Moses and Liberalism

[Please read Edward Wheeler's fine reflection before you read this.]

Two thoughts on democracy and community. First, GK Chesterton says somewhere that tradition in the democracy of the dead. Second, the rap group De La Soul rightly proclaims, "Neighborhoods become hoods when people aint neighbors." We can't take democracy seriously if we don't take tradition and community seriously. And in order to take these seriously, we also need to take history and hope seriously. Thinking about Moses is a good place to start.

Among their myriad gifts, the essays in Marilynne Robinson's latest collection, When I was a Child I Read Books, stress the importance of stories and the importance of imagination. The stories we tell about ourselves form who we are and how we relate to others. By necessity, our stories are selective, and one reason to read is to broaden our sense of the limits of our own stories. In the West, the Biblical narrative is one of the most important stories we have for understanding who we are and how our communities have formed. And Moses, needless to say, plays a big role in the Biblical narrative. In two extraordinary essays "Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism" and "The Fate of Ideas: Moses," Robinson helps us understand the Pentatuch anew. "Moses (by whom I mean the ethos and spirit of the Mosaic law, however it came to be articulated) in fact does not authorize any physical punishment for crimes against property. The entire economic and social history of Christendom would have been transformed if Moses had been harkened to only in this one particular" (101). Robinson's Moses is not the Moses of conquest or punitive laws. Her Moses is the protector of the poor. And as for the supposedly punitive and blood thirsty ancient Israelites, Robinson reminds us, "Every negative thing we know about [the Israelites in the Old Testament], every phrase that is used to condemn them, they supplied, in their incredible self-scrutiny and self-judgment. The preserved and magnified their vision of the high holiness of God by absorbing into themselves responsibility for their sufferings, and this made them passionately self-accusatory in ways no other people would have thought of being" (111).

Such self-scrutiny is in short supply these days, alas.

We have narrowed our culture to the firing of neurons, and we've hollowed out our communities to be arenas for economic competition. As Robinson notes, "our civilization has recently chosen to identify itself with a wildly oversimple model of human nature and behavior and then is stymied or infuriated by evidence that the models don't fit" (154). For the moment, at least, our imaginations have failed us. "We have forgotten that the more generous the scale at which the imagination is exerted, the healthier and more humane the community will be" (30). Instead of seeing others as our brothers and sisters, we see them as burdens on future generations or statistics in government reports. If we fail to help a brother or a sister, you see, we end up accusing ourselves. If we free ourselves from such burdens or move around statistics, we do so in the name of progress and competition. Such ersatz freedom forgets tradition and offers no grounds for hope.

For Robinson, one of the great gifts of Christianity to our political society is the vision it offers for communal life. The Christian narrative, she reminds us, "tells us that we individually and we as a world, turn our backs on what is true, essential, and wholly to be desired. And it tells us that we can both know this about ourselves and forgive it in ourselves and one another, within the limits of our mortal capacities "(18). We ought not forget that we have done this, and we are ever capable of doing it over and over again. Such a capability is a ground for hope. And this hope is grounded in the mysterious truth Christianity teaches: "there is that wondrous love to assure us that the world is more precious than we can possibly imagine" (140). "This is too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial interest or to be overwritten by any lesser, human tale" (141).

In the title essay of the collection, Robinson offers a glimpse of how her own tale fits within the great narrative she describes. As a child reading books in Idaho, she was opened to worlds far beyond her immediate community and the plot of land immediately around her. Personally I was heartened to learn that she studied Latin in school. She writes, "I admire Hemingway. It is simply an amusing coincidence that it should be Cicero, of all people, whose influence I must resist. This befell me because I was educated at a certain time in a certain place. When I went to college in New England, I found that I and a handful of boys prepared by Jesuits shared these quaint advantages" (88). Reading her collection helped me realize finally that Fr Bender, SJ and Fr Dorgan, SJ (and Mr Jackson and Dr Macchiarulo) did far more than teach me Latin (and Greek!) at the Jesuit high school I attended before going off to college in New England. When they were teaching me about the ethical dative and the ablative absolute, about Dido and Scipio Africanus, they were giving me the tools to read critically, imaginatively, and hopefully.

Scott D. Moringiello is an an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in Catholic theology and religion and literature. He blogs at dotCommonweal.

Also by this author
Annunciations

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Religion
Religion
Religion
Culture
Culture
Books
Books
Collections