A Brief Theory about Marilynne Robinson

“I have scoured the Internet,” a friend emailed me when Marilynne Robinson’s Lila had just been released, “and found not one critical or negative review of Marilynne Robinson.” Linda McCullough Moore's review in Books and Culture was a mild exception to that rule, while noting how rare qualms with Robinson’s work really are. With the subtitle “A Dissenting View,” the review begins, “One almost requires a handwritten invitation to take issue with the work of Marilynne Robinson.” Though it lost out on a National Book Award to Phil Kay's Redeployment, Robinson's novel was recently nominated for a National Books Critics Circle award.

Beyond her formidable literary talent (of which there is much to say, and I don't intend to detract from attention to it), I think there is another reason Robinson is so revered. In short: She refuses the categories which characterize how we publically interpret experiences, and it’s a breath of fresh air for everyone who is looking for wisdom on that score. There was a moment during the question period of Marilynne Robinson’s lecture at Yale Divinity School this winter that illustrated this well.

Robinson’s dense and subtle lecture was an argument against scientific positivism which reduces emotions and affective states to merely something you can quantify—just areas of brain activity lighting up on scans. This interest has animated her projects all long; she’s written about it in many essays, and in the pages of Commonweal. This has obvious implications for understanding how faith works, but it’s a bigger statement about relating to the self, our affective states, and our ability to see these states as distinct from other modes of understanding.

When Robinson finished speaking, a sociologist in the back row asked if the title of the lecture, ‘The Givenness of Things,’ shouldn’t have been different. "In the social sciences, as soon as you say 'thing' we want to quantify it, point to it. So," the sociologist continued, "wouldn't the more appropriate title of your lecture be ‘The Givenness of Being?’” Robinson replied that such a distinction between thing and being is exactly the problem, "I don't like to make [affective states] seem like they exist less than, what, the Federal Reserve? I don't know," said Robinson. "To ascribe lesser ontological status to things of obvious importance is to falsify experience." "Boom." A friend whispered beside me, pleased.

To briefly and inadequately summarize her point, what we separate as objective versus subjective, real and concrete versus “true”, science versus religion, are really one thing: reality. In fact, she began the lecture saying she wanted to “redefine reality” this way, and dusted off her hands like she was setting to work.

Robinson expressed that she wants to make a free-standing argument as an intelligent person in America; this is more than The Christian Argument. It is Christian, and it's formulated with help from Jonathan Edwards of all people, but the term "free standing" is crucial, because she is appealing to revelation in a way both religious and non-religious know well. In fact, the moments of insight she describes in both in her novels and nonfiction run roughshod over the distinction between secular and sacred ways of knowing. That move, if widely adopted, could change the tone of public debate on matters of faith and conscience. I think part of the affection for her work is a reflection of widespread desire for that shift. Everyone wants the ability to talk about their facts of our lives, including the ineffable ones which seem as real as the mundane.

Contrast Robinson’s assertion to Sam Harris's characterization of the mind from his new book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. "Our minds are all we have," he writes. "They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others... Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind."

Harris's book is a case for "mindfulness," by which he seems to mean a clear, open perspective on the present. Fair enough. But he has isolated "the mind" in a limited version of a 19th century conception of the self, advocating a consciousness that stands apart from itself as the highest form of spiritual development.

If, like many people, you tend to be vaguely unhappy much of the time, it can be very helpful to manufacture a feeling of gratitude by simply contemplating all the terrible things that have not happened to you, or to think of how many people would consider their prayers answered if they could only live as you are now.

While Harris may have cultivated some insight on how to think yourself into a more expansive mood, this conscientiousness isn't spirituality. For one, it is still trapped inside one person's perspective, and engages reality far more superficially than Robinson would suggest. At the risk of sounding saccharine, reality may include such things as kindness, as we see in moment from Lil​a: "He looked up at her. Kindness was something he didn't even know he wanted, and here it was." 

I think many of Robinson's readers, no matter their religious inclinations, intuit it is insufficient to define the mind — our shifting perspective on experience — to what the brain is doing. She's put her finger on what frustrates so many about the limits of pure scientific positivism: the subjective and objective have never been so neatly set apart.

Maria Bowler is the former assistant digital editor of Commonweal. 

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