In her new collection of essays, Marilynne Robinson displays the same passionate concern with matters of faith that suffuses her majestic trilogy of linked novels, “Gilead,” “Home,” and “Lila.” Her purpose is more polemical in “The Givenness of Things,” which aims to reclaim the Protestant Christian tradition from politically conservative fundamentalists while also rebutting what she sees as the narrowly materialistic world view of some scientists. Many of her themes will be familiar to readers of such previous nonfiction works as “When I Was a Child I Read Books,’’ and many readers will be moved by Robinson’s pleas for Americans to affirm their heritage as a generous, humane, and liberal (in the broadest sense of the word) society.
However, Robinson the essayist has a tendency to overgeneralize and create straw men as her opponents that seems antithetical to the scrupulous particularity of Robinson the novelist. The problem is glaring from this collection’s first chapter, “Humanism,” which bemoans the low status of the humanities in our culture as emblematic of more general spiritual malaise. This is plausible enough, and Robinson makes an interesting argument when she enlists such contemporary scientific developments as string theory and quantum entanglement in support of the essentially religious notion that observed physical reality provides only a very partial knowledge of the cosmos, which unfolds according to principles we may never wholly understand.
She then turns around and sets up another scientific field, neuroscience, in highly dubious opposition to the recognition of life’s inherent complexity that Robinson sees as the glory of the humanities and (by inference) her personal style of religious belief. Neuroscientists, in her extremely reductive characterization, declare the brain “an essentially simple thing . . . seem predisposed to the conclusion that there is no ‘self’ . . . tak[e] as the whole of reality that part of it their methods can report.” This may be true of some neuroscientists, but certainly not all, as can be seen (to give two recent examples) by scanning “The Man Who Wasn’t There: Investigations Into the Strange New Science of the Self” by science journalist Anil Ananthaswamy, or the articles cited in “Living, Thinking, Looking” by Siri Hustvedt, another gifted novelist who exhibits a more nuanced understanding of neuroscience than Robinson.
Citations aren’t something Robinson bothers with when making sweeping assertions about “the dominant thought fad” of Marxism — she appears to be talking about academic Marxists of the 1970s and ’80s — practiced by “Marxists [who] had not read Marx.” The subtext that she is better-informed than everyone else (she makes it clear that she has read Marx) also undercuts a couple of otherwise lovely essays about the populist intentions of the Protestant Reformation and its links to political radicalism, particularly in England: To write that “historians and critics” (again unnamed) dismiss English religious dissidents “on the basis of polemical associations with the lower orders” is to ignore a substantial body of appreciative social history on that very subject, most notably Christopher Hill’s groundbreaking “The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution.” Robinson goes on to imply that everyone except her has missed the profound religious faith that drove Northern abolitionists to oppose slavery, which is simply absurd.
These examples are in some sense nit-picking, but they convey an underlying attitude — that those who don’t share her world view are blinkered or ignorant — at odds with Robinson’s message of Christian charity and grace. I’m being hard on this fine writer because (full disclosure) I share her liberal political convictions and agree with almost everything she says about the current mean-spirited state of the American polity and the way a certain kind of Christianity has been twisted to justify it. But I regret to say that there’s a smug, self-satisfied tone to her writing here that too many Americans associate with elitist liberalism. It detracts from Robinson’s stirring rejection of cynicism and passivity, her ringing affirmation of “the profound and unique sacredness of human beings” that leads her to support government aid to the poor, gay marriage, and other progressive causes that have right-wing Christians thundering condemnation. Robinson’s variety of Christian faith is appealingly humane and broad-minded, but the dodgy way she often explicates it makes “The Givenness of Things” inspiring and infuriating in roughly equal measure.
THE GIVENNESS OF THINGS
By Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 292 pp., $26
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Daily Beast.