On the Essays of Marilynne Robinson
Every few years, Marilynne Robinson bundles up a selection of her most recent lectures and publishes them in a single volume. That’s how she put together her impressive collections The Death of Adam, Absence of Mind, and When I Was a Child I Read Books, all of which enable readers to track the piecemeal path she has carved out in her sustained and rigorous efforts to grapple with some of the largest, weightiest, most contentious intellectual issues of our time. Especially vital among these issues, for Robinson, are the ongoing moral and political salience of Calvinist theology, which has been badly maligned in recent historical discourses, as well as the challenges posed more generally to contemporary Christianity by both its fundamentalist strain and the increasingly mainstream acceptance of scientific materialism.
Robinson’s faithful readers will be happy to learn that her signature issues are also the substance of her most recent book, The Givenness of Things. Probably, though, the faithful will be happier still to learn that this new collection of lectures is more iterative in its approach to its subjects than any of its predecessors, and as a consequence it is noticeably more cohesive and holistic. That’s not to say that it articulates a single thesis early on and then supports it with evidence and an overarching argument. It doesn’t defend its propositions so straightforwardly or in such a linear fashion. At bottom it remains exactly what it is, a grab-bag of occasional musings and public addresses delivered at a range of venerable academic and theological institutions. In its own peculiar way, however, it comes full circle, ending in a place that clarifies the thinking behind the claims with which it opens. Each chapter stands well enough on its own, but by placing them in one another’s company the book as a whole takes what might have been a diffuse set of intellectual excursions and refines them into the interrelated components of one woman’s fully formed worldview.
Underpinning that worldview is Robinson’s insistence on recognising, prior to any discussion of any other subject, the limitations, inadequacies, mistakes and misadventures, follies and foibles of the human animal. Time and again she wonders, awestruck, sometimes reverently, at the sheer messiness of being human, at the overwhelming potential for contradictions of character and conduct which are essential to our nature. “We wander the terrain of a very remarkable freedom,” she says, “to default, to betray, to habituate ourselves to mediocrity, to turn away from the emergencies that strike our nearest neighbors, or to profit from their misfortune. We are unique in nature for our ability to be consistently, even catastrophically, wrong.” Robinson never wavers in reminding her readers that ours is a species chronically prone to errors and self-delusions, and she holds that this is never more true than when humanity’s most sophisticated minds attempt to understand what we are, and what sort of world we inhabit, in materialistic terms that are both ironclad and arbitrarily restrictive.
Contemporary neuroscience is the first discipline to enter Robinson’s sights as a target for a broader critique of this materialistic view of the world. Neuroscience “asserts a model of mental function as straightforward, causally speaking, as a game of billiards,” she says in the opening lecture:
The gist of neuroscience is that the adverbs ‘simply’ and ‘merely’ can exorcise the mystifications that have always surrounded the operations of the mind/brain, exposing the machinery that in fact produces emotion, behavior, and all the rest. So while [particle physicists conduct] inquiries into the substance of reality [and arrive at findings that] reveal further subtleties, idioms of relation that are utterly new to our understanding [of the physical universe], neuroscience tell us that the most complex object we know of, the human brain, can be explained sufficiently in terms of the activation of ‘packets of neurons,’ which evolution has provided the organism in service to homeostasis. The amazing complexity of the individual cell is being pored over in other regions of science, while neuroscience persists in declaring the brain, this same complexity vastly compounded, an essentially simple thing.
Then comes the killer comment: “If this could be true,” Robinson concludes, “if this most intricate and vital object could be translated into an effective simplicity for which the living world seems to provide no analogy, this indeed would be one of nature’s wonders.”
Robinson’s overall argument, which rarely takes the form of conventional argumentation, is that scientific materialism offers an ostensibly comprehensive yet essentially reductionist view of humankind. This view appears to explain a great deal about the inner workings of the human animal, but it achieves this appearance by systematically “exclud[ing] complexity,” eliding any recognition of the idiosyncrasies of individual human beings. This elision, for Robinson, amounts to a lack of comprehensiveness and therefore of true comprehension, an inability on the part of science to account for the uniqueness and distinctiveness of each person. It amounts to a scientifically driven failure to face up to “individuality with all its attendant mysteries,” to see differentiation and particularisation as more definitive components of the human experience of the world than our material similarities. Or perhaps it’s less a failure than a refusal — it’s possible that methodological refinements which would complicate scientific findings “might not be welcome” — and on that basis Robinson sets about advancing a series of rebukes to scientific materialism for its apparent hubris.
She rebukes the systemic displacement of the difficulties that stem from the sheer, unbroachable subjectivity of our interpretation of scientific findings, pointing out that “no model of the universe of things can be descriptive [if it] does not take into account the reality of human existence and nature, first of all in the fact that they are the sole lens or portal through which we know anything.” She points out, too, that our subjectivity not only involves inadvertent distortions of our understanding of scientific findings but also leads us to wilfully distort our understanding of their implications. “Much scientific thinking,” she writes, partakes of too far-reaching “extrapolat[ion] from our radically partial model of reality,” even though this model is “curtailed, unaccountably and arbitrarily, by the exclusion of much that we do know about the vast fabric and the fine grain of the cosmos in which we live and move and have our being.” Then, Robinson contends, the vocabulary of scientific materialism is too constrained to adequately account for the expansiveness of human capabilities, “encourag[ing us] to accept as hard truth a conception of reality that deprives us of the means to talk about ourselves in clearly necessary terms, as precious… or tragic, or epochal.”
All of this is to say nothing of the propensity of the truncated vocabulary of science to frame and structure lines of inquiry in ways that exacerbate the risk of confirmation bias. “When we fling some ingenious mock sensorium out into the cosmos so that it can report back what it finds there,” Robinson writes, “inevitably it provides human answers, data addressed to notions of relevance that, however sophisticated, are human notions. We will never know what we don’t know how to ask, which is probably almost everything.” Nor is it to face up to the anthropocentrism at the heart of our faith in scientific endeavour, or, most galling for Robinson, to call out the hypocrisy of scientific criticisms of religious belief on the basis of the anthropocentrism of theology. “The physicality enshrined by the neuroscientists as the measure of all things is not objectivity,” Robinson insists, “but instead a pure artifact of the scale at which and the means by which we and our devices perceive,” making it therefore “quintessentially anthropocentric.” Moreover, she adds, “the notion that the universe is constructed, or we are evolved, so that reality must finally answer in every case to the questions we bring to it, is entirely as anthropocentric as the [theological] notion that the universe was designed to make us possible.”
In her drive to countervail this false certitude in the objectives and methods of contemporary scientific inquiry, Robinson lays out a worldview that facilitates a greater appreciation of three key aspects of human experience: the improbable, the provisional, and the gratuitous. Perhaps, though, it’s better to say that she writes her lectures in a way that performs this worldview instead of assembling it piece by piece. She doesn’t attempt to give it a clearly articulated form so much as she writes from within it. Her writing itself therefore embodies her warmth towards these aspects of experience, arising from a place in which they are already deeply cherished.
By “the improbable,” I mean the human experience of entities that undeniably exist in the world despite the odds against their existence under the terms of scientific rationalism. “There has been a marked tendency to treat the commonplace as the standard by which the plausible, the credible, is to be gauged,” Robinson writes, urging her readers, entreating her readers, not to overlook the almost miraculous existence of the things we take for granted simply because they are part of the given world — things among which she includes humankind itself. “[W]e know now that the overwhelmingly preponderant forms and theaters of existence are utterly alien to such business,” she writes. “Any reasonable standard of possibility would declare us to be impossible,” and a recognition of our existence in spite of its extraordinary improbability should entail a humble veneration of what Robinson calls “the great strangeness of the human situation.”
By “the provisional,” I mean the human experience of facing situations that demand a tussle with, and a response to, incomplete knowledge or unintelligible stimuli, or an event or phenomenon towards which one cannot maintain a fixed and stable stance. In a lecture on the importance of grace in the plays of William Shakespeare, for instance, Robinson declines to read Shakespeare as locating himself firmly on any particular side of the complicated theological disputes of his time. Instead, she prefers to affirm simply that Shakespeare, faced with a multitude of competing and exclusionary theological notions, “took an intelligent interest in them,” and she demonstrates that in his plays he “test[ed] various and opposed ideas, giving each one extraordinarily just consideration.” In saying as much, Robinson knows that she places herself at odds with many contemporary academic scholars, for whom historical figures like Shakespeare are too often to treated “as if a leaning were an identity, and might not change from year to year, depending on whom one had spoken with lately, or what one had read, or how an argument settled into individual thought or experience,” and for whom, among the intellectually unacceptable answers to questions like “Which side are you on?” are provisional responses such as “I’m still deciding” or “I see merit in a number of positions.” But Robinson’s own propositions and conclusions are often as provisional as Shakespeare’s views on grace. The phrase that recurs most frequently in The Givenness of Things is “be that as it may.” It appears regularly throughout, and occasionally several times in a single lecture. It’s the phrase Robinson deploys when she encounters and gives due airtime to an objection to something she has said, and wishes to proceed with her case without being halted by the objection yet also without denying its potency. She doesn’t just say there’s value in provisional positions. She herself takes provisional positions in ways that reaffirm their value.
Finally, by “the gratuitous,” I mean the human experience of things that exist for purposes that cannot be reduced to the instrumental, especially those things that have been created by people for whom the creation is valuable in itself. Robinson is a novelist, of course, so it’s only to be expected that she would advocate an appreciation of the gratuitous. That said, her reasons are not entirely self-serving and her purview extends beyond the territory of literature to encompass the arts and humanities as a whole. She is enticed to appreciate them on at least two counts. She appreciates them, first of all, because they “vividly [display] the accomplishments and therefore the capacities of humankind,” dovetailing with the moves of scientific materialism to restrictively define humankind and to definitively catalogue and quantify its capacities. Moreover, though, she appreciates them because they are precisely what escape materialistic accounts of human experience:
The old humanists took the works of the human mind — literature, music, philosophy, art, and languages — as proof of what the mind is and might be. Out of this has come the great aura of brilliance and exceptionalism around our species that neuroscience would dispel. If Shakespeare had undergone an MRI there is no reason to believe there would be any more evidence of extraordinary brilliance in him than there would be of a self or a soul. He left a formidable body of evidence that he was both brilliant and singular, but it has fallen under the rubric of Renaissance drama and is somehow not germane, perhaps because this places the mind so squarely at the center of the humanities. From the neuroscientific point of view, this only obscures the question. After all, where did our high sense of ourselves come from? From what we have done and what we do. And where is this awareness preserved and enhanced? In the arts and the humane disciplines. I am sure there are any number of neuroscientists who know and love Mozart better than I do, and who find his music uplifting. The inconsistency is for them to explain.
But what Robinson takes it upon herself to explain is the consistency between the reductive nature of scientific materialism and that of neoliberal economics or economic rationalism. The neoliberal vision of human nature is similarly materialistic, and therefore similarly marginalises the arts and humanities, and Robinson is troubled by the extent to which neoliberal thinking has imperilled the arts and humanities at the colleges and universities that once offered them institutional safehaven. These disciplines, she laments,
are now diminished and threatened. Their utility is in question, it seems, despite their having been at the center of learning throughout the period of the spectacular material and intellectual flourishing of Western civilization. Now we are less interested in equipping and refining thought, more interested in creating and mastering technologies that will yield measurable enhancements of material well-being… [and] less interested in the exploration of the glorious mind, more engrossed in the drama of staying ahead of whatever it is we think is pursuing us.
At this juncture, of course, there’s not a great deal of difference between Robinson’s worldview and that of, say, Martha Nussbaum. The only significant distinction would be that Robinson still has her theological predispositions and her affection for Calvinism sitting off to the side of her humanistic critiques of scientific materialism and the growing neoliberal instrumentalism of colleges and universities. But a quirk of her worldview as it appears in The Givenness of Things is that the ethics of Calvinism and the history of American Christianity jointly serve as the basis for her robust defence of the need for a respectful institutional custodianship of the arts and humanities.
As Robinson reminds her readers, many of “the fine colleges founded in the Middle West when it was still very much a frontier” — among them Oberlin, Grinnell, and Knox — now boast as their founders people whose motives were “utterly and explicitly Christian.” Moreover, these founders held it to be a sacred principle of Christian life that one has a moral duty to show “generosity to the generality of people,” a generosity they themselves showed by way of creating institutions with the intention of “disseminating as broadly as possible the best of civilization as the humanist tradition understood it.” “Rather than [charging] tuition,” Robinson writes, “the colleges required all their students to do the chores necessary to the functioning of these little academic outposts.” In return, “the young men and women who found themselves on the prairie” would be “offered demanding curricula from the beginning,” including “logic and classical history,” on the assumption that they “would want to be educated to the highest standards.”
The extension of this sort of demanding offer — charitable in spirit, yet impossible to accept without also accepting a host of obligations difficult to meet — makes the liberal arts college, as historically conceived, very much the antithesis of more recent theological outreach organizations. “At first,” Robinson complains of the twentieth century dumbing-down of American Christianity, “it seemed like an extravagant compliment to say that nothing mattered much if it did not address people where they were. But then it became clear that where people were, thus understood, was a very narrow place [and t]he solution that was offered was to narrow it still further.” She offers an inverse appraisal of an antique American Bible published in 1892, an edition that was originally sold to a mass readership by a company that usually manufactured hand wringers. This edition came complete with multiple translations of the text and dense scholarly exegeses of the various historical contexts of the Bible, and yet it was aimed squarely at readers whose daily business revolved around the drudgery of domestic housework. “Something no longer American [about it],” Robinson writes drolly, “is that there is no condescension in it.” It is the voice of a Christianity that refuses to talk down to those readers regardless of their intellectual situation, appealing to them in the good faith that they have the fortitude and the willingness to rise to the intellectual challenges it poses.
In this respect, that edition of the Bible and the liberal arts colleges of the Midwest emerged in the nineteenth century as continuations of the work of John Calvin, a man who is, for Robinson, the humanist scholar and educator par excellence. She praises Calvin for his sixteenth century Latin translations of the Hebrew and Greek books of the Bible, as well as his writings in vernacular French and the influence of those writings on the English Reformation. “It is hard now to imagine a world in which everything of importance — law, humane learning, science, and religion — was carried on in a language known only by an educated minority,” Robinson writes, and she sees Calvin as the exemplar of those Reformation theologians who changed the world by acting on “the desire to share the best treasure of their faith and learning with the masses of unregarded poor whom they knew to be ready, and very worthy, to receive it.” She is particularly taken by Calvin’s humanistic reverence for the divine, as manifest in his charity towards his fellow human beings:
I have a collection of Calvin’s writings, nowhere near complete but daunting all the same, dozens of volumes of disciplined and elegant explication from the hand of a man whose health was never good, who shouldered for decades the practical and diplomatic problems of Geneva, a city under siege, and whose writings inspired and also endangered the individuals and populations across Europe who read them, whether or not they were persuaded by them. To say that these things are humbling would be to understate the matter wildly. … When I see Calvin in his commentaries pausing once again over the nuances and ambiguities of a Hebrew word as if his time and his patience and his strength were all inexhaustible, I am touched by how respectful he is, phrase by phrase and verb by verb, of the text of Scripture, and therefore how respectful he is of any pastor and of all those to whom that pastor will preach.
In other words, Robinson sees a chain leading from the democratising, proselytising, educational, and thus essentially humanistic impulses of the Reformation, to the placement of the arts and humanities centuries later at the hearts of liberal arts colleges and universities across America. But she also sees a chain leading from places of higher learning to the growing reach of scientific materialism and economic rationalism, and therefore a situation in which the humanistic glories of the Reformation are being undercut by unforeseen outgrowths of the institutions they produced. She doesn’t have any solutions for this particular state of affairs. “We have as good grounds for exulting in human brilliance as any generation that has ever lived,” she says at the start of The Givenness of Things. The nuance of that claim is telling: the grounds may be solid, but the social and intellectual structures aren’t. There’s not much she or anyone else can do except patiently protest against the status quo, patiently elucidate and embody an alternative way of seeing the world.
I confess I can’t completely give myself over to Robinson’s worldview. I’m not a Christian, I’m not a believer of any kind, I’m not willing to yield to theological precepts with enough comfort for Robinson to persuade me to share her outlook. Still, for all that, I’m inclined to adopt her own words and say that I see merit in a number of positions, especially when — and this is crucial — the painstaking delineation and the self-reflexive investigation of those positions is as sophisticated as hers. Do I need to become a convinced Christian, or even a convinced Calvinist, in order to feel that The Givenness of Things is a triumphant achievement? I marvel at the finesse of Robinson’s logic, the subtlety of her contentions, the beauty of her insights, the scope and depth of her vision, and the graciousness of her prose. I marvel, too, at the spectacle of the book as a whole, its incremental portrait of a mind going to work on the world and on itself and on the interplay between the two. True to its title, it feels like a rare sort of gift, a privilege, an act of generosity and, yes, of sheer, unasked-for gratuity. Its beauty lies, in part, in the fact that nobody called on Robinson to write of her world in this way. Its greater beauty lies in the fact that she did it at all, and did it so sincerely, when she didn’t have to.