April 3, 2006
Robinson and Mainline Protestantism
-- Martin E. Marty
"A liberal," poet Robert Frost wrote, "is a man"—or a woman—"too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel." My corollary observation: "Mainline Protestants are too complacent to make a defense or counterattack when chided or derided." Catholics and Jews have their ready-to-go defense leagues and anti-defamation units. Evangelicals—who currently own the executive, legislative, and perhaps soon the judicial branches of government; the religious airwaves; and much of publishing—are organizing for a new "everyone tromps on us, let's fight back" campaign. But for decades now it has been fashionable to sneer at or stomp on mainline Protestants, who, for a variety of reasons, just take it.
Then, from within their camp, along comes a layperson worth listening to—someone who, for a change, offers perspective and wise counsel. She is Marilynne Robinson, as fine a novelist as we now have (last year she won the Pulitzer and many other literary awards), and whose bully pulpit is the Spring issue of the Phi Beta Kappa journal The American Scholar. Her piece is called "Onward, Christian Liberals: Faith is not about piety or personal salvation, but about helping those in need." Usually soft-spoken, here she is roused to criticize "not only so-called fundamentalists but, more particularly ... 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." Among them there is currently "a powerful tendency to make belief itself small, whether narrow and bitter or feckless and bland." She will get away with that sentence because many "mainliners" recognize enough truth in it to make them wince.
In the case she presents, she is more biblical than the biblicists, more fundamental than the fundamentalists, more evangelical than the evangelicals. Delving deeply into scriptures and evidencing her learning in theology and ethics, she does not look down on personal piety and holiness. She simply links them with prophetic and gospel-based calls to ethical response. Robinson traces the lines from older, better Great Awakenings to the current capitalism-obsessed awakenings that lead people to avert their gaze from the poor. Maybe she misfires here and there and overstates the case at times -- but probably not.
"What has personal holiness"—which she's for, by the way— "to do with politics and economics? Everything, from the liberal Protestant point of view." A seal on her orthodoxy, in case anyone wants to check, is the quotation she takes from Calvin: "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." Robinson's summary: "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."
Here I am, remembering Lent and "sighting" John Calvin, as quoted in a secular journal.
This week and next week, Martin Marty's Sightings columns draw on the Spring issue of The American Scholar. Single issues are $9.00. Check your library, or order it from firstname.lastname@example.org.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.