Entertainment Books

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Little comfort in Robinson's pious polemics

Non fiction: What Are We Doing Here? Marilynne Robinson, Little Brown, €21.99

Marilynne Robinson tries to come up with a new theology for our present age in her new book
Marilynne Robinson tries to come up with a new theology for our present age in her new book

J.P. O'Malley

One of the great wonders of literary fiction is the way it enables a reader to appreciate ethical values, which in real life they would almost certainly disagree with. Once the writing is of an exceptional standard, the moral code a character - or indeed the author who is writing that story - lives their life by is of little relevance. Most remarkable fiction tends to be more about the rhythm and music of language, than trying to convince an audience of a political or personal viewpoint. Hitherto, this is how I have assessed and read Pulitzer Prize-winning American author, Marilynne Robinson.

In 2014 Robinson published Lila, her fourth work of fiction. Like Gilead and Home - the two other novels in this remarkable trilogy series - Lila is inculcated in the language of a Calvinist-God-fearing Bible thumping tradition: which Robinson has always had an obsessional interest in. Robinson's fiction is distinctly known for two things: its explorations into the subject of human loneliness, and, its deep religious convictions. The latter arises predominately from an historical movement now largely forgotten about in the United States. Known as The Second Great Awakening, these 19th Century religious cultish ideas saw the resurrection of a puritanical world of morality, which appealed to the super-natural, and rejected the sceptical rationalism and deism of the Enlightenment.

As a committed atheist, I still have an enormous cultural and historical interest in the Bible, and in the power of Christian mythology too. Hence, I've taken a great deal from Robinson's prose fiction. In fact, her deep religious convictions, I believe, actually strengthens her work. And so I came to this current book of essays with great enthusiasm; believing I could meet the writer half way.

What Are We Doing Here? is a collection of lectures that Robinson has given in churches, seminaries, and universities over the last few years. Robinson outlines here, early on, her main gripe with American culture today: she claims it has surrendered thought to ideology. Wisdom, courage, personal dignity and altruism, meanwhile, Robinson argues, has been replaced by an obsession with self-interest and individualism. I had at least some sympathy with Robinson's thesis to begin with. Clearly, a fair amount of philosophical soul- searching is required in the United States right now. Indeed, some of the initial ideas that Robinson presents here are worthy intellectual thought experiments.

In one essay entitled, What is Freedom of Conscience?, Robinson grapples with questions about human morality; in another essay called, The Divine, she opens up a conversation about the fundamental idea of myth, and how it informs culture and history. Elsewhere, Robinson points to the strengths of the humanities and arts; especially how they can enrich a society's plurality and self respect. She also attempts to come up with what she calls a new theology for our present age.

The further I delved into this collection, however, the more I wholeheartedly disagreed with Robinson's fire and brimstone polemics. There can be no intellectual compromise here, because, quite frankly, Robinson's religious belief is just too fundamental, and extreme. The book is profoundly anti-science: an intellectual discipline, Robinson claims, "has very little to say about history". This is quite an absurd statement, given that Darwinism - one of the most important ideas in all of science, and indeed human culture - changed the way we think about the history of our planet and our species.

But as an anti-rationalist, Robinson never explores the subjects she debunks. She favours pious moralising and subjective opinion instead: one which eschews any kind of reasonable or evidence- based analysis. The book continually attacks Richard Dawkins's selfish gene theory: the neo-Darwinian synthesis that focuses on the gene as the unit of natural selection, and which encourages social altruism and cooperation between species that are related. But Robinson fails to give the reader even one sentence explaining what the selfish gene theory actually consists of.

Not only does Robinson scorn the values of the Enlightenment: which includes Freud, Marx, Darwin, nearly all of scientific thinking, humanism, and modernity. She then subsequently asks the reader to take intellectual and spiritual inspiration from a sectarian nut job, who committed genocide in Ireland in 1649: Oliver Cromwell. While Robinson admits that Cromwell had blood on his hands, she continually praises the former Lord Protector of England and his Republican puritan values: excusing his genocidal sectarian ways as merely in line with the zeitgeist of 17th Century northern Europe.

As the book concludes, the essays descend into a tone akin to a judgemental pious religious sermon: with Robinson reminding us that "Christ is present body and blood" and truth arises "by the grace of God". Anyone from a secular disposition - or indeed who is not from a deeply fanatical protestant tradition - is unlikely to find much comfort, or interest, in this book's narrow-minded outlook of western modernity. Still, that shouldn't take away from the fact that Robinson remains one of the most important living writers of prose fiction in the United States today. But I'll stick to her novels from now on.

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