Book Review: What Are We Doing Here?: Essays

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I’ve heard it said that Marilynne Robinson is every atheist’s favorite Christian, and with What Are We Doing Here?—a recently released collection of essays—it’s easy to understand why. Robinson’s Christianity is Calvinism without the despair. It is the Calvinism of Cromwell and the American abolitionists. The type of Christianity that Christ practiced: that comforted thieves and prostitutes and threw furniture down the temple steps. The type of Christianity that understands the difference between justice and oppression, between vengeance and sadism, between grace and privilege. The type that surrenders freedom to God’s will—and to nothing else.

The surrender of one’s freedom is a recurring theme in Robinson’s lectures. Americans, Robinson fears, are more than happy to give up their ability to consciously discern and prioritize matters for themselves in exchange for quick escapes and easy answers. We surrender our identities to technological fiefs, our minds to ideological charlatans, and our souls to the latest scientific-reductionist theories. We have no sense of history and are therefore easily fooled into thinking of the past as a suburbia of peace or as a hell from which we’ve only recently escaped. “If we would let ourselves have anything like a real sense of history,” Robinson writes,” we would not be so continuously surprised and bewildered by its latest permutations.”

But we don’t have history—instead, we have ideology. Ideological thinking is, as Robinson crisply puts it, “by definition…not one’s own;” it is “blind to experience and to contradictions that arise when broader fields of knowledge are consulted.” The dominant ideologies—Marxism, Freudianism, “neo-benthamism” (i.e. Randian libertarianism), religious fundamentalism, New Atheism, and so on (the examples are Robinson’s)—are the “antibiotics of the intellect, killing off a various ecology of reflection and experience in order to eliminate one or two troublesome ideas.” The conscience of the individual is lacking (or altogether absent) today. We are satisfied with repeating the comfortable phrases and arguments of our preferred ideological Phlegyas . What medium we find them on doesn’t matter. Some come from television, others from the internet. Still others from podcasts on our phone. The effect is the same: the surrender of free thought.

Robinson calls our era the “age of weird intrusion.” While others raising similar alarms use social-psychological terms like “tribalism,” “subconscious biases,” and “group mentality,” Robinson speaks on these phenomena at a much more fundamental, more personal level:

We have voices in our heads that can neutralize experience and displace the world we observe with a much more urgent and dramatic reality, a reality with a plotline…with villains bent on enormity and all that is sacred in desperate need of rescue.

Large swaths of media are intent on keeping their neon followers overwhelmed, displaced, and poignantly misdirected. This “dystopian” media landscape isn’t an abstract problem to Robinson. Late in her life, Robinson’s own mother began watching Fox News and started along an emotional trajectory that will sound familiar to many young Americans who experienced it first-hand with their parents and grandparents.

As Robinson’s mother became more “Fox-saturated,” she became more afraid. She started treating her daughter with skeptical resentment: after all, Robinson is a college professor (perhaps the most loathed occupation in Fox world) and a non-fundamentalist Christian (which, in Fox theology, means she’s a liberal). Right-wing media is “normalizing cowardice,” Robinson writes, by ridiculously portraying Christians as oppressed and shunned in civil society. Whatever hostility Christians face as Christians, Robinson continues, isn’t because they’ve embraced “the Gospel of faith, hope, and love” but because right-wing media has associated Christianity with “intolerance, guns, and hostility to science.” In the end, Robinson’s mother “lived out the end of her fortunate life in a state of bitterness and panic, never having the slightest brush with any experience that would confirm her in these emotions, except, of course, Fox News.” She had surrendered herself to something hell-bent on destroying her.

As mentioned above, and as those already familiar with Robinson’s work will know, Robinson’s opposition to Christian fundamentalism isn’t based on liberal relativism or doctrinal indifference. She is unapologetically Puritan. In What Are We Doing Here? she argues (with documentary support) that America’s political culture stems more from Cromwell than it does from either Locke or Burke. She also compares the authoritarian laws of Anglican-royalist southern states such as Virginia and South Carolina with those of the historically vilified Puritan New England. With the latter we find mandatory legal representation for the criminally accused; with the former we find capital offenses for not attending church, speaking ill of the governor, and running away with the natives.

Robinson extensively quotes from prescribed Christian thinkers such as Saint Ambrose and John Wycliffe to illustrate historical Christianity’s antipathy to the kind of poverty brought about by economic inequality. It’s here that she most distances herself from the fundamentalists who appreciate Puritanism merely for its rigidity and confidence; Robinson’s Puritanism carries with it doctrinal commitments to justice and fair play.

The only weakness in these lectures is that too often Robinson is guilty of what she laments in others. She finds Puritanism unduly slandered as the theology of “cankered souls who simply hate life,” so she unduly slanders Marxism as dictatorship and Darwinism as eugenics. She finds Puritanism reduced to trivial concepts, so she reduces other ideologies to trivial concepts. She finds President Obama maligned-by-caricature, so she maligns-by-caricature his left-wing critics.

Nonetheless, Robinson gets the most important things right: the “Taxpayer” has replaced the “Citizen,” the university prioritizes training over education, the humanities have “run for cover to critical theory,” and the country’s rich are making more while the rest of us are earning less. While everything falls out of fashion but cynicism, Robinson’s faith has safeguarded her against such weariness. Whatever the merit of its truth, there at least lies the merit of its value.