Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Marilynne Robinson on Courage and Truth

The bestselling author of GILEAD and HOUSEKEEPING also writes essays--essays as creative and cogent as her novels. In "The Tyranny of Petty Coercion," in THE DEATH OF ADAM: ESSAYS ON MODERN THOUGHT (255-262), she begins:

"Courage seems to me to be dependent on cultural definition. . . . Courage is rarely expressed except where there is sufficient consensus to support it. . . . Physical courage is remarkably widespread in this population. There seem always to be firefighters to deal with the most appalling conflagrations. . . .

"Moral and intellectual courage are not in nearly so flourishing a state. . . . Let us say that the sort of courage I wish to consider can be defined as loyalty to truth. . . . Trivial failures of courage may seem minor enough in any particular instance, and yet they change history and society. . . .

"To illustrate this point, I will make a shocking statement; I am a Christian. . . . I have a strong attachment to the Scriptures, and to the theology, music, and art Christianity has inspired. My most inward thoughts and ponderings are formed by the narratives and traditions of Christianity. I expect them to engage me on my deathbed.

"Over the years many a good soul has let me know by one means or another that this . . . tradition that is so essentially compelling to me is not, shall we say, cool. There are little jokes about being born again. There are little lectures about religion as a cheap cure for existential anxiety. Now, I do feel fairly confident that I know what religion is. . . . Nevertheless, I experience these little coercions. . . . Don't I know that J. S. Bach and Martin Luther King have been entire eclipsed by Jerry Falwell? The question has been put to me very directly: Am I not afraid to be associated with religious people? . . .

This is only one instance of a very pervasive phenomenon, a pressure toward concessions no one has the right to ask. These are concessions courage would refuse if it were once acknowledged that a minor and insidious fear is the prod that coaxes us toward conforming our lives, and even our thoughts, to norms that are effective markers of group identity. . . . These signals of inclusion and exclusion, minor as they seem, have huge consequences. . . . The example of coercion I have offered . . . has had the effect of marginalizing the liberal churches and elevating fundamentalism to the status of essential Christianity. The consequences of handing over the whole of Christianity to one momentarily influential fringe is clearly born out in the silencing of social criticism and the collapse of social reform, both traditionally championed by American mainline churches, as no one seems any longer to remember.

1 comment:

  1. You're right. Over on the other side of the Atlantic, we scratch our heads and wonder how the American Christians can hold such different beliefs and not seem to know that they are an odd fringe group at times. We get a lot of news about them over here, from American media and Christian publications and from our local sources.

    I sometimes wonder if America thinks it defines Christianity for the rest of the world, so the other views aren't worth considering. Or perhaps they're just completely unaware that the arguments going on within America aren't the whole picture. In Britain, for example, Christians are much more worried about trade justice and environmental issues. It seems wrong when American Christians think they've done their job to help the poor by collecting lots of aid money for people in poor countries, when US trade policy is, just as one example, putting so many non-American cotton farmers out of business by subsidising its own industry so highly overseas. Aid does not solve this problem and sometimes even makes it worse, by putting local economies out of balance. And is it right to put people in Bangladesh under floodwater because the leading nation can't give up its massive addiction to carbon-emitting energy sources?

    I recently heard a (very religiously opinionated) American Christian excuse himself for considering these issues by saying, "I'm not into politics." Yet if someone caused him to lose his job and put his house underwater, he would feel he had very right moral indignation.

    These are intensely moral issues that the American church seems to be, for the most part, ignoring. Does America realise what a scandal this is to the rest of the world, and how the churches are seen to be right there in the thick of it? Or perhaps if Americans keep their heads down and focus on issues about gay people and abortion, the other problems will cease to exist. Perhaps for American churches, these inner convulsions are the most they can handle, and the global church and wider issues are irrelevant.