Thursday, November 04, 2004

Splendid Principles

The unhappy marriage of religious and economic claptrap has brought forth enough monsters to make Pandora's Box look like a carton of Crackerjacks. I don't know of any modern writer who's denounced these evils more eloquently than Marilynne Robinson. Here's an excerpt from her address to the National Book Foundation, circa 1996:

It seems to me that, obedient to the great law which sooner or later makes one the image of one's enemy, we have theologized our own economic system....Its teachings are very, very simple: There really are free and natural markets where the optimum value of things is assigned to them; everyone must compete with everyone; the worthy will prosper and the unworthy fail; those who succeed while others fail will be made deeply and justly happy by this experience, having had no other object in life; each of us is poorer for every cent that is used toward the wealth of all of us; governments are instituted among men chiefly to interfere with the working out of these splendid principles.

This is such a radical obliteration of culture and tradition, let us say of Jesus and Jefferson, as to awe any Bolshevik, of course. But then contemporary discourse is innocent as a babe unborn of any awareness of culture and tradition, so the achievement is never remarked. It is nearly sublime, a sort of cerebral whiteout.


There is a great love of certitude implicit in all this, and those impressed by it often merge religious and social and economic notions, discovering likeness in this supposed absolute clarity, which is really only selectivity and simplification. Listening to these self-declared moralists and traditionalists, it seems to me I hear from time to time a little satisfaction in the sober fact that God, as our cuItures have variously received him through the Hebrew Scriptures, seems to loathe, actually abominate, certain kinds of transgression. Granting this fact, let us look at the transgressions thus singled out. My own sense of the text, based on more than cursory reading, is that the sin most insistently called abhorrent to God is the failure of generosity, the neglect of widow and orphan, the oppression of strangers and the poor, the defrauding of the laborer. Since many of the enthusiasts of this new theology are eager to call themselves Christians, I would draw their attention to the New Testament, passim.

I have heard pious people say, Well, you can't live by Jesus' teachings in this complex modern world. Fine, but then they might as well call themselves the Manichean Right or the Zoroastrian Right and not live by those teachings. If an economic imperative trumps a commandment of Jesus, they should just say so and drop these pretensions toward particular holiness - which, while we are on the subject of divine abhorrence, God, as I recall, does not view much more kindly than he does neglect of the poor. In fact, the two are often condemned together.

Robinson's new novel is called Gilead; in addition to being a masterpiece, it's very, very pertinent to our current woes. You can read about it, or order it, here.

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