When I Was a Child by Marilynne Robinson

In When I was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson reflects on her literary inclinations and offers insights into what troubles our planet at the moment.  She writes a straight-forward way about the value of the Christian faith to Christians and non-Christians alike. Here are some quotations that serve as examples of her position that our language, our culture and our relations with one another are all impoverished and weakened without the dimension of religious language, and specifically of Christian vocabulary and concepts.

“‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness   ‘…lacking the terms of religion, essential things cannot be said. Jefferson’s words acknowledge an essential mystery in human nature and circumstance. He does this by evoking the old faith that God knows us in ways we cannot know ourselves, and that he values us in ways we cannot value ourselves or one another because our intuition for the sacred is so radically limited.” p. 162f

According to Robinson, Christian teachings call human beings to a generous way of living. Robinson refers to Jonathan Edwards to illustrate the “Calvinist ethic of radical openhandedness”: “Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to the poor, and to thy needy in the land.” She finds in her Calvinist heritage a call to a wide, liberal and outward-looking life.

When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays Cover

Liberal Christians have more or less surrendered the cultural field to louder conservative voices with their normally narrower views. Robinson’s steady, big-picture perspective is bracing. She writes about the decline of church life among the established and national churches of Europe, on one hand,  and the relative vitality of the diverse expressions of the same in America, coupled with a paradoxical pessimism about the future of faith among Americans, on the other:

“I have heard in my conversations with Europeans a wistfulness and regret for the loss of Christianity…Americans have internalized a great prejudice against Christianity, assuming that it could not withstand the scrutiny of what they take to be a more intellectually sophisticated culture…  p. 137

Robinson’s liberal view lets God be God, for all people, all over the world. When Christianity is tied to a nation or to a territory it effectively denies the God it confesses:

I am the sort of Christian whose patriotism might be called into question by some on the grounds that I do not take the United States to be more beloved of God than France, let us say, or Russia, or Argentina, or Iran. I experience religious dread whenever I find myself thinking that I know the limits of God’s graces, since I am utterly certain it exceeds any imagination a human being might have of it…Making God a tribal deity, our local Baal, is embarrassing and disgraceful.  p. 136f

She points out the effects of science and technology, unleashed without restraint and without the tempering influence of the wisdom of the ages:

Christian theology has spoken of human limitation, fallen-ness, an individually and collectively disastrous bias toward error. I think we all know that the earth might be reaching the end of its tolerance for our presumptions. We all know we might at any time feel the force of unintended consequences, many times compounded. Science has no language to account for the fact that it may well overwhelm itself, and more and more stand helpless before its own effects.  p. 16

Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead (2004) won the Pulitzer Prize.

Gilead Cover

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