Profoundly American

By Kevin HartDecember 13, 2015

The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson

CALVIN BEGINS his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559 Latin, 1560 French) by telling us that wisdom consists in knowing God and ourselves. Knowledge of God is revealed to us, a free gift of the Creator, and is not something that we gain from investigation or speculation. Immediately, several related things begin to come into focus. First, we see that Calvin is a modern, concerned with “revelation” (rather than illumination, as the Fathers were, or apocalypsis, uncovering, as the writers of the New Testament were) and with knowing what God is like rather than what sort of being God is. Second, we recognize that unlike the great theologians from Augustine to Aquinas and beyond, Calvin thinks of God more by way of law than philosophy: if he has an ontology (as he surely does), it is secondary, consistent with a contract between God and human beings, initiated by the free gift of revelation, and not primary, by virtue of a system of reality based on the absolutely singular being of God (ipsum esse subsistens) as distinct from the being of finite creatures who may participate in him (esse commune). And third, Calvin is a theologian for whom our relations with God turn on the divine will and not on the being of the deity. That will is held to depend entirely on the divine wisdom with nothing more fundamental. If we look, as Aquinas does, for a deeper ontological ground for our trust in God, Calvin will tell us that we are looking in the wrong place.

This Calvinist theology is tightly bound up in the very title of Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, and some of its consequences are variously worked out in luminous individual pieces on experience, fear, grace, humanism, limitation, realism, and other topics. Not that the collection depends exclusively on 16th-century European theology: Robinson remains profoundly American in important respects, and “givenness,” as she conceives it, is as much a homegrown Pragmatist idea as a Reformation one. If she nods to the William James of The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), she prefers the company of Jonathan Edwards, who she takes to be a pragmatist avant la lettre. Like James, Edwards nicely observes the phenomena of religious conversion, albeit with a Scriptural lens rather than with a brisk understanding of the “cash value” of our beliefs. Indeed, it is in Edwards’s spirited reply to John Taylor’s attack on the doctrine of original sin that Robinson finds an expression that lights up much of her world: “the arbitrary constitution of the Creator.” Everything, Edwards thinks, including all the laws and regularities of the cosmos, turns on the arbitrary choice of the Creator: things could have been very different, and only our faith in God’s wisdom can reconcile us to the special goodness of what we have been given.

On this understanding of reality, it is no surprise at all that Robinson defends the human being as an exception in the cosmos — each of us is marked as sacred — and no surprise, either, that she attacks modern science whenever it exceeds its proper bounds. If Robinson is a pragmatist, she is no reductionist: Neo-Darwinism in all its guises (including those sometimes adopted in neuroscience), Freudianism, and the Higher Criticism all fall within her winnowing gaze. As she says, “our capacity for awareness is […] parochial in ways and degrees we cannot begin to estimate.” This is no slap on the wrist for science; on the contrary, it is a “spectacular achievement” of science that we can grasp just how little we really know. Indeed, Robinson takes comfort from contemporary cosmology, especially string theory, that reality is far more complex, far more elusive than we have been told in popular science and the social sciences. We live in “island solitude,” as Wallace Stevens says, free but not unsponsored, Robinson would add; and around the island of our little knowledge there roars the vast ocean of mystery.

Shakespeare is a witness to this mystery, as Robinson points out repeatedly. And her Shakespeare is a theologian not because he is given to speculation about God but because he grasps the concrete reality of grace in the lives of his characters. The given is “lawful,” and also “emergent”: Shakespeare’s plays show us, we are told, how characters become “entangled” (one of Robinson’s favorite words) with one another and with what drags human beings down, and how their relationships unfold in time and circumstance, bringing occasions for self-awareness (and, one might add, further self-deception). Scenes of reconciliation and forgiveness, such as one finds in Cymbeline, Antony and Cleopatra, Measure for Measure, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest, are not the mere concessions to popular taste that some critics tell us they are. For Robinson, they are one of Shakespeare’s true themes: the forgiveness “that is unmerited, unexpected, unasked, unconditional,” and which theologians call “grace.”

Readers of Robinson’s narrative fiction, especially the great triad of Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila (2014), will recognize this insistence of the mystery of the human, of the God who freely gives himself (and gives himself as servant), of the miracle of grace and its unforeseen appearance in what the narrator of Home calls “difficult, ordinary life,” namely, in acts of kindness, forbearance, loyalty, and forgiveness. To believe in a free, creating God who seeks our salvation, to look at another person and see a mystery and not just so many pounds of raw meat does not make life easier; if anything, it raises the difficulty of life with others to the power to two or three.

Not even Robinson’s Rev. John Ames and Rev. Robert Broughton, perhaps the most appealing Calvinist preachers ever depicted in fiction, find being Christian an easy thing. The difficulty is less to do with understanding doctrine or grasping the meaning of this or that passage of Scripture than with the radical reformulation of caritas — or, as Wycliffe translates it, love — that is marked in Christianity. The most piercing image of love that Christianity offers is a man suffering on a cross. We recoil from it, and spend our lives trying to accommodate it (and often failing) in modest acts of self-sacrifice. It is easy to love those who are lovable, yet quite another thing to love those who are not. English speakers are fortunate in that we can distinguish liking and loving, and, hard as it is, can begin to grasp that we are commanded to love those we cannot like.

From time to time, Robinson enjoys being contrarian, and never more so than when declaring herself a Calvinist to readers who are likely to value her fiction on quite other grounds. Yet it would be a vast mistake to imagine her, as unthinking people often do of devout Christians of all stripes, as rigid, right wing, warmongering, and brimming with social prejudices. The Givenness of Things presents a woman whose loyalties are to mainline Christianity and to America, a woman whose devotion to the Gospel takes the form of awe and humility before God and of strong, clear thinking and straight talking before spectacles of injustice. Her social loyalties derive from her Christian beliefs or at least are consistent with them; and they can be characterized, without any apology, as liberal. (But think of “liberal” as used in the 1870s and 1880s in evangelical responses to brutal social conditions.)

Were there to be any hesitation on this point, read or reread her first book of nonfiction, Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution (1989). Read too her pages in The Givenness of Things on how carrying a concealed weapon is a sign of a coward. Not that Robinson’s vision is political in any simple sense. It is oriented by a deep commitment to prayer. I think of what the Rev. Broughton says about prayer in Home: “you open up your thoughts, and then you can get a clear look at them.” It is not the whole of prayer, but it is an important facet of it.

Some of the most moving pages in this new collection are those in “Proofs” in which Robinson tells us about a Bible that she brought in an antique store. It is a Self-Pronouncing Edition of the Holy Scriptures, that is, an edition in which all the names of the biblical persons and places are spelt out so that untutored folk can pronounce them properly. It was published by the American Wringer Co. in 1892, and Robinson reflects on a scene in which, over a century ago, a traveling salesman comes to a farmhouse with his wagon, selling a wringer to help the women with the wash and a Bible to help the entire family in their quest to become better Christians. The unremarked mix of household and spiritual improvement in the one visit is deeply American, as is the pragmatism of the whole scene. Robinson points out how this wonderful Bible has both the King James and the RSV translations in parallel columns, how it is filled with engravings of biblical scenes by Gustave Doré, has endless pictures of animals, coins, and plants mentioned in Scripture, along with historical information about Scripture, martyrs, translations, and so on. She quotes one sentence: “The Apocryphal Books, to which, of course no Masoretic division was applicable, did not receive a versicular division till the Latin edition of Paginius, in 1528.” As she says, “That ‘of course’ tells us worlds.” It does indeed, for there is no condescension to its readers. It would not be so today, not when selling a Bible to a farming family and not even when teaching the Bible in many colleges.

The chapters of The Givenness of Things were first given as lectures in universities, seminaries, institutes, and conferences. They do not seem to have been revised substantially before publication, and at times this is a pity. In the final chapter, “Realism,” we are told that, “Much of the language about society and culture derives from European ‘thought,’ so called, in the period leading to Europe’s great disasters, from the early nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth and after.” Then she continues: “This ‘thought’ was taken up with authenticity, rootedness, ethnic purity, all of which made people profound, as they could not be if they were transplanted, ethnically mixed, speakers of an adopted language.” I regret that, in this hasty survey of a hundred and 50 years of demanding literature, philosophy, and theology, no distinctions are drawn, and not one name or book title is given. Who actually is guilty here? The trouble is that without appropriate care one might very well condemn everything written by Fichte, Hegel, Hermann Cohen, Husserl, and Simone Weil, among others, rather than, as I imagine Robinson has in mind, passages in Schopenhauer, Gentile, and Wagner, Heidegger’s notebooks, and Frege’s diary, to name only a few of the most well-known nasty moments of ideas that rightly should be condemned. I regret too the scare quotes around the word “thought”: a sneer is not an argument.

There are other moments in the book when the reader will wish that Robinson or her publisher had taken a moment or two to check facts or add important caveats. In “Givenness,” we are told that “original sin and predestination” are not “aberrations of Puritanism” but are “virtually universal in Christian theologies, Catholic and Protestant, for as long as meaningful theology was written.” One might hope that the past tense is a mistake: let us not forget that Eberhard Jüngel, Jean-Yves Lacoste, Wolfhart Pannenberg, David Tracy, and John Zizioulas, along with many other younger theologians, are still alive and writing important works. And one might also hope that omitting the whole of Orthodoxy, Greek and Russian, was a slip of the pen that was missed by a copyeditor at FSG. For it is important to realize how differently original sin (or, better, ancestral sin) is conceived in the Greek East than in the Latin West. We Western Christians might learn a thing or two in reading a bit more Orthodox theology than we usually do. Of predestination, it too is a deep feature of Christian theology in general. 

Yet when reading essays by a convinced Calvinist, many readers might need to know that there is a world of difference between teachings of double predestination (Calvin and Beza, for instance) and the predestination of the elect to bliss (Aquinas, for example). An earlier version of the former position was declared to be anathema by the Second Council of Orange (529). Myself, I find it hard to imagine a “meaningful theology” without a teaching that each soul is oriented to the beatific vision from the moment of conception, if not baptism. A couple of nicely drawn distinctions would have stopped the slight sense that Robinson ploughs a narrow field in her religious thought.

Readers of a philosophical bent who pick up The Givenness of Things thinking that it might be connected to the fascinating contemporary debates in phenomenology about givenness (Gegebenheit) will be disappointed. There is nothing about Husserl or Marion here. Nor will the reader find anything to do with the “thing-poetry” of Francis Ponge, who was held by Sartre to be the exemplary poet of phenomenology. Yet Robinson does have some remarks to make on the great philosophical school, perhaps because Amazon mistakenly classes her Terry Lectures, Absence of Mind (2010), as phenomenology. “Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson wrote phenomenology before the word, and Melville did, too,” we are told. Yet “phenomenology” was in use as early as 1770 when J. H. Lambert used it in a letter to Kant; and, much larger on the horizon of the past is Hegel’s monumental Phenomenology of Spirit (1807).

For all that, Robinson is right: Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville were all doing phenomenology to some extent and each in his or her own way. Husserl notes in a letter of 1907 that writers perform phenomenology, though never as purely as philosophers do. We can do without the epistemic purity if we get the concreteness that comes only from attention to how phenomena give themselves. Of course, it is that concreteness that we value in Robinson’s fiction, especially in the ways in which the Rev. John Ames and the Rev. Robert Broughton make that enormous abstraction, God, utterly concrete, and hence meaningful, as loving Father, in their relations with their family and the people of Gilead. At her best, Marilynne Robinson is a phenomenologist without knowing it, and that she is an impure one would doubtless please her greatly.


Kevin Hart is Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Christian Studies at the University of Virginia. His most recent scholarly book is Kingdoms of God (Indiana UP, 2014), and his most recent collection of poems is Wild Track: New and Selected Poems (Notre Dame UP, 2015).

LARB Contributor

Kevin Hart is the Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Christian Studies at the University of Virginia. His books include Barefoot (Notre Dame University Press, 2018) and Poetry and Revelation (Bloomsbury, 2018). A new book, forthcoming from Chicago University Press, is the volume of his Gifford Lectures, Lands of Likeness: For a Poetics of Contemplation.


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