Marilynne Robinson is author of one of the finest novels I have read in the past ten years, Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. More recently she has written a non-fiction work, Absence of Mind, a book exploring the often contentious and misunderstood relationship between science and religion.
I happened upon a link to a commencement address she gave earlier this summer at Holy Cross in Massachusetts. Despite widespread social pessimism about the state of the world, Robinson’s speech offers strong, hopeful encouragement. While reminding these college graduates of the extraordinary blessings or their cultural heritage, Robinson also hits on a theme important for contemporary Christians: these are auspicious times to be a believer. For it is precisely in times such as these that Christians are offered the exiting opportunity to live out the faith as an alternative to its many detractors and perceived irrelevance. I offer a lengthy quotation below, but encourage a full reading of Robinson’s excellent address. It is worthy investment of five minutes: http://www.holycross.edu/events/commencement/robinson_address.html
For those of us who are religious in any way or degree, the fact that much of the world, and certainly the secularized Western world, looks to us to see how religion is lived out, implies responsibility of a very high order. An institution like Holy Cross continues and exemplifies the unique historic importance of religion in the propagation of learning, and the love of learning, celebrated in the beauty and wealth of resources that typify American higher education. The association of religion with ignorance and narrowness is itself ignorant of religion’s cultural importance, historically and at present, in humanizing and enlightening the whole of society.
As students here you have been given a deepened sense of thoughtfulness and good conscience, which are, as I have said, the most important things you can bring to the world. We are supposed to be a very practical culture, very solution-oriented, and yet we have a tendency to fret endlessly over things that can be fixed. If, like my students, you feel as though your very good education is incomplete, you can fix that. In your years here you have been taught how to learn. If you are wary of assuming responsibilities to which you might feel inadequate, make yourselves adequate. And here I refer again to the thoughtfulness and good conscience in which you have been instructed. If you feel that Catholicism or Christianity or religion is not represented, by detractors or defenders, in ways that honor its profundity and beauty, live out its profundity and beauty. To do this is more telling than any argument.