What Are We Doing Here?
by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published February, 2018
There are a couple of ways to read the title of Marilynne Robinson’s essay collection What Are We Doing Here? On one level, it invites us to consider our present situation, reflect on the kind of society we are creating for ourselves. But it might also be read, rather more grandly, as an evocation of existential wonder. Why is there something rather than nothing? Is it not strange that our insignificant little planet should have nurtured a species capable of asking such an abstract question?
For Robinson, these are not separate issues. She has never concealed the fact that her religious faith is the bedrock of her political views. She is a practising Calvinist and a liberal theologian with a particular interest in the intellectual history of the modern era. The version of religious humanism she defends in her essays is characterised by its firm opposition to anything that smacks of rationalism or materialism or determinism — modes of thinking she sees as pervasive and pernicious.
Robinson has traced this intellectual conviction back to her college days. In an earlier essay collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012), she recalls studying the then-fashionable behaviourism of B.F. Skinner, testing his carrot-and-stick theories by running reluctant lab rats through mazes and rewarding them with pellets of food. At the same time, she was enrolled in another course examining the seamy psycho-sexual theories of Sigmund Freud. Having noted the incompatibility of these two psychological models, she chose to reject both, and much else besides. ‘At a certain point,’ she writes, ‘I decided that everything I took from reading anthropology, psychology, economics, cultural history, and so on did not square with my sense of things, and that the tendency of much of it was to posit a human simplicity with a simple reality and to marginalize the sense of the sacred, the beautiful, everything in any way lofty.’
The admiration with which Robinson has come to be regarded is undoubtedly warranted. She earned her literary reputation with four immaculately crafted novels. She commands all the respect that has accrued from her long association with one of the most prestigious creative writing schools in the United States, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her five volumes of essays and lectures (rather incongruously, she has published a sixth non-fiction book on the British nuclear power industry) have established her as an elder of American letters: a measured but insistent cultural commentator, drawing her readers back to the long view of history and the fundamental importance of the Christian virtues she takes as the subject of a long essay in What Are We Doing Here? — faith, hope and love. Her eminence is such that in 2015 Barack Obama travelled to Iowa to interview her.
But note the two ‘everythings’ in the previous quote. Robinson may be the moderate face of American religiosity, but she takes some pretty wild swings. The more you read her essays, the more it becomes apparent that she is positing a few simplicities of her own. Whatever manifestation of modern thought she happens to be criticising, her argument is basically the same: she proposes, in essence, that such thinking is too narrow, that it ignores or denies aspects of lived experience, and that its understanding of human nature must therefore be considered inadequate. She returns again and again to the core claim that modern thought is, as she puts it in Absence of Mind (2012), a ‘closed circle’ — by which she means, quite specifically, that its assumptions do not and indeed cannot account for her personal experience of religious belief, her intuition that the universe is a place of wonder and abundant meaning.
The primary importance Robinson places on her religious intuitions would seem to suggest an affinity with William James, whom she cites in Absence of Mind, in a passage that makes a point of drawing a clear distinction between religious experiences and religion in its various social, doctrinal and institutional manifestations. And she does broadly endorse his open-ended definition of religion as ‘the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine’.
Yet Robinson is not a Jamesian, strictly speaking. James was a philosophical pragmatist and a psychologist — a scholar trained in one of those inadequate modern disciplines. In Varieties of Religious Experience, he is careful to limit himself to a consideration of the psychological and practical consequences of his nominal subject, placing to one side any awkward questions about the validity of religious truth-claims. Robinson is not so coy. She writes as an unabashed religious partisan. Throughout her work, she insists that her intuition is what Whitman called the ‘hardest basic fact’: it is the truth before which other truths must kneel. The various conflations and generalisations of her thought all follow from her appeal to the ontology of the mind, which she understands as a kind of revelation in itself. As she declares at the beginning of her first collection The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998), ‘it all comes down to the mystery of the relationship between the mind and the cosmos’.
Where Robinson is peculiar, she is peculiar on this point. At its most expansive, her theological stance begs the question, in the true meaning of that phrase: she is assuming the thing she wants to prove. All of her work proceeds from a theistic understanding of mind and cosmos. For Robinson, the significance of these phenomena cannot be gainsaid: she takes their immanent divinity as a given. In ‘Mind, Conscience, Soul’, she suggests the confluence of those key terms, arguing that in the Puritan tradition to which she belongs ‘conscience [puts] the mind or soul in relation to God’. In the short essay that opens What Are We Doing Here?, titled ‘What is Freedom of Conscience’, she proposes that ‘the capacity for moral self-awareness is the God-given basis for the freedom and respect we owe one another’. Having thus placed the foundations of her reasoning safely beyond the reach of any rational explanation, she then takes every opportunity to criticise ‘modern thought’ for having failed to explain them.
Robinson’s allegiance to a specific theological tradition places her at an interesting angle to the culture of the United States, that emblematic modern nation, with its remarkable ability to embrace extremes of individualism, materialism and religiosity. Like many writers before her, she conceives of the great American experiment in metaphysical terms, and aligns its idealism with her own. The essays in What Are We Doing Here? develop a series of arguments about the historical origins of her nation’s democratic principles, one of her particular concerns being to insist that the early Puritans made ‘crucial contributions to what is best in American culture’.
She reminds us that it was a Puritan, John Winthrop, who in 1630 delivered the famous ‘city upon a hill’ speech, a seminal declaration of American exceptionalism in the form of a cautionary sermon, which Robinson interprets as a ‘utopian vision of a society whose relations are based on charity, using the word in its biblical sense, meaning love’. Against the popular image of Puritans as joyless fanatics, she argues (testily at times) that they founded enduring civic and educational institutions, respected the life of the mind, and placed a great value on the integrity of the individual conscience — a view with its foundations in the Protestant conviction that religious faith was ultimately a matter of the unmediated relationship between the individual and God, and the historical fact that Puritanism was a movement with its origins in political dissent.
On these grounds, Robinson speaks of democracy as ‘my aesthetics and my ethics and more or less my religion’. The Puritan veneration of conscience, she proposes, not only anticipated the secular republic’s formal separation of church and state, it contributed to the emergence of a distinctly American sensibility. In ‘Old Souls, New World’, she links the Puritan concept of the ‘exalted mind’ to the emphasis on attentiveness and self-awareness one finds in the work of canonical nineteenth-century writers — Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson — all of whom were either ‘brilliantly critical of their own perceptions, opening a vastness in every shortfall, like a Puritan sermon’, or possessed of an ability to ‘see through all convenient or dismissive categories to the actual, the vital and essential’.
That Robinson considers herself an inheritor of this distinctively American sensibility is evident in her fiction no less than her essays. Her four novels — Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), Home (2008) and Lila (2014) — all have provincial settings (the last three take place in a fictional Iowan town named Gilead) and their events are largely confined to the first half of the twentieth century. It would be unjust to characterise the distance this creates from the unwholesome clamour of the present as merely nostalgic or parochial (‘I am touchy on the subject of parochialism,’ cautions Gilead’s narrator, the Reverend John Ames), but it does nevertheless convey an appreciation for a certain kind of unhurried, traditional, small-town American life. Robinson’s novels depict a world that is anchored in domesticity and old-time religion, a world that is yet to be ravaged by postwar consumerism and technological distraction.
Against this uncluttered backdrop, she is concerned to pay respectful attention to the subjective realities of her characters’ lives, to dramatise their intimate struggles of conscience. ‘When I write a work of fiction,’ she has stated, ‘I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing on culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear and desire — a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then shaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense.’
Any writer willing to preface such a precisely worded statement of intent with the disarming phrase ‘I suppose’ is a writer you need to watch very carefully indeed. Robinson doesn’t mind playing up to her materteral image in order to smooth the way for her arguments. Her essays are seasoned with wry references to the unfashionability of her views. She likes to present herself as an unfailingly polite midwesterner who believes what she believes, and who has seen more than a few newfangled notions come and go in her time.
Yet the unwavering sense of intellectual purpose that informs her work makes the paradoxes of her stance hard to ignore. It is one thing to dramatise the reflections and personal crises of God-fearing fictional characters, who invite us to sympathise with them in their particularity and understand them as inheritors of the cultural assumptions of their time and place. It is something else entirely to adopt a philosophical position that ultimately rests on an irreducible ‘mystery’ and then tilt at the better part of the intellectual legacy of modernity.
Robinson is eager not to be seen as some kind of evangelical or mystic. She rejects the idea that the old argument between religion and science is one in which — as she writes in an essay titled ‘The Sacred, The Human’ — ‘fact and reason lie always on one side’. Throughout her essays, she maintains that the scientific method is perfectly valid, but only within its presupposed material parameters. In a long essay on ‘Darwinism’ in The Death of Adam, for example, she is careful to state that she does not dispute the well-established principles of evolutionary biology, which she claims pose no real threat to religious belief. Her specific target, she claims, is the tendency to extrapolate from Darwinian science an ideology that would reduce all human motivation to self-interest. In Absence of Mind, in which she repudiates the positivism of the New Atheists, she similarly insists that she is not attacking science per se, but what she calls ‘parascience’, which presumes to step beyond the boundaries of legitimate scientific discourse to present itself as a source of values and the ultimate arbiter of reality. Elsewhere, she adjusts her terminology to criticise ‘scientism’ and ‘neo-Darwinism’.
She thus implies that facts should be regarded as morally neutral, not meaningful in themselves. Mere science, which reveals only facts, cannot provide us with ethical guidance or decide questions of value or speak to our sense of being, as these are metaphysical problems that properly belong to the domains of religion, art and philosophy. ‘This is nothing against [science],’ Robinson observes in What Are We Doing Here? ‘It is about other business.’
On the face of it, this seems like a clear line of demarcation: a straightforward application of the good old fact-value distinction. And yet it is a distinction that Robinson is inclined to disregard when it suits her argument. On a fundamental level, she does not regard facts as morally neutral. Christianity she defines at one point as a ‘narrative of cosmic altruism’. Though she adopts an intellectually scrupulous air, she is not above using tendentious language to reflect this conviction.
In Absence of Mind, for example, she asserts on multiple occasions that atheistic scientists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett believe the universe in all its complexity is an ‘accident’. This is a stock creationist canard, a debater’s trick designed to readmit the concept of intention into the argument via the back door. The loaded word is deployed instead of an appropriately neutral formula — ‘non-teleological’, say — because it is emotive: it invites incredulity and thus implies that the opposite must be the case. But the word is inapt enough to qualify as a misrepresentation. Explain a natural phenomenon as an ‘accident’ and you will fail Science 101, as surely as if you were to attribute it to the mysterious workings of an unknowable creator. There is nothing ‘accidental’ about a planet’s orbit, or the structure of a molecule, or the shape of a mountain range, or a primate’s opposable thumb — and unless one is prepared to posit a cosmic consciousness that is capable of making decisions about the forms of such things and guiding natural processes toward those specific ends, there is nothing intentional about them either.
When it comes to the trajectory of modern thought, Robinson is often far less subtle than this. In an essay titled ‘Integrity and the Modern Intellectual Tradition’, she prosecutes a well-rehearsed argument about the ‘extreme declension of our species’ and the rise of a doctrine of self-interest that ‘strips everyone of individuality and seriousness, and the possibility of actions that are original and free’. She goes on to deplore the ‘flattening of experience … gloom, nostalgia, disillusionment, atomization, secularization, and other assorted afflictions of the same kind … resentment, desolation, and self-pity’. That’s quite a list of symptoms, and the bleak vision it presents is reinforced elsewhere in What Are We Doing Here?, where she writes of the ‘ugly determinisms’ of philosophy and psychology, the ‘narrowness and aridity’ of secular thought, and scientific understandings of human nature that ‘diminish us’ and make us ‘tedious and small’.
Near the beginning of The Death of Adam, Robinson insists that ‘when I find fault I am not suggesting decline’. But it is hard to ignore the Spenglerian overtones of this kind of pejorative rhetoric. That there would seem to be more than a touch of cognitive dissonance about her condemnations of modernity is suggested by the curious inclusion of ‘secularization’ in her list of modern ‘afflictions’. This is a distinctly strange thing to be lamenting, when one considers the amount of energy Robinson devotes in What Are We Doing Here? to claiming credit, on behalf of her own religious tradition, for the secular principle of freedom of conscience — a principle she rightly recognises as a necessary precondition of any democracy worthy of the name, and which, by definition, must allow for the possibility that a person might examine their conscience in good faith and find no trace whatsoever of the oceanic feeling she takes to be decisive.
No one could deny that modernity has taken many catastrophic turns, or that its disparate intellectual endeavours have led to any number of wretched ideologies and false conclusions, or that its dislocations and injustices have created all kinds of festering social problems. In the face of all this, there is much to admire about Robinson’s principled humanism. She is right to resist the crudely utilitarian and instrumentalist ideologies of the present; she is right to reject political pressure to ‘accept the legitimacy of economic theory that overrides our declared values’. In essays such as ‘The American Scholar Now’, in which she draws on Emerson and Tocqueville to mount a spirited defense of public education, and ‘Our Public Conversation: How America Talks Itself’, in which she develops her historical argument about the religious origins of secularism, Robinson displays a commitment to the ideals of intellectualism, self-realisation, civic virtue and civility of public discourse that it would be churlish to condemn. At their most forceful, the moral clarity of her essays renders unimportant any philosophical objections that one might raise about her specific religious convictions. As she observes at one point, there is a sense in which such disputes often boil down to little more than the banal truth that some people believe in God and some people don’t.
Yet there is often a sense in Robinson’s essays that all the blame for present ills flows in one direction, that the culprit is always disbelief, and that her cultural diagnoses and her implied remedies have been cut to fit her theological predisposition. For all its scientific and technological advances, modernity has arguably been defined as much by its virulent strains of irrationalism as its positivistic inclinations. In the age of Trump, it is difficult to sustain the idea that we are suffering from a surfeit of rationalism. Nor it is clear how our many tangible political problems would be remedied in the unlikely event that all those disbelieving types who have busied themselves investigating the nature of reality in irreligious ways were to experience a sudden collective attack of the numinous.
It depends how one defines ‘modern thought’, if course, but Robinson’s repeated claim that its atheistic tendency has ‘stripped humanity of minds, moral natures, and selves’ is questionable at best. Inquiries into the nature of mind, being and selfhood are major themes in the literature and philosophy of the modern era — in fact, the very same year that she published Absence of Mind, one the targets of her disapproval in that book, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, published his own book called Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, in which he considered how our perceiving brains might give rise something we would experience as a ‘mind’, and how this in turn might manifest itself as a unified sense of being we would understand as a ‘self’.
Robinson is, unsurprisingly, not at all persuaded by Max Weber’s famous thesis about the origins of capitalism in Protestant theology — an argument she condemns in The Death of Adam as the product of anti-Calvinist bigotry. ‘I suppose,’ she writes, ‘I am unfair in saying that for Weber a prejudice is a proof.’ (I suppose it would be equally unfair to point out that this is coming from someone who rejects great swathes of modern thought because it does not validate her ‘sense of things’.) It is a corresponding quirk of her terminology that she prefers to characterise the neoliberal orthodoxy that has dominated our recent history with such devastating consequences as ‘neo-Darwinist’ or ‘social Darwinist’, rather than reflect on its intellectual foundations in the work of economic thinkers such as Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.
And it is on this point that her thought can be seen most clearly to devolve into a reflexive assertion of her religious bias. Social Darwinism — a thoroughly discredited notion that does not follow from the Darwinian science Robinson claims to accept — is a common enough characterisation of the worst excesses of the pinched and inhuman ideology of neoliberalism. But the phrase is merely a form of pejorative labelling; it is not an analytical category. It does not account for the curious fact that the United States, the global standard-bearer for unbridled capitalistic excess, is unusual among developed nations for its high levels of religious belief. Given that Robinson is happy to claim credit on behalf of her religion for all of the positive aspects of secular society — elbowing to one side a more conventional reading of her nation’s history that would trace many of its founding ideals to the work of Enlightenment thinkers — it is not unreasonable to expect her to reflect a little more deeply about the fact that the monied political class that elevated the incorrigibly selfish doctrines of neoliberalism to the status of prevailing orthodoxy has historically consisted almost entirely of people who have professed allegiance to one or another Protestant denomination.
If Puritanism is indeed as definitive of her nation’s culture as Robinson claims, then it can’t be responsible only for the good things. In her essays, she makes a point of distancing herself from various forms of evangelical loopiness and the God-wants-you-to-be-rich megachurches that (for some reason) arose in the United States and continue to thrive there, providing succour to the kinds of destructive reactionary politics she opposes. She suggests at one point that adherents of these regressive manifestations of Christian faith are ‘falling back on resentment and indulging the notion that they are embattled and abused by rampant secularism’. But this does not explain why people might find such doctrines appealing or validating in the first place. It is almost as if there might be something about a theological disposition that places a primary importance of the individual conscience that makes it amenable to such crass distortions.
One of the most astonishing assertions in all of Robinson’s work appears in her essay on ‘Darwinism’, where she writes: ‘The churches generally have accepted the idea of evolution with great and understandable calm.’ While it is true that many religious believers have made their peace with Darwin (the Catholic Church officially admitted the validity of evolution in 1996, a mere 137 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species — which, to be fair, is a relatively swift response from an organisation that took 358 years to admit they were wrong about Galileo), the suggestion that evolution has not faced strenuous resistance from religious institutions is disingenuous in the extreme. Hostility to the demonstrable principles of natural selection survives to this day among many fundamentalist religions, which remain obsessed with Darwin’s legacy to a far greater extent than that of any other major scientific figure.
There are some understandable reasons why this should be the case. Post-Darwin, it is no more than entry-level intellectual honesty to recognise that we, as a species, came about as a result of the same natural processes that produced jellyfish, pine trees and earwigs. And this does change things on a cosmic level. Though it does not offer a justification for any particular socio-economic order, it demands a shift in the way we think about ourselves. We are part of nature; we are not above it. As Robinson observes in her essay on the theological virtues, ‘if we simply and utterly perish with the beasts, the conceptual universe contracts sharply’.
Robinson regards this as a self-evidently unwelcome conclusion, but I am not so sure. One of the recurring ideas in her essays is that our species is unique. She locates this uniqueness in the remarkable cognitive and perceptual powers of the human mind, and takes it as confirmation of her religious belief. ‘There is a persistent tendency in modern thought to deny the anomalous character of the human presence in the world,’ she argues. ‘We are never more unique than in our long struggle to deny our exceptionalism.’ But if the tendency of modern thought has been to deny this exceptionalism, the reality of human behaviour suggests the opposite. For the past few centuries, our species has acted in accordance with biblical lore as if we have been granted dominion over the earth, as if the natural world can be plundered and destroyed with impunity. The consequences of this hubris are now upon us. In this context, it seems increasingly as if the belief in our uniqueness, the vanity that has led us to regard ourselves as in some sense exceptional or anomalous, has been a major part of the problem. For believers and unbelievers alike, when we are considering what we are doing here, it is our levelling animality rather than our elevating divinity that must now be regarded as the most pressing issue.