The day Stephen Hawking died, Marilynne Robinson came to town. I was mulling over what—if anything—this all meant when a northerly gust roared down Yonge Street and derailed my train of thought. It’s the middle of March. Why is it so bloody cold? I pulled on my hat, annoyed. My wife and I picked up our pace and scurried into the nondescript Toronto Public Library, coats buttoned up to our chins.
Despite its bland, red-brick exterior, the TPL is a mesmerizing place. It has five floors that are hollowed out in the middle. From the ground you can look up and around to see exposed cross-sections loaded with scads of books, illuminated by sunlight and halogen. It looks something like the inside of a layer cake, complete with a Willy Wonka–like set of cylindrical glass elevators transporting readers to and from exotic worlds of Greek poetry, astronomy, medieval cartography, and more.
As we thawed, other pilgrims who had journeyed to hear the Iowan writer had begun to coalesce. It was a motley crowd of mostly silver-haired, well-heeled Torontonians mixed with a slightly less well-kempt bunch, presumably academics and run-of-the-mill TPL patrons. But given that most of the 450-plus crowd looked to be over sixty, I winked at my not-near-sixty-year-old wife—this was our big night out, by the way—and mouthed: “What are we doing here?” A lame joke, sure. The question was everywhere, printed in large, white letters against a cosmic backdrop on the cover of Robinson’s latest essay collection, clutched by so many in the room that the niggling query bobbed up and down all around us. I felt like a prop in some elaborately staged Pynchon joke. So what were these people here for? What was I here for?
Well, for starters: to see one of the most eloquent and insightful minds in North America today. A Calvinist who dabbles in Puritan history and quantum entanglement and everything in the great between, Robinson’s eclectic interests are as diverse as, well, the range of her essays. But while Robinson cavorts with the likes of astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser and former president Barack Obama, her unlikely popularity has also met with mixed responses among the Christian intelligentsia. In his talk at the Mitchell Prize gala last fall, for instance, Randy Boyagoda cheekily added Robinson to his growing list of writers of whom he’s sick and tired. He was, to be sure, mostly poking fun at the scandalously narrow reading lists of many earnest Christians. Regardless, Robinson, he theorized, has only become palatable to the non-Christian, secularized elite because her quiet, introspective faith is an exotic consumable of left-leaning bobos ever in search of trendy curiosities.
Her appeal in Toronto, then, would confirm what Canadian novelist Robertson Davies—writing mere blocks and mere decades from the TPL—saw to be a hallmark of Canadian conventionality, a disposition “which keeps religion strictly in its place, where it must not be mocked but need not be heeded, either.” There may be truth to this, but there’s also a self-perpetuating cynicism here that seems corrosive. Is any Christian who becomes acceptable in the mainstream necessarily compromised? I really hope not.
In his Harper’s essay “The Watchmen” Alan Jacobs has a different, and arguably stronger, criticism about Robinson’s wide acceptance. He argues that she has not been defanged by a secular elite, but didn’t have any real fangs to begin with. The problem is not her audience’s acceptance of her message, but with her message that few would ever reject. Jacobs suggests that the Christian faith in Robinson’s body of work never “calls upon her readers to act differently, socially or politically or morally, than they would normally be inclined to act.” More, Robinson goes to great “pains to assure her liberal and secular readers that she is one of them.” It’s a strong critique, and one borne out that night during Robinson’s talk, which contained numerous declarations of her left-leaning bona fides. And as the unassuming Robinson quietly spoke to us, she seemed to validate the fears expressed by Boyagoda and Jacobs. But she also confounded them. Yes, she assumed a liberal, never-Trump, anti–Fox News crowd. And the Toronto crowd, if you could judge by the applause and head-nodding, lapped up all her smug one-liner dismissals of this out-group. But she also spoke with direct earnestness about the reality of God in the soul, the conscience, and the cosmos in ways that may have been muted, sure, but were startlingly strange nonetheless.
Is any Christian who becomes acceptable in the mainstream necessarily compromised?
In Robinson’s response to Jacobs, she challenges Christians not to get so caught up in presuming just who is in the tribe and who is out when we speak in public venues such as the TPL or anywhere else. (And since then, Jacobs has also written brilliantly on the subject.) Such questions, Robinson warns, are often underwritten by an insecurity and fear unbecoming of a people for whom hope is not an option contingent on circumstance. To speak to any mysterious assortment of souls, Robinson intones, should be free of any presumptions about what they believe.
Judge not, said Jesus, and I think the commandment particularly warns us away from the kinds of harsh, categorical judgments that make too many Christians feel and act as though they live in a hostile and oppressive world. This kind of thinking, this habit of antagonism, has done incalculable harm. It has contributed in a way unbecoming in Christians to the bitter divisions that afflict this country.
But how do we know when intellectual hospitality veers into milquetoast pandering? When does a gracious demeanour actually become an ingratiating one? During her talk, Robinson seemed to do both. But discussing this afterward with some colleagues, we disagreed on just where and how she did either. All this to say: perhaps our fears about Christian public intellectuals, as warranted as they may be, must finally allow for the complexity of human persons and then give way to hope. Because who knows what haunts the atheist in her quiet moments? And who knows of the quiet denials of a living God that attend the fallen believer daily? I don’t want to suggest that that we are left spinning in some agnostic hamster wheel. But when we keep hoping Robinson could be someone other than she is, we risk missing the peculiar gift she offers our moment, our secular age grown ill at ease with the picture of the world we’ve inherited.
“Today’s the day that Stephen Hawking died . . .” a questioner began. The question that followed was unremarkable, but for a brief moment I was struck that however strange this crowd—whatever their incomes, pedigrees, postal codes, beliefs, fears, hopes—one thing was clear: they were all headed the way of Hawking at precisely sixty seconds per minute. The grey hair and wizened faces stuck out. Death, that final limit, was coming. I looked to my left. For my wife and me too.
But if this place, this earth, is some random assortment of self-interested, highly evolved material beings, then perhaps fear would be the proper last word. A world red in tooth and claw is hard to argue against as we hurtle through the infinite stretches of space only dimly aware of ourselves and others in the brief span in which we live. Sure, there may be a certain dignity in facing this given absurdity with the stoic resolve of a Camus. But there also seems to be a hunger for something else. And it’s here where Robinson’s work is the most edifying.
Because for Robinson, the start and end to all inquiry is a Creator God whose disposition toward his creation—to us—is one of profound love. So we must, Robinson urged, attend to this infinitely wonderful world because, perhaps, that may just be the first step toward glimpsing the face of God before whom we live.
How else can a 15-million-degree star radiate its heat wildly into the frozen reaches of interstellar space and, with a mere one one-billionth of its energy, brush against our spinning earth and brush against our cold cheeks? Are we aware of this terrible power and tender restraint each morning? And do we hope for it?
I’m afraid not. Even for believers, we often put our heads down and mutter about how bloody cold it is.