A Mind to Know God

Review: 'What Are We Doing Here' by Marilynne Robinson

President Barack Obama presents a 2012 National Humanities Medal to novelist Marilynne Robinson / Getty Images

An important part of my education began with a discussion of fairies. Before orientation at my small midwest liberal arts college, I overheard a professor who would become my mentor and friend complain of a student who confessed the existence of fairies and other nature spirits. His elfen creed was this student's act of resistance to the world's desacralization, a gesture of defiance at modernity's disenchantment. My friend understood the sentiment, sympathized with this desire for Narnia, but objected on the rather Chestertonian grounds that creation was plenty miraculous and magical enough without Puck dancing in sacred groves. He objected as a Christian and as a scholar of the early modern. The novelist Marilynne Robinson, had she met the student, might have gently responded in much the same way for much the same reasons.

As the psalmist says, in Robinson's preferred Geneva Bible:

When I behold thine heavens, even the works of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained, What is man, say I, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than God, and crowned him with glory and worship. Thou hast made him to have dominion in the works of thine hands, thou hast put all things under his feet.

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And as Robinson writes:

We might praise the fruitfulness of the ground and the general constancy of the seasons more rapturously than even the psalmist did, knowing what he could hardly know, that reality is overwhelmingly of another kind, and that this earth is so minor an exception to the generality of things that it is insignificant in any account of the universe, unless, of course, it is the very quintessence of significance.

Almost as graceful as her novels, What Are We Doing Here?: Essays continues Robinson's defense of wonder at creation—as Being, made and sustained by God—and humanity as its summit and microcosm, of liberal arts colleges and theology, of Puritans and others lost in late modernity's editing of the early modern. To her, desacralization and disenchantment are a matter mostly of forgetting; history, lowercase, would show us we need not be so dreary about ourselves, if only we remember it and the divine it gives credence to. Her Christian humanism is lovely and unthreatening, turning from awe at dark matter and the mysteries of the cosmos to affectionate delight in historical revisionism, reminding us that things are more complicated than we might think, that people have always been as strange and interesting as us, that we ourselves are strange and interesting. It is a peculiar experience, then, as an Augustinian of a gloomier stripe, to read Robinson the professed Calvinist. We see much the same, she and I, especially the past; when she says Calvin is more jolly than it has been whispered, I nod. But when she says modernity has passed through an 18th century flowering and arrived at mindless man in an inanimate world by mere accident and ignorance, I frown.

It has become common in certain conservative Christian circles to look about and see defeat and decline, to see in a reductive and materialist anomie the systematic unfolding of an inner logic. Patrick Deneen recently published Why Liberalism Failed arguing that liberalism has brought this all on itself through its own success. The atomic individual, no longer a member of Christ's body nor of the body politic, is left alone along with everyone else to beg what he can from Leviathan.

In this reading, Marx and Machiavelli, Locke and Hobbes, Darwin and Descartes have with many allies and with various degrees of conscious deliberation conspired to dissolve the ties of past, present, and future. They have freed you of your nature and almost of your body, of the imago dei which makes you and all men brothers, of the histories and families that tie you to place and tradition, of the smoke-heavy robes and obligations of religion, of responsibility for your children and their place on this earth. In the wreckage they have left your self-deceiving brain, which thinks it is a self though it has no mind to think with or soul to think of, and the state, an earthly god to set on stripped altars. Faced with this, some Christians look for a kind of peace in internal exile, living in intentional communities and carefully navigating any necessary engagement with the world. Rod Dreher writes of this in his Benedict Option.

I do not know if Robinson is familiar with these conversations. Based on What Are We Doing Here? I guess that she is not, particularly. If she encounters them, she is likely to be a bit confused. For this skepticism of modernity and worry about the Christian's place in the liberal order would look oddly familiar, combining as it does a historical consciousness similar to her own and a missionary fervor she finds notably distasteful and damaging—"While my thinking is Christian, it has led me to a kind of universalism that precludes any notion of proselytizing." Robinson is a confident mainline Protestant and a confident liberal. (I repeat myself.) Were she a less charitable and careful reader than she must be, she might be tempted to find these prophets of collapse to resemble in their designs the neo-feudal masters of colonial Virginia more than the Puritan communities she so admires. And this is why I frown.

I find Robinson's apologia for Wycliffe and Cromwell, the Puritans and Great Awakenings, and the literati and radicals of the 19th century to be familiar and comforting. But I also find Robinson's apparent conclusions perplexing. Materialist science and cultural atheism, forgetting God and in doing so forgetting what a piece of work is man, surely is sufficient explanation for nearly all this mess around us now. But shouldn't we ask how that happened? While other liberals such as Steven Pinker rely on all our powers of misremembering to contrive an historical enlightenment suited to their present goals, Robinson goes back further and past the cliched dark fanaticism of the New England myth to face history more like it was, and find God. And with God, find man noble in reason, infinite in faculty, of form express and admirable. So what are we doing here? For Robinson, what does responding to our current situation demand?

Most concretely it demands more funding and support for America's public universities, apparently. They are indeed great treasures of our more learned past, when the liberal arts—an education fit for free men—were extended to farmers. They and the private institutions founded throughout the colonial period and first half of the 19th century are the best of that thicket of democratic institutions we call Tocquevillian. "In the West it was theology and its consequences that built these great institutions, and the ebbing away of theology that has made them seem to many to be anomalies, anachronisms, and burdens, as well." Seemingly unsure whom to blame for these schools' transformation from their religious and popular origins into the ideological certification systems they are today, Robinson tells for them a story of shortsighted, Benthamite lawmakers sacking these cities of learning, and gives no notice to the incentives created by federal funding and oversight or to the sources of the atheism and relativism she decries. This typifies the weakness of many of her essays collected here; there is a complicated past and a complicated present, and the relationship between the two is seemingly so simple as to not require speculation or explanation.

Robinson's America looks to Oliver Cromwell, John Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards, 1776 and 1789, and then through the abolitionists almost direct to President Barack Obama. Even as she complicates and adds texture to this country's Puritan and Calvinist past she seems to flatten everything else. Her mainline liberal Protestantism can look back at the swift passage and great transformations of the last four centuries and see a progressive work of Providence, men forgetting God for mysterious personal reasons and so able to rightly remember him again with her reminder. Deservedly lauded and embraced by the world's elite, Robinson cannot see an anti-Christian animus in society not brought on by bad Christians, who I confess have been indeed very bad. But she speaks from a position akin to that of a privileged pet, safe for and in the ruling imperium: Mediocre, technocratic liberal governance is the height of statesmanship and religion has no prophetic role to play for the state, especially on any of the tricky personal stuff; your Christianity is individual, its obligations known only to your private conscience and the platform committee of the DNC.

Despite this inescapable squishiness to Robinson's exquisite prose, an absence where a spine of systemic considerations should be, her call for a personal, definitive theism and humanism is a challenge and encouragement. "I note in passing that the individualism, even solipsism, sometimes associated with experiencing oneself as a soul is a conception that entails an ethic of love and service in a world of souls, an ideal as fully excluded from modern anthropologies as is the metaphysics that supports it." Ontology matters, metaphysics matter. And as unlikely as I find it that the dominance of positivism and materialism will be countered by a quiet Christian witness, that Robinson's wonder at God's splendor and man's splendor in God will simply return time's wheel to some more ideal America where faith saturates everything even while making no public claims on one's conscience, I do know Robinson is right in her laments for conservative Christians: there has been a paucity of the theological virtues in our public life.

Perfect love casts out fear, and in faith and hope in grace we find that love. If politics is truly reducible to friends and enemies, you and I have often forgotten that friends can come first. Reading, for the reader, can be a kind of friendship, and I am glad to have sometimes Robinson as my friend. Friends will not agree on everything, not even on every important thing, but perhaps we can share a gratitude for the givenness of creation and an awe at the magic and miracle of its microcosm, man, made in the image of God.