There is something deliciously appropriate about meeting Marilynne Robinson in Toronto’s Anglican Church of the Redeemer. Situated within a short walk of the city’s biggest university, the province’s legislature and Canada’s most expensive stores, it’s also home to many of the local poor, marginalized and hungry. The duality doesn’t stop there. This is a church jubilantly faithful in its Christianity, yet also progressive and relevant. That can often be a delicate liturgical dance to perform and requires some intricate theological footwork if it’s to be performed properly.
Welcome to the world of 74-year-old self-described Christian humanist Marilynne Robinson, who has been perfecting that choreography for years, never backing away from declaring her Christianity to the secular class, but speaking truth to conservative Christian power. “A lot of Christian extremism has done a great deal to discredit religion,” she said recently. “The main religious traditions have abandoned their own intellectual cultures so drastically that no one has any sense of it other than the fringe.” Her gifts have made her a world-renowned novelist and thinker, and attracted an audience that extends far beyond the Christian world. The irony is that such a broad appeal sometimes brings her contempt from those who should be closest.
She’s in Canada to speak about her latest book, What Are We Doing Here?, a collection of essays and lectures from the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005, the U.S. National Humanities Medal and, in 2016, the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. Arguably best-known for her 2004 novel, Gilead, she also taught for many years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and came to particular public attention when then-U.S. president Barack Obama, describing her as a friend, quoted her publicly in 2015 with the words, “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”
It’s that association with Obama, and her uncompromising championing of Christianity while rejecting its legalistic, often cruel right wing, that has earned her many critics, even enemies, within the evangelical church. She’s well aware of it of course, and deeply troubled by the political and intellectual environment that creates such a litmus test of purity. In an essay in the new book entitled Our Public Conversation, she warns of the decay of assumed democratic values that we have long taken for granted, describing the new populism as a “sort of utterly corrupted Whitmanism.”
It’s this sort of contrived hysteria, she points out, that made it so difficult for Obama to govern and engage in the way he wanted. “If you call someone a crypto-Muslim or an atheist often enough, then people come to believe it,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s horrible, of course, and untrue. Here’s the point about Obama’s faith – it develops all the time because it’s the mode of his respect for other people. Always respect.”
They had numerous conversations, some of them published three years ago in the New York Review of Books. “We had far more contact when he was in office than now, strangely enough. But I’ve a feeling that something is happening, that there is a wind at his back. Of course, it’s agony to see what is happening now, with our bully in Washington; one thing you have to say about agony though is that when it’s evenly shared it does become easier,” and she laughs. “Trump is considered a friend of the faith, but that’s a farce. It’s about branding and Trump knows that so well.”
The great lie of branding has resonance internationally, with Brexit in Britain, the rise of xenophobic nationalism in Italy and Eastern Europe, and even in Canada with the success of conservative leaders who splash about in the pool of populism and propaganda, often supported by the Christian right. That alliance is embarrassing to thinking Christians and especially to someone such as Robinson. “Yes, this idea that Christians are under siege, and need help because they are fighting against those who would push abortion and gay marriage on them. It’s a kind of cynical appropriation of the posture of authentic minority groups that are under genuine cultural pressure. Geographically, many of the people who are adopting these postures, if they were actually Christian, would be engaging in self-examination relative to the fact that they oppress minorities. It’s very unattractive, very unappealing, very discouraging.” A pause, a thought, and then, said with visible regret: “When I was teaching Scripture, many of the students were very appreciative of the class, but they were embarrassed to be seen walking across campus carrying the Bible, nervous to be seen as cruel-minded fanatics. That’s a terrible position for faith to be in.”
The hand-in-hand love affair between outreach, social justice, orthodoxy and liberalism isn’t in reality a contradiction for the Christian, but the quintessence of a mature faith. Yet, nobody could be blamed if they assumed otherwise. “Of course not,” she says, grimacing just a little. “I don’t blame anybody for having a critical view of Christianity, but I know that the Bible is a living document. I describe myself as a Christian humanist because I’ve a classic definition of humanism. For me, a Christian humanist tries to acquire as broad an understanding of the world as possible, but that proceeds from the confidence that it’s not going to offend against religion but will broaden it.”
It’s a theme she returns to in her writing time and time again, portrayed with a compelling subtlety in her characters, but perhaps more acutely outside of her fiction. To put in bluntly, Christianity is being shamed and libelled by the loudest of its ostensible followers. We both know that. She leans back, considers and then delivers a complete, incisive paragraph of criticism. “To deny marriage equality, for example, is to insult people, but there’s more: Those institutions that deny equal marriage, that are hostile, deprive themselves of any realistic understanding of humanity, of people who want acknowledgement and respect. In that sense, it’s a systemic rudeness, a kind of self-righteousness. And remember, the Bible is countervailing, telling us that now there is neither male nor female, Greek nor Jew.
“I write because I have a physiological need to write, not because I want to convert or please people,” she explains. “Yes, I’m angry at the retrograde business that’s associated with Christianity sometimes, the gospel of prosperity and so on. Horrible, horrible.” So, I ask, is that where original sin comes into all this? She pauses, smiles and refers to her beloved John Calvin, the great Protestant reformer whom she argues repeatedly has been unfairly treated by history.
“He said that original sin is flawed consciousness in effect. Thomas Aquinas felt that baptism rectified all things and enabled reason, but Calvin said it doesn’t. He said that people are brilliant and flawed simultaneously. The denial of respect to another person is theft and sin is injury to another person. I think that’s perfect.” There’s that word “respect” again, that she sees in Calvin down the ages through to Obama.
She sips from a plastic cup of water and as she does so, I speak of Donald Trump and his Christian allies as being so lacking in that very respect toward other people. She puts the cup down and says, “Ah, Calvin. Lived 500 years ago, but knew so much.” And then she smiles, and we leave the church. At the narthex, as she’s about to walk into the roaring mass of afternoon Toronto, three people who work at the Church of the Redeemer, two of them young women, rush up the stairs to meet her. They’re obviously excited and slightly nervous and simply want to shake her hand. That, whatever the finger-pointers will say, is the ultimate good review.