Reclaiming a Sense of the Sacred I By Marilynne Robinson

March 12, 2012

Myoung Ho Li photographed diverse species of trees with a 4x5 camera in a variety of seasons and at different times of day. Mr. Lee allows the tree’s natural surroundings to fill the frame around the canvas, transforming the backdrop into an integral part of the subject. Centered in the graphic compositions, the canvas defines the form of the tree and separates it from the environment. By creating a partial, temporary outdoor studio for each tree, Mr. Lee’s “portraits” of trees play with ideas of scale and perception while referencing traditional painting and the history of photography.

Ms. Robinson contemplates religion, science, art, and the miraculous. Marilynne Robinson is a professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa. This essay is an excerpt from her book When I Was a Child I Read Books, in which it appears as “Freedom of Thought.” The book will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in March 2012.


Over the years of writing and teaching, I have tried to free myself of constraints I felt, limits to the range of exploration I could make, to the kind of intuition I could credit. I realized gradually that my own religion, and religion in general, could and should disrupt these constraints, which amount to a small and narrow definition of what human beings are and how human life is to be understood. And I have often wished my students would find religious standards present in the culture that would express a real love for human life and encourage them also to break out of these same constraints.

For the educated among us, moldy theories we learned as sophomores, memorized for the test and never consciously thought of again, exert an authority that would embarrass us if we stopped to consider them. I was educated at a center of behaviorist psychology and spent a certain amount of time pestering rats. There was some sort of maze-learning experiment involved in my final grade, and since I remember the rat who was my colleague as uncooperative, or perhaps merely incompetent at being a rat, or tired of the whole thing, I don’t remember how I passed. I’m sure coercion was not involved, since this rodent and I avoided contact. Bribery was, of course, central to the experiment and no black mark against either of us, though I must say, mine was an Eliot Ness among rats for its resistance to the lure of, say, Cheerios.

I should probably have tried raising the stakes. The idea was, in any case, that behavior was conditioned by reward or its absence, and that one could extrapolate meaningfully from the straightforward demonstration of rattish self-interest promised in the literature, to the admittedly more complex question of human motivation. I have read subsequently that a female rat is so gratified at having an infant rat come down the reward chute that she will do whatever is demanded of her until she has filled her cage with them. This seems to me to complicate the definition of self-interest considerably, but complexity was not a concern of the behaviorism of my youth, which was reductionist in every sense of the word.

It wasn’t all behaviorism. We also pondered Freud’s argument that primordial persons, male, internalized the father as superego by actually eating the poor fellow. Since then we have all felt bad — well, the male among us, at least. Whence human complexity, whence civilization. I did better on that exam. The plot was catchy.

The situation of the undergraduate rarely encourages systematic doubt. What Freud thought was important because it was Freud who thought it, and so with B.F. Skinner and whomever else the curriculum held up for our admiration. There must be something to all this, even if it has only opened the door a degree or two on a fuller understanding. So I thought at the time. And I also thought it was a very bleak light that shone through that door, and I shouldered my share of the supposedly inevitable gloom that came with being a modern.

In English class we studied a poem by Robert Frost, “The Oven Bird:”

THERE is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.

He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.

The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

The poem asks “what to make of a diminished thing.” That diminished thing, said the teacher, was human experience in the modern world. Oh dear. Modern Aesthetics. We must learn from this poem “in singing not to sing.” To my undergraduate self I thought, “But what if I like to sing?”

And then my philosophy professor assigned us Jonathan Edwards’s Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, in which Edwards argues for “the arbitrary constitution of the universe,” illustrating his point with a gorgeous footnote about moonlight that even then began to dispel the dreary determinisms I was learning elsewhere. Improbable as that may sound to those who have not read the footnote.

At a certain point I decided that everything I took from studying and reading anthropology, psychology, economics, cultural history, and so on did not square at all with my sense of things, and that the tendency of much of it was to posit or assume a human simplicity within a simple reality and to marginalize the sense of the sacred, the beautiful, everything in any way lofty.

I do not mean to suggest, and I underline this, that there was any sort of plot against religion, since religion in many instances abetted these tendencies and does still, not least by retreating from the cultivation and celebration of learning and of beauty, by dumbing down, as if people were less than God made them and in need of nothing so much as condescension. Who among us wishes the songs we sing, the sermons we hear, were just a little dumber? People today — television — video games — diminished things. This is always the pretext.

Simultaneously, and in a time of supposed religious revival, and among those especially inclined to feel religiously revived, we have a society increasingly defined by economics, and an economics increasingly reminiscent of my experience with that rat, so-called rational-choice economics, which assumes that we will all find the shortest way to the reward, and that this is basically what we should ask of ourselves and — this is at the center of it all — of one another.

After all these years of rational choice, brother rat might like to take a look at the packaging just to see if there might be a little melamine in the inducements he was being offered, hoping, of course, that the vendor considered it rational to provide that kind of information. We do not deal with one another as soul to soul, and the churches are as answerable for this as anyone.

If we think we have done this voiding of content for the sake of other people, those to whom we suspect God may have given a somewhat lesser brilliance than our own, we are presumptuous and also irreverent. William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake for his translation of the Bible, who provided much of the most beautiful language in what is called by us the King James Bible, wrote, he said, in the language a plowboy could understand. He wrote to the comprehension of the profoundly poor, those who would be, and would have lived among, the utterly unlettered. And he created one of the undoubted masterpieces of the English language. Now we seem to feel beauty is an affectation of some sort. And this notion is as influential in the churches as it is anywhere. The Bible, Christianity, should have inoculated us against this kind of disrespect for ourselves and one another. Clearly it has not.

For me, at least, writing consists very largely of exploring intuition. A character is really the sense of a character, embodied, attired, and given voice as he or she seems to require. Where does this creature come from? From watching, I suppose. From reading emotional significance in gestures and inflections, as we all do all the time. These moments of intuitive recognition float free from their particular occasions and recombine themselves into nonexistent people the writer and, if all goes well, the reader feel they know.

There is a great difference, in fiction and in life, between knowing someone and knowing about someone. When a writer knows about his character, he is writing for plot. When he knows his character, he is writing to explore, to feel reality on a set of nerves somehow not quite his own. Words like “sympathy,” “empathy,” and “compassion” are overworked and overcharged — there is no word for the experience of seeing an embrace at a subway stop or hearing an argument at the next table in a restaurant. Every such instant has its own emotional coloration, which memory retains or heightens, and so the most sidelong, unintended moment becomes a part of what we have seen of the world. Then, I suppose, these moments, as they have seemed to us, constellate themselves into something a little like a spirit, a little like a human presence in its mystery and distinctiveness.

Two questions I can’t really answer about fiction are (1) where it comes from, and (2) why we need it. But that we do create it and also crave it is beyond dispute. There is a tendency, considered highly rational, to reason from a narrow set of interests, say survival and procreation, which are supposed to govern our lives, and then to treat everything that does not fit this model as anomalous clutter, extraneous to what we are and probably best done without. But all we really know about what we are is what we do. There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell.

The advice I give my students is the same advice I give myself — forget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous. By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true. Why is it possible to speak of fiction as true or false? I have no idea. But if a time comes when I seem not to be making the distinction with some degree of reliability in my own work, I hope someone will be kind enough to let me know.

When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire — a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. None of them is active by itself, and none of them is determinative, because there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability to consider and appraise one’s own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul.

Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word “soul,” and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes “soul” would do nicely.

Perhaps I should pause here to clarify my meaning, since there are those who feel that the spiritual is diminished or denied when it is associated with the physical. I am not among them. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul says, “Ever since the creation of the world [God's] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” If we are to consider the heavens, how much more are we to consider the magnificent energies of consciousness that make whomever we pass on the street a far grander marvel than our galaxy? At this point of dynamic convergence, call it self or call it soul, questions of right and wrong are weighed, love is felt, guilt and loss are suffered. And, over time, formation occurs, for weal or woe, governed in large part by that unaccountable capacity for self-awareness.

The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world. From it proceeds every thought, every art. I like Calvin’s metaphor — nature is a shining garment in which God is revealed and concealed. As we perceive we interpret, and we make hypotheses. Something is happening, it has a certain character or meaning which we usually feel we understand at least tentatively, though experience is almost always available to reinterpretations based on subsequent experience or reflection. Here occurs the weighing of moral and ethical choice. Behavior proceeds from all this, and is interesting, to my mind, in the degree that it can be understood to proceed from it.

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