Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sister Marilynne Explains It All to You

I'm not yet done with Marilynne Robinson, however.  In "Freedom of Thought," the first essay in When I Was a Child I Read Books, she lays down the law on Religion.

Early in the essay, Robinson declares:
But the “physical” in this sense is only a disappearingly thin slice of being, selected, for our purposes, out of the totality of being by the fact that we perceive it as solid, substantial. We all know that if we were the size of atoms, chairs and tables would appear to us as loose clouds of energy. It seems to me very amazing that the arbitrarily selected “physical” world we inhabit is coherent and lawful. An older vocabulary would offer the word “miraculous” [10]
Would it? I’m not so sure. "Miraculous" is a word that has lost most of its meaning, from what I can tell.  (See the quotation from David Hume near the beginning of this post.)  In any case, Robinson falls right into the Shabby Friar’s fallacy here, which marvels that God in his wisdom so arranged matters that rivers and seas were placed adjacent to the larger cities and towns. This is related to the Creationist / Intelligent Design claim that the Creator arranged conditions in the Universe within the disappearingly thin slice of temperature and other physical constants that would enable the emergence of life -- but also to the popular evolutionist image of a series of figures, from Less Advanced (perhaps an apish Cave Man) to Most Advanced (a modern white man, of course).

It might surprise Robinson to know that I agree with her assertion that many critics erase "all evidence that religion has, anywhere and in any form, expressed or stimulated thought", though I don't agree that there's a conflict between that and what she calls the "anthropological bias" that "regards all religion as human beings acting out their nature and no more than that" (12), since acting out our nature seems to me to leave lots of room for development.  And nothing she says begins to make a case that religion can't be explained fully as a human production.
This is the anthropologists’ answer to the question, why are people almost always, almost everywhere, religious. 
Ah, when you concede that “almost,” you’ve got yourself in trouble already, because then you have to explain the exceptions, and Robinson is barreling along too quickly to pause for such trivia.
Another answer, favored by those who claim to be defenders of science, is that religion formed around the desire to explain what prescientific mankind could not account for. Again, this notion does not bear scrutiny. The literatures of antiquity are clearly about other business.
Except, as she admits, when they’re not.  But even when they are, you've got all those literatures with their different gods and their different requirements.  Subsuming all "religions" under Religion won't do, it really won't.
Some of these narratives are so ancient that they clearly existed before writing, though no doubt in the forms as we have them they were modified in being written down. Their importance in the development of human culture cannot be overstated. In antiquity people lived in complex city-states, carried out the work and planning required by primitive agriculture, built ships and navigated at great distances, traded, made law, waged war, and kept the records of their dynasties.  But the one thing that seems to have predominated, to have laid out their cities and filled them with temples and monuments, to have established their identities and their cultural boundaries, to have governed their calendars and enthroned their kings, were the vivid, atemporal stories they told themselves about the gods, the gods in relation to humankind, to their city, to themselves [12-13].
Where do I begin to explain what is wrong with this paragraph? First, I suppose, “religion” is itself an eighteenth or nineteenth century concept, not something that the “ancient” people applied to their understandings and stories and rites. And we moderns haven’t stopped telling stories of gods or Big Men: the US has plenty of them, especially around election time but also in professional sports.

Second, stories are almost certainly far older than the written versions we have, because writing is a very recent invention compared to language itself.  It’s fairly obvious that Robinson is thinking only about the Middle Eastern and East-Mediterranean “religions.” But that was only part of the world and of humanity. Isn’t it miraculous that her picture of human culture and “religion” is able to draw on that particular part of the world, and not China, or the Pacific, or the Australian aboriginals, or the pre-Columbian Americas? God must have wanted her to write this essay.

Finally, even in the part of the world she’s writing about, most people didn’t live in “complex city-states,” which like writing are a fairly recent development. Primitive agriculture predates the city-states. We know that pre-city people also had their stories to orient themselves in the world (or to orient the world around themselves), though of course we know less about them because they weren't written down.

It seems to me that people tell stories for their own sakes, simply because we like narratives.  But like any other form of play, the stories we tell are not something completely separate from the real world: they emerge from our minds, and they are assembled from pieces of the world, however repurposed.  (Coyote in American Indian story, for example, is partly a coyote, with certain human traits projected onto him, just as Bugs Bunny is only partly a rabbit.  And gods are also projections of human traits; only later philosophers try, without success, to depersonalize them and turn them into principles.)  It seems to me that because human beings love and need to find patterns and make connections, we put meanings into our stories, which may be about our kings and our cities but may also be about our next-door neighbor and his wife and children.

Meanwhile, it's not as if people ever stopped telling stories, so it's not clear to me why Robinson stresses the antiquity of those old tales. As I suggested earlier, there must have been still older stories that flourished and faded before the invention of writing, perhaps for thousands of years, and yet are lost to us forever.  We moderns and postmoderns (terms which also allude to myths about the nature of history and time) still have our totems and idols and spiritual beings, and our origin stories that just happen to culminate in Us, the goal toward which creation was always striving.  I’m not sure that the corporate sponsors and logos are any more debased than those of the great kings of antiquity, who may simply look more profound to us now because they’re so distant from us in time. At least some of those great tombs and temples were built to glorify the divine kings who commanded their construction, but who were not more divine than the immortal, invisible Corporate Persons who put their names on stadiums, museums, and other great public works today.  As Terry Pratchett once wrote, wisdom is the only thing that looks bigger the farther away it is.

In Craig Womack's Red on Red (Minnesota, 1999), he writes about the function of stories in American Indian societies, pointing out that when "folk tales" and other oral materials are collected in print anthologies, the use of those stories is lost with their cultural context.  A storyteller in an oral culture tells his or her tale to an audience that is present for the telling, who knows the mythos (or backstory) of the tale; he or she might choose a story or slant the telling to make it refer to contemporary persons or events, but there's always a larger context in which the story is given meaning by the teller and the audience.  For Womack,
I would argue that oral traditions – legends and myths, if you will – performed in their cultural contexts have always been nationalistic and are told for the purpose of cultivating a political consciousness. If one considers the comments of elders telling stories in The World and Way of the Creek People, virtually all of them indicate the purpose of the stories is to inculcate a sense of Creekness in Creek listeners – what it means to form a clan, a town, a nation; their storytelling constitutes an act of Creek survival. Creek nationalism is created through a Creek narrative; the two from an interdependency, not an oppositional discourse. Although Adams is surely justified in critiquing the way “myths and legends” are often used as a diversion from political discussion, this is not an inherent characteristic of the discourse itself. “Legends and myths” might provide strategies for nationalism instead of functioning as a distraction, and this may be more closely linked to their original purpose [61-2].
My disagreement with Womack here is that, on his own account, at least some of those oral traditions are older than European contact, so even if they were 'originally' about nationalism, they would have referred to different enemies in different times.  A story's "original purpose" can't be known, especially in an oral culture where there's no way to record earlier versions and contexts from a hundred, a thousand, two thousand years ago.  A story's "original purpose" is both unknown and unimportant; what matters is what it is made to mean by each teller and each audience.

And then too, none of this is specific to American Indians, as Womack is unhappily aware.  The invading Europeans had their own legends and myths told for the purpose of cultivating a political consciousness and inculcating a sense of what it means to build a nation: Columbus, the Pilgrim Fathers, Pocahantas and John Smith, the first Thanksgiving, the glorious patriots of the Revolution, and so on -- all told and shaped, and eventually written and published, to provide an origin myth for America, the land of the free and the home of the slave.  Anyone who looks at the history of the interpretation of the Christian Bible can see the same process at work: the old stories are pulled and pushed to fit the needs of the moment, some are discreetly ignored, others are brought up front and embellished.  Political candidates in their campaign speeches seek to situate themselves in the glorious story of our nation's history.  Partisans want a version of history taught to schoolchildren that will make them feel proud to be Americans.  And so on.  Stories are still very much part of human communication and connection.

The disagreement isn't over whether to tell stories, but over which stories, how they're to be told, and by whom.  Womack mentions a scholar who "points out an important characteristic of the Creek nation – its tendency to 'swallow up' smaller groups that moved into Creek country (these groups would often become assimilated Creek, most eventually adopting the Creek language)… This 'swallowing up' effect is important because it demonstrates that Creeks were able to view nationalism as a dynamic, rather than a static, process" (30-31).  Am I being unduly cynical if I wonder how this dynamic process was viewed by those who were "swallowed up"?

That takes me back to Marilynne Robinson, who points out that the Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin all "quote the pagans with admiration.  Perhaps only in Europe was one form of religion ever so dominant that the fact of other forms could constitute any sort of problem" (12).  That's a one-sided distortion of the way Christian writers used "the pagans".  (It also conveniently forgets that at about the same time, Muslims were translating the "pagans" into Arabic and learning from them -- indeed, it was through the Muslims that Christian Europe 'rediscovered' numerous pagan thinkers.) The attractive aspects of the old religions they saw much as Robinson says modern secularists see religion: as a primitive, inchoate foreshadowing of the perfect truth of Christ (or Science), just as the parts they disliked were blamed on demonic deceptions or the influence of the flesh.  The tendency she attributes to moderns "to make a sort of slurry of religious narratives, asserting the discovery of universals that don't actually exist among them" (ibid.), isn't new either: it can be seen in someone like Herodotus, puzzling over the different customs and gods they have in Foreign Parts, or in the syncretism that led to the gods of one nation being identified with the gods of others: Venus with Aphrodite, or Artemis with Isis, or Alexander the Great with Ammon.

Robinson's a curious character.  We've all encountered the young iconoclast who's just discovered the different creation and universal-flood myths of the ancient Middle East, or the dying and rising god myths that bear a vague resemblance to the Christ story, and triumphantly declares that Christianity stole all these motifs from the earth-based religions!  Such kids, whose patron saint is C. S. Lewis, are prime material for midlife re-conversions to Evangelicalism, or sometimes Eastern Orthodoxy.  Robinson seems to have taken the next step: having picked up some popularizations of late twentieth-century physics, she's ready to declare Rationality a myth, and Science a parasite on spirituality!  I'll agree with her to a point: scientists and rationalists have their own myths, and their own disinclination to look at the pre-rational roots of their disciplines and methods.  But the flaws in the neo-Darwinian synthesis don't mean that Genesis is a true account of the origin of the world.  As literary company, alas, Robinson is inferior to Lewis, and much closer than I suspect she'd like to think to Francis Schaeffer or his angry son Frank.  As a partial corrective I'd recommend to her Paul Veyne's Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? (ET Chicago, 1988), who's much better-natured and wiser besides:
[R]eason has not won (the problem of myth was forgotten rather than resolved); it was not fighting for a good cause (the principle of “current things” was the bastion of all prejudices – in its name Epicurus and Saint Augustine denied the existence of the Antipodes); and, finally, it was not reason that was engaged in the battle, but only a program of truth whose presuppositions are so strange that they elude us or astound us when we do grasp them. One never possesses a complete vision of truth, falsehood, myth, or superstition, or evidence of them, an index sui. Thucydides believed in oracles, Aristotle, in dream divination; Pausanias obeyed his dreams [74].
 And (131 note 8):
Nor has anyone proved that Zeus did not exist.