Marilynne Robinson, the author of the beautiful novels Gilead and Home, recently visited Duke University where she gave a reading and was interviewed by Jason Byassee. In the course of that interview, she said
What people need in this culture is truthfulness, dignity and aesthetic quality. Not everything in the world, but many things are depleting exactly those aspects of life now.
The churches are in a position to give people what they urgently need and give them something that is only consistent with their dignity as human beings.
This intrigues me because of what she suggests about what the churches might offer humans “truthfulness and dignity” and the importance of beauty. One of the great challenges facing us as individuals and as a civilization is the extent to which everything in our world tends towards our diminishment–the reduction of human desire to consumption, of human community to immediate self-satisfaction, and of human fulfillment to wealth accumulation.
There’s a sense in which our encounter with beauty, whether that be the beauty of nature, of art or architecture, of literature or music, invites us to self-transcendence. It’s what I see when I watch a wanderer off the street encounter the interior of Grace Church, or chat with a visitor after our choral Eucharist. It’s also something of what Grace has offered in the midst of the political turmoil over the last year.
Robinson has also published a rambling essay in the most recent issue of The Nation. In this piece she reflects on developments in the culture of the West in the wake of financial turmoil by playing the present off against the cultural conflict of the Cold War.
I have always identified the United States with its best institutions and traditions, its best thought, believing, and having seen, that they could act as a corrective to the less admirable aspects of the culture. I have profoundly enjoyed the wealth of experience that has been offered to me, and I hope I have made some use of it. Yet it seems to me, on the darkest nights, and sometimes in the clear light of day, that we are losing the ethos that has sustained what is most to be valued in our civilization. This may sound alarmist. But it is true, to paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, that fear is very much to be feared, not least because it is a potent stimulant. Nothing is so effective at foregrounding self-interest. Yet fear is the motive behind most self-inflicted harm. Western society at its best expresses the serene sort of courage that allows us to grant one another real safety, real autonomy, the means to think and act as judgment and conscience dictate. It assumes that this great mutual courtesy will bear its best fruit if we respect, educate, inform and trust one another. This is the ethos that is at risk as the civil institutions in which it is realized increasingly come under attack by the real and imagined urgencies of the moment. We were centuries in building these courtesies. Without them “Western civilization” would be an empty phrase.