“Stop doing this to yourselves.”
In its Fall 2008 issue, The Paris Review interviews Marilynne Robinson. The whole thing is worth reading, but one exchange is especially interesting.
It may be true that real religious experience is incompatible with a merely instrumental understanding of religion. But, as Robinson makes clear, this doesn’t mean that religious believers are unconscious or disdainful of the usefulness of religious belief and practice. Here the interviewer refers to the main character in Robinson’s 2004 novel, Gilead:
Ames believes that one of the benefits of religion is “it helps you concentrate. It gives you a good basic sense of what is being asked of you and also what you might as well ignore.” Is this something that your faith and religious practice has done for you?
Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. It’s only very recently that you couldn’t see how the high arts are intimately connected to religion.
Is this frame of religion something we’ve lost?
There was a time when people felt as if structure in most forms were a constraint and they attacked it, which in a culture is like an autoimmune problem: the organism is not allowing itself the conditions of its own existence. We’re cultural creatures and meaning doesn’t simply generate itself out of thin air; it’s sustained by a cultural framework. It’s like deciding how much more interesting it would be if you had no skeleton: you could just slide under the door.
The interviewer turns to the subject of science and religion — and to Robinson’s criticism of the New Atheists. Robinson insists that science and religious faith seem incompatible only to one who has a “naive understanding of religion and a naive understanding of science.”
But doesn’t science address an objective notion of reality while religion addresses how we conceive of ourselves?
As an achievement, science is itself a spectacular argument for the singularity of human beings among all things that exist. It has a prestige that comes with unambiguous changes in people’s experience—space travel, immunizations. It has an authority that’s based on its demonstrable power. But in discussions of human beings it tends to compare downwards: we’re intelligent because hyenas are intelligent and we just took a few more leaps.
The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave consistently with our own dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this endlessly.