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What Are We Doing Here? Essays by Marilynne Robinson

27 April 2018

Marilynne Robinson places everything in the crucible, Richard Harries finds

IN HER novels, Marilynne Robinson breathes a spirit of encompassing generosity and grace, together with a sense of astonishment before the mystery and beauty of existence. That self is still present in her lectures and essays; but more to the fore is her fierce rejection of much in contemporary intellectual culture. She has rightly been called “A Christian contrarian”.

The present book follows on from her 2015 collection The Givenness of Things, and, like that, consists of essays originally delivered as prestige lectures in different venues. The present collection all date from the past two or three years, one of them being the Gore Lecture at Westminster Abbey.

Robinson’s main target is the various forms of scientific reductionism that suffuse the thinking of academics and commentators, those who shape the cultural milieu of people who want to be considered smart or modern. Her sharp critique is that they simply refuse to take into account what it feels like from the inside to be a living, thinking, creating, erring human being.

So it is that the mind is reduced to the brain, and essential concepts such as soul and conscience are written out of the script. What it is to be a human being is viewed only through the eyes of secular anthropology, and fundamental experiences, like that of beauty, are accounted for entirely in evolutionary terms. We have, in short, lost any real sense of the miracle and wonder of what it is to be a human being, each of us of equal dignity and worth.

The challenge is huge. “How to find a way to reconceive virtually everything. How to rid our worldview of a systematic fault in our thinking, which leads us to disallow the universe of things its terms will not accommodate. This is a difficult problem.”

In previous essays, Robinson has attempted this act of recovery by reaffirming the depth and riches of Reformation thinkers, especially Calvin. Here she does the same for the John Wycliff, the Lollards, and Puritans, rescuing them from all the stereotypes by which we disdain and dismiss them, especially the Puritans. They were not obsessed with sex and they were more aware than most other Christians of the danger of hypocrisy.

She has a particular regard for the founders of Massachusetts, with their emphasis on equality and freedom, contrasting this with the feudal constitution of Anglican Virginia. Some of the quotations that she uses from little-known puritans, such as John Flavel on the nature of man, are, indeed, very fine.

It is only by drawing on the writing of such people, she argues, that we can begin to grasp what it is that we have lost, and how vast the void in our contemporary culture is. “A theology for our time would recover its old magisterial scale and confidence. It would address any­thing and any relation about things and give the world a supple, inclusive language, far more adequate to what we know . . . than any we have at present.”

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. He is the author of The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world, now out in paperback.

What Are We Doing Here? Essays
Marilynne Robinson
Virago £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

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