Connecting the Dots

For the past several months, I have been part of a diverse group of people reading through Marilynne Robinson’s collection of essays entitled The Death of Adam. While the essays were written at various times (and for diffrent publications), there is a common thread that weaves them together, summoned up by this line from her introduction: “I miss civilization, and I want it back.” Robinson’s contention is that we have lost our way culturally–we are a myopic bunch that doesn’t care to understand what’s come before us, nor to consider what may come after us. Yet throughout her ulogy for civilization, Robinson keeps her cards close to her vest, only hinting at the specifics of her intellectual foundations. We as readers are left to decipher what we’ve been given by the author and estimate where her interests may lie.

Just when we thought we may have Robinson pegged, the cards are suddenly on the table in her last essay, “The Tyranny of Petty Coercion,” obstensibly a lament over the lack of intellectual courage (specifically in the area of politics) in our time. Robinson writes:

I am myself a liberal. By that I mean I believe society exists to nuture and liberate the human spirit, and that largemindedness and openhandedness are the means by which these things are to be accomplished. I am not ideological (which I read as a pre-emptive defense to the critique of being ideological. -bmj). By that I mean I believe opportunities of every kind should be seized upon to advance the well-being of people, especially in assuring them decent wages, free time, privacy, education, and health care, concerns essential to their full enfranchisement.

And a bit later:

I am Christian. This ought not to startle anyone. […] I have a strong attachment to the Scriptures, and to the theology, music and art Christianity has insipired. My most inward thoughts and ponderings are formed by the narratives and traditions of Christianity. I expect them to engage me on my deathbed.

Well, then. That answers that. I am, of course, not shocked by the second statement, as it is quite obvious that despite never quite saying so, Robinson is more than simply a student of the Bible and theology. They mean something to her. The first quote, however, caused me to read and re-read the chapter several times. Until that point, I had Robinson pegged as a bit of a illiberal, a traditionalist. Perhaps not a conservative, poiitically, but at least someone who held the individualism (and attendent liberalism) of the Enlightment at arm’s length. I was, it seems, wrong.

It is worth pausing here to note that nearly every writer will define liberalism and conservatism differently. If we talk about the current political divisions in the United States, then I stand with those who say that when is said and done, liberals and conservatives are really all just liberals. Despite approaching the solution differently, both ultimately see freedom of the individual as tantamount. Yes, the devil is in the details, but conservatives these days seek to conserve very little. And many liberals, of course, bear little resemblance to the Classical Liberals that defined the movement–these days they seek an ever-growing State that at once cares for us and maximizes our personal freedoms.

Enough of the soapbox.

I suppose that, at least in the first half of her political confession, Robinson is a liberal. She wishes her freedoms maximized, though I reckon she defines these freedoms differently than other liberals by nature of her religious beliefs. But then, in the second half, she wishes for the proverbial Nanny State, carrying for our every need. I suppose that Robinson could be in line with Ivan Illich, or even Jacques Ellul–both argued for the importance of equity and freedom. Though often labeled an anarchist, Illich understood that the State could play an important role in providing equity for a population (though he preferred to rely upon tradition as the source for social order rather than the rule of law). Robinson, it seems, is wary of tradition (the “petty coercion”), as it often stifles free thought (Illich, again, understood the dangers of what he called the “institutionalization of tradition,” where the tradition itself becomes more important than its aims). The is, however, a tight line to walk. On one hand, tradition orders society (often properly), but often does become institutionalized to the point of ideology. On the other hand, unfettered individualism has done its share of destruction of the very culture, the very civilization, that Robinson laments losing. Now, perhaps Robinson would argue that she is against the application of tradtion to the governing of a populance, but that the traditions that gird the Chruch, for example, are vitally important. But, still, even Christianity can become ideological (was not the Reformation a strike against such a thing?). Yet without its tradition (the theology of the Church Fathers, for instance), Christianity is nothing more than a “cheap cure for existential anxiety” (Robinson’s words).

It seems that Robinson wants the best of both worlds–the autonomy of Enlightment liberalism, but the stability of religious tradition. Who am I to say that she cannot have her cake and eat it, too? I suppose, however, that this is the case for all but the most deluded traditionalists. Some may decry the loss of tradition and the triumph of the individual, yet more often than not they do so thanks to the products of the very beast they fight. Perhaps Robinson isn’t an ideologue–she simply calls them as she sees them, and we are wrong to pin her down.

I shall write a follow-up to this after our discussion of the chapter at the beginning of August.