Marilynne Robinson talks religion, fear and the American spirit: "The left, at a basic level, lost courage, because they don’t know how to deal with the proclaimed religiosity of the other side"

Exclusive: The brilliant American writer and thinker on God, capitalism and our fearful democracy

Published January 3, 2016 3:30PM (EST)

Marilynne Robinson   (Reuters/Dylan Martinez)
Marilynne Robinson (Reuters/Dylan Martinez)

It makes sense that Barack Obama would describe Marilynne Robinson as one of his favorite novelists. Like a great politician, Robinson has a knack for making the small details of American life seem freighted with cosmic significance.

Unlike a politician, Robinson works in a lonely profession, and in person she’s reserved—warm but quiet, with a ready laugh. She speaks fluently and frankly about topics that few Americans, let alone public figures, would touch with anything besides platitudes—theology, Calvinism, metaphysics, and redemption; the nature of grace and sin. She is decidedly left-wing in her politics, and unabashedly theistic in her worldview.

Robinson teaches at the University of Iowa's Iowa Writers Workshop. She has won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (for her 2005 novel “Gilead”) and a National Book Critics Circle award for “Lila,” which came out last year. In September, Obama interviewed her about her work, in a wide-ranging conversation subsequently published in The New York Review of Books.

In a new essay collection, “The Givenness of Things,” Robinson touches on everything from neuroscience to the New Testament. She seems as comfortable talking about physics and philosophy as she is discussing God or capitalism. The collection includes a powerful essay on the role of fear in American political discourse, a recurring concern for Robinson in recent years.

I met Robinson in a hotel lobby in Atlanta, where she was receiving an award from the American Academy of Religion. Over coffee, we spoke about fear, faith and why Moses would have advocated for retail workers.

You’ve argued that there is something about the quality or timbre of fear today that has changed. What’s different?

I think it is probably compounded of a number of things. There are changes that make people feel that they cannot anticipate their futures. I think it is a tendency of anxiety—a way of comforting it—that you focus it on some cause, even if you have to invent the cause.

What’s the source of this uncertainty? Is it economic?

What the economics of the moment argues is that no one owes [workers] any loyalty. If someone else is cheaper in their circumstance, they can assume they will be dismissed. If you are persuaded that no one owes you any loyalty, that means that ethical barriers are down. And that is a frightening thing to believe.

Also, I think there are fear hobbyists.

What’s a fear hobbyist?

Somebody for whom fear is a stimulus. The emotional current that used to run through late-night movies now runs through television news. People get addicted to this kind of anxiety. And this leads to extraordinary behavior in so many cases. People are holing up and making bunkers for themselves. It is so bizarre.

I think one of the things that is true of Western civilization now is the huge disequilibrium between the day-to-day comfort that we feel, and the threat that we know is based in reality.

It does feel like the safer we get, the more scared we get.

We have lost the feeling that we have leverage. The safety of our ordinary lives does not tell us how to respond to any of the disruptions that we know could happen. That is a free-floating anxiety that people try to channel into owning guns, or whatever.

There have been John Birchers, McCarthyites—what’s different about this contemporary kind of fear?

It definitely owes heritage to those movements. Partly because of Fox News—the commodification of anxiety and hostility through media—it feels much less contained as a phenomenon than the Birch Society, for example.

You focus on fear coming from the political right. I think it’s on the left as well, though. Anti-vaxxers come to mind.

Everyone is prone to fear. It is one of the things we have to watch out for as human beings. But some people buy guns. And I think that is disproportionately on the right[-wing] side.

During the protests at Yale, Missouri, Occidental and other universities, the protesters’ arguments were often framed in the language of safety. In other words, the justification does come from fear—which may be warranted, of course. But do you think this maps onto the same spectrum?

Well, I think there was a time when fear was sort of associated with cowardice, and to entertain it was not considered a handsome behavior. That barrier is gone, which is not to say there is no reason for fear. It is to say that there is a great value in keeping fear in perspective.

There is a kind of hypochondria, and people are fascinated by their symptoms. Fear hobby-ism does not have a political party.

Do we have the language to censure fear?

It has been done in the past. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But people assume that a great deal is not possible, and therefore make no attempt, and perpetuate whatever it is that they dread.

What’s that possibility that people aren’t seeing?

People, spontaneously and in overwhelming numbers react well to what is gracious, to what is positive. Very little in contemporary culture appeals to that. We enforce prejudices, in fact. We enforce fears. We’re saturated with the artifacts of our own making.

I am not an expert on Central America, but we know there were cultures there whose art produced things that were very scary, and that seemed to eventuate in practices that were equally scary. I think we’re perhaps pushing ourselves into the direction of something like that.

Where do you notice this fear?

It takes political expression, like reducing voting rolls. And these are more insidious than open carry laws. I see it in the horrible, horrible language that is used in immigration.

I am old enough to know that this country has a history of generosity. And generosity seems like a terrible risk for fearful people. The continuing restraints on traditional policies of generosity, like immigration, are a reflex of fear.

The language of competition tends to cut against that language of generosity.

Absolutely. It generalizes fearfulness. It makes it very abstract, but very real.

In your recent conversation with President Obama, you criticized this rhetoric of competition, which is used across the political spectrum. That was the one point where Obama seemed to get a little nervous.

I think he and I probably have some disagreement there, but he wasn’t there to have me say amen, amen.

You write sincere books. What does it mean to be a sincere novelist?

I don’t know, I’ve never been called that before.

You’ve never been called that? Okay, am I totally misreading you here?

I tend to mean what I say. I think there is a self-protective impulse that takes the form of cynicism very broadly in the culture now. You make yourself vulnerable by suggesting that there’s anything you actually believe in.

People talk about American values. Yes, there are American values, things like democracy and generosity and so on. If we cannot say that these things are possible or characteristic, we don’t have them to orient ourselves by.

How do you speak to that value, then?

I think that value is very strongly associated with aesthetics. I think you can make the case by making a beautiful argument.

So this is a “beauty is truth, truth beauty” kind of situation?

There’s something to that, but caution is always required. We have meretricious beauty that shows up from time to time. Although I must say now, if one were to point at this sort of glacier of fear that seems to be creeping towards the culture, it has produced nothing beautiful.

Fear has its own aesthetic, though, doesn’t it? There is a taste for it that you can develop.

Yes, but so is there for heroin. It’s a stimulant. There is nothing that fills you with adrenaline like being scared.

And conspiracy theories do look like fun. “This is my clubhouse. We have a secret signal!”

Exactly. No question.

Shifting topics: Why do there seem to be so few religious novelists?

I think there are lots of religious novelists who don’t write novels that are inflected with religion. They are following the conventions of the art, which are highly honorable. I think they have an anxiety, which is also perfectly honorable, about seeming to write to an exclusive readership.

I don’t think that’s necessary. When Bernard Malamud wrote from the perspective of Judaism, I don’t think anyone felt excluded. They just felt engaged by a perspective they might not have had access to before. It has not been my experience that my explicitly religious novels isolate one readership. They’re translated into Arabic, Persian and other languages. There is something about religion that is shared across these historical boundaries.

Often people are very carefully secular because they think that that will make them the intermediate person between religions—that they will excuse themselves from being sectarian. In fact, if they explored their religion in good faith, they would find that they have crossed boundaries, not created them.

Do you believe in a prophetic voice that continues to be active in society today?

It should be. If you look at the prophets, in great peril and great isolation, they speak for the vulnerable. The whole social order—the legitimacy of the king, the righteousness of the social order—is judged by attentiveness to the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor.

Where would that prophetic voice come from?

It should come from any faithful person.

Why do we associate faith with the right wing so much more than the left?

Because they talk about it all the time.

So why doesn’t the left talk about it?

I think that somehow the left, at a basic level, lost courage, because they don’t know how to deal with the proclaimed religiosity of the other side, even though who doesn’t know that the Bible forbids grinding the faces of the poor? It takes Bernie Sanders, bless his heart.

It’s funny you bring him up—Sanders doesn’t talk about his beliefs much, but he seems to be the closest thing to an atheist candidate that we’ve had in the modern era.

But he preaches, and he understands the burden of prophecy.

Do you think of yourself as a radical?

I don’t know. All of these terms have been inhabited by people and taken on.

Okay, maybe a better question: Who or what would you consider radical?

I consider myself a radical more or less in the sense that Bernie Sanders considers himself one--i.e., I am old enough to remember that we were not always like this. If radicalism means going back to roots, we have very strong roots for things that are done to benefit society.

I consider myself way more conservative than conservatives, because I want to eliminate the implied religious qualification for office. I want to return to the legitimacy of the idea of the general welfare, which the Supreme Court has approved under Roosevelt. You have to have lived through things to know that this is a deviation and not a restoration, this conservatism that they talk about.

It can be hard to have any kind of conservatism without fearing the future—without giving in to a reactionary narrative.

It’s hard now. If you go to the Herbert Hoover library in Iowa, he is quoted at length saying that his dream is to establish a national health system.

Hoover, who is now the namesake of a conservative think tank.

Things that are being presented as departures—radicalizations—are absolutely not. They are a part of the continuity of our history.

There’s this narrative of an individualistic frontier past, though.

I was the fourth generation of my family in the far West. [Robinson grew up in Idaho.] If you look at the settlement of the far West, it often is religious communities—Hutterites, Mormons, and so on. All of these people are profoundly associated as a social group, and look after each other as a social group.

I was brought up to be individualistic, but that meant I was not supposed to exploit other people. I was supposed to be self-sufficient in that sense. But that didn’t mean you ignored the needs of other people.

As a Jew, I sometimes feel that Christianity—Protestantism especially—seems very individualistic in the way it talks about salvation. My religious experience is that you can’t even begin to say certain prayers without having 10 adults in the room. Jews rarely talk about individual salvation. We confess our sins as a community.

Is there an individualism to this Protestant vision of salvation? What do you make of that?

I was at a religiously oriented convention, and a man was celebrated as a hero of this local religious tradition, because he had said, “Christianity has been treated as a soup and soap religion, when in fact it should be a religion of individual salvation.”

Soup and soap?

Soup and soap means looking after the widow and the orphan.

It’s about my soul—

Exactly, exactly. And I think they were marking a certain turning point in the ethos of Christianity in that region. The word salvation is very rarely used in my tradition, perhaps never. It’s like sin. Calvin himself, my saint, says in this letter that defended Calvinism, “Excessive concern of the salvation of one soul is insipid.”

What is Protestantism without individual salvation as a focus, then?

For one thing, there’s a whole range of Protestantisms. Protestantism is tradition; the assumption that reality is intrinsically visionary; that it expresses a continuous demand by God of the perceiver; that the course of life through the world is one of being schooled, in effect. You can see this in Melville, or somebody like that: the vision, the collapse of the vision, the new vision, this sort of thing.

“A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”*

There you go. [Laughs] It’s the assumption of an utterly pervasive sacredness. The human mind being both capable and incapable, simultaneously, of perceiving the nature and the meaning of what is available to perception. Nothing more significant, in that regard, than the human Other that one encounters.

Is democracy the political form that best meets this vision?

By my lights it is.


Because it assumes the sacredness of any other, in a human being. It assumes the direct, very powerful relationship between any human being and God, whether that human being is aware of it or not. It’s a huge investment in respect for other people, because you assume that God respects them, and a huge assertion of their value that society should accommodate.

If you read that famous speech on the Arbella by John Winthrop—

The “city upon a hill” speech.                             

If you read it, you’ll see it’s a need of the community to provide liberally for the members of the community, with a great sense of the vulnerability of the community, of course. Every society is vulnerable, in one way or another, and the obligation is the same.

To face that vulnerability—

—and to realize that the general welfare means that you cannot really prosper, in any good sense of the word, if other people are failing.

Do you think America is a nation of destiny?

We could be, I think. One of the things that is striking to me when I’m in Europe is the degree that they do look to us, often with alarm.

Just as one example: We have created ourselves as a profoundly diverse society and, by their lights, have done it amazingly well. This looks to them like a model. To the extent that we indulge ugliness around these sensitivities, they look to us with alarm, as meaning this is not to be done. We really, really ought to take more responsibility for how the world can perceive us.

When is America at its most beautiful?

There are things that for me that are great centers of value and beauty—one of them being the American university.

[Universities] express an American idea of possibility. The state universities are formative; they are amazing. Any 18-year-old can walk up to a campus and have a whole array of human possibility—from being a violinist to being a nuclear physicist.

You go to little tiny colleges in tiny places, and there’s the Shakespeare. People teach there because they love the place. There they are, writing beautiful poetry. These little schools in Iowa, little Calvinist colleges, they send their people to Juilliard. They’re fountains of cultural wealth. What is a society for?

There are so few writers with a national stature. Just as we have a local food movement, is there a local literature movement?

There is! It’s there. I went to a literary festival in North Dakota. There were rooms with the tables covered with local literature—studies of Native Americans by Native Americans, the local geology—there’s this huge attention of literary love of that environment. Nothing you would ever find in your bookstore.

The country is so big, and it’s as if we have this funny tendency to simply imagine that—you know, it’s the old joke—you cross the Hudson, and then you’re just in the arid wasteland. It would do this country good to have a better sense for what it in fact is. That it doesn’t just turn into blubbering idiots.

I feel like that self-perception is so hard. We have 320 million people. It’s an incomprehensible number. There’s no one event we all go to, there’s no one thing we all read or watch.

I think that one of the things that really would make this a healthier country: more time off. I think we should restore the weekend. The reason we can’t have the weekend now is because everybody works all the time, and can only do their shoe shopping or whatever on Sunday.

There should be an acknowledgement of the value of private time.

The weekend is originally a religious concept.

It was one of the reforms that were carried out on a religious banner. If you read the Ten Commandments—both versions—it says that your animal can rest. Your maidservant and manservant can rest. You are prohibited from exploiting someone else’s time during the time.

There’s a lot of talk about slowing down, though. You can open up any lifestyle magazine in the line at the grocery store, and there’ll be some article titled “10 Tips for How to Unplug,” or whatever.

We cannot, by ourselves, defend our time. It has to be done at a social scale. Moses was right about that.

In order to give people enough time, the thing is to raise the minimum wage. If you look at the Bible, if you cannot be exploited one day in seven, since everybody worked for subsistence, you make seven days of subsistence for six days of work. So it becomes a subsidy.

You find yourself at your drugstore on a Sunday. Who’s there? People have no choice but to stand at the blessed cash register. Moses would’ve protected those people.

By Michael Schulson

MORE FROM Michael Schulson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Books Editor's Picks Marilynne Robinson Religion