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Marilynne Robinson's Sacred Cosmology

The author's new essay collection converses with the dead


“I miss civilization, and I want it back.” Were these the words of almost any other writer, they would seem irascible, but coming as they do from Marilynne Robinson, they follow an earnest, eager plea: “I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do. I want to feel that art is an utterance made in good faith by one human being to another. I want to believe there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it.”

Robinson, of course, is the very kind of genius for which she herself longs in this introduction to her first essay collection, The Death of Adam. In the 17 years since, neither her passion nor her prose has cooled, and her eagerness for such conversations has not fatigued. She has not given up, not even on us, and her latest book of essays, The Givenness of Things, astonishes anew.

The collection begins with an appeal to the past, to the Renaissance and the Reformation, an appeal which is itself an argument about how best to understand our contemporary world. “We can look far back in time,” she writes: “Indeed, where the cosmos is concerned we can only look back in time.” There follows an asymmetry of the sort we are not often encouraged to acknowledge, much less accept: We can see backward, but not forward; deep into the past, but not far, if at all, into the future. Our experience leads only one way, while our understanding tends in the opposite direction. 

For that reason, Robinson forgoes protestations about the present and prognostications about the future in favor of praise for the past. “Humanism,” she writes, “was the particular glory of the Renaissance” while the Reformation was characterized by “the passion for disseminating as broadly as possible the best of civilization as the humanist tradition understood it, and at the same time honoring and embracing the beauty of the shared culture of everyday life.” Because we can see what came before us more clearly than what comes next, she argues we’d do well to look back with more charity and enthusiasm.

Her own backward glance is full of reverence and wonder, not only for the human world, but the natural world as well. Givenness, though, implies a Giver, and Robinson’s cosmology is Christian, boldly and clearly so: “My Christology is high, in that I take Christ to be with God, and to be God,” she writes in “Metaphysics;” in “Theology,” she explains how she will “explore the questions of Being within the terms of Christian orthodoxy;” and one of the collection’s best essays, “Son of Adam, Son of Man,” is a searching look through both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament for an account of Jesus Christ that reconciles his personhood and divinity with our own.

Perhaps we should be more surprised that one of our country’s greatest novelists occupies herself with such concerns, but Robinson is heir to Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Henry James. She is a writer who says with all seriousness: “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.” She writes such statements with full knowledge, but great skepticism of contemporary theories of mind. The soul, for her, is not merely a useful abstraction or historical curiosity, but a reality: one that leads her to reject scientific reductionism and deny what she considers an untenable distinction between objectivity and subjectivity. The soul’s “nonphysicality,” she argues, “is no proof of its nonexistence,” and by way of illustration: “If Shakespeare had undergone an MRI there is no reason to believe there would be any more evidence of extraordinary brilliance in him that there would be of a self or a soul.”

Such soul talk animates , and one wonders if it alienates readers who do not share Robinson’s sense of the sacred or even her specifically Christian vocabulary for it. But Robinson herself finds atheists no more alien than other Christians, writing critically of American Christianity’s “ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism.” The essays are inherently political, not because they consider politics in the horse-race terms by which our society has grown accustomed, but because they seek to understand the self in the world, and that understanding is necessarily political: how one soul relates to other souls, how collectively souls are in relationship with one another. For Robinson, Christianity isn’t only identity, but ethics—her faith animates her discernment of everything from gun control to free school lunches. “I never feel more Christian,” she says, “than I do when I hear some new scheme for depriving and humiliating the poor, and feel the shock of religious dread at these blatant contraventions of what I, as a Christian, take to be the will of God. And yes, I can quote chapter and verse.”

And so she does. The Givenness of Things is dappled with scripture, but also with William Shakespeare and John Calvin, W.B. Yeats and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ovid and Jonathan Edwards. “Lately I have been watching ghosts,” she writes in the essay on “Experience,” and while she means scenes of Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet and Lear, it’s clear that ghosts are much of the company she keeps. The essays are addressed to us, but Robinson’s conversation partners are mostly dead; she argues more with authors of the last century and theologians of the last five than anyone who is still alive. And still, she writes favorably of the internet, admitting to sneaking a peek at her own rating on Amazon. (As of publication, her novels Housekeeping, Home, Gilead, and her latest Lila average a solid four out of five stars; The Death of Adam rates four-and-a-half.)

What then to make of this strange creature for whom the past is not only darkness, but also light; the present is both fallen and redeemed; the self is no constraint, but an intelligible scale by which to encounter the infinite? Robinson lives by contradiction and encourages us to do the same. The Givenness of Things describes the world as it was and is, but ensconced in those descriptions are humble corrections. In “Fear,” for instance, she offers both diagnosis and cure: “contemporary America is full of fear” and “fear is not a Christian habit of mind,” so we should learn to distinguish between “real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere.” Specifically, she would have us cease stockpiling Kalashnikovs and start practicing love and restraint with our neighbors both near and far.

That phrase “habit of mind” haunts all 17 of these essays. Robinson is a lone voice in the whirlwind because she has set herself to the solitary, silent task of thinking, and only from her writing can we discern her mind’s habits. The writing, though, can sometimes seem like it is of two minds: Where there is free will in her fiction, there is none in her nonfiction. Faith, according to these essays and others, is a gift, and the human will is in bondage: All we can know of salvation, for sure, is that we cannot know. So while sharing her literary belief is easy, many readers may not find themselves able to share her religious belief: It is easier to have faith in fiction than nonfiction; less troubling to believe in parables than philosophy.

But belief is itself a habit of the mind, nurtured by routine and ritual. One of Robinson’s favorites, it would seem from the number of times she refers to Psalm 8, is considering the night sky. (“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained.”) Do so, and in the dark heavens you will find constellations, but also inconsistencies. Asteroids appear always; stars sometimes fall. The same experience awaits readers of these essays; there are constancies and creeds, but also shooting stars throughout: “The Old Testament is so, you know, Calvinist.” “Existence is remarkable, actually incredible.” “We are a strange species.” “I am content to place humankind at the center of Creation.” Robinson’s handiwork is capacious and serious, but also mysterious and wondrous; like the night sky, it deserves our attention.