Monday, April 9, 2012

Marilynne Robinson on Community and Imagination: Applications for Contemporary Catholicism

In her new book When I Was a Child I Read Books (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012),  Marilynne Robinson sees the basis of community as "imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly." And so she thinks that when the definition of community hardens, contracts, and becomes violently exclusive and defensive, tragedy results both for those against whom the edge of such definitions are turned, and for those developing such exclusive and weaponlike definitions of community.

Robinson writes,

When definitions of "us" and "them" begin to contract, there seems to be no limit to how narrow these definitions can become.  As they shrink and narrow, they are increasingly inflamed, more dangerous and inhumane.  They present themselves as movements toward truer and purer community, but as I have said, they are the destruction of community.  They insist that the imagination must stay within the boundaries they establish for it, that sympathy and identification are only allowable within certain limits.  I am convinced that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global ("Imagination and Community,"pp. 21, 26).

As I read these fine, soul-making reflections, how can I avoid thinking of

  • The defiant pride with which some American Catholics have jumped on the bandwagon of the U.S. Catholic bishops in their politically motivated crusade against the Obama administration, and the unreflective way in which these tribal-thinking Catholics supporting the bishops have sought to retrieve tainted language about atavistic Catholic tribalism as if that language is positive and not negative.
  • The fierce tribalistic us-vs.-them defensiveness with which some American Catholics going to war on the bishops' behalf over the Obama administration's contraceptive coverage guidelines have spoken of federal authorities as "interlopers" in internal Catholic affairs--as if no Catholics at all are involved in the government's decision to mandate contraceptive coverage in health care plans, and as if no Catholics at all support the use of birth control.
  • The purer, truer church of reaction that the current pope assisted Pope John Paul II to begin crafting, when Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he worked tirelessly to narrow the definition of Catholicism to what a pope decrees, silencing one theologian after another to assure the dominance of such a cripplingly narrow, imagination-stunted definition of catholicity.

We Catholics have, for some time now, been living through a moment in the history of our church in which the shrinking and narrowing of the notion of catholicity has been a central imperative from the very center of the church, as theological thinking is reined in, those raising troubling theological questions are punished and excluded from community, and the sensus fidelium is totally ignored insofar as it does not coincide with papal will.  We Catholics have, for some time now, been living through a moment in the history of our church when the Catholic imagination has been deliberately--and this is so astonishing, for an institution that claims it wants a future--lobotomized by the pastoral leaders of the church, as they make their need for top-down control the central value to be pursued in the church.  Top-down control, rather than fostering the inspirited imagination of the Catholic community and paying close attention to the rich lived experience of Catholic beliefs and values by the community as a whole. . . .

We Catholics are living through a moment in which the us-vs.-them mentality is being asserted with draconian ferocity not merely against those who follow spiritual paths outside the Catholic church, but against fellow Catholics, so that increasing numbers of Catholics are now defined by those who equate authentic catholicity with what the pope and bishops say as "them"--not part of us.  Not to be tolerated among us in the purer, truer church.

A smaller, purer, truer church whose imagination has become so crippled by the process of reaction that a third of American Catholics have had to walk away in recent years, to find approximations of Catholic imagination someplace other than within the Catholic community itself--a community that, the more it clings to (and defiantly retrieves) tribalistic understandings of itself, the less capable of sustaining imaginative love for Others it becomes.

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