Marilynne Robinson goes beyond ubiquitous caricatures

BOOKS | Nick Mattiske

Saturday 12 December 2015

Marilynne Robinson is as much essayist as novelist, and in her essays she highlights the theology that is implicit – and sometimes explicit – in her fiction (Gilead, Home, Lila, etc.). Although The Givenness of Things contains essays on various themes, they circle round a solid and vigorously argued core that contains a defence of the heritage of Western Protestantism, a humble celebration of the mystery and uncertainty of existence, the closedmindedness of some scientists to this fact, and the quiet workings out of grace.

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 3.47.24 pmRobinson is much taken with quantum physics. Although she clearly delights in the science, she also takes from quantum physics implications for ontology, or the question of whether our lives are determined by our biology or animated by the freedom to choose. She argues against the determinism of much of current neuroscience, which doesn’t take into account the weird indeterminacy that goes all the way down, so-to-speak.

The strangeness of this new physics shows us our place. We are capable of examining the mysteries of science, but we are also capable of awe at how much we don’t know – about energy, matter, time, gravity, space (is it emptiness or substance?). We study their effects, but what do we yet know about them at their roots? Neuroscientific explanations of beliefs, feelings and the like often fall back on descriptions of the brain’s activity rather than explanation.

Much, Robinson argues, is simply our perspective. We can’t ‘see’ dark matter and this may be not just because our tools are deficient but because it might be beyond our perception. It might not be, either, but we need to retain humility about the fact that some things may be simply humanly incomprehensible, just as the limits of time mean that it is impossible for one human individual to apprehend the sum total of human knowledge.

This is not to say that science is just opinion, or to fall back on a ‘God of the gaps’ argument, which Robinson sometimes sails close to, but I say ‘close to’ because I imagine she would be adamant that that is not what she is arguing and that the recognition of the mysterious is what drives scientific discovery, not the smug feeling that we nearly know it all (who can forget Lord Kelvin’s pronouncement at the end of the nineteenth century that ‘there is nothing new to be discovered in physics now’?).

If she is cautious about scientific hubris she is forthright about the linkages between Christianity and the modern worldview. She describes humanism, which is often contrasted with Christianity these days, as a ‘glory’, and the reader might anticipate a ‘however’ coming, but she says that Christianity is not given its due for its influence on the Renaissance, partly because of intellectual snobbery. (It is also likely deliberate selectivity in order to emphasise the secular aspects of the advancements running up to and through the Enlightenment.) She hears a theological tone in the emphasis on the dignity and freedom of the individual in the writing of the likes of Adam Smith. And she argues that these Christian-influenced humanists had a high opinion of the capacities of the human mind and would not likely be swayed by the arguments from MRI scans.

At the same time she makes a more specific defence of the American Puritan heritage, which Americans don’t tend to know much about beyond the ubiquitous caricatures. Robinson has done the hard reading, though, and argues that actually Puritans loved the theatre and literature and that a significant amount of translation from the classics rediscovered during the Renaissance was done by Puritans. She argues that Jonathan Edwards was rigorously curious and something of a cosmologist, speculating on the likelihood of life on other planets.

Likewise Robinson gives a more positive spin to her ‘particular saint’, Calvin. She is not just a lone advocate for taking seriously the implications of scientific discovery on doctrine; she also points to evidence that there is a strong tradition of the same within Christianity. We are made in the image of the Creator, which means we have a capacity for understanding the universe. Descartes said that the only mystery is that the universe is comprehensible and we can take this fact as either dumb luck or a clue to the universe’s relationship to its Creator.

Aside from the above instance of American forgetting, she also takes the time to differentiate between those in the US who call themselves Christians and what Christians are called to be. She laments the idiocy of some American Christians who think Christianity means nationalism, gun ownership and securing the borders, commenting that the Bible does not contain a bad word for the alien and the poor.

In hyperbolic fashion she suggests that many American Christians must not like what they find in the Bible. (More likely is that they are selective, which is why some theologians, such as Robert Jenson and Tom Wright, are advising that we reprioritise the scripture-length theme of rescue rather than continually hunt for particular verses to use as trump cards in arguments.) Lest it seem that she is buying into the mythology that sees Christianity as naturally in league with prejudice and ignorance, she argues, again from her deep reading, that at the time of the Civil War it was the North who were more likely to quote scripture in their defence of their cause than Southerners, who were more likely to argue for slavery for, unsurprisingly, economic reasons.

Robinson is offering a version of liberal, enlightened Christianity, but not one that strips out the supernatural or the difficult – she is not that shallow. And if her celebration of the minds of human beings looks like it might coagulate into salvation through works, it must be stressed that she is keen also to ponder the meaning of grace, something that will be evident to anyone reading her novels, where the play of hurt and forgiveness is given appropriate dignity and thoughtfulness. She finds this consideration of grace in Shakespeare (as does, coincidentally, Terry Eagleton in his new book on hope) and in an interpretation of Hamlet argues that Shakespeare, rather than simply using themes familiar to his audience, was particularly interested in the effect of eternity’s injection into the world. Robinson says that his ‘theological seriousness is simultaneous with his greatness as a dramatist’. If we substituted the word ‘novelist’ for ‘dramatist’ we could say the same about Robinson.

Nick Mattiske works in the book trade and is the author of Notes on Books and Music (Morning Star Publishing). 

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