When I Was a Child I Read Books
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THERE have been ripples of controversy recently in the national
press over the definition of the word "liberal". In the UK, it
tends simply to be shorthand for a set of progressive orthodoxies
vaguely grounded in the Enlightenment, focused on choice and
autonomy, and suspicious of tradition as something that could ever
settle disputes. But it doesn't here have, even in the mouths of
its critics, quite the diabolical flavour it is usually given in
the conservative rhetoric of North America. What Marilynne
Robinson's collection of essays does is to cut through both the
conservative and the non-conservative uses of the word, and to seek
to restore a very much richer meaning to it.
These essays are pure gold. Written with all her usual elegance,
economy, and intellectual ruthlessness, they constitute a plea for
recovering the use of "liberal" as an adjective, and, what is more,
an adjective whose central meaning is specified by its use in
scripture. "The word occurs [in the Geneva Bible] in contexts that
urge an ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity" - and
not a generosity of "tolerating viewpoints" alone, but of literal
and practical dispersal of goods to those who need them.
Psalm 122 is, you could say, the theme song of this vision, and
it is a vision that prompts Robinson to a ferocious critique of the
abstractions of ideology - including "austerity" as an imperative
to save the world for capitalism. She offers a striking diagnosis
of the corrupting effect of rationalism: rationalism as she defines
it is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because
the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of
rationalist strategies is always panic.
"Rationalism is the omnium-gatherum of resentment and
foreboding", whereas reasonableness is interested in "things as
they come". The economic crisis is, in this sense, the nemesis of
one kind of rationalism, oblivious of the actual complexity of
Where do we find the reasonable rather than the rationalistic?
Above all, in the various ways in which we are educated in
"imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very
slightly"; in a broadly conceived, long-term commitment to building
this kind of loving understanding - in fact, in what has often been
called a "liberal education".
She celebrates, in many of these pieces, the legacy of communal
investment in university education, dusting off some of the
forgotten history of the American Mid-West in its most creative
period, the mid-19th century. She identifies herself proudly as a
product of this legacy, formed by a serious, morally literate,
imaginatively bold Protestant culture.
Readers of her earlier essays will recognise the passionate
defence of Calvin as a learned and "liberal" humanist, capable of
celebrating the scientific skills of human beings as a sign of
their God-given dignity. As in her recent Terry Lectures at Yale,
published as Absence of Mind, Robinson points up the irony
of using this scientific sophistication to dismantle the very ideas
of consciousness and liberty.
Whether she is defending public investment in both welfare and
universities, exposing the plain mean-spiritedness and
self-righteousness that lurks beneath rather a lot of language
about austerity (usually the kind imposed on other people), or
dismantling the historical nonsense and, indeed, the unthinking
anti-Semitism of some supposedly "liberal" theological modernists,
she is invariably clear, and often irresistibly quotable.
She has no patience with fashionable complaints about the
responsibility of biblical texts or historic doctrine for violence
or prejudice - Bishop Spong, Gerd Lüdemann, and, for that matter,
Adolf von Harnack and Julius Wellhausen, get short shrift for their
dismissals of the faith and ethics of the Pentateuch. As she
insists, the biblical record is distinctive in that it gives us the
tools for its own spiritual and moral critique; it is a story not
of triumphant obedience to the law, but of failure and dogged
recovery through forgiveness.
She is a bit hard on some serious interpreters such as Regina
Schwartz, who in fact allow far more nuance to their criticisms
than the more familiar and journalistic authors she castigates. But
she makes a magnificent case for Mosaic ethics as the decisive
example of "liberal" thinking in her own sense.
The book is a breath of fresh air, the testimony of one of the
world's most compelling English-speaking novelists to her debt to
both the best of American communitarian ethics and an orthodox
Reformed theology remarkably free from obsessive moralism, while
remain-ing toughly and subtly moral in all sorts of ways.
Despite the North American focus of the discussions, the
parallels with our situation are obvious enough. Robinson's is a
voice we urgently need to attend to in both Church and society
Dr Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Martin Wroe's interview with Marilynne Robinson, published in
the 22 June edition of the Church Times, can be read here