Marilynne Robinson's America

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Is Jonathan Edwards, as Marilynne Robinson called him in NYT Magazine last week, a “pillar”? Is she right to enshrine John Calvin as a “visionary” who admired the human mind?

At first blush, they certainly don’t seem to be humanists. Calvin believed in “original sin” which he defined as “a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused through all parts of the soul, rendering us obnoxious to the Divine wrath” (Institutes II, i). Edwards, in his famous sermon, wrote, “Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf.”

These views are not au courant even among most Christians. In fact, they’ve never been popular among anyone. They do, however, correspond with biblical teaching such as is found in Romans 3 where Paul writes that “all . . . are under sin”; “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” He adds a cruel twist, too, that our goodness does not restore favor with God, for “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.”

As unpopular as it is, the Calvinist/Puritan doctrine of total depravity shares ground with the philosophes’ and founding fathers’ view of humans. Read Candide, a violent satire full of rape, bestiality, and murder designed to supplant European aristocratic classism with individualism and equality. Though Voltaire loathed organized religion and outright rejected Calvinism, he depicted the human race in a Pauline way, each misguided soul awaiting a humble revelation of its own worth. And remember that it was Thomas Hobbes, also a philosophe, who famously described human life as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

Or read Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, which takes no human advantage for granted. Survival, not to mention success, depends on thrift, hard work, humility, and temperance—values he inherited from his Protestant forebears. Humans are so prone to “vice and folly” that any effort toward self-betterment requires complicated to-do lists. Franklin was no exception; his powerful penchant for Madeira wine yielded a glossary of synonyms for drunkenness (such as “bungy” and “wamble croft”). Later in life, in a letter to Joseph Priestly, he would wonder whether "the Species were really worth producing or preserving."

Which is all to say that whatever one’s view of God and predestination, the noxious doctrine Calvin termed “total depravity” might be the least discriminatory out there. In a world divided by class, race, gender, wealth, and poverty, one constant is that humans are bad apples. Rich white people are bad, and so are poor minorities. Men are bad; women are equally bad. Lawbreakers and law enforcement are, in terms of Protestant theology, equally hopelessly depraved. As Paul writes, also in Romans 3, we are all hopeless so that “every mouth may be stopped” and Christ’s saving work become obvious.

The doctrine of total depravity might also be the most beneficial for civilizational progress. For one thing, it leaves little room for self-righteous responses to apparent injustice. For another, it allows for a courageous and honest evaluation of each person’s actions so that we don’t merely condemn the lifestyles of the one percent or the actions of a Midwestern police department, and we can’t merely moan about EBT recipients getting something they haven’t earned.

“Merely” is the caveat. We should continue to speak out against injustice, propose legislation, write editorials, and so on, but we aren’t allowed merely to do those things, because we all are in the same boat morally and spiritually. None of us is in a better position than any other, so we aren’t able to cast judgment. Therefore verbal outcry must be underpinned by humble action lest we become “noisy gongs and clanging cymbals” (I Corinthians 13).

Calvin’s and Edwards’s view of universal human wickedness leads not only to humility but more cautious relationships with others. For Marilynne Robinson, as for Paul, it leads ultimately to Christ and service to others: “The great problem for Christianity is always the humility of the figure in whom God is said to have been incarnate,” she said in a 2012 interview; “And the insistence of the tradition that God is present in the persons of the despised and rejected.”

Anyone who wonders how American it is to reach out to the “despised and rejected” need only reread the Statue of Liberty’s famous plaque:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

- Aaron Belz has published three volumes of poetry, The Bird Hoverer (BlazeVOX, 2007), Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010) and Glitter Bomb (Persea, 2014). He is the poet laureate of Hillsborough, North Carolina.