Marilynne Robinson on Cultural Pessimism

I’ve been a fan of Marilynne Robinson’s for a while now, though perhaps even more for her volumes of essays than for her award-winning novels.

(As a complete aside: Robinson lives in Iowa City, and my fantasy flight back to Cedar Rapids is to end up seated next to her for the 45-minute flight from some hub airport. In my head we could have some meaningful conversation about theology; in practice it’d take me nearly all of the flight to work up the courage to say hello. Ah well.)

I’m reading through The Givenness of Things right now and enjoying it immensely. I’ve found several passages that I’d like to share, but I’ll just start with one in this post, from a chapter titled “Reformation”. (I’ve split it into a couple chunks to make it easier to read; in the original this is a single paragraph.)

Cultural pessimism is always fashionable, and, since we are human, there are always grounds for it. It has the negative consequence of depressing the level of aspiration, the sense of the possible. And from time to time it has the extremely negative consequence of encouraging a kind of somber panic, a collective dream-state in which recourse to terrible remedies is inspired by delusions of mortal threat. If there is anything in the life of any culture or period that gives good grounds for alarm, it is the rise of cultural pessimism, whose major passion is bitter hostility toward many or most of the people within the very culture the pessimists always feel they are intent on rescuing.

When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism – exactly the same grounds, in fact – that is, because we are human. We still have every potential for good we have ever had, and the same presumptive claim to respect, our own respect and one another’s. We are still creatures of singular interest and value, agile of soul as we have always been and as we will continue to be even despite our errors and depredations, for as long as we abide on this earth. To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.

I aspire to this sort of grounded, optimistic faith.

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