- The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson
Whatever one’s starting point is, it’s not Archimedean. The particularities, not to say peculiarities which lay the foundation of a given judgment or understanding are formed by a vast complex of experience and response, and even that is grounded in … well, that is the question. For Marilynne Robinson, the answer is the divine spark, the gift from God that is the core of existence, which the familiarly human mixture of frailty and hubris works daily to cover over. Her task, broadly speaking, is to reveal that source, which she undertakes by examining the manifold elements of life that arise from it. A typical example of this weaving and unweaving is in the essay “Giveness” from her new collection, The Givenness of Things, when she discusses the 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards and his milieu:
Their devotion to their purpose [i.e., the abolition of slavery] is an impressive, if forgotten proof that in a great many ways, faith forms life and drives behavior. In their case, it engaged them in truly urgent work and gave them an extraordinary steadiness of purpose. It made them realists, pragmatists.
Thus we are plunged into the mysteries of consciousness. There is nothing unusual about this—we are so deeply immersed in these mysteries that we have no way of establishing an objective view of them. [End Page 287]
She is strikingly honest and transparent both about her prejudices and her motivation, each of which are rooted in a recovered Calvinist Protestantism, a position that is, it hardly needs stating, not exactly popular. The almost universal praise accorded to her work is, to put it mildly, curious.
Her previous collections, 1998’s The Death of Adam, 2010’s Absence of Mind, and 2012’s When I Was a Child I Read Books, all center around examining and often countering popular conceptions of the role of religion in both political and personal life, and also the possibility of liberalism and democracy in a culture in rapid decline. Her introduction to The Death of Adam might serve as an introduction to all of her work:
[These essays] have characteristic preoccupations—religion, history, the state of contemporary society—and they are, all of them, contrarian in method and spirit. They assert, in one way or another, that the prevailing view can be assumed to be wrong, and that its opposite, being its image or shadow, can also be assumed to be wrong. They undertake to demonstrate that there are other ways of thinking, for which better arguments can be made.
But I would quibble with her self-characterization as a “contrarian,” a term usually reserved for the agent provocateur, the single-minded antagonist. Of course, no one can be a pure contrarian, just as no one can be a pure skeptic, but in my view any fair appraisal of Robinson’s work would find that so far from being the necessary alternative to the status quo she decries, her positive assertions and inclinations are the foundation of her thought.
Her stance, then, is not of the finger-wagging moralist (though she uses that term approvingly when referring to Edwards), and neither is it of the lofty intellectual gazing down her nose at the ignorance of the masses. One might be tempted to place her in the line of devotional and theological writers she frequently cites, Calvin and his main influence de Navarre being chief among them. But her interests seem too modern, too capacious to reflect that lineage unqualifiedly. In her Paris Review interview, Robinson says that “as soon as religion draws a line around itself, it becomes false,” and she mentions the likes of Rembrandt and Whitman as often as she does religious thinkers and the Bible. Her proper predecessors, then, seem to me the great French psychologists (in the old, philosophical sense of the word) Montaigne and La Rouchefoucauld. Their unsystematic (which should not be taken to mean incoherent) approach to philosophical, political, and religious questions, combined vast erudition with both a sharp wit and a strong humanistic...