Moses, Calvin, and the Puritans Would’ve Listened to NPR If They Were Around Today

In literary terms, Marilynne Robinson is a national treasure. In political terms, not so much. “When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad she was horrid,” as the nursery rhyme has it. Robinson might not even mind my saying that, by the way. As an essayist she deliberately tries to make countercultural moves, intellectually and spiritually.

Unfortunately, Robinson’s political views as expressed in her latest collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, are far from countercultural if by that we mean unusual. They’re off-the-shelf liberal. Like her hero, President Obama, she is disinclined to be fair to those who disagree with her—social conservatives, Tea Partiers, Republicans, the Right. Social conservative concerns for the moral standards and social fabric of the country, reasonable apprehensions about entitlements, the national debt, the injustice of burdening following generations because of our shirking of responsibility, and serious concerns about constitutional infidelity, become distorted by her into ungenerosity and rank partisanship.

For example, former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and those who share his fiscal concerns perversely worship something called “Austerity.” In no way do the points they make deserve consideration on the merits. Creating a capital-letter bogeyman rather than engaging honestly should be beneath so distinguished a writer as Robinson, author of the novels Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), and Home (2008). Her high intelligence and humane sensibility seem to flee her when she looks to her right.

In conjuring up conservative caricatures, moreover, Robinson violates her own poetics, which she says require of her “imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.” It’s therefore warranted to call her on them.

When it comes to the creative process itself, Robinson offers some wonderful insights:

When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire—a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. None of them is active by itself, and none of them is determinative, because there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability to consider and appraise one’s own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul.

That, by the way, is the most robust her religious faith gets. Robinson’s religious beliefs, metaphysical views, and moral commitments are those of a self-described liberal and Calvinist, and these sides of her are far more interesting than her take on the political issues.

With that I turn, happily, to areas in which she merits attentive consideration. These include the Bible and American culture, the nature of democracy, and, perhaps especially, Christian faith and modern science. What brings them together is her focus on the amazing reality of the human person, what she calls “the miraculous privilege of existence as a conscious being.” She uses this understanding as a touchstone for her understanding of the “ideal” of democracy, as an important component of her reading of Biblical religion and American culture, and a criterion for critical appreciation of modern cosmology and evolutionary theory.

In coming to terms with the soul—in her description, the “human presence in its mystery and distinctiveness”—Robinson draws upon faith and reason. This is already a conciliatory move on her part in the midst of our cultural divisions. Still, her distinctive combination of faith and reason requires her to critique adherents of each separately, especially in what she deems their shortsighted and/or arrogant forms.

“We live in a time,” she writes, “when many religious people feel fiercely threatened by science. O ye of little faith. Let them subscribe to Scientific American for a year and then tell me if their sense of the grandeur of God is not greatly enlarged by what they have learned from it.” Some carry a religious understanding of the human soul that has “little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life.” One ought not consider souls merely “as saved or lost, [as] having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it.”

By the same token, throughout these essays, she argues against the materialism of  shallow-pate atheists and purveyors of a scientistic version of the world:

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes “soul” would do nicely.

As the foregoing indicates, her mixture of faith and reason is capacious or “liberal” in a fairly complex way, from which one can learn a good deal even if, ultimately, it fails to do justice to its sources.

I certainly concur with her call for people of faith to be open to the genuine findings and plausible speculations of contemporary astrophysics and cosmology. But her saying that the soul is reduced to a dramatic moment of decision by, let’s say, evangelical Christians—strikes me as criticism directed at a straw man, and points to some of her own defects as a liberal Christian. For a Calvinist she’s more than a little shy about speaking of the eternal stakes of the human psychic drama. Robinson needs some of the evangelical soul-worry that she dismisses too quickly, else she is at risk of promoting a Christianity-lite.

She’s better when she turns to the secular side of the aisle and considers contemporary science in its cosmological and anthropological instantiations. In both cases, she convincingly punctures the hyper-rationalists’ pretentions. The twin blind spots she constantly exposes are: their reductionism and their hubristic extolling of modern science as the chief form and norm of knowing. She shows why they fail to see the cognitive value in alternatives, including metaphysics and faith, not to mention great literature.

It’s not an original thought, but it is an invaluable one: too much of science today is a science that is so full of itself that it lacks self-knowledge and measure. Robinson demonstrates this in many areas: cultural anthropology’s view of “religion” as merely naturalistic; evolutionary anthropology’s demeaning view of proto- and primitive human beings despite remarkable evidence to the contrary; and physics’ and astrophysics’ failure to wonder at the paired miracles of a hospitable world in the midst of the vast cosmos and a self-conscious form of life capable of responding as a microcosm and more (that is, as the image of its Creator).

These are illuminating polemics executed with learning and piquancy. It’s instructive to see a thoughtful non-scientist engage with credentialed experts on their own turf. She is also good about showing the contributions that humane letters, especially great literature, make to our understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. Science can make no sense of Virgil’s lacryimae rerum, the tears of things, but classical wisdom and the Bible can.

On the other hand, there’s the dubious stuff. Her mind in important respects is rather too open-ended and she has an unreasonable aversion to “definition.” She prefers the oxymoron, “open definition.” It’s a progressive tic: One must procure not to be pinned down, one must be “inclusive” and open to the new, the emerging, the different.

Tellingly, Robinson opens this essay collection with a lengthy quote from that poet of open-endedness, that bard of the dawning democratic dispensation, Walt Whitman. Any problems in Whitman’s antinomian, anti-creedal, anti-traditional stance go unacknowledged. From Leaves of Grass, she quotes him breathlessly intoning:

All parts away for the progress of souls; All religion, all solid things, arts, governments—all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads of the universe.

She places Whitman in a cohort of like minds—Emerson, Melville, Dickinson, William James and Wallace Stevens—and says that “for all of them, creeds fall away and consciousness has the character of revelation.” The political conclusion to be drawn from her immersion in these great American authors:

To identify sacred mystery with every individual experience, every life, giving the word its largest sense, is to arrive at democracy as an ideal, and to accept the difficult obligation to honor others and oneself with something approaching due reverence. It is a vision that is wholly religious though by no means sectarian, wholly realist in acknowledging the great truth of the centrality of human consciousness, wholly open in that it anticipates and welcomes the disruption of present values in the course of finding truer ones.

A democratized and progressive religiosity is to be preferred to traditional religion, which stands, in (her) contrast, as sectarian and retrograde. And yet, and yet. The “exclusivist or backward-looking tradition” of faith that she stigmatizes would hardly accord with the accounts given by, among others, Mark Noll, the esteemed historian of religion in the United States. There simply aren’t two stark American religious choices, one open and good, the other closed and bad.

It is striking how little Robinson speaks of Catholicism, the Christian denomination par excellence for combining faith and reason (and far and away the largest in America). For her, American religion is largely a Protestant affair. In any event, it is not hard to infer where she comes down on the question of same-sex marriage; nor a surprise that she mouths bromides about Jesus being more concerned with poverty than sex. She wants contemporary Americans to consider adopting the human self-understanding of Genesis 1, but she always fails to note that the divine image was cast as male and female. She might want to read N. T. Wright on the importance of this complementarity in the Bible.

I do not want to be unfair. There are countervailing commitments in her thought, and a number of them tie her to an authoritative past, starting with Scripture. As a believing Christian, Robinson strives mightily to be a faithful and self-aware one. In her case, that means exploring the Biblical and theological sources for Christian liberalism or “liberality.”

Two essays, “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism” and “The Fate of Ideas: Moses,” are particularly conscientious and revealing in this regard. They present her characteristic mixture of insight and progressive myopia. On the one hand, she wants to show contemporary secular liberals that they need not be afraid of Christianity as such, for there is something rightly called “Christian liberalism.” On the other hand, she wishes to address her coreligionists and remind them of their precious legacy. She writes:

Contrary to entrenched assumption, contrary to the conventional associations made with the words “Calvinist” and “Puritan,” and despite the fact that certain fairly austere communities can claim a heritage in Reformed culture and history, Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of Christian liberalism in the modern period, that is, in the period since the Reformation.

Even more counterculturally, she adds that “this liberalism has had its origins largely in the Old Testament.” It would appear that, along with Calvin, Moses was another unsuspected liberal.

She is acutely aware that this is a daring line to try to advance. However, she wishes to argue that “in a general sense it is not only true but a clarification of history important to contemporary culture and to that shaken and diminishing community, liberal Protestantism.” What is at stake is “a model of true social justice and an ethos to support it,” an “ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity.”

And what she writes in fleshing out that argument is, in many ways, a tour de force: a defense of the Old Testament, of its God and its legal code, in both letter and spirit, as solicitous and not just commanding, formative of a “humane” community, and a remarkable conduit of grace; the rightness of Calvin’s holding fast to the Old Testament in the articulation of the Christian faith; and Calvinism’s significant contribution to colonial and “nation-forming” America’s spiritual and moral ethos.

In an apt use of the Biblical image, Robinson says that Moses and Calvin were “old wine” in the new bottles of democratic America. The laws of Moses

establish a highly coherent system for minimizing and alleviating poverty, a brilliant economics based in a religious ethic marked by nothing more strongly than by an anxious solicitude for the well-being of the needy and the vulnerable.

Jewish provisions for “the rights of gleaners and of those widows, orphans, and strangers who pass through the fields . . . all work against the emergence of the poor as a class, as people marked by deprivation and hopelessness.”

As for Calvin the liberal, the verse from Genesis with which he was familiar read: “At liberalis liberalia agitabit, et liberaliter agendo progredietur.” In English: “But the liberal man will do liberal things, and in acting liberally, shall proceed/make progress.” And Calvin’s Christological commentary emphasizing ready assistance to the poor was, she says, “central to his piety and teaching.”

Now for John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop is highlighted as having, like Calvin, proposed a “ ‘modell of Christian Charity’ based largely on the teaching of the Old Testament, that urges a literally unconditional generosity or, to use his word, liberality.” And similar to the Jews, whom she commends for their self-criticisms in the Bible, the American Puritan leader warns that the “city on a hill” being built by his fellow Puritans will be subject to the judgment of God and man, if its denizens fall short of the standards of righteousness, and turn to the pursuit of “our pleasure and profitts.”

In making this stout defense of Biblical, theological, and colonial figures who are not exactly favorites in the faculty lounges, the author reminds us of earlier countercultural American thinkers like Christopher Lasch and Wilson Carey McWilliams, the latter of whom devoted three chapters to the Puritans in his magisterial The Idea of Fraternity in America (1973). She has their “humane imagination,” to use her phrase, even if she lacks their depth.

To be sure, Robinson is aware that solicitude and provision for the poor, the needy, and the stranger are not the sole or even highest rationale of Moses’ law or the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She adverts to “the holiness codes” of the former and the capital punishment for “idolatry” of the latter. Nonetheless, she never tries to see the full logic of the Mosaic “moral regime,” or that of the colony as an ecclesiastical-civil whole. Hers is a selective and useable past, not a full-fledged effort to take in the letter, spirit, and logic of truly theocratic or godly regimes.

Applying her version of Moses, Calvin, and the Puritans in an impressionistic way to contemporary America, to the churches and the wider society alike, she does not do the work of social- or regime-analysis of the sort that Lasch and McWilliams practiced (in their rather different ways). Thus, when she calls for “the government” to be the instrument of this religious ethic, she blithely skirts a host of problems that attend such a proposal, whether problems of principle or practice.

Instead, her analyses are binary: this religious ethic versus free market economics or its “ideology” (if somewhat qualified by vague acknowledgements that “I know that there are numberless acts of generosity, moral as well as material,” carried out by business-owning Americans all the time). There is a certain prophetic power, if you will, to her invocation of the old standards, but they fall well short of enabling useful analysis, much less prescriptions for reform, of either the economic order or the provision of social welfare.

The “brilliant economics” of Moses can only go so far. Perhaps even more important, in terms of Robinson’s overall sensibility, acknowledging human mystery is not, or at least should not be, a warrant for the failure to make discerning, sometimes exclusionary, judgments, including in the domains of morals and politics.

It would be wrong to end on this note, for it fails to convey a proper appreciation of Marilynne Robinson. Her voice in fiction has graced our literature; her essays always stimulate the mind and often enlarge the heart. As a most worthy representative of her point of view, Robinson gracefully reminds us, in the cacophony of the American conversation, that there are better angels of our nature. Her book tells us that the dialogue of faith and reason, which has always engaged the American soul, continues to do so. For that we should be grateful—to her and to the God to whom she directs our attention.

Paul Seaton

Paul Seaton is associate professor of philosophy at St. Mary's Seminary and University.

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  1. Steven says

    I quit reading this piece almost as soon as the author started in with the ad hominems. Here is what stopped me: The author wrote, “Like her hero, President Obama, she is disinclined to be fair to those who disagree with her—social conservatives, Tea Partiers, Republicans, the Right”. (I later read two or three more paragraphs.)

    Wow!! President Obama, a fine, upstanding Christian, is apparently not allowed to even respectfully disagree with your conservative political viewpoint, without being attacked as being “disinclined to be fair” to everyone who disagrees with him. (Not every Christian is a conservative: Obama is one prominent example of a politically liberal Christian.) I think Obama is VERY fair to his political opponents, and listens sympathetically to the viewpoints of all. Do you have evidence to the contrary?

    The fact that he acts on HIS convictions, being unconvinced that your arguments/positions are valid, does not make him unfair to you, or to anybody. He has, indeed, shown himself to be open to rational argument/persuasion. Witness his change of mind about gay marriage. (Just a thought: Perhaps, if YOU want to persuade him to change his mind on some issue, you might work to hone your arguments and gather better evidence. Then you might persuade him. The fact that you cannot seem to persuade him just might possibly be due to weaknesses in your rational arguments.)

    Frankly, this article is an example of what is wrong with public discourse in the United States, today. Just because the author is not “rabid”, like certain outspoken pundits, (left-wing and right-wing), does NOT mean that it is O.K. to slip in **a little bit** of ad hominem attack-language–ever.

    And although this authors attack is “mild”, it is still an attack. You can surely criticize without attacking. We need a Zero Tolerance policy on even mild ad hominem attacks. That’s why I am “calling out” this author, and I think we should all speak out against such attacks. If you want more civil discourse, then BE THE CHANGE YOU SEEK. Let it begin, here.

    As a Libertarian, I want to hear honest, thoughtful, rational argument from all sides. I seek out rational, thoughtful ideas from folks I disagree with. (Otherwise: Why would I have visited this web-site?) PLEASE quit ATTACKING people you disagree with, and instead, show us your **rational arguments**. If I were this author’s professor or instructor, I would red-line the attack-sentence that I quote above, and demand that this paper be re-written. You CANNOT properly make such a broad accusation against the President, (or anyone), without giving specific examples, and making your argument. And I would likewise defend any Republican politician from such an attack, as well.

    You have your religious faith, and I respect your right to not personally have abortions, or take certain kinds of birth control, or even, indeed, to be sexually active outside of marriage. However, you know quite well that there are folks out there who would, in the name of religion or a God, actually support restricting the natural rights of those of us who may want to do things that **you** find immoral. (And the fact that you BELIEVE something is immoral does not, in itself, make it immoral. Nor does “because the Bible says so” count as a rational ground for saying “X is immoral”.)

    The key philosophical issue is: when can the government properly restrict any particular activity that religionists believe to be immoral? To answer that question, consider that the set of “all immoral behaviors” and the set of “all behaviors that violate individual rights” certainly intersect, but not completely.

    In other words: Although MANY immoral acts also are violations of someone’s individual rights, such as murder or theft or rape, etc., etc., there are many acts that you might believe to be immoral, which in fact are not violations of anyone’s rights. Examples: most uses of birth control, most consensual sex–gay or straight– outside of marriage, and most abortions.

    Saying “God SAYS X is wrong” does not **make** X, necessarily, wrong, even if God existed, and had in fact said, “X is wrong!” (In such a case, “because God said so” is an Appeal to Authority and nothing more, EVEN IF GOD EXISTED, and thus “because God said so” is NOT an objective ground for concluding”, therefore, X is immoral”.) That’s why the proper LEGAL standard for what should be illegal must be: “What constitutes a violation of individual rights?”, not, “What do religionists feel, by their faith, to be moral?” A favorite example of mine: You might say it is immoral for me to “Take the Lord’s Name in Vain”, (however you define it). Yet, don’t we all have the First Amendment right to do just exactly that??!!

    Thus, when someone says, “it is not the government’s job to legislate morals”, this is actually exactly right. The things that we atheists would agree should be illegal, such as murder and rape and assaults in general and theft and fraud, etc., etc., HAPPEN to be immoral: but these things are properly held to be illegal activities because they violate individual rights, NOT because they are immoral. (My hypothetical “Taking the Lord’s Name in vain” is not a violation of YOUR rights.)

    Yet, there are actually folks who, in the name of religion, will tell us that it VIOLATES THEIR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM to have to fill out a form, telling their insurance company that they have a religious objection to paying for the portion of a health plan for their employees that pays for birth control. Think of how absurd that is! Imagine, during the Vietnam War, if a religious group of conscientious objectors, receiving draft notices, said that it was a violation of their rights to have to even fill out a form, informing the local Draft Board that they were conscientious objectors. It’s funny that these folks today don’t raise any fuss about paying taxes to fund the killing of people in wars, or by drone, or by capital punishment, but FILLING OUT A FORM to get to opt-out of paying toward insurance for birth control for one’s employee, who MIGHT use birth control, is a violation of rights????? EVEN THOUGH you are getting to opt-out of that which you find morally objectionable???

    If I could have opted out of having to pay taxes to fund the Iraq War, and it only required that I fill out a form to let my moral objection to the war be known, I would have been glad for such an opportunity. Now: If their objection to paying for birth control is sincere, (and not just, “Here’s a way to Grand-stand, and take a poke at our political opponents”), I cannot imagine any reasonable objection to filling out the form. This is one of the reasons that many folks find it hard, sometimes, to take the religious right seriously.

    In sum: If there are rational grounds for your conservative political views, and if you can present your arguments without tearing down the President, then you will deserve to be heard in the public marketplace of ideas. Otherwise: it is better if you simply take down the entire article.

  2. Paul Seaton says

    Dear Steven, thank you for your impassioned, substantive, and lengthy reply. It’s (almost) always interesting to see how what you’ve written appears to others, including the image they conjure up from a partial reading of a blog essay. If I may make one suggestion, since the point to which you took such umbrage was very tangential to my discussion of the essays and thought of Marilynne Robinson, perhaps if you just omitted that reference to President Obama and then read on, you might find some things of greater value. As it happens, I do think there’s more positive than negative in her views, as both the nursery rhyme with which I practically start the piece states and the rest of the essay develops. Better yet, you might pick up a copy of the essays and read them. If you do, you might ask if you find her presentation of those on the right side of the political and cultural spectrum fair, much less generous, as her own poetics requires. The essay entitled “Austerity” would be a good place to start. Thanks, again, for your comment.

  3. Kate says

    Steven, since when does Obama listen with sympathy to his political opponents? Reading the news, seeing what he chooses for executive orders, looking at our political situation, is all the evidence that he does not. How do you know that Obama is a fine upstanding Christian? I do not see the evidence beyond marital fidelity.

    As to the rest of your rant, what does it have to do with Paul Seaton’s very kind essay? I do not appreciate Marilyn Robinson, finding her preachy and tendentious. This essay gives me pause and causes me to rethink my assessment. I am far more likely to pick up this book of Robinson essays than I was before, in order to see what Mr. Seaton sees in Robinson’s thought. I’ll look for her grace. Thank you, Paul.

    • says

      How colossally ignorant can your hypocrisy make you?

      Steven, since when does Obama listen with sympathy to his political opponents? Reading the news, seeing what he chooses for executive orders, looking at our political situation, is all the evidence that he does not.

      Does the beam in your eye prevent you from reading or understanding anything? You are entirely unaware of the non-stop (& childish, if not infantile) obstruction practiced by the Congress?

      Pull your head out of the fairy stories in your Bible & the right-wing media & connect w/. truth & reality.

      • Steven says

        Whatever happened to the Christian virtue of humility and humbleness? Kate does not display the good Christian virtues.

  4. Paul Seaton says

    Dear Kate, thanks for your kind words. I do recommend reading her (although I can see the merit in your characterization of her public commentator voice; I would just say it’s not all of her). She is an explicitly Christian voice that actually gets a hearing in liberal and secular quarters; and she defends the reasonableness of Christian faith in a winsome way, mainly by focusing upon the mysterious reality of the human person and by applying Calvin’s theological view of creation to the universe discovered by modern cosmology and astrophysics. Her critiques of modern reductionisms of various sorts (including scripture scholarship) are enlightening wicked pleasures. But be prepared for a good deal of injustice directed rightward.

    • Kate says

      That last: I have begun three of her books and that is most of the reason I put them down after skipping to the end. That is what I invariably do with books that I am not enjoying; if the end grabs me, I’ll go back and read the whole darn thing to see how we got there. I have never read Robinson’s whole darn thing.
      I was of the Left and Christianity made me conservative. How it doesn’t tie all people back, I never understand. I love social justice. Who doesn’t? It has its reductionists, too, and I think Robinson is one of them. The father in Gilead — maddening. I heard him as Robinson’s voice. Are the essays different from what he said?

  5. Paul Seaton says

    Kate, social justice reductionist is a keeper! May I quote you? With attribution, of course.
    Her voice in this set of essays (she has other collections) is wider ranging than Gilead’s. Depending upon what you’re interested in, her critiques of various reductionisms are quite good; her insistence upon the Calvinist contribution to America worth hearing (although others have done it less selectively); and her general reminder that human beings have souls, are all worth reading and considering. And one thing I couldn’t talk about is that she does a good job of evoking and defending the midwest, especially the upper midwest, from the two coasts’ ignorance and disdain. She has a special affinity for the loneliness of the prairies and hill country, which is very American and somewhat Pascalian (although she doesn’t know, or talk about, Pascal).

  6. Steven says

    Saturday, August 23, 2014

    Dear Paul Seaton;

    Thank you for your civil response to my post. You suggested that I might “perhaps . . . just omit[ ] that reference to President Obama and then read on, [and I] might find some things of great value”.

    Well . . . what I found, in doing so, is that in the very next paragraph of your review, you, once again, attack and attempt to tear down your opponent. You write that, in her book, Marilynne Robinson is guilty of “. . .[c]reating a capital-letter bogeyman rather than engaging honestly . . .”

    HOLD UP! So, now you are saying that Robinson is not even honest! This is poison; and the fact that you sweeten the poison a bit by calling her “so distinguished a writer”, does not change the fact that you are questioning her honesty.

    Granted, your ad hominem attacks are very minor, compared to the nasty attacks that you can see or hear on TV, radio and the blogosphere every day. I am afraid that most of us have become so desensitized to all this, that you don’t realize your own contribution (however small) to the degeneration of our public discourse.

    Look also at the post written by Kate, replying to my original post. Kate writes, regarding my post: “[a]s for the rest of your rant . . .”
    That is offensive!! Minor though the language might be, relative to the nastiness seen daily on TV, the blogosphere, and heard on radio, here is a person who wants me to listen to and consider her point of view, but thinks nothing of writing off my carefully thought out ideas and arguments, as just a “rant”. It is wrong, and this sort of thing needs to stop. And if you are like me, and want to see higher quality of dialogue in the public arena, then please, BE THE CHANGE YOU SEEK.

    My bet is that you may have become so desensitized to uncivil tones, ad hominems, etc., etc., that you don’t “see” it, and you don’t “hear” it, when YOU are doing it. You need someone like me, to point it out to you. (Yes: Liberals and atheists are often just as guilty as conservatives and theists. But you can’t control what others do. You can only BE THE CHANGE YOU SEEK, and set the example for others.)

    You were quick to praise Kate, for her post addressing you, when you wrote, “Dear Kate, thanks for your kind words.” But if you really had understood my point, you would have written to Kate, “When you referred to Steven’s post as ‘your [Steven’s] rant’, you, ironically, illustrated the very tone of incivility that Steven was carefully and respectfully pointing out!” I don’t think that Kate was aware of the irony.

    As for the rest of your review of Robinson’s book, I understand that you feel that Robinson is not fair-minded in her criticisms of conservatives. But if she is not, you could have actually quoted specific passages that you think illustrate her alleged “ungenerosity and rank partisanship”, (as you, in your 2nd paragraph, call it). You MENTION, as an example of Robinson’s supposed “ungenerosity and rank partisanship”, her critique of former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. (I am a life-long Hoosier). Yet, you QUOTE nothing at all from Robinson’s book to illustrate your point. Nothing at all. I believe that you have been unfair to Robinson, here: you TELL us your opinion—your judgment—that she has displayed “ungenerosity and rank partisanship”, but fail to directly quote any actual passage from the book that directly illustrates this!
    How is that anything but unfair, to Robinson?

    In contrast: Whenever I say that some comments from you (and from Kate) are uncivil, I do you the courtesy of giving specific examples, quoting directly from your writing. If you were a college professor or instructor, you would not accept this lack of direct quotes to support the point, from one of your students. I might be willing to accept that Robinson has indeed shown “ungenerosity and rank partisanship”—but if you cannot give direct quotes from her book that illustrate your point, then as your reader, I am in no position to either agree or disagree with you, because I have only your word.

    The deeper issue that divides you and Robinson is not politics. The real issue is much deeper. It is, in fact, the cluster of philosophical issues surrounding “faith vs. reason”. At several points in your review, you bring up this issue explicitly. For example, you mention “her distinctive combination of faith and reason”; and “her mixture of faith and reason”, as well as, near the end of your review, “the dialogue of faith and reason”.

    Whenever you feel like an opponent is not really being ‘honest’, or is being ‘unfair’, in fact, what you assume to be dishonesty or unfairness really in fact might merely be due to unrecognized philosophical presuppositions. If you think about it, issues surrounding “faith vs. reason”, (i.e., what EXACTLY is the proper relationship between faith and reason; “What role does faith properly play in our lives?”, and “What role does reason properly play in our lives?”), are even deeper, philosophically, i.e., even more basic and fundamental, that the question, “Does a god or group of gods exist?”

    Thus, the question of God’s alleged existence is not the most fundamental question that humans can ask. That is because before we can properly wrestle with the arguments and alleged evidence for or against the existence of a god or gods, we must first know that we have a proper standard to judge those arguments, and weigh that evidence. And you cannot know what that proper standard of judgment is, until you first know things like, “Who has the burden of proof: atheists or theists? What, specifically, can we properly accept on faith (if anything)? What is the proper thing to do, if ‘reason’ says one thing, but “faith” says the contrary?” Etc., etc. Thus, issues of “faith vs reason” are more fundamental.

    You and Robinson both are Christians; but I bet that, if you thought about it, you would find that your political differences mask deeper philosophical differences that don’t directly have too much to do with politics at all. I bet that Robinson has very different notions from you, for example, on where the exact limitations of human reason are, versus the exact limitations of faith. (You might ponder that question.) What I mean is: Some of the very questions that philosophers pondered during the Enlightenment, about the exact role of “revelation”, are still with us today; and you and Robinson just might differ on these very issues.

    If you really want to have a chance to change the mind of an opponent, you would do better to work to discern what the deeper philosophical disagreements or presuppositions are. I assure you that President Obama sees himself as a good guy, honestly fighting for what he thinks is right. He surely sees himself as a good, solid Christian. I admire his integrity, even when I disagree with him, and it is odd to me that conservatives who are Christians cannot simply “respectfully disagree”—and treat him as a “Brother in Christ”.

    So, rather than ASSUME that President Obama OR Marilynne Robinson are just “disinclined to be fair”, etc., etc., (the SAME thing that liberals say about the Tea Party!!), focus instead on the deeper issues, the presuppositions. And let’s all keep our political discussions nice and respectful and civil.

  7. Paul Seaton says

    Dear Steven, I wish you the best in your effort to elevate the level of public discourse. As it happens, Marilynne Robinson shares your concern. If you were to read her, you might find something of a kindred spirit, although she does have a broader view and appreciation for the nature and limits of various genres of public discourse. If you do read the collection of essays I discussed, I’d certainly be interested in your informed opinion about her fairness to social conservatives, Republicans, etc., as well as her interesting views on the relationship between Christian faith and modern science and morality and politics. Have a great Sunday.

  8. Kate says

    Steven, desensitized? Maybe, although I am an equal opportunity offender. Paul Seaton is always careful not to offend. Yet in my own defense, I do not consider the word “rant” to be bad or offensive in and of itself. If you didn’t know that your first response to Paul’s essay was a rant, then a little self-reflection might be in order. You say, “I quit reading this piece almost as soon as the author started in with the ad hominems.” Then you rant about the political/religious Right. Just the use of capitalisation in phrases and whole sentences could qualify what you wrote as a RANT in most blogging circles. You hadn’t even read Mr. Seaton’s piece and you mischaracterize it throughout that first response. What is that?

    See, I don’t mind a good rant. I am perfectly capable of ranting myself given the right topic. You wrote with passion. Yet that you wrote was actually unconnected to what you were responding to, as you indicated in that first line and which is evident in what you wrote, seems a little odd to me. Your being offended by my use of the word “rant” as an observation is equally so. Good fellow, you were ranting. Marilynne Robinson is the focus of the essay, not God or the ACA.

    Mr. Seaton quoted Robinson extensively throughout his essay, yet you say he did not. He points you to others proofs in the text by telling you to read the specific essay addressed. You seem purposely to misunderstand what he was writing, which is neither thoughtful nor reasonable. You evidently loathe Christians and are not above railing against them. You do so in both comments here. Man, please, BE THE CHANGE YOU SEEK. In addition, as Paul suggests, read Robinson before jumping to conclusions about her. Try the Bible, too, and even the works of Christian philosophers before you criticise Christians. Free thinkers who speak or write without having all the facts, who are not fully informed, are really not thinkers at all. Though, of course, they are free.

  9. Kate says

    Paul, “social justice reductionist” seemed such obvious truth, I didn’t know that it was not in common use.

    The textbook I use in my classes, in the section on writing and citing, says that we do not have to quote with attribution when quoting from an undistinguished source. That’s me. Adopt the aphorism.

  10. Paul Seaton says

    Dear Kate, once the phrase is uttered, its perfect applicability is obvious. Before that, I knew the thing but not the apt phrase. Nice try at deflecting credit. I’ll honor your request in spirit, but not literally. Happy Sunday.

  11. Steven says

    Sunday, August 24th, 2014

    Steven’s 3rd Post:

    Dear Paul Seaton, and Kate;

    Kate—with all due respect—I find your comments in your last response to me to be, not only unfair, but to also display prejudice. I do not accuse someone of prejudice lightly, or without evidence. Although I am not a Christian, I understand or infer that maybe you are. If so, then consider that you need to repent of the false pride that allows you to respond to my posts without carefully reading them. I will address the issue of prejudice, (which—again—I don’t say lightly), further below. But let me address some other points, first.

    For example, you wrote: “Mr. Seaton quoted Robinson extensively throughout his essay, yet you say he did not.”

    How can you say something like that, if you carefully read my post? I specifically called out Paul for attacking Robinson over Robinson’s analysis of former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. Paul is quick to accuse Robinson of “ungenerosity and rank partisanship”. I—correctly—point out that Paul fails to quote a single passage THAT SUPPORTS PAUL’S POINT that Robinson shows “ungenerosity and rank partisanship”!

    It is irrelevant that Paul quotes “some” passages from Robinson, when my point is that Paul neglected to directly quote a single passage to **illustrate** Robinson’s alleged “ungenerosity and rank partisanship”. I notice that Paul himself has not defended himself against my claim. In fact, Paul failed to directly quote anything at all that SHOWS, in Robinson’s own words, any unfairness or inappropriateness toward any social conservatives or Republicans. We must, in reading Paul’s review, take it on “faith” that Robinson is thus so unfair. If you say, “Just read the book, then you’ll see!” well, that defeats the purpose of writing book reviews in the first place, doesn’t it!? It’s tantamount to saying, ‘I’m going to attack Robinson, without substantiating my claims, and if you won’t take my word for it, just read Robinson for yourself—then you’ll agree with me!’

    That would be asking your readers to do YOUR work, (i.e., the work of the reviewer) for you. I could say, hypothetically: ‘Richard Dawkins has proven that all religion is bunk! Just read his book, “The God Delusion”, and you’ll come to agree with me.’ But what kind of “argument” would that be??? (I would never, in fact, recommend Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” to anybody: Dawkins’ book has examples of the very kind of unfair attacks that I object to in Paul—only MUCH much worse. But if I even wanted to cite Dawkins’ book, in any context, to make any controversial point, I would need to QUOTE something directly, that substantiates my specific point.)

    Any college professor or instructor, grading undergraduate papers, would agree with me, and “dock points” for such lack of specific substantiation.

    You claim, Kate, that, “He [Paul] points you to other proofs in the text by telling you to read the specific essay addressed”. But rational argument doesn’t work that way. You cannot just say, “I am not going to QUOTE any specific passages to prove or illustrate my point. Here, if you just read this, and this, and this, then you will come to agree with me”. If, in fact, Robinson was ever guilty of “ungenerosity and rank partisanship”, it was Paul’s duty to show at least ONE specific example by direct quote. Imagine if I, hypothetically, attacked Mitch Daniels, saying that he is guilty of “ungenerosity and rank partisanship”—yet I neglected to actually QUOTE something directly from Daniels to illustrate precisely what I mean. Daniel’s defenders would be the first in line to say, “Where’s your proof!” and “If you can’t back up that claim with direct quotes, you’d better retract your statements!” And you or they would be right to say that.

    You hate it when liberals attack the Tea Party, or social conservatives, unfairly. Yet, I have illustrated, abundantly, that both Paul and you are guilty of precisely what Paul accuses Robinson of: unfairness to one’s opponent.

    Kate: Please quit with the ad hominem attacks. You hurled an ad hominem attack at me, when you wrote, “[y]ou evidently loathe Christians and are not above railing against them”. Again, with no sense of irony, you illustrate the very lack of civility that I object to. Notice, too, that you go on to write, “You do so, [presumably, “loathe” and “rail”] in both comments here”. Yet, irony of ironies, you accuse me of that, WITHOUT SPECIFICALLY QUOTING ANY SINGLE THING I WROTE THAT YOU THINK ILLUSTRATES YOUR POINT. Any neutral third party, reading these posts, would be scratching their heads, asking, “I wonder what—specifically—it was that Steven wrote, that Kate could possibly be referring to, when she issued a general claim that Steven allegedly loathes Christians, and is not above railing against them”???

    Here’s another example, Kate, of you unfairness. You wrote, “You seem purposely to misunderstand what he [Paul] was writing, which is neither thoughtful nor reasonable”.
    Really??? Irony of ironies (again), Kate, you fail to directly quote a single sentence of what I have written, to illustrate your point, and to thus show any fair-minded neutral party what it is, SPECIFICALLY, that you base your accusation on. I noticed that Paul has not accused me of misunderstanding what he wrote. Perhaps you might, if it is so important to you, just ask Paul if he thinks I misunderstand what he wrote. I bet he would agree with me, not you, on this point.

    In fact, Kate, I went out of my way to illustrate that I did in fact understand what Paul was writing. I restated Paul’s key point in my own words, (in my 2nd post), just to show that I WAS listening to Paul, that I WAS honestly working to grasp what it was that he had to say. So, I’ll say it again: The main point of Paul’s that has been under contention, herein, is that Paul believes that Robinson has been unfair, or too-quickly dismissive, to conservatives: to the Tea Party, to Republicans, even to former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. (I might point out, too, that I identified Paul’s repeated references to the issue of “faith vs. reason”. I give Paul credit for underscoring this key philosophical issue.)

    Paul can correct me, but I will venture to say that he probably does not feel that I “seem to purposely misunderstand what he was writing”; nor has Paul accused me of thoughtlessness or unreasonableness.

    Oh, and you might, too, re-read my earlier posts, particularly the 2nd one, and notice that I freely admitted that it is possible that Robinson just might be unfair to conservatives. I never said that Paul’s opinion about Robinson’s attitude toward conservatives was WRONG: I simply pointed out that (a) Paul was using ad hominems against Robinson and Obama, and that (b) Paul failed to give his evidence—i.e., any direct quote—to **substantiate** his claim of unfairness. And I was careful to show how Paul challenges Robinson’s critique of Mitch Daniels, but fails to directly quote ANY passage whatsoever from Robinson’s book, to PROVE that Robinson was unfair to Daniels. You might notice, Kate, that Paul did not challenge my analysis, either. He didn’t say, ‘Steven, your analysis of how I addressed Robinson’s critique of Mitch Daniels was wrong’.

    Paul went out of his way to find the aspects of Robinson’s book that he could praise, and I appreciate that. However, MY point, which Paul has correctly identified in his replies to me, is the lack of civility that poisons our public discourse. Paul seems to understand that that is my main thesis. I have shown that even good, decent people, (such as I assume both you and Paul to be), can give offense, and thus contribute to the poisoning of public debate, AND YET BE BLIND TO THEIR OWN OFFENSES.

    Paul’s replies to me have been civil. Whenever Paul explicitly (and with specific examples) can show that I haven’t practiced exactly what I have preached, about civility, and about taking my opponents arguments seriously, and giving evidence and argument to back up my position, etc., etc., then and only then will I believe that the issue of MY attitude and approach should be revisited. You are all alone, Kate, in your critique of me. There’s no shame in being alone in your position—if your position is right. But you are in fact wrong.

    Now: Here’s why I call you prejudiced, Kate.

    In your most recent post, you make grand and unsubstantiated ASSUMPTIONS about me. You are not seeing me as a unique individual, but only as a STEREOTYPE. Your whole last paragraph could only have been written, because you have that stereotype of the ranting, unfair, uncivil ATHEIST; the type who is out to mock or offend believers. You want to make me out, in your mind, to be of the same attitude of contempt toward believers as folks like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. That kind of stereotyping of me is as offensive—as PREJUDICED—as the stereotype of conservative Christians as scientifically illiterate Bible-thumpers, who are “clinging to their guns and their religion”. And you would be offended if I displayed such prejudice—if I treated you like a stereotype.

    You seem to have skimmed right over the previous comments where I explicitly say that I find it likewise objectionable when atheists and liberals (or did I say, “Democrats”?) do the kinds of things that I object to in you and in Paul. You did not know that I feel contempt for how certain prominent atheists have belittled religion, and Christianity in particular. For example, there is no justification for Richard Dawkins’ poorly thought out arguments in “The God Delusion”. And, although the late Christopher Hitchens was a brilliant man, in some ways, he was clearly a rank amateur as a philosopher. On simple points of logic, it is easy for any good Christian apologist to debunk his actual arguments. (I would say that Hitchens too often bluffed his way through his debate with William Lane Craig, offering bombastic rhetoric whenever Craig pointed out holes in his arguments. I’m also not much of a fan of Richard Carrier, either.)

    Here’s another reason why I think you have displayed prejudice, Kate:

    You wrote, “[t]ry reading the Bible, too, and even the works of Christian philosophers before you criticize Christians”. My question for you, Kate, is: What possible grounds do you have for ASSUMING that I have not already done exactly that??? What possible grounds do you have for assuming that I don’t know the Bible better than you do? (I’m not implying I do, merely asking why you would ASSUME that I don’t.) What makes you think that I don’t know some of the classic Christian apologetics literature better than you? (Again: I’m not implying I do; merely pointing out your presumptuousness.)

    Only by ignoring my uniqueness as an individual, and insisting on seeing me as a stereotype, could you be so presumptuous. I think that “prejudiced” is exactly the right word.

    In fact, I used to be a believer, when I was younger. I probably read the New Testament 30 or 40 times, straight through; and the Old Testament—not as much, admittedly—but probably 3 or 4 times straight through. If I started naming the prominent Christian apologists whom I have not only read, but whom I have personally met and talked with, it would sound like bragging. I will say, though, that I was “pen pals” for a few years with the philosopher Antony Flew. (I’m not giving away any confidences when I say that Dr. Flew felt some of the same discomfort with the attitudes of atheists like Dawkins, that I do.) You might recall that, before he died, Flew gave up atheism and embraced a form of Deism. (Regardless of what rumors you might have heard, he never “accepted Jesus”, or believed in the Judeo-Christian God.)

    Here’s yet another illustration of prejudice, Kate. You wrote, “Free thinkers who speak or write without having all the facts, who are not fully informed, are really not thinkers at all.” This, of course, is just another ad hominem attack. Beyond just assuming that I am “not fully informed”, you seem to be of the opinion, (and you can correct me if I’m wrong), that if only I were as knowledgeable as you, (i.e., if only I had “all the facts”), that I would come to agree with you: that I would become a socially-conservative Christian, (if indeed you are socially conservative and Christian—I don’t want to presume).

    From your tone, Kate, I think you might not be open to seeking out the more serious minded, thoughtful atheists, (the ones who get out-shouted by the less serious minded Grand-standers, like Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens). But I have carefully, over time, studied the best and brightest arguments for Christian theism, and I have found that every argument for Christian theism can be ultimately shown to be invalid. And while there are some invalid arguments from some atheists as well, there are sufficient valid arguments for atheism.

    A final few paragraphs addressed to Paul:

    Thank you, Paul, for your civility in all this. I know that you hope that I will read Robinson’s book, and come to agree with you that she is unfair to conservatives. It looks too much like one side, in the intra-Christian cultural “Civil War” wants to “recruit” God and make him a good, socially-conservative Republican; while others want to “recruit” God and make him a good, liberal Democrat.

    But let me just point out, that you and Robinson are engaged in a broader debate within the American Christian community, and that, to outsiders, (non-believers), it all seems so minor. One cannot fully embrace reason, and—with full consistency—remain a Christian. (Although I fully accept that you surely feel that your faith is reasonable.) That’s why that whole debate about the proper role of reason vs the proper role of faith is so crucial. (Yes: We in fact are still fighting over the Enlightenment!! The issues are that big!)

    You give away a clue to your philosophical presuppositions when, in your review, you wrote that Robinson “shows why they [the “hyper-rationalists”] fail to see the cognitive value in alternatives, including metaphysics and faith . . .” Of course, “hyper-rationalist” is a pejorative term. And HERE is the very heart of the debate between theism and atheism: attack reason, down-play the validity of reason by calling names—(referring pejoratively to “hyper-rationalists”)—leaving us with “metaphysics and faith” as somehow having “cognitive value”.

    Yes: We are still fighting over the Enlightenment.

    And by the same token, one cannot fully embrace the kind of individualism accepted by our Founding Fathers—and, with full consistency—remain a social conservative. Only libertarianism is fully consistent with that kind of individualism. That’s why, in my first post, on August 22nd, I pointed out that the government’s proper role is protection of individual rights, NOT enforcer of any social conservative’s notion of morality.

    Indeed, social conservatives have funny notions of what is so immoral that the government should step in, and what other immoral behaviors get a “pass”. In your review of Robinson’s book, you write that Robinson “mouths bromides about Jesus being more concerned with poverty than sex”. Of course, when Robinson points something like this out, it’s just a “bromide”, in your opinion. I wish that American conservative Christians spent as much energy helping the poor, as they spend, (many of them), getting worked up over gay marriage. And I don’t see churches liquidating their assets, to raise money to feed the poor—so that the taxpayer won’t have to pay out so much for food stamps. Although there are churches that do quite a bit, I am sure.

    I, as an outsider, was amazed that it seemed that Christian conservatives, including especially social conservatives, were more indignant about one former President’s sexual improprieties, than they were about the next President MISLEADING US INTO A WAR: and war in which well over 100,000 people DIED!!!!! (And that is just a conservative estimate of number of deaths.) It seems that, to social conservatives who insist that they care about morality, intentionally misleading the country about the evidence for WMDs was not nearly as immoral as cavorting inappropriately with a subordinate in the Oval Office. (I’m not excusing the latter behavior, of course.) So, to many conservatives, the guilt and shame and strained marriage, (not to mention, the stained blue cocktail dress), was FAR WORSE than the actions that constituted misleading us into a WAR in which over 100,000 people DIED!!!

    Good luck, both of you.

  12. says

    And you, author!

    Her high intelligence and humane sensibility seem to flee her when she looks to her right.

    Is there the slightest hint of “high intelligence and humane sensibility” on the right?

    Look at what you typed:

    Social conservative concerns for the moral standards and social fabric of the country, reasonable apprehensions about entitlements, the national debt, the injustice of burdening following generations because of our shirking of responsibility, and serious concerns about constitutional infidelity …

    Just once could you hypocrites have a concern for “morality” in the financial & economic sector, rather than limiting “morality” to other people’s sex lives? Not one mention of the current generations who suffer right now because of income theft & inequality, & because of the recession the financial industry brought on us, merely boilerplate about entitlements & generations to come.

    All code for your real concern, perpetuating power & wealth in the hands of the already wealthy & powerful, & hoping some of their scraps fall your way. Are you afraid to admit that? Is that why you cover it up w/ the blah blah blah national debt, blah?

    Essentially, you are nothing but Orwell’s Junior Anti-Sex League (You speak of “liberty”, though virtually everything you want & like denies it to those w/o wealth, & has cheapened the word.) combined w/ a Junior Anti-Tax League.

    You are, in other words, the perfect sheep to be deluded by your paymasters (or scrap-droppers): In high moral dudgeon because others are having the sex, & dedicated to the lies of supply-side economics. Have you noticed the state of Kansas? That cut taxes & regulations thing hasn’t worked out so well for the average citizen of the state, has it?

  13. Dave says

    It is maddening when those who criticize science can’t be bothered to get it right. There are three times as many stars in our galaxy as neurons in our brains at about 300 billion. This seems a small thing perhaps, but I think it is a fair litmus test. Some who means to say something about the brain and mind should at least try to get things right. She can’t live up to the level of a biology undergraduate.

    If her “high intelligence and humane sensibility seem to flee her when she looks to her right” it also does when she looks at science. So it makes one wonder if there is any intelligence or sensibility there at all.

    Wouldn’t it take sensibility and intelligence to take seriously the very well established theory that the brain causes the mind entirely? I’d add some other words as well, like honor, respect, character, and honesty? Wouldn’t these words extend to actually doing a bit of thought to understand the work of neuroscientists who labor by the thousands to understand the brain and to help cure disease. But no, that’s exactly what we don’t get. We don’t get someone who has thought about strokes rendering victims mute or disinhibited or apraxic or pseudobulbar. She might have problems when she looks right, but when she deals with science, she is nothing more than a child, with a child’s discourtesy.

  14. David Rubien says

    It’s always interesting to read an essay that ends up refuting its thesis — this is not generally the approach instructors favor in teaching their students the art of essay writing. Reading this thoughtful appraisal of Robinson makes me want to purchase her collection. I’m curious as to why Prof. Seaton felt need to lead off in such harsh, derogatory and frankly slanderous terms, when this is nothing like the conclusion he reaches. Perhaps in the course of pondering Robinson’s deeply felt and explicated ideas Prof. Seaton remembered the injunction “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

    I’d also point out to Seaton that as someone holding up God’s creation of man and woman in Genesis as a way to dictate our modern mores, he probably should not be criticizing others for excessive binary thinking. As he writes, “her analysis are binary: this religious ethic versus free-market economics or its ‘ideology.'”

    Hmm, sounds like the Pope to me.


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