On Human Nature — Marilynne Robinson

February 8, 2011


Marilynne Robinson

I was reading Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind (the published version of her splendid Terry Lectures, delivered at Yale in 2009 ) when I came across David Bently Hart’s review and its perspicuous observations:  “Much of the joy of reading Robinson comes from her ability to translate complex ideas into words suited to their subtleties. Beginning with her remarkable debut novel Housekeeping (1980), all of her work, fiction and essays alike, has been marked by a luminous intelligence and a rather attractive intellectual severity, communicated in a language that wastes no words and that demands attentiveness. Absence of Mind is a short book, but also an intensely reflective and penetrating one, and it offers considerable rewards for anyone willing to read it carefully, and to think along with it. For all its brevity, it makes its case with surprising comprehensiveness.” Yes, read it and think along with it. Here are (Part One) reading selections from the chapter titled On Human Nature:

A Special Claim To The Status Of Truth
The mind, whatever else it is, is a constant of everyone’s experience, and, in more and other ways than we know, the creator of the reality that we live within, that we live by and for and despite, and that, often enough, we die from. Nothing is more essential to us. I wish to draw attention to the character of the thinking that is brought to bear by contemporary writers on the subject, and also to a first premise of modern and contemporary thought, the notion that we as a culture have crossed one or another threshold of knowledge or realization that gives the thought that follows it a special claim to the status of truth. Instances I have chosen to present this case are necessarily few, but in this remarkably reiterative literature they may fairly be called typical.

 There is at present an assertive popular literature that describes the mind as if from the posture of science. For the purposes of these writers, it is as if chaste and rational scientific objectivity certified the value of their methods and the truth of their conclusions. The foil for their argument, sometimes implicit, usually explicit, is that old romantic myth of the self still encouraged by religion or left in its wake as a sort of cultural residue needing to be swept away. I have no opinion about the likelihood that science, at the top of its bent, will ultimately arrive at accounts of consciousness, identity, memory, and imagination that are sufficient in the terms of scientific inquiry. Nor do I object, in our present very limited state of knowledge, to hypotheses being offered in the awareness that, in the honorable tradition of science, they are liable to being proved grossly wrong. What I wish to question are not the methods of science, but the methods of a kind of argument that claims the authority of science or highly specialized knowledge, that assumes a protective coloration that allows it to pass for science yet does not practice the self-discipline or self-criticism for which science is distinguished.

These sociologists and evolutionary psychologists and philosophers carry on an honorable tradition, though in a radically declined form. Indeed, a great part of the excitement of life in the post-Enlightenment period has come with the thought that reality could be reconceived, that knowledge would emancipate humankind if only it could be made accessible to them. Such great issues, human origins and human nature, have the public as an appropriate theater, since the change they propose is cultural. This being the case, however, it is surely incumbent upon writers who undertake to shape opinion to resist the temptation to popularize in the negative sense of that word. Vast and contentious literatures lie behind psychology, anthropology, and sociology. But the popularizers in these fields now are highly regarded figures whom a non-specialist might reasonably trust to deal competently with the great subjects their books take on, which include human nature and consciousness, and, with striking frequency, religion. The degree of fundamental consensus among these writers is important to their influence.

A model that shapes contemporary writing across any number of fields is the crossing of the threshold. It asserts that the world of thought, recently or in an identifiable moment in the near past, has undergone epochal change. Some realization has intervened in history with miraculous abruptness and efficacy, and everything is transformed. This is a pattern that recurs very widely in the contemporary world of ideas. I pick up a slender volume of philosophy and read as follows: “In this post-modern condition, faith, no longer modeled on the Platonic image of the motionless God, absorbs these dualisms [theism and atheism] without recognizing in them any reasons for conflict.” Here we have news of the explosion of an assumption — Western religion was modeled on a pagan conception of God as “motionless,” until postmodern  hermeneutics intervened.

The Ontological Unlikeness Of God
Then what is Western religion? Apparently nothing I have come across in my non-specialist perusals of the theology of the past five hundred years. If the Unmoved Mover, whom I take to be the subject here, imparted motion to the created order, is it meaningful to call him “motionless,” which sounds very like “static” or “inert,” and is not consistent with the great and ancient intuition brilliantly understood as the imparting of motion? An early Christian writer, Gregory of Nyssa, said of God, “That which is without quality cannot be measured, the invisible cannot be examined, the incorporeal cannot be weighed, the limitless cannot be compared, the incomprehensible does not admit of more or less.”

From antiquity, insistence on the ontological unlikeness of God to the categories to which the human mind has recourse is at the center of theological reflection. What cannot be measured or compared clearly cannot be unmoved in any ordinary sense of that word. This is exactly the kind of language positivism finds meaningless, though in its reaching beyond accustomed categories embedded in language it resembles nothing so much as contemporary physics. In any case, did this idea of a motionless God, whether the understanding of it was complex or simple, continue to influence faith until the very recent arrival of the “postmodern condition”? What are believed by some to have been assumptions powerful enough to shape the culture of a civilization, and to reshape it by their demise, have been for many others no assumptions at all.

The paradigm for narrative of this kind is based on the idea of the historical threshold — before we thought thus, and now, in this new age of comprehension, we, or the enlightened among us, think otherwise. There are any number of thresholds, which initiate any number of new conceptual eras. And in every case there is a statement about the past, as seen from the vantage of a fundamentally altered present. In the philosophy books I find sentences like this one: “This hermeneuticization of philosophy freed religion from metaphysics at the moment when it had identified the death of God, announced by Nietzsche, with the death of Christ on the cross narrated by the Gospels.” Nietzsche, and some phrases that are identified with him, notably this one and “There are no facts, only interpretations,’ often figure as threshold events in these meta-narratives, as they appear to do in this case.

It would be helpful to the general reader if such books were to provide definitions of major terms. To define Western Christianity is no easy thing, granted, considering the very prolonged history of conflict and schism within Christianity. I have quoted from the preface to The Future of Religion by Richard Rorty and Gianni Vattimo. It is a good-hearted, even rather joyful book that announces the passage of Western Christianity from a law of power through its Nietzschean moment to an embrace of the law of love. I am eager to welcome the first sign of the reality of this transformation. Still, I suspect no attempt at a definition of Western Christianity would arrive at a place where generalization would be possible, and I suspect therefore that definition may be avoided here as elsewhere in order to permit generalization.

The Future of Religion is a departure from other books I will mention in that it takes religion to have a future of a kind, and the world to be better for the fact. The transformation of God from a figure of awe and fear to a force of love immanent in humankind grants him being, realized through consensus of belief. This looks to me like the sort of thing William James might call a monism, a Hegelism. How exactly is such a consensus reached? Let us say historic change does occur in that thinly populated upper atmosphere where a phrase of Nietzsche’s matters, where the “deconstruction of metaphysics” has consequence. How is it lived in the hundreds of millions of minds who might actualize this consensus?

These questions are not meant to invoke any sort of populist standard, as if I were to say, “The man on the street may be wholly unaware that metaphysics has been deconstructed, and might not approve the project if he were aware of it.” No, quite the opposite. They are meant to call to mind the voice of the Psalmist, the voice of any ancient poet, saint, or visionary on the far side of the threshold who has attested to his or her own sense of the holy, and all those who are moved by these voices and attest to the truth of them.

This goes to the very nature of religion. James defined 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.” The words “solitude” and “individual” are crucial here, since this is the unvarying condition of the mind, no matter the web of culture and language by which it is enabled, sustained, and limited. The thing lost in this kind of thinking, the kind that proposes a “moment” in which religion is freed by “hermeneuticization,” is the self, the solitary, perceiving, and interpreting locus of anything that can be called experience. It may have been perverse of destiny to array perception across billions of subjectivities, but the fact is central to human life and language and culture, and no philosophy or cognitive science should be allowed to evade it.

Where a definition of religion is attempted in this literature, it tends to be of the kind tentatively proposed by Daniel Dennett, who describes religions as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” The book I have in hand is Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett says his definition of religion is “profoundly at odds with that of William James,” the one I have quoted. He rejects the definition on the grounds that it describes “individuals who very sincerely and devoutly take themselves to be the lone communicants of what we might call private religions,” and on these grounds “I shall call them spiritual people, but not religious.”

Note that religion is singular in James’s definition and plural in Dennett’s. James is describing an experience that he takes to be universal among religions of all descriptions, while Dennett sees religions as distinct “social systems.” The insistence in Dennett’s writing on the demographics of religion, on what, by his lights, is observable and therefore accessible to science as he understands it, recalls Bertrand Russell’s remark that “it is the privacy of introspective data which causes much of the behaviorists’ objection to them.” Bertrand Russell was writing as a critic of behaviorism in 1921, but behaviorism is a branch of psychology that seems to have passed out of style without taking its major assumptions along with it, so his comment is still to the point.6

Dennett sheers off the contemplative side of faith, its subjectivity, as if the collective expressions of religion and the inward experience of it were non-overlapping magisteria, as if religion were only what could be observed using the methods of anthropology or of sociology, without reference to the deeply pensive solitudes that bring individuals into congregations and communities to be nurtured by the thought and culture they find there. Thus is he freed to bypass John Donne and the Sufi poets and to move on to a description of the practices of cargo cultists, whom, it is unfortunately fair to assume, anthropology does not present in the richest light, either.

For the moment it is sufficient to point out that the religious experiences James describes in his Varieties of Religious Experience are attested to as the subjective experience of individuals who are in fact associated with denominations. Their experiences are of a kind reported, especially in America, through both Great Awakenings and long after them. These individuals are hardly lone communicants of private religions.

Religion And Science.
What an interesting problem is being evaded here! The great quarrel in modern Western life is said to be between religion and science. They tend to be treated as if there were a kind of symmetry between them, presumably because of their supposed Manichean opposition. But science is a comparatively recent phenomenon, for several centuries strongly identified with the culture of the West, which it has profoundly influenced and by which it has been formed and channeled. Because it is recent and culturally localized, it is difficult to distinguish from its setting. Certainly modern warfare, hot and cold, has had a profound impact on the development of science in the same period that science has had its most profound impact on human life. Nuclear energy and the Internet are two cases in point.

Religion, on the contrary, is ancient and global, and, since it has no clear geographic or temporal limits, persisting as cultural habit even where it seems to have been suppressed or renounced, it is very difficult to define, “definition” being a word which means etymologically and in fact “a setting of limits.” Christianity as a subset of religion is associated in its origins and its spread with a historical period and with particular regions and populations. And yet, fractal-like, it seems to replicate the complexities of the larger phenomenon. Bertrand Russell, distinguished mathematician, philosopher, and despiser of religion and Christianity, said, “At all times, from the age of Constantine to the end of the seventeenth century, Christians were far more fiercely persecuted by other Christians than they ever were by the Roman emperors.”

No Christian with even a sectarian sense of history would dispute this, since every sect has its own tale of persecution. And most acknowledge that they — the tradition with which they identify — have at some time engaged in it. But if the Roman emperors martyred fewer Christians than the Christians, their relative numbers in the population are certainly relevant here — the emperors presided over a remarkably brutal society, brilliant as it was. As is usual, Russell blames Christian violence on the traditions of Jewish monotheism, not on the norms of the pagan civilization in which the faith took root.

Still, it is true that religions differ less from the world at large than one might hope. And yet the fact that conflict occurs along national and demographic lines that are sometimes also religious lines cannot be assumed to mean that the issue or motivation of the conflict is religion. Not long before Russell spoke, Christian Europe had been engulfed in a terrible war whose causes seem to have been secular ones — the fears and ambitions of rival states and empires. It is seldom if ever the case that religious considerations are determinants in such matters. This adds another dimension to the difficulty of defining religion.

Russell means to refute the argument that religion raises the moral level of civilization, a defense the religious do offer. The atheist regimes of the French Revolution and of the twentieth century may come as near providing a point of comparison as there has ever been, and they hardly argue in favor of this view. But there is no point quibbling. If the Christianity Russell loathes is the Christianity he encountered, then that is a form in which the religion has lived in the world. Others have encountered other Christianities.

The Mind As Felt Experience
This is one more instance of the universe of difficulties that surrounds a definition of one religion, not to mention religion as a whole. Nevertheless, it is odd to see a controversy rage at the center of the civilization over so many generations, at least half of it the impassioned work of self-declared rationalists, and to find so little attempt at a definition of major terms, beyond the polemical kind of definition that guarantees one position the satisfactions of finding itself true and right.

I linger over this because religion is indisputably a central factor in any account of the character and workings of the human mind. Does religion manifest a capacity for deep insight, or an extraordinary proneness to delusion? Both, perhaps, like the mind itself. In 1927, in the course of refuting the classical arguments for the existence of God, Russell dealt with the belief in a Creator in these terms: “There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause .”

From a scientific standpoint, this was a perfectly reputable statement at the time he made it. Then, two years later, Edwin Hubble made observations that were understood to imply the universe is expanding, and the modern narrative of beginnings emerged, that more-than-explosive imparting of motion. No one need be persuaded to belief by the fact that things did indeed come into being, or that their genesis, so to speak, seems to have been as abrupt as Genesis says it was. Still, Russell’s science was in error. In the great matter of beginnings, so germane to the nature of being, many “primitive” or classical religions have had a sounder intuition. If this fact has no force as evidence of human insight, it is still impressive in its own uninterpretable right. That ancient minds pondered cosmic origins should inspire a little awe for what human beings are, what the mind is.

I did not plan to give particular attention to religion here. I intended to cite Bertrand Russell and John Searle, both nonreligious, in support of my argument that the mind as felt experience had been excluded from important fields of modern thought. I meant to restrict myself, more or less, to looking at the characteristic morphology of the otherwise very diverse schools of modern thought for which the mind/ brain is a subject. But I find that these schools are themselves engrossed with religion — as problem, as anomaly, or as adversary — to a degree that makes the subject unavoidable. When faith is described as an element in culture and history, its nature tends to be grossly simplified, despite the vast and unconsulted literature of religious thought and testimony. It would surely be difficult to condescend to religion when it is articulate in terms that are accessible to Western understanding. An honest inquirer into its nature might spend an afternoon listening to Bach or Palestrina, reading Sophocles or the Book of Job.

A Rejection At The Cost Of Failing To Acknowledge The Intrinsic Complexity Of Human Subjectivity
Instead, religion is a point of entry for certain anthropological methods and assumptions whose tendencies are distinctly invidious. It is treated as a proof of persisting primitivity among human beings that legitimizes the association of all religion with the lowest estimate Europeans have made of aboriginal practices, and legitimizes also the assumption that humankind is itself fearful, irrational, deluded, and self-deceived, excepting, of course, these missionaries of enlightenment. If there is an agenda behind the implicit and explicit polemic against religion, which is now treated as brave and new, now justified by Wahhabism and occasional eruptions of creationist zeal, but is fully present in the rationalism of the eighteenth century, it may well be that it creates rhetorical occasions for asserting an anthropology of modern humanity, a hermeneutics of condescension.

To condescend effectively it is clearly necessary to adhere to a narrow definition of relevant data. The existence of God and the ways in which his existence might be apprehended have formed an old and very rich conversation among sects and nations. That God or the gods might be hidden or absent is a recurring trope in religious literatures. The pious have seen the world as if empty of a divine presence and pondered the experience at length. Saints have had their dark nights and testified to them. It was Luther who wrote about the Deus Absconditus and the death of God as well, and Bonhoeffer who gave Grotius’s etsi Deus non daretur (Hugo Grotius’s Latin phrase “etsi deus non daretur” as “even if there were no God:” “And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it”. a new theological application.

The characterization of religion by those who dismiss it tends to reduce it to a matter of bones and feathers and wishful thinking, a matter of rituals and social bonding and false etiologies and the fear of death, and this makes its persistence very annoying to them. Then there is the fact that it does persist, and here in America, a country as modern as any, except in this crucial regard. Further grounds for annoyance.

Bertrand Russell says, “Language sometimes conceals the complexity of a belief. We say that a person believes in God, and it might seem as if God formed the whole content of the belief. But what is really believed is that God exists, which is far from being simple…. In like manner all cases where the content of a belief seems simple at first sight will be found, on examination, to confirm the view that the content is always complex.” This good atheist, despite his contempt for religion, proceeds by introspection, by observation of the processes of his own mind as a means of understanding the human mind, and with a delight in the workings of language he assumes his audience is bright enough to share. His rejection of religion is real and deep, but he does not justify it at the cost of failing to acknowledge the intrinsic complexity of human subjectivity, whatever its specific content. To acknowledge this is to open the archives of all that humankind has thought and done, to see how the mind describes itself, to weigh the kind of evidence supposed science tacitly disallows.

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  1. This excerpt was interesting enough to get me to look up more of her material. All her writings display a rich mind with deep analytical skills. But her elegant presentation fails to yield a proportionately useful insight. Imagine baking a teaspoon of ground beef somewhere in a loaf of fine bread, then calling it a hamburger sandwich. Reading her stuff is like entering a contest: Be the first to find some meat.

    She is a fine apologist, but Christianity needs better than apologies. She did an admirable job on Richard Dawkins in one essay. Clearly she is good at finding flaws in theories other than her own.

    Unfortunately for Christianity, those are the most important flaws, because they are contributing to its demise.

    She has a nice quality which I rarely find— she is nearly always right. Therefore I like her.

  2. Greylorn has found the only issue which I can possibly describe as a flaw in Ms. Robinson’s piece: it is the product of a mind more subtle, inclusive and better-educated than mine.
    this lady is brilliant and what she has to say so important that we all should make the not inconsiderable investment of work that it takes to really understand what she has to say.
    Absence of Mind is a wake up call that most needs to be heard by folks who are not likely to be up to the job of reading it.
    Anybody want to help me write an “everyman’s” version?

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