January 27, 2021

Defying Categories


Many of us look for role models to guide us in our lives, our work, our faith traditions. I like to honor people who defy categorization, who are thoughtful enough to recognize that life’s palette contains more than black and white, who are humble enough to bow before mystery, bold enough to embrace truth and wisdom wherever they may be found.

This is why I’ve appreciated people like Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Eugene Peterson, Marva Dawn, and Robert Webber. This is why I love Marilynne Robinson.

Robinson is the author of one of the best American novels ever written, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead (see the IM review HERE). She has also written books of essays critiquing contemporary culture. Ms. Robinson is a mainline Protestant in the Calvinist tradition, a Congregationalist (United Church of Christ) who gets kudos from conservatives like Rod Dreher as well as words of gratitude from President Obama about the impact of her writings. Dreher says that, for him, “Robinson serves as a corrective from the leftish side of Christianity in the same way that Pope Francis does. That is, she challenges me to rethink my positions, and to go deeper into my understanding of my Christian faith and its implications for living in the world.”

A fine appreciation by Robert Long at the American Conservative credits her “with a thoughtful Christianity that transcends our current political divisions and economic ideologies.”

Marilynne Robinson represents a voice that has been all but lost in the cacophony of the culture wars: that of a traditional and, in many ways conservative, mainline Protestantism. She embodies a form of Christian humanism that is rooted in solid theology, immersed in church tradition, and committed to both intellectual integrity and a compassionate society. This is a woman who takes Calvin, the Western heritage of Christian thought, and the straightforward words of Jesus in the Gospels seriously.

Long quotes her as saying:

Well, what is a Christian, after all? Can we say that most of us are defined by the belief that Jesus Christ made the most gracious gift of his life and death for our redemption? Then what does he deserve from us? He said we are to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek. Granted, these are difficult teachings. But does our most gracious Lord deserve to have his name associated with concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws, things that fly in the face of his teaching and example? Does he say anywhere that we exist primarily to drive an economy and flourish in it? He says precisely the opposite. Surely we all know this. I suspect that the association of Christianity with positions that would not survive a glance at the Gospels or the Epistles is opportunistic, and that if the actual Christians raised these questions those whose real commitments are to money and hostility and potential violence would drop the pretense and walk away.

Political conservatives find some of the conclusions she draws unacceptable. For example, this is her take on how Americans should view governing themselves and caring for the needy:

As Christians, we must be concerned with outcomes—are the hungry fed, are the naked clothed, are the sick visited. The more strategies that are brought to bear on the problem—which current policy or lack there of has made a pressing problem—the greater the likelihood that it will be dealt with as Christ, who identifies himself unambiguously with those in need, tells us it must be. There is no analogy to be drawn between a beleaguered community governed, in effect, by a hostile and alien occupation and a modern society that can indeed govern itself and care for its own as it chooses. If we were indeed a Christian country I think we would be making other choices than many self-proclaimed Christians are trying to impose on us now. No talk of compassion impresses me when the tone of all reference to those who are struggling is hostile and judgmental. And of course anyone can be open-handed. But, as an American, I want to be able to help an American child in Detroit, an American family in Alaska, because they are as much my own as my dear Iowans. The national government is without question the most efficient means for this kind of ‘redistribution,’ a word that distracts from the deeper fact that one naturally wishes to share one’s blessings with one’s own.

church 1Now I happen to think that is a pretty brilliant analysis and an eminently sane point of view. Others may disagree, but as conservative Rod Dreher opines, “I totally respect that position, which is not to say I entirely agree with it. But see, Robinson and I could have a conversation, and work together, across political and religious lines.”

On the other hand, Robinson’s insistence that we do not abandon the intellectual and moral heritage of our forbears is thoroughly conservative and difficult for many liberals to swallow.

I think Dreher is asking the right questions when he reflects on the challenge of someone like Marilynne Robinson:

Question for the room: if you are someone who counts yourself as a conservative or traditionalist religious believer, are there any voices from the liberals in your faith that you take seriously, and listen to? Likewise, if you are a liberal within your faith tradition, are there any conservative or traditionalist voices that speak to you, and serve to challenge you in a constructive way? If so, who are they, and what is it about them that captures your attention and respect?

Let’s do all we can to avoid “hardening of the categories.”


  1. As I’ve matured in my walk with Jesus, the more I’m aware that my own beliefs about God are not exactly who God really is. This makes me more open to listening to voices like Marilynne Robinson’s, people whose beliefs don’t necessarily line up completely with my own, for they help me see God from other angles. I think perspectives like hers meld with more conservative views to give a fuller, more complete picture of who God and Jesus really are.

    Thanks for this article and all the links!

  2. Josh in FW says

    “. . . are there any voices from the liberals in your faith that you take seriously, and listen to?”

    Yes, most of them are commenters on this blog, and most of the rest are people I’ve learned about on this blog.

  3. David Cornwell says

    Marilynne Robinson is a wonderful and different writer. Thanks for using her as the basis for this discussion. And before I say anything else, I will identify my own present denominational home. I’ve hesitated to do this in the past because of the obvious disdain that some have expressed. Not to worry: I can understand your distaste. At the present time I myself am a member of a local UCC church. Chaplain Mike already knows this, and so far has not banned me!

    I am a former Methodist, still with strong Wesleyan inclinations. My college and seminary past are conservative-evangelical in origin. In spite of my present church home, I hold to a core of orthodoxy that is very much at home with the creeds of the church. The church I now attend is an old one, in the heart of a mid-size city. It’s tradition is of the old Congregational line. However our present pastor comes from the Evangelical and Reformed part of the church. In bible study he many times refers to the Evangelical Catechism he learned as a youth, quoting question and answer. He is a man who reads widely, and studies the scriptures (as much as a busy pastor can). He also loves the writings of Walter Brueggemann and N. T. Wright. So, this is a church home that challenges my thinking and nourishes me in worship.

    Recently I been reading various writings of Stanley Hauerwas. His is some of the most challenging writing I’ve ever considered. He is a Methodist, deeply influenced by Catholic and Mennonite tradition. He taught for many years at Notre Dame, then since that time at Duke. While in South Bend he read the works of John Howard Yoder, went to see him in Elkhart, and they became close friends. Yoder, a Mennonite, also taught at Notre Dame eventually.

    Hauerwas early on came under the influence of Karl Barth, and quickly saw the most glaring folly of traditional liberalism. So in many ways he is conservative. However the word does not do him justice. He describes himself as Catholic, Methodist, and congregationalist. Now he attends an Episcopal Church. He refuses to attend a church that does not take the Eucharist seriously. He is a radical pacifist. He fell in love with ethics and Catholic moral theology and insists on the carefulness of speech. However he has a profane tendency in personal speech which came from being the son of a Texas bricklayer. His stand on homosexuality is instructive, and won did not win him friends on either side. But that is another story.

    I like people who make me think. People here on this room challenge me. And I am capable of changing my mind.

    • +1

    • David Cornwell says

      Some garbled spelling & sentence structure in my post above. Sorry.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Most of my thinking has led me to be very confused as to who the ‘liberals’ are and who the ‘conservatives’ are. A great many of those in each camp would not be happy in the same room with each-other [liberals with liberals, conservatives with conservatives]. It seems everyone has their own short list of who is the archetype of each camp. And I’ve got no idea.

      It is very difficult to use those terms these days ‘religiously’, their political connotations have saturated the very floorboards of our culture and language.

      • David Cornwell says

        “Most of my thinking has led me to be very confused as to who the ‘liberals’ are and who the ‘conservatives’ are.”

        I agree. Most of the old definitions fall short of real meaning today. One way a person can catch on to something about the real meaning of a person’s views and life, is in the “graciousness” a person shows toward others. A person who displays this quality has a breadth and width about him/her that means as much or more than the stated ideology. And it is a demonstration of this from which civility flows. This does not mean that argument cannot take place, but it takes place in a state of respect toward the other person. This should especially be true of Christians.

    • David,

      Not to worry. My native ecclesial tradition was the non-united anti-institutional Church of Christ. Perhaps that is a reason that I won’t be part of a church organization that doesn’t take the Lord’s Supper seriously and often.

      Thanks for allowing me/us to know you better. You are love.

  4. Anonymously Yours says

    The national government is without question the most efficient means for this kind of ‘redistribution,’ a word that distracts from the deeper fact that one naturally wishes to share one’s blessings with one’s own.

    Then why should I give? If I pay 6.2% of my pay gross pay (which is matched by another 6.4% by my employer, essentially making it an invisible part of my paycheck) to support Social Security, Medicare, and disability; if I pay federal taxes to support Medicaid, SNAP, WIC, TANF, public housing, and the national school lunch program; if my state sales taxes, real estate taxes, and personal property taxes support public schooling…then why should I give to the poor?

    • You didn’t read the earlier part of the quote. The part you cited is about “this kind of redistribution.” But earlier in the paragraph she said, “The more strategies that are brought to bear on the problem—which current policy or lack there of has made a pressing problem—the greater the likelihood that it will be dealt with as Christ, who identifies himself unambiguously with those in need, tells us it must be.”

      • Adam Tauno Williams says


        > “this ***kind*** of redistribution.

        Every implementation is flawed and can be improved. Recognizing this is different than seeing flaws and responding by throwing up one’s hands and demanding the building be burned.

        > The more strategies that are brought to bear


        >without question the most efficient means for this kind of ‘redistribution,’

        There are notably very few serious proposals describing a *more* efficient means.

  5. As a liberal on most subjects, I hate the Baptists with a passion, but Ron Paul is a man I respect. Of course Libertarianism has elements in common with both conservatism and liberalism, which makes it difficult to classify for purposes of the present exercise. Of the several kinds of conservatism, it has obvious appeal to the anti-big-government wing, and less to the warhawks or the religious right. Meanwhile, liberals and Libertarians tend to agree on the evils of using the government to promote certain social values (a stance associated with the religious right), but part ways on the question of government spending on social programs, and other forms of intervention such as Affirmative Action. Robinson seems to support a government role in all these things, while I would like to see the whole system collapse.

  6. Liberals have a tendency to want more golden eggs out of that goose. Conservatives (and there really are compassionate ones) would like to preserve the life of the goose. Unfortunately, each kind is so busy demonizing the other that neither does much listening.

    I am fast becoming a fan of Wendell Berry, but am having some trouble categorizing him as either liberal or conservative. Maybe that’s why I’m developing so much respect for him.

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