The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Summary: A collection of eleven essays taking modern intellectual life to task for its cynicism toward its intellectual antecedents.
Anyone who has read Marilynne Robinson’s fiction discovers a view of life framed in older, theological modes of thought that trace back to the Reformation and beyond. Her appreciation for that framework is evident in this collection of essays that takes modern intellectual life to task for its cynicism toward, and often uninformed rejection of these older modes of thought. Much of this is grounded in one of the fundamental premises of Robinson’s thought–go back to the primary sources!
She demonstrates this in an introductory essay where she takes Lord Acton and others to task for misrepresenting John Calvin (or Jean Cauvin, as his name appears in French), often failing to actually read Calvin himself. She returns later in the collection in two essays on Marguerite of Navarre to defend Calvin against charges of religious bigotry and to recover the contribution Calvin has made to democratic ideals. In particular, she addresses the case for which Calvin is most excoriated, that of Michael Servetus, noting that Calvin was not among the civil authorities who sentenced him and that his execution for heresy was the only such to occur in Calvin’s Geneva, mostly because of the troublesome character he had been. She doesn’t excuse the execution or Calvin’s role but tries to set it in a context of a restrained policy, considering the times.
This “contrarian approach” is taken up in her initial essay on Darwinism as she explores the much more brutal human ethic of survival, selfishness, and progress, contrasted with the older one of human dignity as creatures in God’s image, as well as an understanding of human fallenness that does not excuse human evil with socio-biological explanations.
She notes the struggle of modern thought to face reality when confronted by the crises of life that raise profound questions about our existence. She writes of an older way of understanding such things:
“The truth to which all this fiction refers, from which it takes its authority, is the very oldest truth, right out of Genesis. We are not at ease in the world, and sooner or later it kills us. Oddly, people in this culture have been relatively exempt from toil and pangs and death, to, if length of life may be regarded as a kind of exemption. So why do these things seem to terrify us more than they do others? One reason might be that, as human populations go, we are old. A few decades ago the median age was in late adolescence, and now it is deep into adulthood. Midlife has overtaken the great postwar generation. So the very fact that we have, in general, enjoyed unexampled health has brought us in vast numbers into the years when even the best luck begins to run out. This is true of the whole Western world (pp. 81-82).
Two of her essays concern Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Holmes McGuffey. In the case of Bonhoeffer, we see a contrarian who withstands Nazi ideology drawing on wellsprings of an older faith. In McGuffey, whose famous readers are taken to task for bourgeois values, she observes his associations with abolitionists from Charles Finney to Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Lane radicals of Cincinnati. His readers shaped a consciousness in the American Middle West that had no place for slavery in human society.
This is followed by a delightful essay on “Puritans and Prigs” in which she contends the Puritans were a far more joyful and liberal band that stands in contrast with modern liberal, fish-eating “priggishness’ and that the Puritans understanding of human fallenness makes room for forgiveness and the restoration of people, rather than their outright removal from society. She also challenges, in her essay on Psalm 8 the idea of the “transcendent” that has been such a part of American religious and philosophical thought. She writes”
“So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us. The eternal as an idea is much less preposterous than time, and this very fact should seize our attention. In certain contexts the improbable is called the miraculous” (p. 243).
Whether writing about family or wilderness and ecology, as she does in other essays in this collection, or Calvin, Bonhoeffer, and McGuffey, Marilynne Robinson challenges modern ways of thinking about these issues and persons. Some will no doubt be angered by this, hearing in Robinson a call to return to some former repressiveness. That, I think, is to misread her. I think rather her argument may at times be one of, “are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and substituting the polluted waters and questionable heroes of modernity?” What her essays do is question our intellectual conventions, and suggest that we may not want to believe everything we’ve been told in school.