Calvin vs. Hobbes: A Novelist's Lonely Struggle to Recover the Religion-Inspired Liberalism of America's Founding Ethos

Article excerpt

When I Was a Child I Read Books

by Marilynne Robinson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pp.


"People always ask me if I'm talking about the same thing again," novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson told a crowded lecture hall at the University of Chicago in the spring of 2011. "The same thing" being French Protestant theologian John Calvin and his influence on American history. "And the honest answer would almost always be 'yes.'" Her lecture that day was titled "The Freedom of a Christian," and it traced an idea of freedom to the New England Puritans, the theology of Calvin, and back all the way to the Old Testament. "Freedom," in the language of these foundational texts, "is something we give to one another, rather than something we claim for ourselves," she explained.

Robinson burst on the literary scene in 1980 with the publication of her novel Housekeeping, a story of orphaned sisters being raised by an eccentric aunt in small-town Idaho. Her second novel didn't appear until a quarter century later. Gilead, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2004, was written in the voice of an ailing Calvinist minister in Iowa recording his family history for his young son. Four years later she published Home, a companion piece set in the same time and place as Gilead but from the perspective of different characters. Robinson also produced a volume of essays (The Death of Adam), an expose on the British nuclear industry (Mother Country), and a rebuttal to the claims of evolutionary psychology (Absence of Mind).

The political implications of Robinson's work emerge with particular clarity in her new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books. The force of these decades of speculations and explorations has been summoned with some urgency by the 2008 economic crisis and the punitive responses--on both the populist right and the technocratic center--that have followed. The "language of public life has lost the character of generosity," Robinson writes in the introduction, "and the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical memory."

Words like "generosity" and "largeness of spirit" are not cliches in this instance. For Marilynne Robinson, human life expands or contracts based on how we define ourselves. And the American founding, contrary to the bitter nostalgia of the Tea Party right and the cynical debunking of the postmodern left, was staked on the idea that humans are capable of much more than our contemporary ideologies admit. This great democratic, progressive ambition comes, Robinson claims, from New England Calvinism.

Competing with other, more conservative religious interpretations of America, New England Calvinism spread through the Midwest in an effort to create a culture that was resistant to slavery and came to exert a disproportionate influence on the nation as a whole through educational institutions and revival movements. The legacy of this distinctive religious culture is a large part of what is at stake in contemporary debates over taxes, spending, and the safety net--whether we know it or not.

Throughout her diverse body of work, Robinson tends to return to certain themes over and over again. She treasures and respects the characters in her novels, however dire their flaws. She fiercely resists reductive descriptions of humanity in her essays, whether they come from Freud, Skinner, or Darwin. She admires the radical religious impulses, now typically at least half forgotten, behind institutions like liberal arts colleges, public education, and country churches. Robinson celebrates the noble impulses found in American history and letters, the Bible, modern science, and ancient culture. And she repeatedly extols the virtue of "reverence," a capacity to attend to, learn from, dignify, and defend the natural world and, especially, one's fellow humans. …