• Kindle
  • Jan Sand

    As an atheist who never was anything else it is difficult, and frequently impossible, to swallow all the obvious oddities of religious people and their even stranger disciplines in a world that is daily accumulating a growing fund of understandings of the mechanisms of a universe which offers no obvious necessity for an obvious coordinator of the rigidities of natural law. Taken at face value, what many humans require as some general purpose underlying nature’s functions has escaped notice in this careful sifting of cosmic dynamics.

    Purpose is directed at a goal and it is only within living things that goals exist. From the most ancient times humans have formulated their outlook from an anthropocentric base and as we explored our surroundings that base has become more and more untenable. Nevertheless, as living creatures, humans demand unifying endpoints to make our lives sensible and useful. Although religions have conserved many traditions in contradiction to current sensibilities there is a core driving force in most of them in unifying people and giving them a refuge from a good deal of the most despicable social forces. These remnants of ancient beliefs present very difficult blocks to a unifying force for all humanity to join together to make a decent and reasonable world. They may, in the end, destroy us all but as unreasonable as humans have been throughout history and remain today, the community of mankind presents an inflexible demand these difficulties be overcome or we shall not survive.

  • William Valenti

    My (secular) religion has only one commandment: “No man’s god owns the Golden Rule”

  • Al de Baran

    “Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: There is no one to command, no one to obey, no one to transgress. When you realize that there are no goals or objectives, then you realize, too, that there is no chance: For only in a world of objectives does the word chance have any meaning”. -Nietzsche

    “We operate with nothing but things that do not exist, with lines, planes, bodies, atoms, divisible time, divisible space — how should explanation even be possible when we first make everything into an image, into our own image!” –Nietzsche

    “With Apologies to Clausewitz: Scientism is the continuation of religious psychology by other means.” -A. de Baran

  • Jan Sand

    A law can be defined in human social terms and it is not surprising that it is frequently disobeyed since it is a demand of social performance that frequently cannot the will not be enforced. A scientific law is totally different and merely because the name is taken from social regulation must not be mistaken out of fundamental confusion. When a scientific “law” is discovered to be invalid in any way it must be discarded and reformulated to conform to observed performance. Theological restrictions are social constructions similar to legalities and to confuse them with natural law is to exhibit total confusion as to the nature of science. Theological demands are very rigid and only rarely changed to any degree since they depend only upon the respect for authority. Scientific revelation is a regular occurrence and as changes from Newtonian ideas to those of Einstein demonstrates there is nothing theological in the fundamental nature of science. Inquiry into quantum matters are asking important questions about Einstein’s concepts and therefore this too must be subject to change when new understandings are formulated.

  • John V Moore

    I have found the Declaration of Independence and the Preface to the Constitution to be helpful in thinking through issues in the nation.. They form a template.
    Liberty/Freedom is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence
    Freedom is not enough. The Constitution, including its preface, establishes order for the nation.
    *
    The United Methodist Church recognizes Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience are recognized as being authoritative. Personal Experience is to individuals what Tradition is to the church. These form the church templates.

    John V Moore

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Marilynne Robinson is a Christian in a country that increasingly isn’t. She belongs to the American “mainline,” a collection of Protestant denominations with deep roots in European history, reliably liberal politics and, if current demographic and attendance trends continue, just a few decades to live. Why should the mainline be disappearing? And why would anybody care if it did? In her most recent books, a collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, and a novel, Lila, Robinson poses these questions but only partially answers them. Her reply to the first question is never fully satisfying, perhaps because she has much in common with the movement that is largely responsible for the mainline’s decline. The second question is even more difficult, but Robinson the novelist gives a better answer.

Liberal mainline denominations—like the Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and certain strains of Lutheranism—never represented the whole of American Christianity, but as recently as the middle of the last century their adherents numbered in the scores of millions and included almost all of America’s political and cultural elites. Since then their fall has been rapid and steep. Between 2000 and 2010 the United Church of Christ (Robinson’s denomination) lost nearly seven hundred congregations and over three hundred thousand members, bringing its total membership to less than half what it was in 1957. Other mainline denominations are in similar straits. The decline of their membership and prestige is one of the largest but least-understood shifts in postwar American life, and in several essays throughout The Givenness of Things, Robinson tries to diagnose its cause and offer a remedy.

In “Awakening,” first published in the Financial Times, she tried to explain the state of American Christianity to a foreign audience. America, as Robinson sees it, is sharply divided along a single religious and political line. On the one side stands the religious right, which she regards as “outrageously forgiving of one another and themselves, and very cruel in their denunciation of anyone else.” On the other stands a left-leaning “form of secularism that is contemptuous of religion—religion being for these purposes identical with the unbeautiful phenomenon that now so loudly claims the title for itself.” In the rest of the essay she turns to the history of an all but forgotten alternative: her own kind of liberal Protestantism.

Following her title (“Awakening”), she points out that the great awakenings of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were more than outbursts of religious enthusiasm. They were genuine reform movements that promoted “enhancements of the status of women, broadening of access to education, mitigations of social and racial inequality.” Denominations like the Methodists, Unitarians, Quakers and Robinson’s own Congregationalists formed the backbone of the abolitionist movement and first-wave feminism, whose 1848 Seneca Falls declaration was signed in a Methodist church. Their beliefs, she argues, motivated their social missions. If all human beings were made in the image of God, and were therefore spiritual equals, then slavery was clearly sinful. Robinson calls the civil rights movement a third awakening, which was “led by the black church, and sooner or later had the support of all the major denominations.”

She then turns to a recent and, for her, perplexing development. Mainline churches have set this proud history aside. In her own lifetime she has witnessed “the uncoerced abandonment by the so-called mainline churches of their own origins, theology, culture and tradition.” This abandonment, she thinks, has had terrible consequences for American public life: “the mainline churches, which are the liberal churches, in putting down the burden of educating their congregations in their own thought and history, have left them inarticulate.” Robinson presents herself as a voice crying out in the wilderness, speaking to and for a people who have all but disappeared.

Many of the other essays in The Givenness of Things strike a similar tone and follow a similar line of argument. Robinson laments some ugly aspects of American public life, like the prevalence of gun violence or the popular reduction of human motives to economic self-interest. In response, she unearths old figures from Christian history and shows how their faith led them to fight against the kind of ills we still suffer from today. Robinson’s implication, sometimes stated and sometimes not, is that if mainline Christians would allow their religious doctrines to inform their political commitments, then their prophetic voice would sound again and their numbers would swell, to the benefit of both their churches and the nation as a whole.

Robinson’s story is appealing, especially for those who are neither contemptuous of religion nor members of the religious right. But the strength of a political movement depends in no small part on the depth of its members’ convictions, and belief as strong as Robinson’s (let alone the abolitionists’) is rare in the mainline today. For all her knowledge of American Protestant history, she has left out the crucial chapter: her own. Mainline leaders of Robinson’s generation worked tirelessly to convince their congregations to accept and even welcome strangers, the rapidly increasing proportion of Americans who did not look like them or believe what they believed. The trouble is, they didn’t do so by engaging more deeply with their history and doctrines, but by deliberately casting history and doctrine aside.

Before the 1960s, the overwhelming majority of American political and education institutions had Protestant histories, leaderships, memberships and missions. Along with senators and judges, Harvard still turned out ministers and theologians, as it had since the 1600s. Politicians and business leaders, like John Foster Dulles and Harvey Firestone Jr., were also regular members of inter-mainline counsels, which made confident pronouncements on everything from race relations in the United States to America’s role on the world stage. In the minds of clergy and laymen alike, their churches and nation held common interests and ideals, which were complementary if not one and the same. There was a glaring problem with this arrangement, of course. It excluded Catholics, Jews, blacks and atheists from nearly every position of influence in American life. As FDR put it to one of his cabinet members, a second-generation Irish immigrant named Leo Crowley: “Leo, you know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here on sufferance.”

Waves of postwar immigration made an already inequitable situation untenable, and mainline leaders were in a position to do something about it. Hard as it may be to imagine today, some of the country’s foremost public intellectuals from the Thirties to the Sixties were mainline theologians. Paul Tillich and Harvey Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine, advised politicians and sold books by the millions. They focused on the church’s social obligations, which they emphasized at the expense of the exclusivity and particularity of traditional doctrinal claims. In one famous formulation, Tillich argued that Christianity was just one of many ways to touch “the ground of being.” Symbols, religious and otherwise, all inadequately represented their ineffable subjects, but they also pointed beyond themselves to this ground of being, which Tillich called God. If Tillich was right, then mainline Protestants had no reason to distrust people of other faiths. Perhaps their beliefs were not so different after all. Harvey Cox went one step further. In his hugely popular book, The Secular City, he declared that “rather than clinging stubbornly to antiquated appellations … perhaps like Moses, we must simply take up the work of liberating the captives, confident that we will be granted a new name by events of the future.”

Preachers from mainline seminaries spread out across the nation, where they taught the articles of their professors’ creeds: individualism, tolerance, pluralism and emancipation from tradition. Though their positions on issues like religious diversity were hardly theirs alone, they brought them to tens of millions of people every Sunday morning.

These ministers were admittedly better at preaching the brotherhood of all than making it a reality in their pews; their churches remained affluent and white. But those who focus on liberal Protestantism’s demographics miss its wider influence. Men like Tillich and Cox held beliefs that, while controversial at the time, have become commonplace today. The idea that Christians aren’t truer members of the American public than people of other faiths was once shocking. It is now an assumption among left-leaning people, including left-leaning Christians. When today’s conservatives extol the nation’s “Judeo-Christian” values, they seem unaware that liberal interfaith groups popularized the idea that Jews and Christians should agree deeply on moral issues. Conservative Christians often complain that the mainline is “too accommodating” to the wider culture, but the liberal mainline helped create our culture. Its influence is so pervasive it can be hard to see.

But while mainline intellectuals disseminated their ideas throughout American culture, their success came at an institutional cost. If the social message of your church is just good common sense about tolerating people with different beliefs from your own, you don’t really need a church to hear it. Robinson’s arguments on behalf of the poor and immigrants in her “Awakening” essay are forceful and true (“Does the word ‘stranger,’ the word ‘alien,’ ever have a negative connotation in Scripture? No. Are the poor ever the object of anything less than God’s loving solicitude? No.”). They are also, frankly, commonplace along half of our political spectrum. The mainline church’s doctrines and institutions have proven unnecessary for those who want to pursue its traditional social goals, and the result is one of the greatest ironies of recent American history: the success of the Christian left in the postwar period makes it indistinguishable from (and maybe even superfluous to) secular left-leaning movements today.

Here, for example, is almost all Robinson has to say about gay marriage: “Why does only one side of this question merit attention as an issue of religious freedom? My denomination blessed the unions of same-sex couples until the minute it could instead perform their marriages. Was not our religious freedom constrained by law…? Why is this controversy, insofar as it is conducted in the language of religion, so one-sided?” She never considers what, for her, would be a painful answer. Liberal Christians no longer need theology to make their case. They can couch their argument entirely in terms of secular political rights (as Robinson does here). In fact, arguments based on rights were probably more convincing than theological arguments even to them. The mainline remains as committed as ever to the social causes of our day—to gay rights, immigration reform and a stronger social safety net. They still decry racism and economic exploitation, too. They’ve hardly remained silent, but there’s a reason you can’t hear them anymore. They sound just like everybody else.

In many ways Robinson does not. By reputation she has an “uncompromising and archaic” religious sensibility (James Wood’s words), and she does indeed have harsh words for “seminaries that make a sort of Esperanto of world religions … a non-language articulate in no vision that anyone can take seriously.” And yet in an essay titled “Theology,” Robinson can also say: “It might be that the Christ I place at the origin and source of Being would be called by another name and would show another face to all those hundreds of billions who are or were not Scots Presbyterians or American Congregationalists or anything remotely like them. This is my devoutest hope …” In other words, no matter what we worship, we are all ultimately talking to the same God. Robinson is no Harvey Cox. But while she remains fiercely loyal to the traditional ideas and doctrines of her faith (like the continuity of the Old and New Testaments, and the simultaneous divinity and humanity of Christ), if everything from the cross of Christ to Plato’s form of the good to the Buddhist prayer wheel was just pointing beyond itself to the “ground of being,” why commit to any one of them? Maybe religiosity doesn’t need an origin, tradition, culture or theology at all.

Many have decided it doesn’t. According to recent Pew polls on religion and public life, America is becoming significantly less Christian, due mainly to the rise of the “nones”; a category that includes agnostics, atheists, and the “spiritual but not religious.”[1] Nearly half of today’s “nones” were born into mainline or white Catholic churches. Interestingly enough, many of these “nones”—especially the spiritual but not religious—still hold liberal mainline beliefs. They, too, decry racism and imperialism and celebrate diversity. They, too, find God in nature and truth in all faiths. They haven’t so much repudiated their parents’ faith as they’ve followed a certain strand of that faith to its logical conclusion and left their parents’ churches.

The challenge of Robinson’s generation was to welcome an increasingly diverse nation. The mainline leaders, through their willingness to reform their theology and preach in favor of religious pluralism, helped make it happen. The challenge ahead (for those of us who remain) is surviving their success. While in her essays Robinson frequently reproduces the causes of the problems she claims to be addressing, her recent novel, Lila, offers a different and richer perspective on the appeal of her theological heritage.

Lila is Robinson’s third novel set in Gilead, a small town in southwestern Iowa. The characters—especially its two mainline ministers, John Ames and his best friend, Robert Boughton—are holdovers from her previous novels, Gilead and Home. Christianity is a matter of daily concern for these men: they read, write, and argue about it while trying to live up to its demands. They talk about theologians like John Calvin and Karl Barth more often than they talk about their parishioners. As portrayed by Robinson, they are living through the heyday of liberal Protestantism (the Fifties), but in Gilead, far from those self-confident interfaith counsels, signs of decline are already beginning to show. Their parents, siblings, and children are all gone; some because they gave up their faith, others simply because America was larger and offered more than Gilead could provide. Their congregations are aging, dwindling, faithful but unable to remember exactly why they’ve stayed, or why they settled there in the first place.

Gilead was originally founded as an outpost for abolitionists, but now, even those who need the abolitionists’ old spirit struggle to find it. The main drama of both Gilead and Home is the unexpected return of Jack, Reverend Boughton’s prodigal son. As a child, Jack played cruel practical jokes on Ames; as a young man, he impregnated a younger, poorer girl and then denied his paternity; and after college he became an alcoholic and disappeared. He returns after decades of absence in order to find out if he, his black wife, and their son could make the town their home. Based on his time with Ames and Boughton, he decides that the answer is no. The old preachers are not outright racists. They are, on the whole, decent people doing their best to be that way. Even decent people, however, still sin, and even venial sins (quick moments of inattention or unmastered feelings of mistrust), can mean the difference between a family broken or restored. In the decisive scene of Gilead, Jack asks Ames to use his ministerial influence to ease his family’s integration into the town. But Ames, who has long distrusted Jack, won’t welcome him back: “I couldn’t promise to live long enough to make much use of it [his influence]. I mentioned my heart.” For months, Ames has been suspicious of Jack’s intentions toward Lila, Ames’ wife; the two get along a little too easily. But after learning that Jack has his own wife, he still cannot overcome a lifetime of mistrust, or summon the old spirit of abolition, even though he knows its history better than anyone.

Knowledge is not enough because fear and bitterness can cloud anyone’s judgment. In Robinson’s tradition, sin is inevitable, hence the importance of confession, repentance and conversion on a personal scale, not just on the social scale most mainliners are comfortable with today. (It is easy to decry American racism, but much harder to find an individual church that will admit to doing little about it.) Without men and women who not only know, but also live out their creeds, Gilead looks “awkward and provincial and ridiculous, even to the people who should know better. It looks ridiculous to me. I truly suspect I never left because I was afraid I would not come back.”

For the characters in Gilead and Home, the question was always the same: Should I leave? In Lila, set a few years before Gilead and Home, Robinson approaches this question from the outside, as it were: Should I come in? In the novel’s opening pages, a strange woman named Doll spirits the infant Lila away from her abusive parents: “Doll came up the path and found her there like that, miserable as could be, and took her up in her arms and wrapped her into her shawl, and said, ‘Well, we got no place to go. Where we gonna go?” The rest of the novel alternates back and forth between Lila’s transient childhood and her slow, uneasy acceptance of Reverend Ames’s courtship. From Gilead, we know the two will be married and have a child. The more important question is whether or not Lila will accept Ames’s faith, and why. Lila inverts the problem Robinson posed in her essays, asking not what has gone wrong with her kind of Christianity, but what might make it a compelling spiritual home to someone in the first place?

On the surface, a novel about an old minister who brings a young woman into the fold sounds unpromising at best. Fortunately, Ames proves a poor tutor. He cannot explain to Lila why a child like her should have been cast out defenseless into the night, or why all of the poor, hungry, homeless people she knew on the road (to say nothing of most of the people on earth) should be outside the circle of God’s grace simply because they had the poor luck of being born into families that didn’t baptize them.

Lila finds a more satisfying conversation partner in a Bible she steals one day before church, because “[the congregation] would have been so happy to give her one that she couldn’t bear the thought.” She reads and copies out small sections, as she learned to do in her single year of formal schooling. Ames recommends the Gospel According to Matthew, but what catches Lila’s attention are the prophetic books of the Old Testament: the denunciations of Jeremiah, the grief of Job, and especially the visions of Ezekiel. As she copies the opening lines of Ezekiel she meditates on them and slowly realizes why they have such a hold on her:

Existence can be fierce, she did know that. A storm can blow up out of a quiet day, wind that takes your life out of your hands, your soul out of your body. The fire went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning. She had copied this fifteen times. It reminded her of the wildness of things. In that quiet house she was afraid she might forget.

Job and Ezekiel’s blazing visions are undeniably strange, even otherworldly, but they remind Lila “of the wildness” she has seen in her years of wandering around the American Midwest. In the book of Job a whirlwind kills Job’s children and speaks in the voice of God about the awe-inspiring, incomprehensible power of nature. To Lila this seems less like a fable than solid realism. She has seen dust storms and tornados that pick up trees and houses and toss them around like toys. At any moment a wind like that might sweep her up, and she would disappear. The book of Ezekiel draws Lila into Ames’s church precisely because it never tries to rationalize or simplify the mysterious world or its inscrutable creator.

While liberal theologians were often criticized for being too worldly, Lila might level the opposite charge. With their abstractions and generalities, they lost sight of the world as someone like Lila actually confronts it. The meeting of mind and world in Lila (as in Robinson’s other novels) is simply too various, by turns surprising, wonderful, and overwhelming, for any “religious Esperanto” to capture. Her fiction has always made the implicit argument that religious experience requires an exacting and extravagant language to do it justice.

This language is not the property of a few. Whom Robinson writes about is just as important as how. By writing about unexceptional Christians in out-of-the-way places, she is suggesting that the full range of Christian language, and consequently the full range of Christian life, is not only available to the abolitionists, civil rights marchers, and other heroes of the faith. It is also for the Lila’s and John Ames’s of the world, little-regarded Christians who live with all of the difficulties, disappointments and joys inherent in their faith—so much so that although they may be fictional, their lives seem like real possibilities, even now.

Image credit: Kelly Boone, Rachel Wiseman, NOAA photo library

*If you liked this article you will love our next issue, which features the symposium “What is poetry for?” and an array of essays on literature. Here’s a special reward for reading: use the code POETRY4 to get $5 off the normal subscription price—subscribe now!

    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Street corner preachers and their atheist counterparts have been foretelling America’s coming godlessness since before the birth of the republic. They have always been wrong. Gallup has been polling Americans on their religious observance since 1939, when 41 percent of Americans attended some sort of worship service each week. In 2010 that number was 39 percent. Taking an even longer view, our supposedly godless age looks more devout than just about any time in the nation’s history. According to the field-standard research by Roger Finke and Robert Stark, about 17 percent of Americans belonged to a church in 1776. That number rose (and rose and rose) until the 1980s, when it peaked at about 60 percent and then plateaued for twenty years before its present fall. There are more atheists and agnostics than there used to be, but American Christianity (let alone American religion) isn’t going to disappear any time soon. Robinson’s kind of Christianity is another story.
  • Kindle
  • Jan Sand

    As an atheist who never was anything else it is difficult, and frequently impossible, to swallow all the obvious oddities of religious people and their even stranger disciplines in a world that is daily accumulating a growing fund of understandings of the mechanisms of a universe which offers no obvious necessity for an obvious coordinator of the rigidities of natural law. Taken at face value, what many humans require as some general purpose underlying nature’s functions has escaped notice in this careful sifting of cosmic dynamics.

    Purpose is directed at a goal and it is only within living things that goals exist. From the most ancient times humans have formulated their outlook from an anthropocentric base and as we explored our surroundings that base has become more and more untenable. Nevertheless, as living creatures, humans demand unifying endpoints to make our lives sensible and useful. Although religions have conserved many traditions in contradiction to current sensibilities there is a core driving force in most of them in unifying people and giving them a refuge from a good deal of the most despicable social forces. These remnants of ancient beliefs present very difficult blocks to a unifying force for all humanity to join together to make a decent and reasonable world. They may, in the end, destroy us all but as unreasonable as humans have been throughout history and remain today, the community of mankind presents an inflexible demand these difficulties be overcome or we shall not survive.

  • William Valenti

    My (secular) religion has only one commandment: “No man’s god owns the Golden Rule”

  • Al de Baran

    “Let us beware of saying that there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: There is no one to command, no one to obey, no one to transgress. When you realize that there are no goals or objectives, then you realize, too, that there is no chance: For only in a world of objectives does the word chance have any meaning”. -Nietzsche

    “We operate with nothing but things that do not exist, with lines, planes, bodies, atoms, divisible time, divisible space — how should explanation even be possible when we first make everything into an image, into our own image!” –Nietzsche

    “With Apologies to Clausewitz: Scientism is the continuation of religious psychology by other means.” -A. de Baran

  • Jan Sand

    A law can be defined in human social terms and it is not surprising that it is frequently disobeyed since it is a demand of social performance that frequently cannot the will not be enforced. A scientific law is totally different and merely because the name is taken from social regulation must not be mistaken out of fundamental confusion. When a scientific “law” is discovered to be invalid in any way it must be discarded and reformulated to conform to observed performance. Theological restrictions are social constructions similar to legalities and to confuse them with natural law is to exhibit total confusion as to the nature of science. Theological demands are very rigid and only rarely changed to any degree since they depend only upon the respect for authority. Scientific revelation is a regular occurrence and as changes from Newtonian ideas to those of Einstein demonstrates there is nothing theological in the fundamental nature of science. Inquiry into quantum matters are asking important questions about Einstein’s concepts and therefore this too must be subject to change when new understandings are formulated.

  • John V Moore

    I have found the Declaration of Independence and the Preface to the Constitution to be helpful in thinking through issues in the nation.. They form a template.
    Liberty/Freedom is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence
    Freedom is not enough. The Constitution, including its preface, establishes order for the nation.
    *
    The United Methodist Church recognizes Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience are recognized as being authoritative. Personal Experience is to individuals what Tradition is to the church. These form the church templates.

    John V Moore

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