by Roger BerkowitzI am not usually hanging out on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s website, but a former student and current Arendt Center Intern alerted me his Reverence’s recent review of Marilynne Robinson’s newest book, When I Was A Child I Read Books. It turns out the Archbishop and I share a fondness in brilliant contemporary authors:
These essays are pure gold. Written with all her usual elegance, economy, and intellectual ruthlessness, they constitute a plea for recovering the use of “liberal” as an adjective, and, what is more, an adjective whose central meaning is specified by its use in scripture. “The word occurs [in the Geneva Bible] in contexts that urge an ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity” – and not a generosity of “tolerating viewpoints” alone, but of literal and practical dispersal of goods to those who need them.Psalm 122 is, you could say, the theme song of this vision, and it is a vision that prompts Robinson to a ferocious critique of the abstractions of ideology – including “austerity” as an imperative to save the world for capitalism. She offers a striking diagnosis of the corrupting effect of rationalism: rationalism as she defines it is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of rationalist strategies is always panic.
Two points jump out here, besides the Archbishop’s excellent taste. First, the Archbishop’s desire to defend an old-fashioned ideal of liberality, one that has little to do with political partisanship. The liberalism Archbishop Rowan Williams defends has its secular antecedent in the philosophy Aristotle. In his Ethics, Aristotle defines the liberal man as one who is praised with regard to “the giving and taking of wealth, and especially in respect of giving.” The liberal man knows how to give to the right people and how much. And such liberality, especially when directed toward the public, is an essential part of public virtue. In giving to the public, freely, the liberal man offers an example of public spirit and generosity that, more so than paying required taxes, affirms a belonging to something bigger and more meaningful than just himself. This is one reason for the importance of a culture of philanthropy.The question of liberalism is much in the air today. Not only do Republicans deride liberals, but since Paul Ryan’s selection there has been a raging debate about the tradition of liberal Catholicism. Many Catholics have argued that Ryan’s calls for austerity violate the Catholic ideals of social justice. In response, Bill McGurn argued this week in the Wall Street Journal that social justice is an optional requirement for Catholics, whereas support for human life is non-negotiable. McGurn writes:
Mr. Ryan’s own bishop, the Most Rev. Robert C. Morlino, addressed the subject with his most recent column in the diocesan paper for Madison, Wis. The church, he wrote, regards abortion as an “intrinsic evil” (meaning always and everywhere wrong, regardless of circumstances). In sharp contrast, he said, on issues such as how best to create jobs or help the poor, “there can be difference according to how best to follow the principles which the church offers.”
It is hard not to see the Archbishop of Canterbury’s review of Robinson’s book as a contribution to this debate over the requirements of liberal Christianity. For Archbishop Rowen, and unlike McGurn and Ryan’s own bishop, liberality is biblical in origin and demands an ethic of “non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity.” What that means is, of course, open for debate. But the requirement of liberal Catholic generosity itself is, pace the Archbishop, indisputable.A second point to glean from the Archbishop’s review is his interest in Robinson’s “striking diagnosis of the corrupting effect of rationalism.” The difference between thinking and rationalizing is that thinking refuses to sacrifice reality to the coherence of theory. Rationalism as Robinson has described it in so many of her essays and novels, elevates logical coherence above the factual messiness of reality. Rationalism “is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of rationalist strategies is always panic.”Where thinkers shine is in their responsiveness to individuals and singular events, and few writers today are more attentive to particulars than Marilynne Robinson. Robinson has spent the last few decades showing up the world’s leading scientists and theorists, exposing the leaps of faith upon which their scientific rationalizations are predicated. The effort is not to diminish science, but to warn us against denigrating the complexity of scientific knowing to simple faiths that offer easy answers to life’s perplexing questions.You can read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s review of Marilynne Robinson’s essays here. Better yet, download and read Marilynne Robinson’s ‘When I Was a Child I Read Books’. You can also read past discussions of Robinson’s work here and here.