Marilynne Robinson is the author of Gilead: A Novel (2004), which was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2012 National Humanities Medal. She recently held an extended interview with President Obama for The New York Review of Books (11/5/2015).
Marilynne Robinson is a Quaker Universalist. The universalism is clear. The Quaker part is projection by me, about someone just short of convincement who does not yet know the name Quaker. Marilynne is a “USQ” (Unaware Silent Quaker).
The evidence is in her new book of essays, The Givenness of Things: Essays (1915). She values silence for augmenting awareness of our constant connection with God. She values Quaker theology (but not knowing it). She focuses on humans as a species with value and uniqueness. She warns of our human dark side, which is currently encouraged through daily doses of reductionist neuroscience, cynicism, cultural pessimism, and the dismissal of Christian theology. She emphasizes the relation of faith and practice.
She sees the debates by mismatched science and religion as a wrong-headed love story about human exceptionalism. In reality, science and religion work side-by-side, marveling at certainties from both sources despite the gentle cloud over all of us that prevents us from fully grasping our situation.
This relation of the metaphysical reflections of Christian theology and current scientific physics is also a shared recognition of strangeness. Robinson affirms her experience that our human thinking should not be formed by primitive and discredited ideas, whether scientific or religious. With that modification, we can look to our tradition and our experience, personal and community, for authority for conforming our mental commitments and practice.
For Robinson, humans are special (“brilliant”), compared with other species. She has no time for purported impartiality among species because humans are special and unique. It is not a case of humanism or self-congratulation, but a dose of pride to perceive that human exceptionalism is a reality. She argues that, unlike all other species, humans have history of which we are currently conscious.
For Robinson, all of us function within an indelible theological view of the world. We live on the basis of a shared theology. Robinson talks aggressively in the theological terms of the western tradition of Christianity. This may be off-putting for some, but vigorous language is not a weakness. It only requires patient reading by Quaker universalists as part of the commitment to public discourse that avoids the default of contempt for other people.
Robinson sees a growing cultural pessimism that depresses the level of aspiration and sense of the possible within our global culture. This somber panic, a kind of collective dream-state, is inspired by the delusion of a mortal threat, resulting in bitter hostility toward many, or most, other people.
By contrast, Robinson argues that we need the self-discipline of a steady optimism in a gracious, respectful, and hopeful public culture and conversation together. We have good grounds for optimism. It is the potential for good, the presumptive claim of respect, and the singular interest and values in agile souls that we need.
This is an example of good writing, as her 2005 Pulitzer Prize recognition indicates. It is a very effective description of elements of the universal Quaker message. We are all part of the whole. Everyone belongs. The Source is common to us all. We can all be benefit with her contributions.
Marilynne Robinson may not know she is a Quaker Universalist, but we can see it.
Do you have a contrasting or clarifying view of Marilynne Robinson as reflected in her writings?
Marilynne Robinson, by Christian Scott Heinen Bell (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.
“I Stopped It,” by Mike Shell. Youngster playing in a foundation on Rue Jeanne Mance, Place des Arts, Montréal, Quebec (8/7/2013).