Marilynne Robinson: The Sacred, the Human

At the Wheatley Institution’s annual Truman G. Madsen lecture, author Marilynne Robinson discussed how devaluing the divine in humans leads to discord in civic life.  

221PROVO, Utah (Sept. 15, 2016)—In what appears to be an unending quarrel between science and religion, how does accepting or rejecting the divinity of mankind impact a culture or a democracy? At the annual Truman G. Madsen lecture, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson delivered an address entitled “The Sacred: The Human,” exploring the long-standing debate between science and religion on the existence of divinity in man and its implications for civic life.

Robinson’s lecture addressed the concept of self and human personality and how philosophies endanger the capacity to recognize the beauty of human individuality. “My understanding of LDS theology is not extensive, but I am aware of the very strong sense of human capacity and human potential in this world to come,” Robinson began. “It’s very central to my own religious consciousness, and I think it is an idea that is waning in American culture.”

Robinson argued that science uses reality as an empirical mechanism that by default is able to account for its origins. On the side of religion, however, a measurable reality easily marginalizes religious notions of human nature, motivation, consciousness and the soul because they cannot be submitted to empiricism, or knowledge derived from the senses.

From phrenology to Eugenics, Freudianism to Behaviorism, the human psyche is presented as wholly determinist, leaving little room for a concept of humanity that allows for meaningful choice or moral agency. “Every one of these theories was powerful for a few decades, then passed into the kind of history we are always ready to forget,” Robinson explained. “But the thing conserved out of all this . . . is a gimmick for asserting that we are not ourselves, that we are self-deceived in the matter of our motives and our experience.”

Robinson said that this strain of thought is not specific to our current cultural climate, but has been influential in Western consciousness for centuries. She cited 20th-century Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell, who posited that the invention of psychology discarded ancient errors of knowledge associated with theology. Following the concept of the soul through Plato, Descartes, Kant and Hegel, Russell concluded that there did not seem to be such an entity as the soul or self, and, as Robinson summed up, “this is always the breaking news.”

Robinson, whose writing and scholarship is largely influenced by 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards, also examined the case for religion through Edwards’ philosophy on the nature of man. “Jonathan Edwards’ synonym for a human being is a moral agent. Agent means of course that one can act, and moral implies that one’s actions are meaningful in a social as well as a cosmic context,” Robinson said. “To me this sounds like reality.” 
Ultimately, Robinson addressed the conflict between science and religion as an example of the power of prejudice and how living with fixed assumptions can distort our thinking, especially in the form of cynicism. Cynicism, she believes, should not constitute truth in our present world, nor should we offer up perspectives that show indifference to human life. However, she also warned that these perspectives or prejudices are not just specific to authoritative statements made by scientists on human nature, but reflect “so-called” Christian beliefs as well.

Jonathan_Edwards“I feel as many people do that the quality of our public life is in decline,” Robinson said. “I blame the self-declared Christians for this, first of all for normalizing a profound disrespect for others.”

She continued, “Christians assume, or they should assume, a special responsibility to uphold certain values . . . but I will narrow the question to one behavior prohibited to Christians but now commonplace among them: that is slander.”

Robinson said that political life is a prime example of slander, describing current president Barack Obama as an individual who is repeatedly slandered by self-professed Christians. Slander in civic life divides and distorts a society, alienating people from their institutions.

“Can anyone point me to a passage in scripture that suggests that God will be patient with this for long?” Robinson asked.

“Perhaps what is called the advance of secularism could better be called the judgement of God,” Robinson concluded. “So far as I feel any hesitancy about speaking my mind and heart, the reluctance resembles timidity of a kind, a twinge of prudence, unworthy of an American or a Christian, and profoundly disrespectful of the seriousness of the issues we face and of the importance of the world to the success of our democracy.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

 Sylvia Cutler covers events for the English Department for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.