Searching for the soul of America

Marilynne Robinson combines politics, religion and a deep reading in American history


Marilynne Robinson

The American novelist, essayist and, lately, confidante of Barack Obama, is quite literally peerless. It’s not merely that Robinson does what she does far better than anyone else—craft exquisitely graceful novels and intricate engagements with modernity that are both Christian and appealing to the irreligious—there isn’t anyone else in American letters who mines the same territory. Robinson is a devout Protestant with a profound—and for many quirky—reverence for the theology and humanism of John Calvin, but her criticism of contemporary America isn’t restricted to irreligious modernity, nor is it given from an entirely Christian perspective.

She mocks neuroscience’s reductionist approach to the way humans experience their lives—it’s all a matter of packets of neurons going about their business—but Robinson also believes even atheists could find the soul “a valuable concept, a statement of the dignity of a human life and of the unutterable gravity of human action and experience.” And she maintains her harshest remarks for the culture of fear—“not a Christian habit of mind”—that marks American religion during what she sees as a transition from Christianity as ethos to Christianity as tribal identity.

Across 17 essays, almost all of them pondering at some point the meaning of grace, the key concept in her religious tradition, Robinson argues for more reverence for human potential and less paralyzing regret for human fallibility—the latter, in her opinion, is the great modern error. “Fear” tackles contemporary U.S. Christianity, while “Realism” considers our modern devotion to physicality—when modern physics discusses multiverses and additional dimensions—to be an absurd limitation on our experiences.

In “Awakening,” Robinson combines politics and religion in a display of her deep reading in American history. She discusses the language of what was the American civil religion, most succinctly captured in the Declaration of Independence—all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights—and currently under assault by fundamentalists, who want a more explicitly Christian body politic, and by secularists who deny its validity. Its last great orator was Martin Luther King Jr., in whose time there was still sufficient shared sensibility among Americans to stir “the recognition of truth in what he said and make the reality he spoke from appear as it was, mean and false.”

Since then, the ongoing American reform cause, as Robinson thinks of it, has ebbed in tandem with the civic religion. She takes comfort in the fact that in America nothing lasts forever, neither retreat nor advance, and declares her faith that her countrymen, in the language used by presidents Lincoln and Obama (and even Justin Trudeau), will find again “the better angels of our nature.”


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