Obama and Marilynne Robinson
October 13, 2015 8:59 AM   Subscribe

President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa. "It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level. And it [applies] to everyone. It’s the human image. It’s not any loyalty or tradition or anything else; it’s being human that enlists the respect, the love of God being implied in it."
posted by leesh (30 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
This looks great! So much for finishing that paper revision today... Before getting in too far I looked up the essay mentioned: Fear by the second participant.
posted by TreeRooster at 9:15 AM on October 13, 2015

When was the last time that a sitting president had a publicly-reported conversation like this? If ever?
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:26 AM on October 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Robinson: Well, I believe that people are images of God. There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding.

This is so problamatic to me. What is really being said here? That we should treat everyone the way we'd want to treat god? Cause how is that helpful, when people would have good reason to be angry at god for the injustices of their lives?
posted by agregoli at 9:29 AM on October 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable

Well, the problem is in the framing.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:38 AM on October 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think she's saying that all humans are made in God's image, not just Christians or Christians who are the same kind of Christian as her, and therefore it's contrary to her understanding of Christianity to view people as other.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:39 AM on October 13, 2015 [12 favorites]

I mean, right after that we get:
The President: How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?

Robinson: Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously. I don’t know—I mean, this has happened over and over again in the history of Christianity, there’s no question about that, or other religions, as we know.

But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—“Love thy neighbor as thyself”—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:42 AM on October 13, 2015 [11 favorites]

Re: being angry with God for the injustices in our lives, Elie Weisel would say "don't blame God for the crimes of man".
But anyway, why couldnt one be angry with God, or your fellow human being? And "Being an image of god" doesn't mean that the image is equivalent to God, any more than a photo is the same as the thing it represents. But there is a resemblance, and that resemblance is holy. No matter how flawed the representation is, there is a gleam of the Holy in all of us.

- speaking as an atheist
posted by kingv at 9:51 AM on October 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think humans believing they are at all akin to the idea of god is scary, but that's just me. This is an unusual convo with a president, that's for sure.
posted by agregoli at 10:02 AM on October 13, 2015

GOP politicians seem to all want to cash in as Fox talking heads; meanwhile, Obama is auditioning to be the next Charlie Rose?
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:05 AM on October 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think that it's more like that one of the perks of being president is that you get to arrange to gab with your favorite authors if you feel like it.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:06 AM on October 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Marilynne Robinson was one of my writing instructors in Iowa, years ago. Long, bleak winters in Iowa, folks. I mean forget about it. And this was in 2008, right around election time. At one point, the subject of the Future Of The United States came up and I remember Marilynne saying something measured like "If Obama doesn't become president, we'll all manage to deal with it somehow, but be faced with 'toiling in our own vineyard' another four years." Not long after, I remember being down at the Foxhead, watching a baffling "hologram" of will.i.am on CNN, and maybe it was starting to snow. I put another couple quarters in the juke before heading out, homeward, on the starry Iowa boulevard- and not a vineyard in sight. My point is that, while certainly a genius, Marilynne is also most likely a benevolent time traveler intent upon preserving the future of the republic.
posted by Bob Regular at 10:11 AM on October 13, 2015 [21 favorites]

I think humans believing they are at all akin to the idea of god is scary, but that's just me.

I'm also an atheist, but I find nothing scary about this. The "man is created in the image of the divine" has repeatedly been interpreted, by both Judaism and Christianity, and a near-superhuman call for respecting other people. Moreover, in the Old Testament, it is absolutely explicit that both men and women are created in the image of the divine. It is the reason given for the injunction against murder.

The phrase may be the origin for modern human rights, which William Haller places with Richard Overton, the founder of the Levellers, who argued that, because all people are created in the image of God, no one person has a right to force their beliefs on any other: "That as God created all men according to his image [...]. That the magistrate is not to force or compel men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine but to leave Christian religion free, to every man's conscience [...]."

And those who did not interpret it as a call to human rights have tended to see it as a call toward rationalism and free will -- that's explicitly what Pope Benedict XVI wrote on the subject.

So if the phrase "image of God" has historically been a call toward respecting other humans, and understanding ourselves as creatures possessing a unique and valuable capacity for rationality and abstract thought, well, I think these are good things. I suppose other, worse interpretations are possible, but they are always possible.
posted by maxsparber at 10:30 AM on October 13, 2015 [8 favorites]

The thing that disturbs me is, the implication that it would be perfectly fine to murder any creatures who happen not to be made in the image of God.
posted by thelonius at 10:32 AM on October 13, 2015

Was just going to post this, such a fascinating read. Robinson has fast grown to be someone I always look forward to reading.
posted by Fizz at 10:34 AM on October 13, 2015

The thing that disturbs me is, the implication that it would be perfectly fine to murder any creatures who happen not to be made in the image of God.

That's not an implication.

That's like saying human rights implies there aren't animal rights. But the response would be: No. Human rights is concerned with humans, and is neutral on the question of animal rights.
posted by Dalby at 10:38 AM on October 13, 2015 [6 favorites]

The thing that disturbs me is, the implication that it would be perfectly fine to murder any creatures who happen not to be made in the image of God.

The next passage is "let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." It's easy to interpret this as "everything is owned by you," but the Bible actually immediately contradicts this, and repeatedly does so, by expressing all sorts of laws about what animals may be killed and eaten, what may not, how they should be tended to, etc.

As a result, there is a lot of history of interpreting "dominion" as, essentially, stewardship, and that nature exists for its own reasons. Rabbi Hirsch, as an example, wrote that "The earth and its creatures may have other relationships of which we are ignorant, in which they serve their own purpose."

Now, of course, it is possible to interpret the passage other ways. But it is not necessary or universal to interpret them in any particular way, and so there is no reason to presume that man being made in God's image means that other animals are beneath concern and can have anything at all done to them.
posted by maxsparber at 10:48 AM on October 13, 2015 [6 favorites]

[Couple comments deleted. Let's skip the lolreligion, and if you don't know who Robinson is, it's best to find out or just skip the thread rather than being dismissive.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:51 AM on October 13, 2015 [8 favorites]

[Couple more comments deleted. This link has a lot to engage with, please don't just come in with general points against Obama, when we could have an actual discussion about the linked material.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:58 AM on October 13, 2015

On reading the interview, my first response was, OF COURSE OBAMA LOVES JOHN AMES. OF COURSE HE DOES.
posted by joyceanmachine at 11:23 AM on October 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

This was very interesting, and there are many points to talk about, not the least of which is that it's basically Obama interviewing Robinson, not the opposite.

But I was struck most by the fact that Obama could discuss America the way he did, and Americans the way he did, as if they had agency in the political process, while he must recognize that he and his predecessors have given that power to corporations. So it's nice and all that we, the people, are basically good and want to do good things, but honestly dude, how can we. Tell me, how can we.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:25 AM on October 13, 2015

I suspect that Obama would reject the premise that all agency has been ceded to corporations. Not saying that you’re wrong, but I don’t think Obama would be the president if he believed otherwise.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:33 AM on October 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I first saw Bill Forsythe's Housekeeping before reading the book. And had to read the book because I had to know about the children in the forest. And then the novel was assigned in a Women's studies course and I was ecstastic to write a paper about it, and have reread it many times since. It's true of some other writers as well, but Robinson manages a prose that's a breath away from poetry throughout that novel. Her sentences are measured by an attention that's formidable. Prior to her, I had come to put Flannery O'Connor on a pedestal for many of the same concerns of form. And they're both devoutly faithful and I have no such inclinations as my worldviews were shaped by Asimov and Sagan. I relish being flabbergasted by every word these two women have produced and do produce.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 11:36 AM on October 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

That's not an implication.

Sure, it doesn't follow from the propositional conditional, but, if you defend morality on a supernatural basis, you are vulnerable to the idea that, without that basis, anything goes. Or so it seems to me.
posted by thelonius at 11:38 AM on October 13, 2015

"Si Dieu nous a faits à son image, nous le lui avons bien rendu."
"If God has made us in his image, we have returned him the favor." - Voltaire
posted by larrybob at 11:42 AM on October 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

Additionally on the point of animal rights and religion, I think it's interesting that before the Fall, both man and animal were vegans:

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.”

I've seen it suggested that the pre-Fall features of the world are actually the ideals that God envisioned for us, from which we have erred. So even though many of the early Jewish leaders were not faithful to one woman, we are not to read this as being something acceptable, as the ideal that was given forth in Genesis is still that of monogamy. Thus this picture of the world as strongly vegan is also that which we are to understand as ideal.
posted by Dalby at 12:15 PM on October 13, 2015

As maxsparber points out, the belief that man is made in the image of God has been the basis for some radical conclusions, it was central to many of the English Dissenting tradition, especially to the Ranters for whom it forms the basis of their belief in the indwelling divine. From here it was only a short step to something close to outright atheism, Christopher Hill, in The World Turned Upside Down quote a report of a "bricklayer of Hackney" who stated "Christ was not God, or alternatively that he himself was as much God as Christ was."

There is an interesting line that can be drawn from the Ranters to the theology of William Blake, via the Muggletonians. In the "Everlasting Gospel" Blakes devotes a large section to attacking the notion that Jesus was chaste and writes:
That they may call a shame and sin
Love’s temple that God dwelleth in,
And hide in secret hidden shrine
The naked Human Form Divine,
And render that a lawless thing
On which the Soul expands its wing.
This section is central to Blake's thought, and the idea that man is made in the image of God is central to understanding it: Blake is arguing here that to go naked is present your self in the image of God, and that sex, the "thing, on which the Soul expands its wing" is the earthly manifestation of divine love.

Marilynne Robinson's conclusions are fairly timid in comparison but fall within a long line of though that takes this belief to stand for a kind on muscular egalitarian Christianity founded on radical acceptance. It's a good foundation for arguing, as Robinson does, at least indirectly, that the kind of divisive, intolerant judgment that has come to characterize much of the discourse of social issues from the Theological right, is without basis in Christianity.
posted by tallus at 1:11 PM on October 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

Gilead was just bad. "It was miraculous!" ...hardly
posted by judson at 11:03 AM on October 14, 2015

Gilead was just bad. "It was miraculous!" ...hardly

Your incorrect opinion is noted.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:24 AM on October 14, 2015

This is fantastic. Wow. I've never heard of Marilynne Robinson before (and I live in Iowa City). I think I'll pick up Gilead today.

I'm struck by how well this could be described as an interview conducted by the President. If journalists put as much effort into interviewing, say, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna as this President did for a conversation with Robinson, we'd all be better for it.
posted by nicodine at 2:19 PM on October 14, 2015

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