Marilynne Robinson and the Absence of a Religious Left

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J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he studies literature and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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  1. Avatar Art Deco
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    The religious left is not ‘missing’ and, if anything, dominates the colleges, the denominational apparat, and the seminaries in just about any confession you care to name outside the Eastern churches, the minority Lutheran and Presbyterian sects, certain Catholic dioceses, the Southern Baptist Convention, pentacostal sects, and a scatter of others. I’m puzzled reading this whether it’s the poster’s disorientation or his subject’s which generates this nonsense.

    While we’re at it, the ‘religious left’ would be those who’ve been suborned by the agents of the cultural matrix in which they live. Ideally, they would be missing.Report

  2. Avatar LeeEsq
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    This might be David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism thesis. Nirenberg argued in his recent book that Western ideologies have always constructed a version of Judaism to argue against even if this constructed Judaism has nothing to do with actual Judaism. Christian liberals who create a false dichotomy between the loving Jesus and kind New Testament against the hateful Pharisees and the hateful Old Testament/Torah are continuing this tradition. They are also adopting a line of argument that existed in Christianity for thousands of years and long before current left or right arguments would make sense.Report

    • Avatar DavidTC in reply to LeeEsq
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      This might be David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism thesis. Nirenberg argued in his recent book that Western ideologies have always constructed a version of Judaism to argue against even if this constructed Judaism has nothing to do with actual Judaism. Christian liberals who create a false dichotomy between the loving Jesus and kind New Testament against the hateful Pharisees and the hateful Old Testament/Torah are continuing this tradition.

      Erm, not really. What has happened is that Christian ‘conservatives’ have decided that God *is* hateful, and are using the Old Testament/Torah as *evidence* of that.

      And the ‘Christian left’ (I think a much better term would be ‘non-hateful Christians’.) are attempting to fight that idea, so ends up arguing that *that* God was hateful, but then became less hateful. Which is…bad religion, but is not Anti-Judaism. Judaism is not even a *part* of that argument.

      It’s actually kind funny, in fact. Most Americans, especially conservatives, think Jews are generally ‘liberal’. (Which is pretty accurate *politically*, although I find it astonishing how much that has become synonymous with certain *religious* beliefs.) So you can get some hilarious cognitive dissonance by pointing out that *Jews* apparently don’t agree with their interpretation of parts of the Old Testament/Torah.

      In fact, as everyone hopefully remembers, I always point out that the Torah does not work the way certain Christians seem to think it does, and you can’t really go sola scriptura there. Because that’s not how the Jews do it, and, presumably, they would know! And Jesus probably would have said something if people were doing it wrong…and in fact, he did.

      Now, this ‘constructed Judaism’ *does* often end up being assumed as ‘Judaism’ in studies of Jesus, I’ll grant that. But I’m not sure there is anyone who assumes that Jews 2000 years ago think the same way as Jews now. (Although I have no idea if that’s what David Nirenberg is arguing, as I’ve never read his stuff.)Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to DavidTC
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        This reminds me of a movie that came out years ago (Holy Crap! It came out in 2001!) called “Trembling Before G-d“. It was about homosexuals in the (or “an”, is probably more accurate) Orthodox Jewish community who were trying to reconcile their faith with their sexuality.

        When I first heard about it, my joke was something like how the sequel would be about Orthodox Jews who loved bacon cheeseburgers. Now? Well, I still think that the joke is funny but I also now know that sexuality probably shouldn’t be reduced to mere appetite and, at age 28, I probably wouldn’t have been able to grasp that concept particularly.

        Anyway, there’s a lot of wrestling within the community even now and there’s room even within Orthodox Judaism to be cool with homosexuality. The Religious Left seems to be doing the Lord’s work here.

        (Be sure to also check out the sequel “A Jihad for Love“, a treatment of homosexuality within Islam. Maybe there is hope for all of us yet.)Report

  3. Avatar Art Deco
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    says:

    The author as described by the poster sounds like a tiresome party of one, and also given to trading in commonplace observations as if they were original insights.Report

  4. Avatar Francis
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    says:

    “The hallmark of this belief … is doubt.”

    I disagree.

    If Christians in the country actually had doubts about their faith and the intersection of their faith with politics, as opposed to merely claiming that they have such doubts, the last few weeks of activity in the Governors’ mansions across the Old South would have had a very different outcome.

    It’s funny. I was raised strongly Episcopalian, then (a) lapsed and (b) got much more interested in science when I had to start hiring scientists and engineers as part of practicing law. From what I’ve seen, the doubting mind these days is far far more likely to be found among scientists (whether secular or having faith) than among just about anyone else (including SoCons like R Dreher).Report

    • Avatar Art Deco in reply to Francis
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      says:

      If Christians in the country actually had doubts about their faith and the intersection of their faith with politics, as opposed to merely claiming that they have such doubts, the last few weeks of activity in the Governors’ mansions across the Old South would have had a very different outcome.

      How?Report

      • Avatar Francis in reply to Art Deco
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        says:

        For example, someone who has doubt about the scope of Christ’s message about love could be expected to be more tolerant of those who have found love in same-sex relationships and who have formed same-sex marriages.Report

        • Avatar Art Deco in reply to Francis
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          ‘Tolerant’? That’s not what’s at issue. Movement evangelicals and Una Voce Catholics tolerate all manner of things. What’s at stake is what sort of legal recognition and the claims various parties can make on employers, landlords, and governments.

          Leaving aside the sugar plum sales pitch re male homosexuality or lesbianism, the communicant who’s immersed in Bible studies (in an evangelical congregation), or a portfolio of materials (in a Catholic Church) is not likely to use the term ‘love’ (which refers to a multiplicity of phenomena) as if it were properly summarized in the usage your employing.Report

  5. Avatar LeeEsq
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    If you read the Jewish Bible without a Jewish mind than Hashem comes off as an authoritarian with some moments of tenderness. Even if they aren’t really that religious or learned most Jews have inherited something of the Jewish way of looking at the Jewish Bible that was developed over thousands of years. The first Christians looked at the rituals of the Jewish Bible and saw useless things to be disregarded because they wanted to live in simple holy communities. Something of this ideal remains even as Christianity grew more complex and people grew more secular. The Pharisees thought this was nonsense because to them the ritual laws reinforced the ethical laws and maintained the specialness and separateness of the Jewish people. Plus God said so, so you have to do it.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to LeeEsq
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      says:

      G-d comes across as a vengeful, nearly spiteful thing.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Kim
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        says:

        “You shall not deal harshly with any widow and orphan” or “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” or the entire book of Jonah, where I think God is at is most compassionate in the entire Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cannons, and many other sections show a Hashem that is full of love and wonder. He frequently extols Israel to choose life over death and peace over war. In other parts of the Tanakh, God is fiercer and harsher but you can still see that God works for ethical purposes.Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to LeeEsq
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          G-d orders genocide, dear. It’s hard to make that ethical under any circumstances.Report

          • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Kim
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            says:

            And Christ damns you to hell forever for not believing in him. People still love him for some reason.Report

            • Avatar Art Deco in reply to LeeEsq
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              says:

              Dum de dum de dum de dum.

              The understanding in the main body of Christian though locates justification with belief and extends salvation as a consequence of Christ’s atonement. It does not compel people to take up the offer. One is saved by seeking and maintaining states of grace, something which is not absolutely precluded absent belief but something one does not expect without it.Report

            • Avatar DavidTC in reply to LeeEsq
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              And Christ damns you to hell forever for not believing in him.

              No he doesn’t.

              Here’s a fun piece of homework: Find a single version in the bible that says that non-believers end up in a place of eternal torment. Because there’s not one.

              In fact, here’s the only two places in the bible (Well, plus Revelations, that’s complete gibberish.) that mention some sort of torment after death:

              Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ -Matthew 25:41-46

              ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’ -Luke 16:19-31

              To summarize, here is how to get sentenced to ‘hell’ (Assuming such a place is real and these aren’t *parables*, which, uh, they are.) according to the *actual Bible*: Do not feed and cloth the needy.

              That it. That’s the only way to end up in Hell, according to the Bible. Do not feed and cloth the needy. End of story.

              (Revelations 20:11-15, if anyone cares, says that ‘all were judged according to what they had done’, but does not spell out what that might be. But belief does not appear to be any aspect of it.)Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to LeeEsq
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      says:

      without a Jewish mind

      I.e. with a goyisher kopf.Report

  6. Avatar Saul Degraw
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    says:

    There is a religious left but it often seems to be dominated by Christianity as you note and views things through a Christian lens. This is very difficult to do when the left broadly views respect for the dissenting view and freedom of consciousness as being important. The Christian Right at least can be more honest about their feelings on non-Christian religions.

    One thing I have heard is a fairly common thought/expression in Evangelicalism is “Religion is man’s search for God. Christianity is God’s search for man.” I can’t tell you how off-putting and assuming I find this phrase to be. There are plenty of people on the left who are sincere and practicing Christians but it does require a lot of side-stepping of hundreds of years of Christian thought on whether one needs to believe in Jesus or not to avoid hell.Report

  7. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    The Religious Left is post-Christian and they reserve the term “religious” for the hillbillies who still talk about “Jesus” using more than two syllables.Report

    • Avatar Art Deco in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      The hillbillies in question are commonly suburban dwellers who do things like sell hospital supplies and insurance for a living.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      A bit unfair, no?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      I rather imagine that one of the most useful religious tools is the whole “You Will Be Judged” thing. Not necessarily in an afterlife, mind. Just that there is a measure, this measure is an objective (to God, anyway) measure, and you *WILL* be held up to it.

      In the absence of a deity, the judgment seems to have been replaced by something similar to twitter. Which kind of removes the whole “aspirational” component from the equation, leaving only the part where people want to avoid the stick.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird
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        says:

        Thinking about this some more, I’d say that SJWs are obvious next steps in the whole religion thing. Cultural enforcers who do their best to convert the heathen, purge the infidel, and otherwise make sure that their religion spreads better than other religions.

        I admit to thinking that Christianity Without a Deity is doomed to failure but, so far, it seems to be taking off. My suspicions about, say, moral nihilism or being torn apart by internal contradictions haven’t really come to fruition. (YET! the back of my brain yells. YET!)Report

        • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Jaybird
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          says:

          I’d say that SJWs are obvious next steps in the whole religion thing.

          Are they different in kind from neoreactionaries? Or any other contemporary-with-historical-roots ismatologists?

          I think it’s all just a bunch of people latching on to something to believe in*, myself.

          *Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Stillwater
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            I don’t know.

            Neoreactionaries tend to idealize some variant of something that already happened. “You know the Pre-Vatican II Catholic Church? We should do that!”

            And then they get surprised when the Priest is facing the wrong way or something. “ENGLISH! DO YOU SPEAK IT???”

            The SJWs, by contrast, want to do new things. Through happenstance, sometimes these new things happen to overlap somewhat with old things that were abandoned as part of progress in the past. (See, for example, some of the attitudes that get called “neo-Victorian”.)

            I suppose that both are yearning for an idealized version of something, be it the past or the future (and both are wearing rose-colored blinders that prevent them from seeing that they’re a lot more likely to get an actualized version of it) but it feels different in kind.

            There seems to be a lot of similarity in degree, of course.Report

  8. Avatar Chip Daniels
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    says:

    Marilynn Robinson sounds like she is striking some of the same note more fluidly and eloquently) as I have been recently (not surprisingly since I am one of those religious leftists)

    Namely that the fixation with rights as ends unto themselves is meaningless, and that the proper goal of politics and theology is an enlargement of the human spirit and an embrace of generosity.

    I would agree with the assertion that in the absence of generosity politics becomes overtaken by fear, and that this can’t possibly yield a good outcome.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Chip Daniels
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      says:

      @chip-daniels

      “Namely that the fixation with rights as ends unto themselves is meaningless, and that the proper goal of politics and theology is an enlargement of the human spirit and an embrace of generosity.”

      How do you propose to do so in a religiously neutral way? One of the big things I have noticed about religious leftists like Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is that they have the same assumptions on the centrality of Christianity as the right-wing theocrat fundies but sort of know that this is a no-go for left politics in general. Why should non-Christians be required to view things from a Christian point of view?

      I also am starting to grow tired at a lot of politics for being inchoate and this is on the left and the right. There is a lot of vague spiritualism on the left and railing against hyper-consumerism with the idea that we are all being driven miserable by a small cabal of evil, elite, corporations who compel us to compete for material goods. I find this probably wrong. What if most people just like material goods because they like the idea of a comfortable life instead of spending 12 to 14 hours of backbreaking labor in the fields?

      I don’t get the nirvana fallacy that the far left and the far right has for rural/pastoral living and wanting everything to be like the Shire.Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Saul Degraw
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        says:

        True enough, that we tend to see the world through our own parochial perceptions.

        I don’t know that there is any such place as perfect neutrality.

        The premise that humans possess rights is just a secular creedal statement, supported by nothing but faith.

        I suppose the closest we can get to neutrality is consensus, where everyone’s views get a fair and equal hearing, and everyone walks away feeling like they got a deal they can live with.Report

        • Avatar Murali in reply to Chip Daniels
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          says:

          everyone walks away feeling like they got a deal they can live with.

          @chip-daniels

          I’ll make a Rawlsian out of you yet!

          That last bit can be seen as the essence of liberal neutrality. So, if you achieve neutrality, you’ve got something everyone can walk away feeling like they can live with it and vice versa; when everyone can live with the terms of cooperation, you’ve achieved liberal neutrality.Report

  9. Avatar Chip Daniels
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    says:

    Since the “Religious Left” is a bit mysterious, here is what I mean by the term-
    People like Jim Wallis, Richard Rohr, , Pope Francis, and Fred Clark at Slacktivist.

    I mean, if we are going to be talking about them, lets at least get some clarity.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Chip Daniels
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      says:

      @chip-daniels

      This is part of the problem. You picked only Christians. Why not include Jews? Hindus? Buddhists? Muslims? Wiccans? Etc.?Report

      • Avatar Chip Daniels in reply to Saul Degraw
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        says:

        I consciously only picked figures I am aware of.
        I know there is a longstanding Jewish left, I just don’t have enough familiarity to start bandying their names around.

        It would be like a white rapper sporting dreadlocks, and you know how those SJW bullies get!Report

      • Avatar Art Deco in reply to Saul Degraw
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        says:

        Why is that a problem? Leaving aside Mormons, minority religions comprehend maybe 4% of the population. I doubt you’re going to find many Muslims in the religious left (as opposed to the cultural-political left). Are Hindus and Buddhists qua Hindus and Buddhists politically engaged at all? As for Wicca, it may be a business or an affectation. It’s not a religion any more than Kwanzaa is.Report

  10. Avatar Jon Rowe
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    says:

    If one is interested in scholarship that supports the economics the religious left may wish to endorse, Eric Nelson is doing some cutting and reliable research. I blog about it here at my other blog.Report

  11. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    It would be appropriate for the Religious Right to express some empathy for the Pharisees, as they were a group of traditional believers who are unfairly and ignorantly demonized by an unsympathetic mainstream media. I am not, however, holding my breath.Report

  12. Avatar Jesse Ewiak
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    says:

    The thing is, yes, if your definition of “The Christian Left” only includes academics or people who post a lot about faith on the Internet in a progressive way or get to write articles for magazines or newspapers and your sympathies are of a more old fashioned sort, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

    But, there’s still plenty of I guess you could call it, Old Testament based liberalism on the Left. It’s just going on in Catholic dioceses in Arizona, old Baptist churches in North Carolina, and probably even some Lutheran congregations in Midwest somewhere.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Jesse Ewiak
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      Plus, the role of the predominately African-American churches in ‘the Religious Left’. And the still open question of where the increasing number of Hispanics that are converting away from Roman Catholicism will wind up politically, as their kids get to prime voting age.Report

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