01 February 2017, The Tablet

‘The Churches have disgraced themselves’

by Jon M. Sweeney


The American writer Marilynne Robinson believes Christian voters capitulated in the face of the fear and resentment that were stoked during the US election campaign. In an interview, she reflects on the reality of good and evil

Jon M. Sweeney: People are thinking about good and evil today. Many are wondering if good and evil exist in more than the abstract. You write about the nature of reality in the light of contemporary neuroscience in the “Humanism” essay in your latest book, The Givenness of Things, retrieving the soul as still valuable – but would you reflect with us on other ancient aspects of this question? Specifically, are good and evil real? And, if they are, what is the good? Is it God; is it transcendent; is it definable?

Marilynne Robinson: If I understand your question, you are asking me if I think good and evil can be reified, as they are in traditional language that speaks of Satan as an embodiment of evil, and an agent in his own right. I tend to think of all language as necessarily inexact when it is used to describe things beyond the experiential world – or, better, as free from the narrowness of meaning this-worldly understanding implies for it.

I think of evil as an aspect of human choices and actions, a failure to honour the sanctity of other human beings, as well as the abuse of creation with its inevitable human consequences. In some contexts it may be useful to speak of these undeniable tendencies in us by personifying them and, in effect, externalising them, but historically this has been dangerous – has empowered Satan, so to speak. He appears in the Book of Job to prepare the occasion for God’s overwhelming statement of his power when he speaks from the whirlwind.

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