Marilynne Robinson, public intellectual

Marilynne Robinson is an American treasure, an elegant writer and moral philosopher. Her collection When I Was a Child I Read Books present a set of essays that stand as brilliant apologies for faith, organized and progressive religion, and American idealism.

She prefaces her collection with a long quote from Walt Whitman about what might imperil America:

For America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without; for I see clearly that the combined foreign world could not beat her down. But these savage, wolfish parties alarm me. Owning no law but their own will, more and more combative, less and less tolerant of the idea of ensemble and of equal brotherhood, the perfect equality of the States, the ever-over-arching American ideas, it behooves you to convey yourself implicitly to no party, nor submit blindly to their dictators, but steadily hold yourself judge and master over all of them.[from Democratic Vistas]

Her own works aid us in this effort to remain independent of mind. Her final two essays, “Who Was Oberlin?” and “Cosmology” should be read by everyone, especially those liberals who have dismissed religion, and those of us prone to scientific reductionism. People serious about their lack of faith and dismissal of religion need to have wrestled with her points, just as people serious about their faith must grapple with atheist critiques old and new.

Robinson points her remarkable intellect at politics, society, science and culture. She makes visible that which is so obvious we often forget it: human nature shapes everything it touches “…Science as surely and profoundly as everything else,” and the reader would be hard-pressed to deny her. She could simply point out the vast number of papers that can’t be replicated, and the dull sameness of most funded research.

She does have some lovely turns of phrase that demand more than just mild appreciation. “Human history is in large part nonsense…” “Market economics….has shown itself very ready to devour what we hold dear…” “There is something about being human that makes us love and crave grand narratives.”

I must confess this book sat on my nightstand for some two years after I recommended my Monday Night Bible study get it and read it. We didn’t make it through more than two essays, and I put it aside for a time.

I think our challenge came from her erudition, which can sometimes make her seem stuffy. She simply knows more about human intellectual and artistic history than most people. She discusses Michael Servetus and John Calvin, John Winthrop and Charles Finney, with easy familiarity. I remember one complaint about Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction being that he seemed to expect people to have read the many novels he references. Robinson’s essays have a similar feel to them. She does her best to help us fathom the depths of her knowledge, but she has absorbed works most of us have never heard of, and can deploy them to make points about modern life that can’t effectively be refuted without something approaching her level of familiarity.

I’m sorry I let my own issues with this learnedness get in my way; the essays are wonderful and rich and worth multiple reads.

Leave a Reply