Review: The Givenness of Things

The givenness of things

The Givenness of ThingsMarilynne Robinson. New York: Picador, 2016.

Summary: A collection of essays drawn from various lectures questioning our prevailing ideas through the lens of John Calvin, and others in the Reformed and Humanist tradition.

If you have read Marilynne Robinson’s fiction, you have the sense that there is a world of theological thought undergirding her narratives, particularly reflected in her lead character, Reverend John Ames. To read her essays is to enter into that rich theological world, and the extent to which this woman reads.

It is also to experience a voice that seems from another time, questioning our prevailing ways of thought. Like C. S. Lewis, Robinson is a reader of old books, particularly old theologians like John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, and she allows these voices of another time to question our accepted ways of looking at things.

One example is the essay from which the title of this collection is drawn, “Givenness.” The essay focuses around the ideas of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections and the intrinsic character of the affections of love, joy, hope, desire, and others in our experience of faith. Here, and in other essays, she argues against the scientific reductionism that reduces the affections to the firing of neurons. Similarly, the opening essay on “Humanism” describes the glories of the works of the mind that came out of the Renaissance, and challenges the reductionism that would explain all of this through evolutionary mechanisms and physical processes. It is not that she is anti-science. It is obvious that her reading includes and delights in a great deal of science writing. It is the scientism that asserts hegemony over all domains of human experience to which she objects.

The book consists of seventeen essays, most with one word titles like “Reformation,” Servanthood,” or “Limitation.” Perhaps the most striking for me was her essay on  “Fear.” These statements were particularly arresting:

“First, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind….As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls” (p. 125).

She explores how this drives the fearful nationalism evident even when she was writing these essays, and the stress on preserving and extending the Second Amendment in the acquisition and proposed “right” to concealed carry. She also wonders about the financial interests exploiting this culture of fear.

Her essay on “Theology” explores not only theologians like Jonathan Edwards, but the theological content of the plays of William Shakespeare (whetting my appetite to read some Shakespeare). She explores particularly the ways Shakespeare handles reconciliation and matters of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

These are simply tastes of what you will find in this rich collection representing Robinson’s thought. Prepare to read rigorously, and to explore the intellectual by-paths Robinson will take in exploring an idea. One must pay close attention to follow the thread of her arguments. Again, like Lewis, one has the sense that she brings everything she has read to anything that she says.

Finally, the book concludes with a two-part conversation with Barack Obama while he was president. As much as anything, he is interviewing her and what a delight to listen in on this wide-ranging conversation between two literate persons. One of the moments that reflected one of the president’s deep regrets was his struggle to close the gap between Washington and Main Street, the ways we engage with each other in everyday life, and the distance between that and our political discourse–our compassion toward the needy near us and our fears of “them” — a comment evoked by Robinson’s essay on fear.

One might critique her essays as reflecting a very Euro-American focus and a lack of engagement with writers outside the Western theological, philosophical and literary canon. There may well be some validity in that critique, but perhaps she is doing something very similar to those calling for other voices, in drawing on voices no longer a part of our cultural discourse, and who speak to our contemporary ideas from another perspective, and from another time.

 

Review: The Death of Adam

the death of adam

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.

Know Thyself?

Sometimes I think that of all the things we try to understand in the world, the understanding of ourselves may be as challenging as anything. Why did I respond in that way to him? Why do I find it so hard to get motivated to work on that assignment? What do I want to be when I grow up? As I approach the end of my sixth decade, I’ve come to conclude that, at least in this life, I’ll never be done with asking these questions.

I’ve been reading Ron Highfield’s God, Freedom and Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture. In the section I read today, Highfield talked about three levels of knowing. The first is the sensual level, where we learn about ourselves by our responses to sensory experiences–for example, I really like Buckeye Blitz ice cream. What we learn about our likes and dislikes and how we respond to various things can show us quite a bit but he argues can also become boring. The second level he proposes is the interpersonal. We learn quite a bit about ourselves as we relate to other human beings, who help us clarify things about our own identities in relationship to what we see of them. Yet the challenge here is that every person is finite and different from us. He contends for a third level of knowing, which is knowing ourselves in relationship to God.

The contention of this book is that the being of God does not threaten or diminish our sense of our dignity and identity. Many fear that the idea of God’s power or presence diminishes our sense of self-hood.  All this, Highfield argues, is based in a “competitive” view of God–kind of like a zero sum game where everything granted to God is a loss to us. Instead, Highfield proposes an eternally self-giving God who gives us existence not because of his need for us but his love for us, to exalt us with him. And, when it comes to self-knowledge, we most deeply find ourselves in the one who is our source, who knows us more deeply than ourselves, who loves us, and who has drawn us to himself in Christ.

This reminds me of the opening to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion where he writes:

“Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

Calvin thought these two inextricably bound together, and it seems this author is proposing something similar. One of the things I’m wondering, and it is a serious question, is what an atheist account of self-understanding would look like–would it consist only of Highfield’s first two levels, or is there something else that would be added?