Story, Culture, and the Common Good

An interview with Marilynne Robinson.

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson is an award-winning and much-beloved novelist and essayist. She has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005, the 2016 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, and the National Humanities Medal in 2012, awarded by President Barack Obama for “her grace and intelligence in writing.”
Cherie Harder
Cherie Harder serves as president of The Trinity Forum, and prior to joining the Trinity Forum in 2008, Ms. Harder served in the White House as Special Assistant to the President and Director of Policy and Projects for First Lady Laura Bush. Ms. Harder has contributed articles to publications including Policy Review, Human Events, Harvard Political Review, and various newspapers.

This interview took place on Friday, July 24 as part of a series of events hosted by the Trinity Forum. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Cherie Harder: It seems an especially fitting time to discuss story, culture, and the common good when our shared sense of the common good is challenged; our common culture is increasingly marked by divisiveness, anger, and alienation; and many of our public conversations are tarnished by snark and by ugliness. The writings and works of our guest today stand as a powerful and poetic challenge to this fractiousness and offer an illumination of the beauty of the ordinary and fallen world. They stand as a summons to think more deeply, see more charitably, and accept the invitation to wonder, mystery, and grace.

Marilynne, it is a delight to have you here.

Marilynne Robinson: It’s a great pleasure to be here.

CH: It seems that one of the recurring themes of your work is beauty. There is an element of both reveling in and revealing the beautiful that seems to characterize so many of your novels. But you recently wrote, “Beauty, as a conscious element of experience, as a thing to be valued and explored, has gone into abeyance among us.” Why do you believe that the exploration of beauty has gone into abeyance, and what have we lost as a result?

MR: My thinking about that actually was a response to teaching literature to writers and having them tell me that when I talked about something wonderful, like in Moby Dick or something, as “beautiful,” it was the first time that they had heard “beautiful” applied to literature. Which is just stunning—just amazing. Here is the great prevailing art of our period, and I just couldn’t believe that the way that literature is talked about has become so deeply a kind of form of sociology that aesthetic categories were dismissed in discussing it. I think that you find in any good writer that beautiful language is arising. It’s something that is done for emphasis. It’s something that indicates that a degree of focus has been achieved. I don’t think that you can read good literature successfully if you exclude the beautiful as a consideration always active in good writing.

CH: So much of what is beautiful does depend on our perception. You have probably one of your most beloved characters, John Ames, say that “wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see.” You’ve said similar things in your own voice as well as your character’s voice, which I am betting evokes no small amount of wistfulness in many of your readers who would deeply like to see the same luminous beauty that you do. How does one learn to see?

MR: By looking, basically. I consider the primary privilege of being a human being as a universal privilege of being able to watch light fall on things, watch vegetation live in the world in the complicated ways that it does. The shimmer, the effulgence, all these things are simply there to be seen, whether or not people choose to look at them—whether they relegate too many things to the category of ordinary or meaningless. That’s the original choice. But if you are interested in the nature of the experience of life on this planet, then very quickly all sorts of things begin to present themselves to you as mysteriously beautiful. Discovered beauty: no rarefaction or falsification, but the thing itself.

CH: You mentioned once that as a child, a teacher told you that “‘you have to live with your mind your whole life.’ You build your mind, so make it into something you want to live with.” Then you said, “Nobody has ever said anything more valuable to me.” How did you build and furnish your own mind?

MR: I was a bookish child, as I have mentioned in other contexts. I was very systematic about reading books that I knew were good—people like Dickens and Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson. Sometimes I read very far over my head but nevertheless with the idea that I was giving myself something of value as a result of the effort. I’m sure there are lots of ways that people could have taken that teacher’s advice. But for me, it was all books for a very long time.

CH: C.S. Lewis once tried to encourage readers to read an old book for every new one, but you’ve gone further and read almost exclusively old books. What prompted you to start that practice?

MR: I am always trying to put together what I find to be a credible model of the world, which is no easy thing. But the major valuable questions that have come to me have usually come from the fact that I’ve studied something historically in a way that makes me question present accounts and question them very deeply.

CH: You’ve been writing a fair amount recently about democracy and the common good. At one point you call democracy the logical and inevitable consequence of religious humanism. What do you see as the connection between the two?

MR: There are things that seem to me true because I reinforce them from other kinds of awareness or learning. I’m of course very, very struck by the unique brilliance of a human being, which is something that we tend to disparage, demean, utterly fail to notice. By my understanding, every person lives out a beautiful, complicated, inaccessible-to-other-consciousnesses sort of parable of life, and it is sacred. The intrusions or the deprivations that refuse to acknowledge this tend to take political forms of totalitarianism. Democracy, in any conceivable future as far as I’m concerned, is the only way that we can possibly honor the fact of the brilliance, the importance, of every human life and human awareness.

CH: I was thinking back to a remarkable interview you did with President Obama in 2015. The two of you talked about what you saw as the basis of democracy: the willingness to assume well of other people. You warned against what you called “the idea of the ‘sinister other.’” We are certainly in a period when there are media, social media, political, and ideological forces all intensifying tribalism and reinforcing the idea of a “sinister other.” How does one cultivate, both on a personal level and on a cultural level, an appetite for a truer and more charitable story?

Democracy, in any conceivable future as far as I’m concerned, is the only way that we can possibly honor the fact of the brilliance, the importance, of every human life and human awareness.

MR: I think we have some obligation to support each other in this, not simply to support each other materially but to teach, and to preach, and to write. To do these things that are the addresses of one sensibility to others in a way that is respectful, that is generous, in its assumptions about the mentality of the reader. Speaking as a former teacher of writers, there is a pervasively low opinion of the general public. That means that what is said to the general public as culture—as popular culture, especially—is often less worthy, less good, than it would be possible for the same people who made that culture to produce if they proceeded more optimistically about what their audience would accept and be engaged by. I think we condescend horribly to one another. It’s always a form of self-congratulation if you can think badly of other people. But it’s very, very destructive.

CH: You coined a memorable phrase in your work Absence of Mind: “the hermeneutics of condescension,” which you describe as the idea that earlier generations were somehow either intellectually, or socially, or morally beneath us. Where does this chronological snobbery come from?

MR: I think one of the major sources of it is that we teach history very badly or teach it hardly at all. People don’t realize that when Shakespeare was alive, he walked across a bridge that had human heads on pikes displayed there for the birds to eat. The very steep upgrade of civilization (in terms of many things) is to be recognized, perpetuated, protected. But people don’t know enough about the past. They idealize it—“That’s when people were right-minded” and all the rest of it. In fact, it was savage in many ways.

We’re looking all the time now at slavery, but that was one of the major forms of brutality in the human past. And we weed out the fact that there were people who hoped for something better, and worked toward something better, and risked or spent their lives trying to improve things. We could look to history for models about having things be better than they were—you know, the end of cruel and unusual punishment and so on. We don’t do that. We simply obsess on the fact that things were worse and act as if we had some sort of role in making our lives very much less grotesque.

We need models. We need to figure out what reformers did when they created effective reforms. You have to look into the dark past to see that there were people in the dark past who were trying to make the world less dark. The fact that, for a while at any rate, with any luck, we are able to enjoy, by world standards and by historical standards, a humane civilization, granting all its faults—that was the work and thought of nameable people, nameable movements. And at this point, we absolutely need examples of humanizing influences that take hold and work. We’re losing the sense of that.

CH: Unlike many modern contemporary writers, you are a fan of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and the Puritans. What sparked your excitement over their work and thought?

MR: I really do think that the reason I have so much more interest in Calvin than other people who speak about him is that I’ve actually read him. One of the things that’s very irritating about the general conversation, no matter how lofty it is in terms of its intellectual claims, is that it’s often based simply on some kind of word of mouth that passes down through the generations. Calvin is a beautiful writer. He is a beautiful thinker. I think that much of the best subsequent philosophy (people like Descartes) comes straight out of Calvin.

I was aware of Jonathan Edwards because I went to a college in the Northeast. I was assigned an essay of his when I was a sophomore, and there was a beautiful footnote in it talking about the fact that reality is unaccountably re-created moment to moment and comparing it to the effect of light. That was very important to me, because everything else I was hearing, Darwinism, behaviorism, Freudianism—all of these things were different forms of a very unattractive determinism. Conventional ideas of God, that he was omnipotent and so on, would be disallowed by these determinisms that said, basically, we were not free to act; God was not free to act; it was all sort of an organic mechanism. When I read that note of Edwards’s, it gave me a new model of reality. Edwards rescued me out of the deprivations of what we’ve called “modern thought,” and I have been reading him in light of that ever since. He’s a wonderful thinker. He’s called the greatest philosopher born on the North American continent, and he is. He deserves his reputation.


Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis by J.M.W. Turner, 1843.

CH: You noted once that one of the things that comes with a Calvinist outlook is that you are always posed with the question, What does God want from this particular situation? I’d be curious how you go about engaging with and wrestling with that question in your own life.

MR: It’s a question that doesn’t recur all the time in the same forms. When you encounter someone, you look at them with the idea that they are sent to you by God, with the intention that you should react to them with that understanding—in effect, the way Calvin describes it, they become God, because they are his emissaries, no matter who they are. So, the idea is to understand the human situation in this profound way: What would God want from this moment?  It is not that I should protect myself or that I should prove that I’m more intelligent or richer than the person I’m encountering. You know that those are not the answers God wants. The question is how to respond to the holiness and the vulnerability, or whatever is presented to you in the presence of another person. Also, any moral question that you encounter in life, even things like avoiding waste and extravagance or taking reasonable care of your health or anything like that—in these kinds of questions, what does God want of you? It’s a question that is applicable in really any number of circumstances—in all circumstances.

CH: We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. Our first question: “Do you believe that beauty is something we are simply struck with, or is beauty something like a capacity that we can grow in and hone?”

MR: I think without any question you can enhance your own capacity for seeing beauty, or for seeing the deeply implanted character that beauty has in the existence of things. I always like the fact that mathematicians and scientists call a theory “beautiful” if they think it’s plausible. Or “elegant.” I think that that’s a kind of model that we can carry over into all kinds of perceptions of things.

The idea is to understand the human situation in this profound way: What would God want from this moment?

CH: “Given the extreme concern about cultural appropriation today, what do you say to writers who want to write from the perspective of someone from a culture not their own—for example, a white man writing from the perspective of a black woman?”

MR: If you do it well, I don’t think anyone should object—if you make a full use of your understanding. It’s a risk. You might seem insensitive. You might seem very ignorant. But that, in a way, is a risk that anybody takes writing fiction. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong in the effort to understand someone unlike oneself. I think that actually we’re supposed to do that. To be afraid of making the effort seems to me just to entrap us all in a very narrow experience.

CH: Another viewer would love to hear about your thoughts on the civil unrest we are experiencing now in America.

MR: I find it very encouraging—truly. All sorts of painful things have become obvious. At the same time, it goes against the grain of expectation in a way that makes people conscious of what they expect and want and demand. It’s a perilous moment that we’re in at the moment. I’ve never seen such crazy times in my life, but I do think that the balance is probably on the side of a restoration of American democracy.

CH: “It would seem that beauty should be persuasive, but the current fad is tending toward intentional ugliness. Do you agree, and if so, what do you believe we can do to reverse it?”

MR: You know, with Walt Whitman, he would be writing about things that other people have seen as ugly until he wrote about them. There’s a way in which a good writer can look at an amazing variety of things and discover a unique capacity for beauty in very unanticipated places—which is a broadening of everyone’s experience. That’s a very good thing. Ugliness for its own sake, I imagine, would be a project that would exhaust itself fairly quickly. There’s a kind of refusal to acknowledge that people in general like to participate in what is interesting or what is beautiful. They like to engage art at that level. It’s an insult or a conscious intentional deprivation to oppose that, to deny that.

I’ve never seen such crazy times in my life, but I do think that the balance is probably on the side of a restoration of American democracy.

CH: “What challenges do you find as a Christian and as a writer who writes in the secular world?”

MR: I have found absolutely no problem with that. Zero. I think one of the strangest things that happens is that many people who consider themselves Christians consider themselves strangers in the world—in the sense that if people found out what they really thought or believed, they would be ridiculed, or something like that. I made the test. I’ve been very forthright, and I think I have been as gently and fairly read and reviewed as any writer that I know of. That’s part of what bothers me. We entertain these very negative assumptions about people in general. And actually, people restrict their own work, their own imaginations, because they’re afraid. Christian people say to me, “Weren’t you afraid about writing about a minister?” No. I’m not going to choose what I write about on the basis of some imagined fear. If my book had been banned and ridiculed and I’d been tarred and feathered, that’s just the chance you take when you write a book. But there’s something very, very wrong when so many people who claim to be religious people act as if they have to hide out as if their understanding of things couldn’t support daylight. That’s just appalling to me.

CH: Actually, our next question is also on fear: “You write about fear and claim that it’s not a Christian habit of mind. What do you have to say about our current climate of fear? How does a Christian respond to the fears around the pandemic and civil unrest?”

MR: We’re just living in a kind of condensed form of human life. People have always had to deal with pandemic or plague or whatever. People have always dealt with unrest. We’re not habituated to it because we’ve been very fortunate. But that doesn’t mean that we’re exempt from what people have lived through time out of mind. I think we can make a little appeal to our own sense of dignity to keep the anxieties that we have in perspective—which is not to say that they’re easily solved. It’s simply to say, all generations have dealt with difficulty. We don’t have a special pass that will exclude us from it. What we have to do is make the best of it.

CH: “Especially amid sharp cultural disagreement, how do we cultivate our minds and hearts to see the truer and more charitable story of individuals and not the ‘sinister other’?”

Whatever you do, if you do it well, is an act of generosity toward anybody who would feel the benefit of your generosity…We have that capacity to create society around us by acts of generosity toward the society.

MR: I think that people basically have to fall back on their own resources. It’s one of the reasons that I wish that we would talk about people who have done well in other generations and not assume that because they coexisted with things that were flagrantly evil they themselves must have tolerated evil. We know from our own experience that what you would choose to live with, what you would choose to see done around you, is not necessarily something that you determine or can have much impact on. I think you have to talk to yourself. Think through things. Attempt the imaginative extensions of compassion and circumstance. It would be nice if there were some solution that we could fall back on, but we’re not offering ourselves good solutions these days. People are so enthralled by contentiousness that virtually anything can become a storm of contentiousness. With anger, and with contempt, and all these things, the excitement carries the behavior away from what was really the issue in the first place. It destroys the possibility of a conversation. When you are invited into one of these micro-storms, it seems to me that you could say, “No, actually, I have to go read a good book.” Because we’re not doing ourselves any good with this habit of antagonistic controversy. It just is not truthful.

CH: Thank you, Marilynne. I’d love to give you the final word as we close out.

MR: I think that one of the things that is interesting about the human situation is that we have a sort of unlimited capacity for generosity. Whatever you do, if you do it well, is an act of generosity toward anybody who would feel the benefit of your generosity, and that means any work that you do at all. It certainly means any artistic work that you do. We have that capacity to create society around us by acts of generosity toward the society.  And, of course, the repayment of that sort of choice is very clear. You can make the society you want to live in. For many people this is not a tolerable model because they don’t like the idea of giving something up, even with the possibility of having it returned—like the bread upon the waters. Nevertheless, if you accept a discipline of generosity in every circumstance where the word could come up—whether it’s generosity of imagination, generosity of seriousness, actually putting good thought into everything that you do—that’s my advice. That’s what everybody ought to do.