Essays to live by: wisdom, grace

Marilynne Robinson says, “I find the soul a valuable concept, a statement of the dignity of a human life and of the unutterable gravity of human action and experience.”
Marilynne Robinson says, “I find the soul a valuable concept, a statement of the dignity of a human life and of the unutterable gravity of human action and experience.” Courtesy photo

“The Givenness of Things: Essays” by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 292 pages, $26)

Marilynne Robinson is that rare example of a writer who excels as a novelist and an essayist. And the qualities that make her fiction so good — the precise delineation of characters, beautiful language and intelligence — apply to her nonfiction as well.

Her fifth book of nonfiction is a collection of 17 essays originally delivered, sometimes in different form, as lectures. She favors one-word titles, a description that applies to all four of her novels and all but one of these essays.

The first essay, “Humanism,” lays out a theme that recurs throughout the book: the wonder and glory of the human. She presents this as a counterpoint to how we tend to treat one another. Although “the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency,” she writes, “we have as good grounds for exulting in human brilliance as any generation that has ever lived.”

And while she freely acknowledges humanity’s destructive tendencies, she places her humanism in the context of faith. “Our ontological worthiness,” she writes, is “in relationship with God.”

Robinson shows that she reads widely, as knowledgeable about science and history as she is about theology and literature. And she is unafraid to offer her critique of people’s faulty thinking in either area. She calls scientists’ insistence of the category “physical” absurd, an error of logic.

“I find the soul a valuable concept,” she writes, “a statement of the dignity of a human life and of the unutterable gravity of human action and experience.” Meanwhile, she argues, “neuroscience, at least in its dominant forms, greatly overreaches the implications of its evidence and is tendentious.”

Faith and materialism

She freely admits her own bias as a theist, which she recognizes goes against materialism, “a discipline of exclusive attention to the reality that can be tested by scientists.” While acknowledging the usefulness of this approach, she writes, “the greatest proof of its legitimacy is that it has found its way to its own limits.”

In another essay, “Givenness,” she makes a similar point: “Scientific reductionism, good in its place, is very often used to evade the great fact of complexity.”

In the same essay, she goes on to compare faith with disbelief: “Faith takes its authority from subjective experience, from an inward sense of the substance of meaning of experience. The same is true of disbelief, no doubt. Objective proof cannot be claimed on either side.”

In her emphasis on humanity’s dignity, Robinson often criticizes our current denigration of one another. She laments the rise of “cultural pessimism,” which she defines as “bitter hostility toward many or most of the people within the very culture the pessimists always feel they are intent on rescuing.”

Robinson notes that “the writer most widely read in England while Shakespeare wrote was the French theologian John Calvin.” She is a huge fan of Calvin, whom she references in nearly every essay and quotes often. She does not mention his involvement in persecuting Anabaptists, however.

Calvin convinces her of the importance of human fallibility. Yet, Robinson writes, “I wouldn’t mind hearing the word ‘sin’ once in a while. If the word is spoken now it is likely to be in one of those lately bold and robust big churches who are obsessed with sins Jesus never mentioned at all. On the testimony of the prophets, social injustice is the great sin.”

She often criticizes a Christianity that is “rooted in an instinctive tribalism.” Christianity’s true nature, in contrast, “has no boundaries, no shibboleths, no genealogies or hereditary claimants.” This tribal Christianity is false and goes against the teachings of the Bible, she writes. “Does the word ‘stranger,’ the word ‘alien,’ ever have a negative connotation in Scripture? No. Are the poor ever the object of anything less than God’s loving solicitude? No.”

She also writes often about Shakespeare, noting that his “theological seriousness is simultaneous with his greatness as a dramatist.” In the essay “Grace” she concludes that Shakespeare “proposes that we participate in grace, in the largest sense of the word, as we experience love, in the largest sense of that word.”

An America full of fear

At the opposite end of love is fear, the title of another essay. Robinson makes two points: “Contemporary America is full of fear,” and “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” She does not mince words in her criticism of those who profess to be Christians: “Those who forget God, the single assurance of our safety, however that word may be defined, can be recognized in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears.”

Robinson is free and unafraid in laying out her opinions, which many will not like. In “Proofs” she quotes Karl Barth, who said that “Christianity that excludes the Old Testament has a cancer at its heart.” In “Memory” she writes, “True and utter cowardice is defined by the act of carrying a concealed weapon.” And further: “If Christianity is thought of as a religion of personal salvation that allows one to sin now and repent at leisure, it is … almost limitlessly permissive. It virtually invites the flouting of Jesus’ teachings.”

In “Value,” she turns to economics and justice: “If bankers wrecked the economy, what sense does it make to drug-test the unemployed who need help surviving the wreck?”

In “Theology” she critiques rationalism: “The rationalists are like travelers in a non-English-speaking country who think they can make themselves understood by shouting.”

In the same essay she goes on to describe how she comes to write a novel: “I find my way into it by finding a voice that can tell it, and then it unfolds within the constraints of its own nature, which seem arbitrary to me but are inviolable by me.”

Robinson addresses other subjects: economic inequality, the English Reformation, education, metaphysics, religion and more.

In “Realism,” the concluding essay in this volume, Robinson returns to the theme of human worth: “We know how profoundly we can impoverish ourselves by failing to find value in one another. … A theology of grace is a higher realism, an ethics of truth. Writers know this.”

“The Givenness of Things” is a rich source of thought and provocation. Robinson’s interests are wide and her intelligence keen. Reading her is a rewarding experience.

Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in North Newton.