That the English Puritan John Flavel constantly appears in this new collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson will surprise no one. He fits perfectly in the communion of Protestant saints that populate her essays, appearing alongside John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards and Oliver Cromwell. But there is a particular idea from Flavel that keeps recurring throughout this collection, and it tells us something about the burden of Robinson’s project. As she recounts again and again in different chapters, Flavel entertained the idea of a two-stage judgment: he “considers the thought that we might all be judged twice, once when we die and again when the full consequences of our lives have played themselves out.” The notion depends on a unique intersection of eternity and history. Appointed once to die, we face the judgment, but the judgment in eternity takes account of time’s arrow in history. It’s like your soul gets a callback when the repercussions of your life have played themselves out across subsequent generations. The end of your life is not the end of your responsibility.
Almost everything that is contrarian about Marilynne Robinson is embodied in this vignette: the revivification of an idea from a forgotten Puritan, anathema to contemporary sensibilities; the metaphysics of a cosmos with souls, eternity, and a personal God; the rather disquieting reminder that this God is not just a buddy on high, the Great Validator of our bliss, but a judge; and a deep sense of responsibility for the widening gyre that our speech and actions spin out with repercussions beyond our lazy half-conscious intentions, even beyond our lifetime. The whole thing is a Twitter buzzkill.
This is all vintage Robinson, almost to the point of being predictable. One could even worry that this is a shtick, that in the talks gathered here Robinson is regularly invited by the gatekeepers of elite intellectual culture to come and play the role of Christian curmudgeon, a kind of anachronistic conscience for the Whiggish university. Robinson is happy to play the role, and won’t be so gauche as to question its default progressivism.
So be it. And thank God. In an age where those who trumpet their Christianity regularly debase themselves to partisan princes, Robinson is challenging intellectual dishonesty on both right and left. Granted, she is sometimes intellectually lazy when she veers into political matters. A kind of literary MSNBCism kicks in whenever Robinson talks about “the Right” (would that she was as careful about conservatism as she is about the Puritans). Donald J. Trump has not brought out the best in Marilynne Robinson—but who among us can cast the first stone in that regard?
The conceptual spine of this collection is a concern for intellectual integrity—a posture vis-à-vis prevailing attitudes; a willingness to stand athwart history and say, “Look again; the past isn’t what you presume.” “Intellectual integrity is not possible so long as we give ourselves over wholly to cultural consensus, however broad, however long enshrined.” This isn’t the thrill of being merely contrarian; it is the pursuit of truth where it is found, and wherever it might lead us. “Truth itself is dissolving as a concept in an acid bath of idle cynicism,” she worries. Which is why these essays regularly defend the university, once a home for truth-seeking, against both the pragmatists who would quash its curiosity and the progressive secularists who have decided their forgetting is somehow “rational.”
A Contrarian History of the Cosmos
“What are we doing here?” The question, taken from the second chapter, is multivalent, provocative, and provides an excellent frame for approaching the book as a whole. I see two different tracks in the book that address a different “we” in the context of a different “here.”
On the one hand, the “here” is earth, creation, this unlikely blue ball teeming with life in the midst of a vast cosmos of dark matter and distant galaxies. This would seem to make “us” —the human creatures who dance and doddle on its surface—mites of insignificance, blips of benighted naïveté who keep imagining we are conscious agents, as if our loves and losses matter. And while modern scientism imagines it has empirical proof for this insignificance, Robinson patiently and persistently unmasks its mythology and misplaced confidence.
On this front, the latest collection continues what we might call Robinson’s “apologetic” project that was the focus of Absence of Mind and occupied significant chunks of The Givenness of Things. Not only do we not have to accept the strictures of modern naturalism that evacuate the cosmos of God and souls, minds and agency, we have good reason not to because such a flattened account can’t make sense of who we are. “The modern world, insofar as it is proposed to humankind as its habitation, is too small, too dull, too meager for us. After all, we are very remarkable. We alone among the creatures have learned a bit of the grammar of the universe.”
This is Robinson’s contrarianism sung to the tune of Psalm 8: “What is man, that Thou are mindful of him? and the son of man, that Thou visitest him? For Thou has made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour” (KJV). Rather than some evidentialist counter-proof (“the soul will never reveal itself to an fMRI, and poetry, prayers, painting, and architecture are inadmissible as evidence”), this is a Pascalian endeavour that invites us to consider our fragility and dignity, our mortality and everlasting hopes. She invites the contemporary reader to try on theism as a better way to understand ourselves. “Come and see,” she asks us—we inhabitants of modern disenchantment—and see whether this disdained, forgotten way of looking at the world doesn’t make more sense than our demythologizing.
Revising Revisionist Histories
On the other hand, the “here” is quite specifically the United States and the “we” its current inhabitants. In this sense, a number of the essays are an extended exercise in revisiting the American experiment. “America always has the great, interesting problem of arriving at some understanding of itself. History is entirely germane to this project.” Indeed, Robinson the novelist and literature professor constantly veers into the lane of historians in this project. But here, too, she is contrarian.
Robinson offers a genealogy we have forgotten, reminds us of a legacy that our “cultural consensus” has despised and tried to erase—the distinctly Christian, yea Puritan, inheritance of some of our most cherished features of democracy and pluralism. We confuse rationality with our unfounded prejudices (just consider lazy uses of the adjective “puritanical” and flippant invocations of witch trials) and thereby insulate ourselves from truth. It’s not just that we should be embarrassed by our error (which is really intellectual vice parading as virtue); it’s that such prejudices undercut our ability to live well together. This isn’t just about getting our history right; it’s about knowing who we are and how to live together. This is history as social therapy.
This, too, is an apologetics of a sort. The British theologian Oliver O’Donovan has said that public theology “has an apologetic force when addressed to a world where the intelligibility of political institutions and traditions is seriously threatened.” Insofar as the legacy of those institutions is theological and Christian, theology offers a public service by reminding us of this and hence inviting us to appreciate anew their animus and rationale. Robinson’s project does exactly this. As she puts it:
I am interested in American institutions and reforms that began in the Puritan Northeast. But, oddly enough, the states that banned and opposed slavery after the Revolution, as they could not do while they were colonies under British law, the states that advanced women’s rights and achieved levels of literacy never before seen in the world, the states that practiced the purest forms of democracy yet seen in the world, are thought of as peculiarly harsh and intolerant. This stigma, based solidly and immovably on ignorance of New England culture and of the world that was its context, ought not to overwhelm its contributions to what is best in American culture.
A number of chapters make this case, resituating the Puritan project against its English origins and Southern contrast. She especially challenges lazy descriptions of the Northeast colonies as “theocratic.” Such dismissals miss “the most revolutionary idea” at the heart of the Puritan project, echoing Michael Walzer’s Revolution of the Saints: “that society as a whole can be and should be reformed.” It is this “Puritan energy,” she points out, that continues to “animate American life.” But that vision for reforming society was tied to a metaphysics and an account of human nature that we have haughtily dismissed as unenlightened.
This is where our arrogant prejudices are just cover for ignorance. “Somehow we are taught to sneer, and the sneer is a final and sufficient judgment on people and things of the highest interest and importance.” Robinson aims to pierce through such “prejudices and their power,” not merely for the sake of defense, or as an academic correction, but more in the spirit of what O’Donovan suggests: to renew our democracy, to make possible ways of living well together. “A tremendous freedom always lies behind prejudice and begins to be released the moment the errors that are the substance of prejudice are acknowledged as error.” Let self-congratulatory prejudices fall away; we have nothing to lose but our ignorance. And we might find more unity on the other side.
One could say Robinson is an expert practitioner of what Alan Jacobs calls “filth therapy.” It is a calling she has answered since The Death of Adam. In this newest collection she observes: “It has been my eccentric fate to be attracted to subjects that have been excluded from the historical conversation by an aversion of which no account can be made—so deeply has the aversion itself obscured any knowledge of the matter in question.” She looks back and realizes “I have spent a great part of my adult life working to rescue wounded or discounted reputations.” She is “especially fascinated by erasures and omissions” that seem “strongly present in their apparent absence, like black holes, pulling the fabric of collective narrative out of shape.” Correcting this is a way to liberate us from our own modern provincialism.
Granted, Marilynne Robinson’s Puritans exhibit little to upset our modern biases and sympathies. For Robinson, what dismissive progressives need to learn from the Puritans is that they were, in fact, the first progressives. “The American Puritans were the most progressive population on earth through the nineteenth century at least. They deserve notice.” Now, there’s something right and true about this, and Robinson’s retelling is helpful and important. But one might worry that the Puritans are being gussied up just a bit to make them presentable to the New York Review of Books crowd. (“I’m going to bring you along to the MLA cocktail party, but please don’t say anything about frugality or evangelism or, above all, sex.”) In that sense, this is less a correction of our biases and prejudices and more an exercise in showing the Puritans share them. This is true of Robinson’s apologetic project more broadly. I’m grateful for someone of her stature and intellect bearing witness to the rationality of Christian belief in the public square. Both her fiction and prose bear witness to what it’s like to be a Christian today, to make one’s way in the world in faith, hope, and love, grounded in gratitude above all.
But I sometimes worry that the invocations of God are a tad epiphenomenal. Her burden is to show that Christianity is not mutually exclusive to what any default Democrat would hold dear. And while she appeals to a Christianity that is trinitarian, historical, and orthodox—contrary to the Unitarianism that later won the day in New England—there is little in her rendition of Christianity that is scandalous. The compatibility of Christian claims with modern life is rightly extolled, but the exclusivity of Christian claims is effaced, or at least downplayed. She’s absolutely right that we shouldn’t reduce Jonathan Edwards to one sermon on hell; but that doesn’t mean he didn’t preach it.
As it happens, I was reading What Are We Doing Here? in parallel with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s collection, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. A comparison is apt. Both are battling amnesia. Both think history is an antidote to contemporary blind spots and injustices. Both are puncturing the comfortable bubbles of our prejudices and complacency. And yet these are clearly two very different histories. One is trying to repair our Whiggish misperceptions of US history; the other is a case for reparations because of that history.
Robinson’s history is not inattentive to the legacy of slavery in the United States. “We continue to learn how important slavery and racism have been to the construction of Western civilization, literally as well as figuratively. Without question we have vastly more to learn.” But for the most part this is invoked to deconstruct our caricatures of New England, showing Puritan enlightenment in contrast to retrograde Southern arrangements. It was Congregationalist Yale (and not Unitarian Harvard) that became the epicentre for the abolitionist movement, spawning colleges and seminaries like Amherst and Andover and Oberlin that, against the grain, educated women who became influential in the eradication of slavery. This again reflects Robinson’s affirmation of the university as an influential node within our social network. “Higher education—liberal education—became a very important medium for the advancement of radical social reforms. The movement that scattered these colleges over the landscape, a very distinctive feature of American civilization, has had immeasurable consequences, including its contributions to the ultimately elimination of slavery.” The countercultural, subversive intertwining of gender equality and abolitionism, Robinson points out, was nourished by Christian, even Puritan, convictions.
Robinson’s not wrong, but she’s also not telling the whole story. I get the corrective. It’s exactly the sort of point you’d want to hammer home over and over when you’re sick and tired of colleagues in the university faculty club blithely assuming anyone who is rational couldn’t possibly believe in God, or that Christianity is just another name for oppression. But drawing lines of influence from Puritanism to abolitionism is not the same as grappling with the history of racism. If racial injustice only shows up in terms of slavery, then the Puritan Northeast gets to congratulate itself on its moral progressivism. But when we consider the injustice of systemic racism more broadly, this narrative about the Underground Railroad screeches to a halt. Laying across the tracks are Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Robinson would no doubt be sympathetic, and reminding us of the Christian origins of abolitionism might challenge the religion-is-poison narrative of progressivism and motivate contemporary Christian activism. But Robinson’s question—What are we doing here?—also has a sense of frustration about it, as in: What’s going on here? What the hell are we doing? What’s happening? If we’re trying to answer those questions here and now (her last chapter is a jeremiad about Fox News), one would hope for a history that is attuned to legacies for which the “progressive” Northeast remains responsible.
Robinson has shown herself to be a novelist of remarkable empathy. Her essays also exhibit a unique ability to identify with characters that we moderns would rather shun. But one could worry that her empathy is selective. She rightly wants us to see the world afresh by stepping into the shoes of Jonathan Edwards and Edward VI and Oliver Cromwell. But if you’re offering a genealogy of how we got here, now, you might expect others to also find a voice. (Defensive invocations of “specialization” or “focus” won’t suffice. She’s ranged well beyond her expertise, and the focus is always inflected by present concerns, as she admits.) Her sometimes pedantic correction of our caricatures of the Puritans spends little time considering their frontier “encounters” with Native Americans, for example. To read Robinson alongside Coates is to always have the nagging impression that she’s surveying an incredibly rich tapestry but never shows us the back.
In short—and it feels odd to propose this about my favourite Calvinist—What Are We Doing Here? doesn’t spend much time grappling with evil. This might be true of her non-fiction more broadly. Her reply to the deflationary critiques of naturalists and the reductionism of rationalists appeals to a cosmos whose kaleidoscopic beauty is mesmerizing and enchanting. But the horror of a nature “red in tooth and claw” seems conveniently left aside. Creation is the theatre of God’s glory, for Robinson, but there is an act in this drama that doesn’t have much of an explanatory role: the Fall. Similarly, in order to counter the dismissals of the Puritans as dour and mean and oppressive, she paints a picture of their (relative) progressivism, their revolutionary reforms, the seed of our own politics planted in their soil. But one wonders if this is sufficient for those who have been ground underfoot by history as reason not to believe.
Robinson tends to offer an apologia gloriae rather than an apologia crucis. She offers a powerful challenge to those who dismiss Christian faith because of blind spots of ignorance. She levels the playing field, challenging those who confidently claim “science” as their rationale for rejecting “irrational” Christianity. She deconstructs the false dichotomy of Christian faith and progressive politics. But I’m not sure she offers reasons to believe for those for whom evil and suffering are the insurmountable barrier to faith.
In his “Notes from the Fifth Year” in We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates makes an honest admission: “I would like to believe in God. I simply can’t.” The reasons, he says, “are physical”: “When I was nine, some kid beat me up for amusement, and when I came home crying to my father, his answer—Fight that boy or fight me—was godless, because it told me that there was no justice in the world, save the justice we dish out with our own hands.” He recounts more intimate experiences of such godless suffering, and then his deep diving into the history of displaced and enslaved Africans in this country would only deepen his convictions in this regard. Unlike Robinson’s confident painting of divine beauty in the cosmos, Coates sees a different universe. And the same is true of history. “Nothing in the record of human history argues for divine morality, and a great deal argues against it.” So “ideas like cosmic justice, collective hope, and national redemption had no meaning for me. The truth was in the everything that came after atheism, after the amorality of the universe is taken not as a problem but as a given.”
Any apologetics worth its salt has to recognize the barriers to faith—to sympathetically recognize what Alvin Plantinga calls “defeaters” for faith. What does Marilynne Robinson’s apologia for Christianity have to say in response to a protest like Coates’s? It can’t simply be an alternative history, correcting Coates’s blind spots, enumerating all the good things he’s missed. That is a game you can’t win. Christianity isn’t true because of the quantification of the good.
No, what’s needed is an apologia crucis. The only “answer” here, the only hope, is the sad, brutal madness of the God who dies on a cross—something that is starkly absent from the picture Robinson paints. The only “answer” here is the garish, scandalous proclamation of the God who takes on these injustices of our making, not in order to outweigh them in some balance of good versus evil but in order to descend to hell and rise from the dead.
There is an ultimate difference between Robinson and Coates: the matter of hope. Robinson appeals to a hope that overcomes our apathy: “Say that in his healing and feeding and teaching, Jesus let us see that the good that matters to mortal us matters also to eternal God. Then we have every reason to hope.” But this is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer might have called a cheap hope: it assures us that God cares about what we care about. It appeals to the Jesus who lived and healed and taught. That’s not nothing, but it has nothing to say to a Coates. The question isn’t whether God cares about what we care about. The question is: What the hell are we doing here? What have we done? Who let this happen? Are we all we’ve got? The only possible answer to that is not cosmic beauty or corrective history but the ugly reality of the cross and the gothic testimony of an empty tomb, a Savior who invites doubters to put their hands in his scars.