What Are We Doing Here?, Marilynne Robinson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.
Summary: A collection of essays based on talks given, mostly at universities, between 2015 and 2017, questioning what she sees as a surrender of thought to ideology.
“I know it is conventional to say we Americans are radically divided, polarized. But this is not more true than its opposite–in essential ways we share false assumptions and flawed conclusions that are never effectively examined because they are indeed shared” (Preface, p. ix).
The thread that connects these essays, mostly transcriptions of talks given at universities (I was present for and blogged about one of these, here presented as “The Beautiful Changes”) is that in much of our intellectual discourse, we have “surrendered thought to ideology.” We unthinkingly tout maxims from Marxism or Darwinism, often without real acquaintance with Marx or Darwin. We speak critically about Puritans, Oliver Cromwell, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards without a real appreciation of what they thought and wrote (apart from a brief excerpt of one sermon of Edwards), and the culture they helped shape. She introduces this theme in her opening essay, on freedom of conscience, maintaining that we have Cromwell and the much-maligned New England Puritans to thank for the idea of freedom of conscience, in contrast to the Anglican controlled South that enforced uniformity of worship and upheld slavery.
In the second and title essay, she pushes back against the much touted demise of the humanities, asking “what are we doing here, we professors of English?” She argues for the recovery of a discourse about the beautiful in an economy that tries to monetize everything, and that we do so with depth and eloquence. In the next essay, on theology, she contends for a recovery of a concept of Being, recognizing both the greatness of God and the greatness of human beings. She goes on to challenge the modern assumption that we are simply thinking animals with Edwards conception of us as capable moral agents. She questions the eclipse of the terminology of the divine and what is lost in our discourse in consequence. She explores Emerson’s idea of the “American scholar” and the very different idea of university education’s end–monetized and measured by its ability to propel a new generation into a cultural elite.
The next three essays explore further the ideas of beauty. Both “Grace and Beauty” and “The Beautiful Changes” argue for a kind of divine freedom that precedes reality and that the ordered grandeur and elegance seen by both scientists and theologians bespeak the grace of God. Between these two essays is a tribute to a different kind of beauty and comes out of the personal friendship Robinson enjoyed with Barack Obama. She writes,
“There is a beauty at the center of American culture which, when it is understood, is expressed in a characteristic eloquence. Every new articulation renews the present life of the country and enriches historic memory to the benefit of future generations. Barack Obama speaks this language, a rare gift. He is ours, in the deep sense that Lincoln is ours, a proof, a test, and an instruction. We see ourselves in him, and in him we embrace or reject what we are” (p. 125).
The longest essay, “Our Public Conversation” is a sprawling reflection on America’s conversation about itself, and particularly its history, which in Robinson’s estimation, it often gets wrong. Here again, her example is the Puritans, and how in fact the rights we so cherish arose out of Puritan culture, rather than in spite of it.
The latter part of the work focuses on questions of character–our conceptions of mind, conscience and soul; the theological virtues of faith, hope and love; integrity in our modern intellectual tradition, the richness of intellectual and moral life of the New England Puritans (yes, those Puritans again!), and finally a challenging and convicting essay on slander and the scriptural warnings against every careless word. If everyone engaged in public discourse could read and take this to heart, it would turn out public discourse upside down!
Robinson is one of those you need to read closely and more than once as her mind ranges widely with rich use of allusion and metaphor while exploring a chosen theme. When I didn’t, I lost the thread of her argument. It is also true that in this collection, Robinson belabors her defense of the Puritans (although essay collections often recur to their author’s favorite themes). At the same time, one finds a forthrightness in challenging unthinking assumptions, including those of her fellow Christians, who wonder if she is fearful about her open portrayal of religious themes in her novels and other works. Her response is that she has always written what she is interested in, and simply is glad there is an audience that has also found it of interest.
Perhaps Robinson’s love of the Puritans and the intellectual rigor she finds in Calvinism offers her a unique point of view in her critique of American intellectual culture. As C. S. Lewis has argued in his case for reading old books, two sides may be “as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions.” Reading books from a different age, in this case the Puritans, and other great theologians of the church, may give Robinson that ability to spot those common assumptions–the ideologies we unthinkingly embrace that substitute for thought, that foster our disagreements and stifle our public discourse and intellectual life. We may delight in pointing out the flaws in the Puritans but do we let them speak to ours? This is what I believe is implied as Robinson asks, “what are we doing here?”