Book Review: What Are We Doing Here? Essays by Marilynne Robinson

C. S. Lewis once challenged us to read the old books. That piece, which we treat as an essay, was actually the introduction to a translation of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. Lewis recognized scholarship and gave it the attention that it deserved while at the same time challenging the reader to pursue the truth by reading the original material rather than commentary upon commentary. When I read this collection from Marilynne Robinson I sensed that she had spent (understatement alert) a little bit of time reading the older material. She expresses a clear and systematic understanding of history, of philosophy, of science, and also of theology.

Others have tried to analyze her. I find that unproductive. Rather I would set before you some of the things that she shays of herself. Marilynne is an idealist, an old-fashioned humanist in a more classic sense of the term. She is an optimist. She wants more out of life and its passions and dreams, She has a high view of human potential. She expresses all of the energy of the 19th century humanist and postmillennailist — those pre-Marxian progressives. Her goals and desires for both individual and society are high, are lofty.  Even so they are prophetic words to a culture which has abandoned fact for feeling, principle for perception. This paragraph seems to cover her frame of mind:

There has been a fundamental shift in American consciousness. The Citizen has become the Taxpayer. In consequence of this shift, public assets are now public burdens. These personae, Citizen and Taxpayer, are both the creations of political rhetoric — it now requires an unusual degree of historical awareness to know that both “political” and “rhetoric” were once honorable things. An important aspect of human circumstance is that we can create effective reality simply by consenting to the reality of the phantasms of the moment, or the decade. While the Citizen can entertain aspirations for the society as a whole and take pride in its achievements, the Taxpayer, as presently imagined, simply does not want to pay taxes. The societal consequences of this aversion — failing infrastructure, monetary fiefdom, large or small. This is as touchy a point as are limits on so-called Second Amendment Rights. Both sensitivities, which are treated as if they were protections against centralization and collectivism, are having profound consequences for society as a whole, and this without meaningful public debate, without referendum. Citizenship, which once implied obligation, is now deflated — that is, given an artificial value by use that treats it as primarily a a limited good that ought to be limited further. The degree to which Citizen and Taxpayer ever existed, exist now, or can be set apart as distinct types, is a question complicate by the fact that they are imposed on public consciousness by politicians playing to constituencies, by interest groups, by journalism that repeats unreflectingly whatever gimicky notion is in the air, and reinforces it. It can be said, however, that what ever the Taxpayer is invoked as the protagonist in the public drama, stalwart defender of his own, past and potential martyr to a culture of dependency and governmental overreach, we need not look for generosity, imagination, wit, poetry, or eloquence. We certainly need not look fro the humanism Tocqueville saw as the moving force behind democracy.

One might say that she is a little bit liberal and a little bit conservative. But that is something to be said most of the country. There is much more to her than that. When you read this work you are not reading a simple treatise or just a collection of popular essays. You are reading her. You will see her heart and her passions, her wishes and hopes, her discouragements and despairs.

Over the past few years I’ve been reading scientists who are writing not only outside of their field of experience but in areas, specifically ethics, metaphysics, and theology, where they have absolutely no expertise. Their material ends up for me a laugh and a curiosity as to why they would waste their time, but for the money that is available. But this is nothing like those. As you read the essays and speech transcripts you will be impressed that she has done more than provide her audiences with feel-good pablum or a reinforcement for a political base. Her words are always challenging even when you find yourself disagreeing with her. She has a developed understanding of history and ideas. She draws matters together to draw informed conclusions.

She is not (as far as I can tell) a theologian but has an excellent working knowledge of Jonathan Edwards and Puritan history. She is not a trained philosopher (again, from what I can assess, for all that matters) but she is a clear thinker and a succinct communicator. She is not a scientist but she understands the implications of bad science and some of the movements that have distorted good science. Like one of my personal favorite historians, James Burke (The Day the Universe Changed), she connects the threads of history, of events and ideas, in a way that will excite the reader.

There is a subtext in her material that cannot be escaped: I cannot tell if her prophetic language arises from an optimism that we might somehow return to the humanism of the 19th century or whether it proceeds from a cry and a sorrow that misses it and longs for its return. She waxes nostalgic about the national character of past generations. But she seems to do this as much as a matter of historical encouragement for her audience as she does for her own edification. Though I can’t recount a specific statement I think it is fair to say that she is lamenting the individual as autonomous from society, that the individual and society is treated as a tool, that belongingness is today an unknown language.

One might also treat this as an historical-cultural hermeneutic. Throughout her essays and presentations she notes some of the changes and trends in our culture. These are extremely useful for understanding where we as a nation have come from and how those things might affect our future. If you wonder why your grandfather and grandmother think so much differently than you then this will help. That is, after all, the title of the book.

Again, you may not agree with her on everything. That’s just fine. I don’t, either. This is the quality of material that you read and set your differences aside because there is plenty to learn from another framework. What I appreciate most is her insights. She challenges provincial attitudes, short-sightedness, and selfishness. And more. More importantly she is challenging ideas — assumptions, stereotypes, and especially abbreviated histories. She is discouraged by some of the pervasive ideas that we are saddled with today.

A collection of essays covers a multitude of topics. Most of these are transcriptions from speeches that she has presented to a variety of groups.Given her frequent denunciation of Marxism I was surprised to see that The Nation printed one of her pieces, except that she praised the mind and demeanor of Obama. One should note when reading it that she did not praise his worldview.

You will learn that Jonathan Edwards was about more than spiders, that the Puritans were great thinkers, quite tolerant, and abolitionists, that the American Revolution was one in a thread of revolutions seeking freedom and justice, that when one adopts materialism then all else necessarily ends up being meaningless, the good that Cromwell brought to England, that many of the laws we cherish most actually come out of a theocracy of past generations, additional background on the story of Amistad, and much more,

Educators: I’ve known teachers at the secondary level who have communicated only the stereotypes and abbreviations of history and weak scientific frameworks that she challenges. This is good material for the secondary educator, whether in science or history. Your students deserve more than the “fake history” of Hollywood.

Christian Apologists: We are often confronted with ethical questions regarding “theocracy” and the social attitudes of Puritans. I don’t know how you answer those questions but from what I’ve observed the most common approach is evasion or at best a redirection. Her clarified historical information should be useful for answering some of these questions.

Enjoy the read. It’s a rich one.