Thinking About Believing: On Marilynne Robinson’s “What Are We Doing Here?”

By Nicholas CannariatoApril 25, 2018

Thinking About Believing: On Marilynne Robinson’s “What Are We Doing Here?”

What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson

MARILYNNE ROBINSON IS A WRITER of unique vision. Throughout her work, her religion and politics find urgent but humane expression as her tone modulates easily between prophetic and earnest, impassioned and contemplative. A life, for her, is most meaningful when wedded to aesthetic and religious engagement and, following from them, political engagement. But what makes her truly compelling as a novelist and an essayist is her personal synthesis of humanism and Christianity: two value systems whose ends have historically diverged. Yet, to her, they’re complements revealing that humans really are cast in the image of God.

Robinson’s humanistic Christianity doesn’t wish to coerce belief or impose dogma from a megachurch pulpit or talk radio studio. Coerced religious belief and enforced dogma is tantamount to teaching students in school to score well on standardized tests: they might be doing what they need to do to please the authorities, but they’re deprived of an education that can serve as a means to discovery, empathy, and upbuilding — a guide to grappling with the problem of personal meaning, the world outside, and the sea within. Robinson’s approach is more like that of John Ames, the preacher who narrates her 2004 novel Gilead, who is uninterested in coercing or imploring those without faith. Students from his flock come home from school filled with unbelief, are miserable for it, and want Ames to provide “proofs” of God’s existence. But he “just won’t do it. It only confirms them in their skepticism. Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.” In other words, God is better experienced than formulated and promulgated and shouted about. He goes on to add later that “creating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem.” His detractors might claim Ames should be full of zeal, ready to mix it up with the unbelievers and their decadence, ready to martyr himself before the besotted gaze of the heathens. But no. His faith is quiet, abiding. It’s the stuff of memory, vision, and the peace that comes from compassionately accepting the loneliness of each life, with or without faith.

In her new book of essays and lectures, What Are We Doing Here?, Marilynne Robinson lays out many problems and answers concerning faith and politics, aesthetics and culture. Many of the essays deal with the provenance of contemporary American culture, which she argues is derived significantly from Puritanism. She isn’t focused on the abstemious, extreme work ethic caricature of Puritanism in this volume, however. When I first started reading the essays in this collection, I was skeptical of her claims. I hadn’t considered the Puritans to be the enlightened, democratic, and spiritually ambitious humanists she portrays them to be. And yet Robinson insists early in her book in the essay “What is Freedom of Conscience?” that many Americans’ distaste for the Puritans is the fault, in large part, of a couple of texts we read in high school: The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible, the latter of which she rightly points out is really about McCarthyism. Point taken.

Still, I was incredulous that it could really be that simple. As I read on though, I found her argument about the humanism and dissenting spirituality of the Puritans increasingly persuasive. She links them to John Calvin, of course, and the revolutionary religious reforms of the 14th-century Oxford professor John Wycliffe and his followers, the Lollards. Wycliffe translated the Bible into English and argued for a religious populism that found much wider expression in the Reformation just around the corner. She also depicts the overthrow of Charles I in England and the following parliamentary rule as a precursor to the democratic revolutions that would sweep France and the American colonies more than a century after. What’s most important to her, however, is not so much the events themselves, but the worldview that propelled them.

And key to that worldview is conscience. Robinson conceives of conscience as part and parcel with progress and a rebellion against what is retrograde or discredited or flatly wicked. In “What is Freedom of Conscience?,” she argues that faith alone isn’t really inspired if it isn’t paired with a sense of justice. She cites Paul’s claim in his epistle to the Romans that “whatever does not proceed from faith is a sin.” But here’s where it gets interesting. “A marginal note in the 1560 Geneva Bible,” she tells us, “says the word faith here is to be understood as meaning conscience.” Now, to consider faith synonymous with conscience is a bold assertion, no matter how cleverly justified. Faith, surely by many estimations, is merely a confidence in a higher power or being, dwelling metaphysically but invested somehow in the temporality of our lives. For the Puritans Robinson exalts throughout many of her essays in this collection, however, conscience is what drives them to rebel against the English monarchy and establish a culture of austere, democratic, egalitarian religious life on both sides of the Atlantic.

But it seems we’ve lost our way as a culture. In the essay “What Are We Doing Here?”, Robinson first turns her moral outrage on increasingly dystopian — arguably always dystopian — market worship, particularly in the United States and Europe. She laments this pervasive phenomenon as a “genius for impoverishment always at work in our world. […] Its rationale, its battle cry, is Competition.” Competition precipitates the narrowing of the mind, as she sees it, in that it blunts one’s aesthetic and religious capacities in favor of domination, materialism, and venal self-interest. Robinson’s antidote to this problem is education in the humanities. But anyone declaring the humanities will save us all should proceed with caution, since one proclaiming this could easily — and in many cases justifiably — be derided as a sentimental type, swaddled in privilege, blinkered in cultural pursuit, and impervious to the myriad forms of injustice wrought around the world every day. But not here. Her advocacy for the humanities is served brilliantly by a remarkable passage she cites from Tocqueville in Democracy in America:

Poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought, all these gifts which heaven shares out by chance turned to the advantage of democracy and, even when they belonged to the enemies of democracy, they still promoted its cause by highlighting the natural grandeur of man. Its victories spread, therefore, alongside those of civilization and education. Literature was an arsenal open to all, where the weak and the poor could always find arms.

Tocqueville casts the humanities as the animating force of freedom and the liberating force of the oppressed; Robinson sees here the natural connection between humanistic education and the project of democracy. It might seem to many like a sympathetic and inspired idea; to others it may just seem like self-justification or naïveté. It’s exhilarating to think books and plays and sonatas and symphonies can transform the collective into beautiful, divinely contoured humanists. Or this might all really be too much to stomach considering just how larded up with celebrity culture, anti-depressants, and self-obsession we modern Americans are.

What makes advocacy for the humanities so necessary is, to put it simply, the potential for insight into what the human mind and hand have produced that’s given meaning to enough people to endure over time. The danger, however, is making humanistic education a kind of ideological position. If it becomes ideological, the risk of it devolving into some form of chauvinism mounts considerably. It might even be chauvinism itself. Still, study in the humanities is critical in cultivating an aesthetic, political, and personal sense, and it’s also key to beating back the philistines. But advocacy for a humanistic education can also be misapplied in presuming the humanities can directly serve as an unambiguous social good. Because the humanities don’t point in a single direction to a single truth, they’re critical to understanding ourselves and each other, but ultimately misused if they are used as a weapon of cultural war.

As she holds up the Puritans as exemplars of conscience and inquiry, Robinson also employs them in warning against the dangers of religious fundamentalism and intolerance. She cites Jonathan Edwards in her essay “Mind, Conscience, Soul” on the problem of religious zealots who lather themselves in their extremist reductions of reality. “The unhappy subject of such a degeneracy,” Edwards says, “is not sensible of his own calamity; but because he finds himself still violently moved, has greater heats of zeal, and more vehement motions of his animal spirits, thinks himself fuller of the Spirit of God than ever.” And it gets worse. These people might even “degenerate more and more into human and proud passion, and may come to bitterness, and even a degree of hatred.” Sound familiar? Religious fervor so easily degenerates into the enemy of itself. Apparently, the struggle is ongoing.

Robinson also deeply distrusts scientism (exemplified in the book by the New Atheist crowd) and other totalizing ideologies and systems. Of those other ideologies, Darwinism, Marxism, and Freudian psychoanalysis are, as she sees it, competing to supplant theology. What she rejects most fervently about each of these systems besides their putative materialism is their denial of free moral choice. In the essay “Theology for This Moment,” she suggests a new theology that accounts for the “challenge [of] the moral self,” which she evocatively describes as “that old wanderer through the trials and temptations of earthly life.” “A theology for our time,” she contends,

would acknowledge this reality along with the entire complex of subjective experience — love, generosity, regret, and all their interactions — without a diminishing translation into veiled self-interest. It could create a conceptual space large enough to accommodate human dignity.

Arguing in favor of moral agency and against the determinism she rejects, Robinson makes the case that humans might possibly be able to think for themselves. We could be more than just what the forces around us dictate that we be. We could be ideas, our own ideas, tried over and over again until they make sense.

At this point it should come as no surprise that aesthetics and religion profoundly overlap in these essays. There’s a lot to be said for what aesthetic and religious experience have in common — initiation, ephemerality, intimate communication — different though their ends may be in many cases. She argues in the essay “Grace and Beauty” that these two varieties of experience are within and outside our control at the same time. The secret is to give one’s self over to the possibility of beauty, of grace, through a combination meditation and craft. Invoking Robert Schumann’s claim that to compose music, “one need only remember a song no one has ever heard before” and Wallace Stevens’s claim that “the voice […] is great within us,” she holds that “beauty disciplines.” This is certainly a Platonic-seeming idea insofar as the form is something that is uncovered, revealed even, since “beauty manifests itself in one thing or another, even asserts itself when accident permits.” Beauty is an effect of grace, she writes, which is to “live richly in a universe of unfathomable interest, and that we can and do, amazingly, enhance its interest with the things we make.” Mystery compels creativity. It may seem archaic to think of creativity as a form of uncovering, of revealing. Many artists labor to create something new that can last, whether that’s the objective of all art or not, and often the work, if it’s good, seems inevitable upon completion — and often not a moment before. Beauty disciplines, yes.

Sometimes though, Robinson’s ideas are more beautiful than persuasive, as much as I’d rather not set up such a contrast. Her idea of “theistic realism,” for example, is supposed to turn “attention to the world as it is, without reductionist translation and transvaluation.” I grant how appealing this is as an idea, given that living it would enable us “to participate in absolute reality, then beauty, elegance, or charm, which we perceive as attentively as any other information, and which we replicate with remarkable nuance and fluency, is acknowledged as an active element in creation.” By living out theistic realism, we’d see beauty as a “conversation between humankind and reality.” It’s hard to turn away from a view like this. It’s so beautiful, inspired, and pure. Yet when anyone implores us to turn our attention to “the world as it is,” we should apply some measure of skepticism, much as it pains me to say it in this case. Once one claims to have a view of “the world as it is,” one could be running counter to the spirit of the humanities. Robinson, however, doesn’t fall into this trap because what’s conspicuously absent in these essays is a will to coerce or control. Her democratic humanism and her religious belief together are palpable in their moral urgency, their desire to build consensus while embracing diversity of experience.

In “Considering the Theological Virtues,” Robinson selects Emily Dickinson to demonstrate this synthesis: “The brain is wider than the sky […] The brain is deeper than the sea […] The brain is the just weight of God, / For, lift them, pound for pound, / And they will differ, if they do, / As syllable from sound.” Dickinson’s lines illustrate the merging of humanism and Christian belief that, paradoxically, is not really a merging at all. To embrace humanistic Christianity in this regard, one would recognize the miraculous selfhood in everyone else and how this revelation reveals the whole span of creation — and you and me in it — as a brilliantly differentiated whole. It’s a way of attaining knowledge while retaining the mystery that surrounds its origins.

And, paradoxically, leaving cosmic mystery as it is while engaging with it in humanistic religious terms might just be one of the best definitions of faith one can put forth. Self-knowledge and knowledge of the broader world are elusive, an ongoing struggle, and yet always right in front of us for the taking. Robinson writes that since:

Being is an astonishment, any aspect of Being can be approached with an expectation of discovering wondrous things. The slime that comes up from the depths of the sea in fishermen’s nets is a ruined universe of bioluminescence. Microorganisms live in clouds, air moves in rivers, butterflies navigate the earth’s magnetic field. The matter cosmologists call “dark,” which makes up most of the mass of the universe, seems to be nonatomic. Wonders never cease.

And these wonders never cease because our sense of wonder is built upon a foundation of manifest reality eternally given to newness spun, possibly, from what’s always been.

So where does all of this leave us now? Culture is always in crisis. The very definition of culture is unstable in itself. But now, as the United States lurches closer and closer to outright oligarchy while we languish in extreme polarization, rhetorical debasement, hateful absurdity, emboldened bigotry, paranoia, fear, and resentment, something deep down needs to give. It just has to. The center cannot hold, whatever that was. As Americans, most of us are socialized to believe that competition is life-giving, that you become your best self by besting others and therefore somehow inspiring them to best others in an endless sequence of enlightened besting. Even the slightest acquaintance with structural inequity and injustice — or even basic acquaintance with American history — can disabuse one of such a notion, of course. It just takes a little intellectual honesty, a pinch of moral courage. Still, it’s thrilling to believe we are ranging across the frontier, ever on the cusp of lasting greatness.

At some point, most of us will have a moment when we look down at the water in the sink rushing toward the drain and ask: what am I doing here? To see people as utterly improbable, so uniquely themselves, is to see them not as just everyone else, but as yourself too. To see yourself as wrapped in a universe more knowable each day and yet still unfathomable, is to know yourself, and everyone else too. That’s humanism illuminated by belief. That’s the vision of Marilynne Robinson. Take it to heart.


Nicholas Cannariato is a writer and teacher living in Chicago.

LARB Contributor

Nicholas Cannariato is a writer and teacher living in Chicago.


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