Essays - Spring 2006

Onward, Christian Liberals

Christianity's long tradition of social injustice

By Marilynne Robinson | March 1, 2006


You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. —Leviticus 19.2


I realize that in attempting to write on the subject of personal holiness, I encounter interference in my mind between my own sense of the life of the soul and understandings that are now pervasive and very little questioned. The phrase “personal holiness,” in what at present is its received sense, suggests a preoccupation with (usually) minor, nameable, and numerable sins and the pious avoidance of them where possible. It suggests a regime of pious behaviors whose object is the advantage of one’s own soul. It suggests also a sense of security concerning final things, which is understood as a virtue, though it is in fact a confidence not claimed even by the Apostle Paul. If this is a view of the matter commonly held by the unchurched and the irreligious, it is nevertheless a fair account of the thought and practice of many who do indeed aspire to personal holiness, or who feel they have achieved it.

The approach to the issue I prefer is not original with me. It is neither less Scriptural, nor less theological, nor less traditional than the sense of the phrase I sketched above, though it has gone into eclipse with the rise in this country of a culture of Christianity that does not encourage thought. I intend this as a criticism not only of the so-called fundamentalists but, more particularly, of the mainline churches, which have fairly assiduously culled out all traces of the depth and learnedness that were for so long among their greatest contributions to American life. Emily Dickinson wrote, “The abdication of belief / Makes the behavior small.” There is a powerful tendency also to make belief itself small, whether narrow and bitter or feckless and bland, with what effects on behavior we may perhaps infer from the present state of the Republic.

I believe in the holiness of the human person and of humanity as a phenomenon. I believe our failings, which are very great and very grave—after all, we have brought ourselves to the point of possible self-annihilation—are a cosmic mystery, a Luciferian disaster, the fall of the brightest angel. That is to say, at best and at worst we are within the field of sacred meaning, holy. I believe holiness is a given of our being that, essentially, we cannot add to or diminish, whose character and reality are fully known only to God and are fully valued only by him. What I might call personal holiness is, in fact, openness to the perception of the holy in existence itself and, above all, in one another. In other words, it is not my belief that personal holiness—sanctity, as the theologians call it—inheres in anyone in isolation or as a static quality. Acting with due reverence for the human situation, including the fact of one’s own life, if that were possible, would be saintly. Instead we all struggle constantly with our insufficiency. To put the matter another way, we baffled creatures are immersed in an overwhelming truth. What is plainly before our eyes we know only in glimpses and through disciplined attention. Or again: to attempt obedience to God in any circumstance is to find experience opening on meaning, and meaning is holy.

I am speaking from the perspective of American liberal Protestantism. As I understand the history of this tradition, it departed in the mid–18th century from the Calvinism its forebears had brought from England when it experienced the potent religious upheaval known as the First Great Awakening. The given of the movement was that people passed into a state of sanctity—and in effect were assured of their salvation—through an intense mystical/emotional experience, often a vision of Christ. The movement swept pre–Revolutionary America and left in its wake Princeton, Dartmouth, the temperance movement, a heightened sense of shared identity, and the model of revivalism as a norm of religious culture. There was criticism and reaction against extremes of enthusiasm, and an important Calvinist aversion to the idea that the fruits of salvation could be had by shaking the tree. And there was a period of quiet, which ended with the onset in the early 19th century of the Second Great Awakening, again based on the belief that salvation was realized in a mystical/emotional experience. It swept the Northeast, sending zealous New Yorkers and New Englanders out into the Territories, and left in its wake the abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, any number of fine colleges, a revived temperance movement, Utopianism, Seventh-day Adventists, and Latter-day Saints. And also a literature on the treatment of an affliction they frankly called “religious mania.”

Historically, mass religious excitements tend to be set off by plague and famine. The Great Awakenings were set off by preaching, in the first instance by the Congregationalist minister and metaphysician Jonathan Edwards, third president of Princeton, and in the second, by the Presbyterian lawyer and abolitionist Charles Grandison Finney, who went on to serve as president of Oberlin College. While both movements were remarkable for benign and lasting consequences as things go in this world, they left a heritage their own traditions rejected, the belief that salvation occurred in a discrete, unambiguous experience they called “conversion,” which those who have retained the belief call “being born again.” An important criticism of this model was that it created misery and despair among those called the “no hopers”—among whom Emily Dickinson found herself when a great revival swept through Mount Holyoke College. The liberal criticism, rejection of the idea that one could be securely persuaded of one’s own salvation and could even apply a fairly objective standard to the state of others’ souls, was in fact a return to Calvinism and its insistence on the utter freedom of God. That is to say, it was a rejection on theological grounds of a novel doctrine. So here has opened the great divide in American Protestant Christianity. I fall on the liberal side of this division.

History is a great ironist, though historians rarely seem to see the joke. The first two awakenings were the work of two Eastern intellectuals. Anyone who has read Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the sermon often said to have kindled in his church in Northampton, Massachusetts, the movement that spread through the Colonies, knows that when he preached about damnation, he was preaching to the choir. That is, he did not encourage his flock to believe in their own special sanctity, nor did he encourage them to consider others to be in a more parlous state than they were themselves. Perhaps the whole great excitement passed as benignly as it did for that very reason. The excitement we are seeing now is called by some scholars a third great awakening, yet it is different from the other two in this crucial respect. It is full of pious aversion toward so-called secular culture—that is, whatever does not give back its own image—and toward those whose understanding and practice of religion fails to meet its standards. If Edwards’s movement unified the Colonies, preparing the way for the Revolution, this may have been because his preachments encouraged people to believe that they themselves were the problem, not some hostile or decadent others who were corrupting the cultural atmosphere.

The Second Great Awakening, in which Charles Finney figured so prominently, was strongly focused on slavery and its abolition, and also on the education of women. Some part of its energies spun off into séances and experiments with marital arrangements, but in its main thrust it was profoundly progressive and reformist. It addressed inequality—of black and white, women and men, wealthy and poor—as a social sin to be overcome, especially through greatly increased access to education. The movement we are seeing now is notably devoid of interest in equality. Indeed, it passionately supports a government whose policies have created a sharp rise in the rate of poverty. For a self-declared Christian movement it shows startlingly little sense of responsibility for the vulnerable in society.

And here is the culminating irony. This movement, which calls itself fundamentalist, subscribes fervently to the principles of laissez-faire capitalism. It has helped to push American society toward what the English economist Herbert Spencer called “the survival of the fittest.” Darwin borrowed that phrase from Spencer to name the dynamic of natural selection in the evolution of species, otherwise known as Darwinism. In other words, our anti-Darwinists are social Darwinists. The great defender of what were then called “the fundamentals” was William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat and a pacifist and a passionate campaigner against what he saw as the economic structures that created poverty. His “Cross of Gold” speech spoke of the poor of America as Christ crucified—not at all the kind of rhetoric we hear these days. Bryan, a liberal by any standard, opposed Darwinism because it was taken at the time, rightly or wrongly, to justify not only economic exploitation but also racism, colonialism, eugenics, and war. He feared the loss of belief in the sanctity of the human person, the only stay against these things.

The neo-fundamentalists treat the matter as if the central issue were the existence of God or the literal truth of the Bible. They seem to overlook the implications of the dignity conferred on every human being in the narratives of creation. They speak of a right to life, an oddly disembodied phrase that, isolated as it is by them from human context, tends to devalue the incarnate person and is therefore as unbiblical a conception as Bergson’s élan vital. It invokes Jefferson, but Jefferson posited a divine endowment to every person that includes liberty and the pursuit of happiness—terms that are difficult to define but that clearly imply dignity and hope and the exercise of meaningful agency. These are rights that, though “inalienable,” have to be enabled and respected in society if they are to exist in fact. For example, they more or less require that one come through childhood in a reasonable state of health. Policies that spread and intensify poverty, besides being unbiblical, deprive individuals of what Jefferson called their God-given rights. The thought among anti-Darwinists was, and supposedly still is, that humankind is demeaned by the notion that God was not in every sense present and intentional in the creation of our first parents. The passionate loyalty of the neo-fundamentalists to the second chapter of Genesis (the first is startlingly compatible with the idea of evolution, though not with Darwinism) seems to have prevented them from reading on in the text. Were they to do so, they would find much to indicate that God continues to be present, and also intentional, in the lives of Eve’s children.

Since these folk claim to be defenders of embattled Christianity (under siege by liberalism, as they would have it), they might be struck by the passage in Matthew 25, in which Jesus says, identifying himself with the poorest, “I was hungry, and ye fed me not.” This is the parable in which Jesus portrays himself as eschatological judge and in which he separates “the nations.” It should surely be noted that he does not apply any standard of creed, of purity, or of orthodoxy in deciding whom to save and whom to damn. This seems to me a valuable insight into what Jesus himself might consider fundamental. To those who have not recognized him in the hungry and the naked he says, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels.” Neo-fundamentalists seem to crave this sort of language—more than they might if they were to consider its context here. It is the teaching of the Bible passim that God has confided us very largely to one another’s care, but that in doing so he has in no degree detached himself from us. Indeed, in this parable Jesus would seem to push beyond the image of God as final judge, to describe an immanence of God in humankind that makes judgment present and continuous and, in effect, makes our victim our judge. Neither here nor anywhere else in the Bible is there the slightest suggestion that our judge/victim would find a plea of economic rationalism extenuating. This supposed new awakening is to the first two awakenings, and this neo-fundamentalism is to the first fundamentalism, as the New Right is to the New Deal, or as matter is to antimatter.

Liberal that I am, I would not presume to doubt the authenticity of the religious experience of anyone at all. Calvinism encourages a robust sense of human fallibility, in particular forbidding the idea that human beings can set any limits to God’s grace. I do wish to make very clear that it is a religious scruple that causes me to distance myself from the idea of an inhering personal holiness, a holiness realized otherwise than through God’s good, and always mysterious, pleasure. I believe in a holiness visited upon any mortal as divinely imputed righteousness, to use the old language, or in the love of the father for his child, to use the old metaphor. The division between the liberals and the evangelicals is often treated as falling between the not really and the really religious, the dilettante Christians and those adhering to the true faith. This is the fault of the liberals in large part, because they have neglected their own tradition, or have abandoned it in fear that distinctiveness might scuttle ecumenism. Indeed, one of my hopes in writing this essay is to remind those generous spirits of why they believe as they do, since they themselves seem to have forgotten, more or less. And I hope also to draw a little attention to the fact that the old-time religion is not so old, after all, and ought not be regarded as the Christian faith in a uniquely pure or classic form.

The liberal position on this matter could be seen as a softened predestinarianism. God alone judges, and the hearts of mortals can be known truly only by him, in the light of his grace. Like the old Calvinists, liberal Protestants reject the idea that anyone can achieve salvation by piety or moral rigor or by any other means. After all, Jesus did say, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:21–23) And Paul, perhaps alluding to this rather startling teaching of Christ and enlarging on it, said, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:2) Love is crucial here, and not highly compatible with the self-interest that can be expressed even in heroic self-sacrifice. Ironically, those who have claimed to be defenders of human freedom have tended to set requirements for salvation: being “born again” as they understand the phrase; being baptized at a certain age, under certain conditions, in a particular state of belief; being a member in good standing of a particular church; accepting the authority of a doctrinal system without reference to one’s own knowledge or comprehension of it; availing oneself of the salvific benefits that are believed to be at the disposal of a church through its prayers and sacraments. Salvation “earned” by any of these means would itself depend on accidents of birth and culture, which, being accidents, would only imply predestination in another form, since after all, the great mass of human lives have come and gone without access to them. So the justice of God is vindicated, if at all, only locally by these intended empowerments of human beings. What can appear to be empowerments from one side are from another clearly conditions, even coercions. Better, liberally speaking, to trust the free grace of God than to attempt to make oneself proof against an arbitrariness it seems impious to ascribe to him.

Every old argument against predestination can be made against what I have called its softened form. (I intend no disparagement—the major traditions of Christianity are all softened at this point, less preoccupied with damnation than they have been historically and better for the change.) The argument has been made that the insistence on salvation by grace alone would free people to act however they pleased, the assumption being that they would turn to every sort of vice. Lutherans and Calvinists, whose traditions emphasize this teaching, have never been noted for libertinism, however. In general, their histories suggest that people are pleased to act well when they act freely, at least as often as they act well under any sort of coercion. In present terms, no statistics indicate that any of the vices or pathologies of modern life are more prevalent among liberal Protestants than among any other group.

It has been supposed that predestinarianism results in fatalism, that is, in a stoical passivity relative to the things of this world. But historically Calvinism is strongly associated with social reform as well as with revolution. This might seem a paradox at first glance, but the doctrine had its origins as a forthright teaching (Augustine, Aquinas, and Ignatius of Loyola were also predestinarians) in a context of profound skepticism as to the legitimacy of any number of human institutions and much questioning of their right to claim the Mandate of Heaven. The Reformation was not the work of fatalists. It is still true that liberal Protestants are disproportionately generous and active in support of social justice, a fact that makes them anathema to those who associate Christ with laissez-faire economics, as a surprising number of people do these days, absent any endorsement in Scripture. Despite their self-proclaimed biblicism, they seem never to miss its endorsement.

There is an asymmetry in the relationship of liberal Protestants to their Christian detractors that is the result of the liberal understanding of the freedom of God. Liberals assume the existence of what is traditionally called “the invisible church.” They believe that no institution is uniquely the people of God, that God knows his own whoever they are and wherever they are. And they believe, therefore, that this invisible church can, of course, include their Christian detractors. This view of things implies that no doctrinal tests exist to distinguish the true faith from the false, real Christians from poseurs, the orthodox from the erring. To object, to dispute, to counter text with text, all this is legitimate and necessary, though liberals have been far too hesitant to make their case, even among themselves. But to judge the state of any soul is to presume upon a prerogative God reserves to himself. As Paul says: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” (Romans 14:4) This is not relativism or lack of conviction. Certainly Paul was never guilty of either. It is deference toward God our Universal Father. And there is nothing easy about suspending judgment. On the contrary, the world is and has been ravaged by the very confident judgments people make of one another. More to the point, history is full of extraordinary acts of ferocity carried out by Christians against Christians. Self-styled defenders of the faith have left the faith sorely wounded, in its good name not least. There is a Hebrew root transliterated as ndb, which is rendered in English by such words as free, noble, generous, abundant, and liberal, and their forms. It is used of God and of virtuous human beings and behaviors. It occurs in Isaiah 32:5, a messianic context. In the 1611 King James Version, it is rendered thus:

The instruments also of the churle are evill: he deviseth wicked devices, to destroy the poore with lying wordes even when the needie speaketh right. But the liberall deviseth liberall things, and by liberall things shall hee stand.

More modern translations render the word as noble, which clarifies its meaning. In Deuteronomy 15:14 its use with reference to the poor is again very clear. “When you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you.”

Ndb—let us call it “liberality”—occurs in a context that continuously reinforces an ethic of liberality, that is, the Old Testament. The many economic laws God gives to Israel as a society are full of provisions for the widow and the orphan, the poor and the stranger. And the abuses the prophets decry most passionately are accumulations of wealth in contempt of these same laws.

And as for Jesus: A ruler asks him how he is to inherit eternal life, and Jesus replies, “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor.”(Luke 18:22) How on earth his teaching is to be reconciled with social conservatism I cannot imagine, though the question seems seldom to be asked. (I use the phrase “social conservatism,” which might seem to imply moral conservatism, unless, like God, one considers generosity an essential part of morality.) There is a powerful contemporary Christianism that admires Dives and emulates him, and regards Lazarus as burdensome and reprehensible. Indeed, the supposed Christian revival of today has given something very like unlimited moral authority to money, though Jesus did say (and I think a literal interpretation is appropriate here if anywhere), “Woe to you who are rich!” (Luke 6:24) If this seems radical, dangerous, unfair, un-American, then those who make such criticisms should at least have the candor to acknowledge that their quarrel is with Jesus.

We all err, of course. We all come short of the glory of God, as Paul taught us. And as Christian liberalism teaches us as well. Calvin wrote about “total depravity,” which has a terrible sound because of the modern meaning of a word that, when he used it (in the French and Latin it derives from), meant warped or distorted. He was rejecting the teaching of Catholic theology that baptism erased the consequences of the Fall from the higher functions, leaving only the lower functions, particularly sexuality, affected by it. No, there is always error in all our thinking and perceiving, according to Calvin. Or as Paul said, speaking to Christians as a Christian, “We see in a mirror dimly.” This acknowledgment of the fact of inescapable fallibility has been called the origin of the scientific method, and in this form we know that doubt and self-doubt are allied with truth—teaching as they do that truth as we can know it remains forever partial and provisional.

This doctrine is very liberal in its consequences, an excellent basis for the harmony in diversity that is an essential liberal value now under attack as relativism or as an unprincipled concession to what is now called secularism. This secularism, which is supposed to alarm us, in fact may be nothing more alien to religion than the common space our many flourishing religious traditions have long been accustomed to share. In any case, it is worth remembering that such a common, nonjudgmental space is fully consistent with faithful doubt, as it were, which has not only the very humane consequence of allowing us to live together in peace and mutual respect, but also a strong theological and Scriptural grounding. It is first of all the responsibility of liberal or mainline Protestants to remember this, because insofar as it is an aspect of their tradition, they should understand it and be able to speak for it. A very great deal depends on its being understood and defended.

I may seem to have wandered from my original subject. What has personal holiness to do with politics and economics? Everything, from the liberal Protestant point of view. They are the means by which our poor and orphaned and our strangers can be sustained in real freedom, and graciously, as God requires. How can a Christian live without certainty? More fully, I suspect, than one can live with doctrines that constrict the sense of God with definitions and conditions.

It is vision that floods the soul with the sense of holiness, vision of this world. And it is reverent attention to this world that teaches us, and teaches us again, the imperatives of ethical refinement.

“We ought to embrace the whole human race without exception in a single feeling of love; here there is no distinction between barbarian and Greek, worthy and unworthy, friend and enemy, since all should be contemplated in God, not in themselves. When we turn aside from such contemplation, it is no wonder we become entangled in many errors.” This is John Calvin, describing in two sentences a mystical/ethical engagement with the world that fuses truth and love and opens experience on a light so bright it expunges every mean distinction. There is no doctrine here, no setting of conditions, no drawing of lines. On the contrary, what he describes is a posture of grace, generosity, liberality.

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