Monday, May 21, 2012

But Only God Can Make an Oaf

[I've continued this post since I posted it last night.]

Marilynne Robinson isn't totally useless, if only to argue with.  Yes, I'm still slogging through When I Was a Child I Read Books, and I'm now in the second essay, "Imagination and Community," which contains this nugget on page 24:
From time to time I, as a professor in a public university, receive a form from the legislature asking me to make an account of the hours I spend working. I think someone ought to send a form like that to the legislators. The comparison might be very interesting.
But you know, lots of people could have written that.  Having delivered herself of one pithy observation, Robinson returns to bloviating.  On the same page:
In fact, we in America have done pretty well.  By human standards, which admittedly are low.
Where will you find higher ones?  Among paramecia?  I suppose she means divine standards, since she goes on to prattle about the importance of "overlapping communities," but first she'd have to be able to find them.
I identify with my congregation, with my denomination, with Christianity, with the customs and institutions that express the human capacity for reverence, allowing for turbulence within these groups and phenomena.  Since we are human beings, turbulence is to be expected ... Those of us who accept a historical tradition find ourselves being burdened with its errors and excesses, especially when we are pressed to make some account of them.  I would suggest that those who reject the old traditions on those grounds are refusing to accept the fact that  the tragic mystery of human nature has by no means played itself out, and that wisdom, which is almost always another name for humility, lies in accepting one's inevitable share in human fallibility [26-27].
The trouble with reverence is that it's almost always selective.  The original Christian reverence, for example, entailed irreverence, to put it mildly, toward "the old traditions" of Judaism and the old gods of the "pagans."  In that respect, as I've suggested before, the scientistic secularists at whom Robinson looks down her nose are arguably the true heirs not just of the primitive Church but of the fire-and-brimstone revivalists of the glory days of American religion.  Like their religious predecessors, they take pleasure in knocking the stuffing out of Man's pretension: You think you're at the center of the universe? Ha! You think you're a special creation? Why, you're just descended from apes!  "The wisdom of the world is foolishness before God," Paul gloated in his first epistle to the Corinthians (3:19), as Robinson must surely know, and that quip doesn't stand alone in the New Testament.  He wasn't just talking about the worldly, but about "the Jews" to whom a crucified Messiah was a scandal (1 Corinthians 1:23).  Humility is in notably short supply in the early Christian writers, as is civility.  The first Christians gleefully threw out all kinds of traditions, which led to their being called atheists because they refused reverence to the old gods, and it wasn't for a century or more that some began to yearn for worldly philosophical respectability, and began mixing Plato into their theology.  Robinson tries to smooth out these little "turbulences" in the service of her agenda, but they're important.

Later in the essay she mentions the social movements of the Sixties, but she doesn't seem to want to remember how disruptive they were, how at odds with the sweet reasonableness and civility and humility she values -- to say nothing of reverence for old traditions.  "Just at that time the great social transformation began, set in motion by Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others, which called into doubt the whole system of discrimination that had governed most lives, not only in America but throughout the world" (29).  Of course those "transformations" had begun long before, and it's no disparagement of Parks and King to point out that they didn't "set [them] in motion" but rode, like surfers, on waves that others had churned up.  For someone who claims to value learning, Robinson is notably and tendentiously ignorant about her subjects.  She really needs to attend to the beam in her own eye before poking at the specks in others'.

My own style of atheism avowedly steals from any older wisdom that looks helpful, whether it's called religious or not, since religion is a human invention, and I am heir to all human cultures, for better or worse.  (So are you.)  I agree with Robinson on the importance of humility, and I think that looking at what other human beings have said and thought and done will make you humble, because it's virtually impossible to find any bright new idea that wasn't thought of someone else before, probably a couple of thousand years ago.  On one hand, my predecessors' feet of clay entitle me to look at their works critically; on the other, they remind me that I'm human too, and as prone to embarrassing error.  Judge (as Walter Kaufmann modified Jesus' exhortation), so that you may be judged.