consensus also need to be recognised. For instance, both the Right and Left ideologues are content to see their country as having been capitalist from its founding moments, with a value system that worshipped the self-interest-seeking human. Her lectures go on to reveal this historical picture of American culture to be a hopeless distortion. America, she affirms, “needs to recover the memory of the best it has done, and then try to do it all the better.”

Robinson’s discussion is anchored in her belief in Christian, more precisely, Calvinist faith. To read her is to encounter the rich legacy of Christian thought on faith, love, hope, soul, among others, being freshly brought to bear on the contemporary world. Arguing that “the religious conservatives who believe that the redeemed need not take their sins, or the sins of the redeemed in general or their allies, too seriously, had a faulty definition of sin,” she states: “In the great majority of cases, a sin is injury done to another person, other people, whom, we must assume, God loves at least as much as loves us.” And, her anchor in her faith is without self-aggrandisement or intimidation towards people of other faiths.

Indeed, Robinson seems to show the exit door to the notorious Christian image of a heathen or pagan. If we accept “the ancient institution that creation has some profound business with us,” she remarks, “many things follow, one of them being the presumption of the validity of categories of human experience, for example, beauty, meaning, good, and evil. Another being the essential, irreducible interest and value of the human person and of human life. There is no baseline reality against which human reality can be called less real, however radically unlike they are, and because they are radically unlike.” A heartfelt effort to get Americans to reconsider their encrusted images of themselves, Robinson’s book also passionately asks everyone everywhere to look inside the depths of their faiths and see the world anew.

(Published 21 November 2020, 19:02 IST)

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