Archive for the ‘Marilynne Robinson’ Category


Marilynne Robinson – James Wood

November 1, 2013
Behind all of Robinson's works is an abiding interest in the question of heavenly restoration. As she puts it in Housekeeping, there is a law of completion, that everything "must finally be made comprehensible. What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?" But will this restoration ever be enough? Can the shape of the healing possibly fit the size of the wound? The mundane version of this in Home is the way in which the novel ponders the question of return. The Boughton children come home to this strange, old-fashioned Iowan town, but the return is never the balm it promises to be, for home is too personal, too remembered, too disappointing. Eden is exile, not heaven.

Behind all of Robinson’s works is an abiding interest in the question of heavenly restoration. As she puts it in Housekeeping, there is a law of completion, that everything “must finally be made comprehensible. What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?” But will this restoration ever be enough? Can the shape of the healing possibly fit the size of the wound? The mundane version of this in Home is the way in which the novel ponders the question of return. The Boughton children come home to this strange, old-fashioned Iowan town, but the return is never the balm it promises to be, for home is too personal, too remembered, too disappointing. Eden is exile, not heaven.

We love Marilynne Robinson and so does James Wood. Links go to reading selections from the books. For more about her check out the category of posts in her name to the right of the page here.


Growing up in a religious household, I got used to the sight of priests, but always found them fascinating and slightly repellent The funereal uniform, supposed to obliterate the self in a shroud of colorlessness, also draws enormous attention to the self; humility seems to be made out of the same cloth as pride. Since the ego is irrepressible — since the ego is secular — it tends to bulge in peculiar shapes when religiously depressed. The priests I knew practiced self-abnegation but perfected a quiet dance of ego. They were modest but pompous, gentle but tyrannical — one of them got angry if he was disturbed on a Monday — and pious but knowing. Most were good men, certainly less venal than the average; but the peculiar constrictions of their calling produced peculiar opportunities for unloosing.

This is probably one of the reasons — putting the secular antagonism of novelists aside — that priests are overwhelmingly seen in fiction as comical, hypocritical, improperly worldly, or a little dim. Another reason is that fiction needs egotism, vanity, venality to produce drama and comedy; we want our sepulchers craftily whited. The seventy-six-year-old Reverend John Ames, who narrates Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead, is gentle, modest, loving, and above all, good. He is also a hit boring, and boring in proportion to his curious lack of ego.

At home in the Iowa town of Gilead, in the mid-1950s, aware of his imminent demise, he writes it long letter to his seven-year-old son, which is presented as a series of diary entries. (Georges Bernanos’s novel The Diary of a Country Priest  seems to have been one model.) Mellowly resigned, tired but faithful, he is a man who can serenely exclaim “how I have loved this life,” or inform us that he has written two thousand sermons “in the deepest hope and conviction.”

The reader may roll his eyes it this and think: “All two thousand? Not one of them written in boredom or out of obligation?” Yorick, the parson in Tristram Shandy, who is so impressed with the eloquence of one of his own eulogies that he can’t help writing a self-loving “Bravo!” on his text, seems closer to the human case, and more novelistically vivid.

As if sensitive to the piety of Gilead, Robinson subverted this potential traditional objection by making her novel swerve away from the traditionally novelistic. Ames’ calm, grave diary entries contain almost no dialogue, shun scenes, seem to smother conflict before it has taken a breath. Very beautifully, Gilead becomes less a novel than a species of religious writing, and Reverend Ames’ entries a recognizable American form, the Emersonian essay, poised between homily and home, religious exercise and naturalism:

This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way to Kansas. This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight grandly announced, proclaimed throughout heaven — one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa. But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning. My grandfather’s grave turned into the light, and the dew on his weedy little mortality patch was glorious.

The result was one of the most unconventional conventionally popular novels of recent times.

Robinson describes herself as a liberal Protestant believer and churchgoer, but her religious sensibility is really far more uncompromising and archaic than this allows. Her essays, selected in The Death of Adam (1998), are theologically tense and verbally lush in a manner almost extinct in modern literary discourse, and which often sounds Melvillean or Ruskinian.

She is a liberal in the sense that she finds it difficult to write directly about the content of her belief, and shuns the evangelical childishness of gluing human attributes onto God. As a child she “felt God as a presence before had a name for him,” she writes, and adds that she goes to church to experience “moments that do not occur in other settings.” In a way that would seem palatable to many Americans, and certainly to her thousands of liberal readers, her Protestantism seems borne out of a love of religious silence — the mystic, quietly at prayer in an unadorned place, indifferent to ecclesiastical mediation.

But she is illiberal and unfashionably fierce in her devotion to this Protestant tradition; she is voluble in defense of silence. She loathes the complacent idleness whereby contemporary Americans dismiss Puritanism and turn John Calvin, the great originator of Puritanism, into an obscure, moralizing bigot. “We are forever drawing up indictments against the past, then refusing to let it testify in its own behalf — it is so very guilty, after all. Such attention as we give to it is usually vindictive and incurious and therefore incompetent.”

We flinch from Puritanism because it placed sin at the center of life, but then, as she tartly reminds us, `Americans never think of’ themselves as sharing fully in the human condition and therefore beset as all humankind is beset.” Calvin believed in our “total depravity,” our utter fallenness, but this was not necessarily a cruel condemnation: “The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain,” she writes in her essay “Puritans and Prigs.”

Nowadays, she argues, educated Americans are prigs, not Puritans, quick to pour judgment on anyone who fails to toe the right political line. Soft moralizing has replaced hard moralizing, but at least those old hard moralists admitted to being moralists.

I do not always enjoy Robinson’s founded ecstasies, but I admire the obdurateness with which she describes the difficult joys of a faith that will please neither evangelicals nor secularists. Above all, I deeply admire the precision and lyrical power of her language, and the way it embodies a struggle — the fight with words, the contemporary writer’s fight with the history of words and the presence of literary tradition, the fight to use the best words to describe both the visible and the invisible world.

Here, for instance, is how the narrator of Housekeeping, Robinson’s first novel, describes her dead grandmother, who lies in the bed with her arms flung up and her head flung back: “It was as if, drowning in air, she had leaped toward ether.” In the same novel, the narrator imagines her grandmother pinning sheets to a line, on a windy day — “say that when she had pinned three corners to the lines it began to billow and leap in her hands, to flutter and tremble, and to glare with the light, and that the throes of the thing were as gleeful and strong as if a spirit were dancing in its cerements.”

“Cerements,” an old word for burial cloth, is Robinson in her antique, Melvillean mode, and is one of many moments in her earlier work when she sounds like the antiquarian Cormac McCarthy. But stronger than that fancy word is the plain and lovely “the throes of the thing,” with its animism and its homemade alliteration.

Her novel Home begins simply, eschewing obvious verbal fineness, and slowly grows in luxury — its last fifty pages are magnificently moving, and richly pondered in the way of Gilead. Home has been presented as a sequel to that novel, but it is more like that novel’s brother, since it takes place at the same narrative moment and dovetails with its happenings.

In Gilead, John Ames’s great friend is the Reverend Robert Boughton, the town’s Presbyterian minister (Ames is a Congregationalist). The two men grew up together, confide in each other, and share a wry, undogmatic Protestantism. But whereas John Ames has married late and has only one son, Reverend Boughton has five children, one of whom is a very prodigal son, Jack Boughton.

In the earlier novel, Ames frets over Jack Boughton (now in his forties), who has been difficult since he was a schoolboy: there has been petty theft, drifting, unemployment, alcoholism, and an illegitimate child, now deceased, with a local woman. One day, Jack walked out of the Boughton home and stayed away for twenty years, not returning even for his mother’s funeral. Recently, we learn, Jack has unexpectedly returned after all that time away. In the last part of Gilead, Jack comes to Ames for a blessing — for the blessing he cannot get from his own father — and spills a remarkable secret: he has been living with a black woman from Memphis named Della, and has a son with her.

Home is set in the Boughton household at the time of Jack’s sudden return, and is an intense study of three people — Reverend Boughton, the old, dying patriarch, his pious daughter, Glory, and prodigal Jack. Glory has her own sadness: she has come back to Gilead after the collapse of what she took to be an engagement, to a man who turned out to be married. Like Princess Marya in War and Peace, who does daily battle with her father, the old Prince Bolkonsky, she is the dutiful child who must submit to the demands of her tyrannical old father. She is fearful of Jack — she hardly knows him — and in some ways jealous of the freedom of his rebelliousness.

Both children differently resent the facts of their return, and their biological loyalty to their father. Robinson evokes well the drugged shuffle of life in a home dominated by the routines of an old parent: how the two middle-aged children hear the creak of the bedsprings as their father lies down for his nap, and then, later, “a stirring of bedsprings, then the lisp lisp of slippered feet and the pock of the cane.” There are the imperious cries from the bedroom — help with bedclothes, a glass of water — and the hours distracted by the radio, card games, Monopoly, meals, pots of coffee. The very furniture is oppressive, immovable. The numerous knickknacks were displayed only “as a courtesy to their givers, most of whom by now would have gone to their reward.” For Glory, who is in her late thirties, there is the dread that this will be her final home:

What does it mean to come home? Glory had always thought home would be a house less cluttered and ungainly than this one, in a town larger than Gilead, or a city, where someone would be her intimate friend and the father of her children, of whom she would have no more than three …

She would not take one stick of furniture from her father’s house, since none of it would be comprehensible in those spare, sunlit rooms. The walnut furbelows and carved draperies and pilasters, the inlaid urns and flowers. Who had thought of putting actual feet on chairs and sideboards, actual paws and talons?

Much of Home is devoted to an attempt to puzzle out the mystery of Jack Boughton’s rebellion, his spiritual homelessness. From earliest years, he had seemed a stranger to his relatives. The family had been waiting for him to walk out, and he did, and then this story became their defining narrative: “They were so afraid they would lose him, and then they had lost him, and that was the story of their family, no matter how warm and fruitful and robust it might have appeared to the outside world.”

Even now, now that he has returned, reflects Glory, there is “an incandescence of unease about him whenever he walked out the door, or, for that matter, whenever his father summoned him to one of those harrowing conversations. Or while he waited for the mail or watched the news.” Over the course of the book, we discover a little of what he has been doing in the twenty years away — as in Gilead, we learn about the early illegitimate child, and about his eight-year relationship with Della, who is, ironically enough, a preacher’s daughter.

Jack is a suggestive figure — a very literate nonbeliever who knows his Bible backward, but who finds it hard to do theological battle with his slippery father. Back home, he dresses formally, putting on his threadbare suit and tie, as if to do his reformed best; but he has a perpetually wary expression and a studied politesse that suggest an existential exile.

He tries to conform to the habits of the old home — he tends the garden, does the shopping, fixes up the old car in the garage — but almost every encounter with his father produces a tiny abrasion that smarts and festers. The novel finely mobilizes, without explicitness, the major biblical stories of father and son — Esau, denied his birthright, begging for a blessing from his father; Joseph, reunited finally with his father, Jacob; the prodigal son, most loved because most errant.

What propels the book, and makes it finally so powerful, is the Reverend Boughton, precisely because he is not the gentle sage that John Ames is in Gilead. He is a fierce, stern, vain old man, who wants to forgive his son and who cannot. He preaches sweetness and light, and is gentle with Jack like a chastened Lear (“Let me look at your face for a minute,” he says), only to turn on him angrily like a Timon or Claudius.

There are scenes of the most tender pain. Robinson, so theologically obsessed with transfiguration, can transfigure a banal observation. In the attic, for instance, Glory finds a box of her fathers shirts, ironed “as if for some formal event, perhaps their interment”; and then the novelist, or poet, notices that the shirts “had changed to a color milder than white.” (The cerements, again.)

Father and son clash while watching television news reports of the racial unrest in Montgomery. Old Boughton imperiously swats away his son’s anger with his bland, milky prophecy — “a color milder than white” — “There’s no reason to let that sort of trouble upset you. In six months nobody will remember one thing about it.” If we have read Gilead, we know, as Jack’s father does not, why Jack has a special interest in matters of race.

As the old man palpably declines, an urgency sets in. The funnel of the narrative of imminent death should insist on forgiveness, but this is precisely what the father cannot allow. Nothing will change, and Jack will leave again, as his father always knew he would: “He’s going to toss the old gent an assurance or two, and then he’s out the door,” he complains. Nothing will change because the family situation rests on a series of paradoxes, which interlock to imprison father and son. Jack’s soul is homeless, but his soul is his home, for as Jack tells his sister, the soul is “what you can’t get rid of.”

He is condemned to leave and return. If the prodigal son is the most loved because most errant, then his errancy and not his conformity is what is secretly loved, even if no one can admit to that heretical possibility: perhaps a family needs to have its designated sinner? Everyone longs for restoration, for the son to come home and become simply good, just as everyone longs for heaven, but such restoration, like heaven itself, is hard to imagine, and in our lack of imagination we somehow prefer what we can touch and feel — the palpability of our lapses. At least they are palpable, and not otherworldly.

Behind all of Robinson’s works is an abiding interest in the question of heavenly restoration. As she puts it in Housekeeping, there is a law of completion, that everything “must finally be made comprehensible. What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?” But will this restoration ever be enough? Can the shape of the healing possibly fit the size of the wound? The mundane version of this in Home is the way in which the novel ponders the question of return. The Boughton children come home to this strange, old-fashioned Iowan town, but the return is never the balm it promises to be, for home is too personal, too remembered, too disappointing. Eden is exile, not heaven:

And then their return to the pays natal [French for “native country”], where the same old willows swept the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arose and bloomed as negligence permitted. Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile? Oh, to be passing anonymously through an impersonal landscape! Oh, not to know every stump and stone, not to remember how the fields of Queen Anne’s lace figured in the childish happiness they had offered to their father’s hopes, God bless him.

So as old Boughton is dying, nothing changes, and instead, he petulantly chides his son: “We all loved you — what I’d like to know is why you didn’t love us. That is what has always mystified me.” He continues a little later: “You see something beautiful in a child, and you almost live for it, you feel as though you would die for it, but it isn’t yours to keep or protect. And if the child becomes a man who has no respect for himself, it’s just destroyed till you can hardly remember what it was.”

Early in the novel, the reverend had seemed to want his son to call him something other than his customary, rather estranged “Sir” — Papa, or even Dad. Late in the novel, when Jack calls him Dad, he bursts out: “Don’t call me that. I don’t like it at all. Dad. It sounds ridiculous. It’s not even a word ” When he is not rebuking his son, he is complaining about old age: “Jesus never had to be old.” He is only calm when asleep: “His hair had been brushed into a soft white cloud, like harmless aspiration, like a mist.”

In a final encounter of devastating power, Jack goes to his father to tell him he is going away again. Jack puts out his hand. “The old man drew his own hand into his lap and turned away. `Tired of it!’ he said.” They are the last words the Reverend Boughton speaks in this book, an obviously angry inversion of the last, tired words of serene John Ames in Gilead: “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.”

So luminous are this book’s final scenes, so affecting, that it is all the critic can do not to catch from it, as in this review, the contagion of ceaseless quotation, a fond mumbling.


Reclaiming a Sense of the Sacred II By Marilynne Robinson

March 13, 2012


Marilynne Robinson was raised as a Presbyterian and later became a Congregationalist, worshipping and sometimes preaching at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City. Her Congregationalism, and her interest in the ideas of John Calvin, have been important in her works, including Gilead which centers on the life and theological concerns of a fictional Congregationalist minister.


We are much afflicted now by tedious, fruitless controversy. Very often, perhaps typically, the most important aspect of a controversy is not the area of disagreement but the hardening of agreement, the tacit granting on all sides of assumptions that ought not to be granted on any side. The treatment of the physical as a distinct category antithetical to the spiritual is one example. There is a deeply rooted notion that the material exists in opposition to the spiritual, precludes or repels or trumps the sacred as an idea. This dichotomy goes back at least to the dualism of the Manichees, who believed the physical world was the creation of an evil god in perpetual conflict with a good god, and to related teachings within Christianity that encouraged mortification of the flesh, renunciation of the world, and so on.

For almost as long as there has been science in the West, there has been a significant strain in scientific thought which assumed that the physical and material preclude the spiritual. The assumption persists among us still, vigorous as ever, that if a thing can be “explained,” associated with a physical process, it has been excluded from the category of the spiritual. But the “physical” in this sense is only a disappearingly thin slice of being, selected, for our purposes, out of the totality of being by the fact that we perceive it as solid, substantial.

We all know that if we were the size of atoms, chairs and tables would appear to us as loose clouds of energy. It seems to me very amazing that the arbitrarily selected “physical” world we inhabit is coherent and lawful. An older vocabulary would offer the word “miraculous.” Knowing what we know now, an earlier generation might see divine providence in the fact of a world coherent enough to be experienced by us as complete in itself, and as a basis upon which all claims to reality can be tested. A truly theological age would see in this divine providence intent on making a human habitation within the wild roar of the cosmos.

But almost everyone, for generations now, has insisted on a sharp distinction between the physical and the spiritual. So we have had theologies that really proposed a “God of the gaps,” as if God were not manifest in the creation, as the Bible is so inclined to insist, but instead survives in those dark places, those black boxes, where the light of science has not yet shone. And we have atheisms and agnosticisms that make precisely the same argument, only assuming that at some time the light of science will indeed dispel the last shadow in which the holy might have been thought to linger.

Religious experience is said to be associated with activity in a particular part of the brain. For some reason this is supposed to imply that it is delusional. But all thought and experience can be located in some part of the brain, that brain more replete than the starry heaven God showed to Abraham, and we are not in the habit of assuming that it is all delusional on these grounds. Nothing could justify this reasoning, which many religious people take as seriously as any atheist could do, except the idea that the physical and the spiritual cannot abide together, that they cannot be one dispensation.

We live in a time when many religious people feel fiercely threatened by science. O ye of little faith. Let them subscribe to Scientific American for a year and then tell me if their sense of the grandeur of God is not greatly enlarged by what they have learned from it. Of course many of the articles reflect the assumption at the root of many problems, that an account, however tentative, of some structure of the cosmos or some transaction of the nervous system successfully claims that part of reality for secularism. Those who encourage a fear of science are actually saying the same thing. If the old, untenable dualism is put aside, we are instructed in the endless brilliance of creation. Surely to do this is a privilege of modern life for which we should all be grateful.

For years I have been interested in ancient literature and religion. If they are not one and the same, certainly neither is imaginable without the other. Indeed, literature and religion seem to have come into being together, if by literature I can be understood to include pre-literature, narrative whose purpose is to put human life, causality, and meaning in relation, to make each of them in some degree intelligible in terms of the other two.

I was taught, more or less, that we moderns had discovered other religions with narratives resembling our own, and that this discovery had brought all religion down to the level of anthropology. Sky gods and earth gods presiding over survival and procreation. Humankind pushing a lever in the hope of a periodic reward in the form of rain or victory in the next tribal skirmish. From a very simple understanding of what religion has been, we can extrapolate to what religion is now and is intrinsically, so the theory goes. This pattern, of proceeding from presumed simplicity to a degree of elaboration that never loses the primary character of simplicity, is strongly recurrent in modern thought.

I think much religious thought has also been intimidated by this supposed discovery, which is odd, since it certainly was not news to Paul, or Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas, or Calvin. All of them quote the pagans with admiration. Perhaps only in Europe was one form of religion ever so dominant that the fact of other forms could constitute any sort of problem. There has been an influential modern tendency to make a sort of slurry of religious narratives, asserting the discovery of universals that don’t actually exist among them. Mircea Eliade is a prominent example. And there is Joseph Campbell. My primary criticism of this kind of scholarship is that it does not bear scrutiny.

A secondary criticism I would offer is that it erases all evidence that religion has, anywhere and in any form, expressed or stimulated thought. In any case, the anthropological bias among these writers, which may make it seem free of all parochialism, is in fact absolutely Western, since it regards all religion as human beings acting out their nature and no more than that, though I admit there is a gauziness about this worldview to which I will not attempt to do justice here.

This is the anthropologists’ answer to the question, why are people almost always, almost everywhere, religious. Another answer, favored by those who claim to be defenders of science, is that religion formed around the desire to explain what pre-scientific humankind could not account for. Again, this notion does not bear scrutiny. The literatures of antiquity are clearly about other business.

Some of these narratives are so ancient that they clearly existed before writing, though no doubt in the forms we have them they were modified in being written down. Their importance in the development of human culture cannot be overstated. In antiquity people lived in complex city-states, carried out the work and planning required by primitive agriculture, built ships and navigated at great distances, traded, made law, waged war, and kept the records of their dynasties. But the one thing that seems to have predominated, to have laid out their cities and filled them with temples and monuments, to have established their identities and their cultural boundaries, to have governed their calendars and enthroned their kings, were the vivid, atemporal stories they told themselves about the gods, the gods in relation to humankind, to their city, to themselves.

I suppose it was in the 18th century of our era that the notion became solidly fixed in the Western mind that all this narrative was an attempt at explaining what science would one day explain truly and finally. Phoebus drives his chariot across the sky, and so the sun rises and sets. Marduk slays the sea monster Tiamat, who weeps, whence the Tigris and the Euphrates. It is true that in some cases physical reality is accounted for, or at least described, in the terms of these myths.

But the beauty of the myths is not accounted for by this theory, nor is the fact that, in literary forms, they had a hold on the imaginations of the populations that embraced them which expressed itself again as beauty. Over time these narratives had at least as profound an effect on architecture and the visual arts as they did on literature. Anecdotes from them were painted and sculpted everywhere, even on household goods, vases, and drinking cups.

This kind of imaginative engagement bears no resemblance whatever to an assimilation of explanatory models by these civilizations. Perhaps the tendency to think of classical religion as an effort at explaining a world otherwise incomprehensible to them encourages us to forget how sophisticated ancient people really were. They were inevitably as immersed in the realm of the practical as we are. It is strangely easy to forget that they were capable of complex engineering, though so many of their monuments still stand. The Babylonians used quadratic equations.

Yet in many instances ancient people seem to have obscured highly available real-world accounts of things. A sculptor would take an oath that the gods had made an idol, after he himself had made it. The gods were credited with walls and ziggurats, when cities themselves built them. Structures of enormous shaped stones went up in broad daylight in ancient cities, the walls built around the Temple by Herod in Roman-occupied Jerusalem being one example. The ancients knew, though we don’t know, how this was done, obviously. But they left no account of it. This very remarkable evasion of the law of gravity was seemingly not of great interest to them. It was the gods themselves who walled in Troy.

In Virgil’s Aeneid, in which the poet in effect interprets the ancient Greek epic tradition by attempting to renew it in the Latin language and for Roman purposes, there is one especially famous moment. The hero, Aeneas, a Trojan who has escaped the destruction of his city, sees a painting in Carthage of the war at Troy and is deeply moved by it and by what it evokes, the lacrimae rerum, the tears in things. This moment certainly refers to the place in classical civilization of art that pondered and interpreted the Homeric narratives, which were the basis of Greek and Roman religion. My point here is simply that pagan myth, which the Bible in various ways acknowledges as analogous to biblical narrative despite grave defects, is not a naïve attempt at science.

It is true that almost a millennium separated Homer and Virgil. It is also true that through those centuries the classical civilizations had explored and interpreted their myths continuously. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides would surely have agreed with Virgil’s Aeneas that the epics and the stories that surround them and flow from them are indeed about lacrimae rerum, about a great sadness that pervades human life. The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh is about the inevitability of death and loss. This is not the kind of language, nor is it the kind of preoccupation, one would find in a tradition of narrative that had any significant interest in explaining how the leopard got his spots.

The notion that religion is intrinsically a crude explanatory strategy that should be dispelled and supplanted by science is based on a highly selective or tendentious reading of the literatures of religion. In some cases it is certainly fair to conclude that it is based on no reading of them at all. Be that as it may, the effect of this idea, which is very broadly assumed to be true, is again to reinforce the notion that science and religion are struggling for possession of a single piece of turf, and science holds the high ground and gets to choose the weapons.

In fact there is no moment in which, no perspective from which, science as science can regard human life and say that there is a beautiful, terrible mystery in it all, a great pathos. Art, music, and religion tell us that. And what they tell us is true, not after the fashion of a magisterium that is legitimate only so long as it does not overlap the autonomous republic of science. It is true because it takes account of the universal variable, human nature, which shapes everything it touches, science as surely and profoundly as anything else. And it is true in the tentative, suggestive, ambivalent, self-contradictory style of the testimony of a hundred thousand witnesses, who might, taken all together, agree on no more than the shared sense that something of great moment has happened, is happening, will happen, here and among us.

I hasten to add that science is a great contributor to what is beautiful and also terrible in human existence. For example, I am deeply grateful to have lived in the era of cosmic exploration. I am thrilled by those photographs of deep space, as many of us are. Still, if it is true, as they are saying now, that bacteria return from space a great deal more virulent than they were when they entered it, it is not difficult to imagine that some regrettable consequence might follow our sending people to tinker around up there. One article noted that a human being is full of bacteria, and there is nothing to be done about it.

Science might note with great care and precision how a new pathology emerged through this wholly unforeseen impact of space on our biosphere, but it could not, scientifically, absorb the fact of it and the origin of it into any larger frame of meaning. Scientists might mention the law of unintended consequences — mention it softly, because that would sound a little flippant in the circumstances. But religion would recognize in it what religion has always known, that there is a mystery in human nature and in human assertions of brilliance and intention, a recoil the Greeks would have called irony and attributed to some angry whim of the gods, to be interpreted as a rebuke of human pride if it could be interpreted at all.

Christian theology has spoken of human limitation, fallen-ness, an individually and collectively disastrous bias toward error. I think we all know that the earth might be reaching the end of its tolerance for our presumptions. We all know we might at any time feel the force of unintended consequences, many times compounded. Science has no language to account for the fact that it may well overwhelm itself, and more and more stand helpless before its own effects.

Of course science must not be judged by the claims certain of its proponents have made for it. It is not in fact a standard of reasonableness or truth or objectivity. It is human, and has always been one strategy among others in the more general project of human self-awareness and self-assertion. Our problem with ourselves, which is much larger and vastly older than science, has by no means gone into abeyance since we learned to make penicillin or to split the atom.

If antibiotics have been used without sufficient care and have pushed the evolution of bacteria beyond the reach of their own effectiveness, if nuclear fission has become a threat to us all in the insidious form of a disgruntled stranger with a suitcase, a rebuke to every illusion of safety we entertained under fine names like Strategic Defense Initiative, old Homer might say, “the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.” Shakespeare might say, “There is a destiny that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”

The tendency of the schools of thought that have claimed to be most impressed by science has been to deny the legitimacy of the kind of statement it cannot make, the kind of exploration it cannot make. And yet science itself has been profoundly shaped by that larger bias toward irony, toward error, which has been the subject of religious thought since the emergence of the stories in Genesis that tell us we were given a lavishly beautiful world and are somehow, by our nature, complicit in its decline, its ruin. Science cannot think analogically, though this kind of thinking is very useful for making sense and meaning out of the tumult of human affairs.

We have given ourselves many lessons in the perils of being half right, yet I doubt we have learned a thing. Sophocles could tell us about this, or the book of Job. We all know about hubris. We know that pride goeth before a fall. The problem is that we don’t recognize pride or hubris in ourselves, any more than Oedipus did, any more than Job’s so-called comforters. It can be so innocuous-seeming a thing as confidence that one is right, is competent, is clear-sighted, or confidence that one is pious or pure in one’s motives.

As the disciples said, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,” in this case speaking of the salvation of the pious rich. It is his consistent teaching that the comfortable, the confident, the pious stand in special need of the intervention of grace. Perhaps this is true because they are most vulnerable to error — like the young rich man who makes the astonishing decision to turn his back on Jesus’ invitation to follow him, therefore on the salvation he sought — although there is another turn in the story, and we learn that Jesus will not condemn him. I suspect Jesus should be thought of as smiling at the irony of the young man’s self-defeat — from which, since he is Jesus, he is also ready to rescue him ultimately.

The Christian narrative tells us that we individually and we as a world turn our backs on what is true, essential, wholly to be desired. And it tells us that we can both know this about ourselves and forgive it in ourselves and one another, within the limits of our mortal capacities. To recognize our bias toward error should teach us modesty and reflection, and to forgive it should help us avoid the inhumanity of thinking we ourselves are not as fallible as those who, in any instance, seem most at fault. Science can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom. Nor can religion, until it puts aside nonsense and distraction and becomes itself again.


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.


Marilynne Robinson On William James

December 30, 2011

A review of a book I have on my wish list…Not the first time to post Marilynne Robinson. Selections from her On Human Nature here and here, if you wish to explore more. Years ago I first read Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll with William James, and it became a hugely formative work in my life and I look forward to revisiting James again after so many years and in the light of my conversion to Catholicism.


William James was born in 1842 and died in 1910. His contemporary, the philosopher George Santayana, said James “represented the true America, and represented in a measure the whole ultramodern, radical world.” He continues to be strikingly radical, and modern as well, though the richness of his vision creates a modernity that is as sunlight to moonlight, to borrow a phrase of his, compared with the wised-up and rather disheartened worldview we associate with this term.

Through the whole of his work, James elaborates, without repetition, a philosophic method that never becomes a system or an ideology. This is a conscious and highly meaningful act of restraint, one that paradoxically opens and enlarges the conceptual universe of philosophy. In his Principles of Psychology he says, “The only real truth about the world, apart from particular purposes, is the total truth.” This standard, though impossible in itself, permits and requires crucial inclusions that have not been characteristic of dominant schools of modern thought. He says, “The world contains consciousness as well as atoms — and the one must be written down as just as essential as the other, in the absence of any declared purpose regarding them on the creator’s part, or in the absence of any creator…. Atoms alone, or consciousness alone, are precisely equal mutilations of the truth.”

James insists that reality, philosophically understood, must include humankind and all it entails, notably thought itself, on equal terms with all other phenomena. The great ages in history, he says, “have said to the human being, ‘the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.’” This may sound to us like an optimism the culture has outlived. But he may only be describing an exceptionalism we dread to acknowledge.

James’s philosophy has the qualities of a lucid and deeply coherent vision that is not to be distinguished from his method. He says, “If philosophy is more a matter of passionate vision than of logic — and I believe it is, logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards,” then a vision that is defective or thin fails as philosophy. He brings an aesthetic standard to bear on thought, discovering “a certain native poverty of mental demand” in the work of some contemporaries, admiring by comparison scholasticism and Hegel because they both “ran thick.” A great philosophy must create a conceptual world large enough for a vigorous mind to inhabit, and within which, and against which, it can exercise its powers. His “pragmatism,” his insistence that ideas are meaningful not for their internal logic or coherence but in the ways they are reflected in behavior, secures a central place for thought within phenomenal reality by underscoring its effect. For better and worse, subjectively and therefore objectively, ideas shape the world.

On no grounds whatever, our chastened worldview is taken to require the exclusion from philosophic thought of the human self as experience. Now, when our mingled nature is overwhelmingly an issue in determining the future of the planet, we fold ourselves into the natural order that only we can threaten, as if it were realism rather than evasion to minimize our singular gifts and propensities and to pass ourselves off as nothing more than the cleverest of the apes.

Like old Adam hiding in the Edenic underbrush, trying to deny that his presence has added any new element to the world’s being, we minimize the fact that we, alone in nature, can and do make choices whose consequences are profound, endless, unfathomable. Refusing our exceptionalism we deny its essence and mystery — the mind in time and through time, the ponderings of aged civilizations as surely as the sudden lonely insight. The openness of James’s method to the reality of everything human is sound and empirical. In this and in much else he represents choices we would do well to return to, options we would still find of use.

It is difficult for any selection to do justice to the thought of William James, and difficult as well for a reviewer to do justice to the seventeen fine essays collected in The Heart of William James. He is fortunate to have Robert Richardson as his biographer, editor and interpreter, a kindred spirit whose admiration for James is thoroughly compounded with his enjoyment of him. He makes the great man accessible as if he were presenting an honored friend, ready to step out of the way and allow a wonderful conversation to begin. And James is indeed a remarkable acquaintance, full of the pleasures of fine prose and humorous insight, and demanding all the same.

Thought, the continuous interior weather called thinking, was vitally important to James, for a number of years perhaps a matter of life and death. As a young man he passed through a profound and prolonged crisis, mental or emotional or spiritual, insofar as such distinctions can be thought of as meaningful to him. In retrospect he laid his despair to his loss of belief in freedom of the will. His depression was disabling to him physically, and the cures he sought out in Europe did nothing to relieve it. He struggled with thoughts of suicide. Then he read a book by the French philosopher Charles Bernard Renouvier, who argued that one was made free by acting as if he were free. So began his convalescence, and after it an extraordinary career that made him internationally famous in his lifetime and a figure of continuing influence in American and world culture.

It seems reasonable to speculate that these dark years moved James to immerse himself in the study of the new science of psychology and also to develop a philosophy that emphatically foregrounds the mind. His experience of an idea as an entrapment may have moved him to develop his spacious, pluralist, open philosophy, which never subordinates the reports of consciousness to a system, and neither precludes new insight nor denies the authority of the context of individual consciousness that so largely determines issues of ambivalence or belief/disbelief. (For James these latter form one category, one settled state of mind.)

From our perspective, James’s account of his depression might itself seem questionable, since it does fall far outside the range of our understanding of such things, even calling up that ungenerous but respectable critical method rightly named suspicion. To chalk it up to genetics or chemical imbalance or to lay it to the complexities of his childhood and family might seem more plausible to the general educated reader.

We tend to undervalue the importance of thinking and of books in one part of our cultural mind, even while we live among great libraries and universities. One need only mention Newton or Darwin to make the point that ideas and books participate very deeply in reality — in Jamesian terms, they do indeed inform behavior — and therefore it seems fair to believe that James’s sufferings were as he described them and ended as he said they did, with his reading of Charles Renouvier.


“Will” was a potent concept in the thought of the time, and it is crucial to James’s thinking. In the first of these essays, “What Is an Emotion?,” though he makes no allusion to it, James is writing from a perspective rather like that he describes in The Varieties of Religious Experience, of one looking back from the far side of a life-altering and wholly subjective event, in his case an overwhelming depression, and considering the understanding with which he emerged from it. He makes references in his treatment of emotion to the science of the moment, unsettled on the subject then as it is now.

What he proposes might finally seem to the modern reader to reflect critical thought less than it does a stoical nineteenth-century upbringing, perhaps reflecting class and gender. And this in turn might create a presumption against him that would diminish the pleasure of reading on. He is, however, entirely deserving of the reader’s trust.

James argues that emotion is not prior to its expression but identical with it, and that emotion can be limited by the decision to contain its expression. In his view, this would not mean its suppression, an idea that takes an emotion to be a fixed quantity that will either be expended in some proportion to its strength, or will be put out of sight, to fester or to distort the consciousness forced to contain it. Rather, he says, composure diminishes fear, calm dissipates anger.

Over time or from a little distance the nature of the emotion will change — “Refuse to express a passion, and it dies.” And, as a corollary, “if we wish to conquer undesirable emotional tendencies in ourselves, we must assiduously, and in the first instance cold-bloodedly, go through the outward motions of those contrary dispositions we prefer to cultivate,” kindliness, cheerfulness and geniality, for example. He knows he is repeating a commonplace. He says, “there is no more valuable precept in moral education than this.” So he has no doubt seen instances of cold-blooded kindliness and probably dealt in it himself.

But the assumption that in this way the will can shape not only behavior but experience too means there is nothing false in this sort of feigning, though James’s language suggests he is alive to the humor of it. Skeptics might dismiss it as hypocrisy, but this would be the consequence of an assumption very foreign to his thinking, that the true self is another fixed quantity, that it has no role in determining its own character or shaping its own moral aesthetic.

Suspicions might arise because James is in fact proposing a regime of good manners, an assertion of the will relative to oneself that would involve tact and restraint, and would make one a better friend, a better citizen. If this seems at first a less thrilling notion than the will to power, also abroad in the world at the time, James’s implicit response is the power, magnanimity and embrace of individual human consciousness he enacts in his writing. He is the perceiver eager to grant the autonomy, the essential unknowability, of everything and anything.

The James persona, an affable presence, a voice thinking, always draws attention to itself as one perceiver, always speaking its mind, as they say, sometimes prying apart conventional associations to consider their workings, sometimes mildly and ironically overturning the world of great opinion, Kant, Hegel, Spencer, by appeal to an audience as fellow perceivers. The voice is personal and impersonal, singular and universal, like the voice of Walt Whitman, whom James sometimes quotes at length and whom he calls “a contemporary prophet.”

Freedom for James has a civil and moderated form, or a complex contextuality, for which America as an idea provides him with terms. Everything central to James’s work is a consequence of his refusal to countenance the idea that there is an ontological hierarchy that grants a greater degree of reality to any system or abstraction or anything objectively known or knowable than it does to thought and perception.

Completion or conclusion are no more appropriate to philosophy than they are characteristic of the universe of phenomena. On one hand he grants that the world exists for us only as we know it, and on the other hand he sees the individual consciousness as efficacious, active in the creation of a reality that is also objective, available to our knowledge in a degree that permits efficacy. In his words, the mind has a vote.

And he proposes a deeper liberty of conception in this new world. In the second essay, “The Dilemma of Determinism,” he says, “The principle of causality, for example — what is it but a postulate, an empty name covering simply a demand that the sequence of events shall some day manifest a deeper kind of belonging of one thing with another than the mere arbitrary juxtaposition which now phenomenally appears? It is as much an altar to an unknown god as the one that Saint Paul found at Athens.”

The Apostle saw, among the many shrines to the many gods of Athens, one dedicated to a deity whose name and attributes were unknown to the Athenians. Their intent in raising it may have been no more than prudent. But Paul makes the plausible suggestion that this is in fact the God behind all things, the god in whom “we live and move and have our being,” he says, quoting a Greek poet. Causality, in which we also live and move, is unexplained now, just as it was in 1884 when James delivered this essay as an address to the Harvard Divinity School, though all our certitudes depend on the pretense that there are no such radical mysteries underlying them.

Here James is making an argument for what he calls “chance,” his name for a proposed ontological basis for human freedom. But his argument figuratively extends emancipation to being itself, and literally asserts that being is aloof from forms of comprehension that yield determinism. Indeterminism “admits that possibilities may be in excess of actualities, and that things not revealed to our knowledge may really in themselves be ambiguous.

Of two alternative futures which we conceive, both may now be really possible; and the one become impossible only at the very moment when the other excludes it by becoming real itself. Indeterminism thus denies the world to be one unbending unit of fact.” Whoever uses his word “chance” “squarely and resolutely gives up all pretence to control the things he says are free…. It is a word of impotence, and is therefore the only sincere word we can use, if, in granting freedom to certain things, we grant it honestly, and really risk the game.”

The centrality of the observer in a universe of indeterminacy is a concept with a very modern sound. James describes “a pluralistic, restless universe, in which no single point of view can ever take in the whole scene.” The physicist Stephen Hawking says, “Quantum physics tells us that no matter how thorough our observation of the present, the (unobserved) past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities. The universe, according to quantum physics, has no single past, or history.” And he says, “We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.” This would seem to enhance the efficacy of the observer, since James’s “impotent” human perceiver concedes and in some sense apprehends that a million unencountered potentialities inhere in any experience.

James’s discipline of tact would not allow him to endorse Hawking’s interpretation of our circumstance that it “makes us in a sense the lords of creation.” But James’s model of reality asserts an equally essential role for the observer. Unlike Hawking, James proceeds from profound attention to the actual workings of consciousness. He is the mind’s observer as he is the observer of other reality, in order to engage the epistemological problem to which consciousness is central. In this James is not modern at all, though his approach seems eminently sensible. Hawking takes what is now the conventional view, that intelligence is an artifact of the complexity of physical reality, and free will an illusion. He seems not to find it strange that the lord creator of the glorious cosmos should itself be of marginal interest to the study of the reality it makes and has made.

James does not exclude categories of thought or feeling from among the data that are of interest to the perceiver, and therefore from the fact of the given world. He says, “If a certain formula for expressing the nature of the world violates my moral demand, I shall feel as free to throw it overboard, or at least to doubt it, as if it disappointed my demand for uniformity of sequence, for example; the one demand being, so far as I can see, quite as subjective and emotional as the other is.”

Subjectivity is for him profoundly human, honorable, distractible, fallible — indeed indistinguishable from a thinking self. In his acknowledging its centrality he assumes that what matters in human and subjective terms matters in fact. That is to say, the phenomena of perceived meaning are for him a fully legitimate part of the universe of things. He says, “To be rapt with satisfied attention, like Whitman, to the mere spectacle of the world’s presence, is one way, and the most fundamental way, of confessing one’s sense of its unfathomable significance and importance.”

This is quoted from the essay titled “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” The blindness he describes is precisely the failure to perceive and value the interior universe that is the reality of any other life, any other mind. Awareness of it, he says, “absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly interested and happy in their own ways, however unintelligible these may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of good, is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he stands.” His epistemology yields a social and political ethic because he takes seriously the observer as a phenomenon within the phenomenal world.

Even if one grants the harmony of this ethic with democracy and with the consciously American identity James chose for himself, nevertheless his keeping the reality of the observer, and its human character, active as a factor in his thinking is entirely warranted, not only from the perspective of philosophy and psychology but also from the perspective of the science that follows him in positing its centrality. Physicists use the term “observer” in ways that are special to the discipline and defined by context. A molecule can be said to “observe.” But however the term is used it clearly describes something continuous with human awareness or attention — of an experimenter, for example — and Hawking uses it only in this sense.

Yet his observer is a disembodied potency, collectively lord of creation, free of the tedious burden of mortal limits. This vision has much in common with mysticism, and might be seen as a vindication of mysticism, of Solomon’s “Wisdom, the fashioner of all things” who is “more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars.” James, on the other hand, gives the observer flesh and particularity, phenomenal this-worldliness, complicating every problem Hawking’s abstraction passes over. Words like “beautiful” and “excellent” inevitably become subjective and elusive precisely because they are factors in any actual humanly embodied construction of reality.


The controversy that engrosses certain of us at present, called, however accurately, the argument between science and religion, is a good illustration of the precedence vision takes over logic in these matters. The brilliance of the physical world, the superb intricacy of the cell, the antic indeterminacy of the electron, are used by one side to prove there must be a Creator and by the other side to demonstrate that nature is sufficient unto itself and God an unnecessary hypothesis.

Both theists and atheists feel their case is made, on the basis of exactly the same evidence. This is interesting in its own right. The vision that pre-exists their logic is surely determining in the great majority of cases, “logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards.” Looked at directly, this common feature of the thinking of the two sides should yield significant insight into the workings of the mind, and should in any case alleviate the rancor that comes with so many years of mutual incomprehension.

James deals with this old controversy in the essay “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results.” The dispute, he says, is not really about “hair-splitting abstractions about matter’s inner essence, or about the metaphysical attributes of God. Materialism means simply the denial that the moral order is eternal, and the cutting off of ultimate hopes; theism means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope. Surely here is an issue genuine enough, for anyone who feels it; and, as long as men are men, it will yield matter for serious philosophic debate. Concerning this question at any rate, the positivists and pooh-pooh-ers of metaphysics are wrong.”

If human presence in the cosmos has the centrality James — and Hawking — claim for it, then “this need of an eternal moral order,” which “is one of the deepest needs of our breast,” is not to be dismissed. Such intuitions could as well reflect our incomprehensible (though struggling and error-prone) ability to comprehend the universe as physics and astronomy. Scientific materialism, says James, is “not a permanent warrant for our more ideal interests, not a fulfiller of our remotest hopes.” For scientific materialism, our ideals and hopes have nothing to do with the nature of things and will die an absolute death.

In James’s understanding, it is theism that places us in the cosmos whole and wholly human. “A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze, but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things.” But metaphysics is only half the conversation, so “as long as men are men,” as long as we are human, there will be voices in this vast, cold universe debating ultimate things. And this is also beautiful.


More Reading Selections from On Human Nature by Marilynne Robinson

February 9, 2011


David Bentley Hart:  “The reductionist project apparently understands itself, and certainly presents itself, as a kind of scientific project. Thus it generates the literature of what Robinson aptly calls “parascience”: a form of discourse whose rather grand, frequently incoherent, and usually irreducibly metaphysical assertions about the nature of the universe, the self, the genealogy of morality, and so on, masquerade as purely scientific claims. This is a literature that systematically blurs the distinction between fact and theory, and between legitimate theory and ideological invention; but it is marketed to readers who for the most part lack the special training needed to recognize when they are being misled, and so enjoys — as Robinson says of the works of Dawkins and Dennett — “the effective authority that comes from successful popularization.”

A great deal of the pleasure that Absence of Mind affords the reader comes from Robinson’s patient deflation of parascientific pretensions. She does not counter the reductionist case with vague appeals to hopeful sentiment, but instead quite effectively demonstrates how much of that case consists in baseless assumptions, ungoverned metaphors, and sheer assertion. In two pages, for instances, she deftly demolishes Steven Pinker’s “statistical” proof that the modern, secular era has been less violent than earlier epochs by pointing out the shoddiness of his method and reasoning.”

We encounter the Pinker piece immediately in this reading selection. There was a time when I used to read Pinker but then the presumptuousness of some of this piece, his “discovery of the human soul” etc came as a complete turn-off. You can read more of how Thomists dispose of his nonsense here. It’s always nice when these guys get their comeuppance. Read on:

Steven Pinker
The adventitious use of the idea of “the primitive” seems always to involve the questionable use of questionable information. In The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Steven Pinker debunks belief in the soul, that is, the Ghost in the Machine, as well as the Noble Savage and, in his view the most persistent of erroneous conceptions of the self, the Blank Slate. He takes all these terms to be simple and naive in a degree that is hardly consistent with the seriousness of the philosophic traditions from which they emerged. By human nature Pinker means the genetically determined factors in behavior, which he takes to be highly significant and broadly unappreciated. In his discussion of the notion of the Noble Savage, he offers a graph comparing male deaths caused by warfare in the twentieth century. The graph is presented as evidence that this rate of mortality among Europeans and Americans, as a percentage of deaths, is minuscule beside those reported among various contemporary “pre-state societies” who would have been the primitives of earlier studies.

On the facing page Pinker has noted the errors of Margaret Mead in Samoa and the staged discovery of the “gentle Tasaday.” This is worth noting because two bars on his graph represent two subgroups of the Yanomamo, a society whose violent tendencies were the discovery of an anthropological venture whose reports have also been considered suspect. Since his argument is a rejection of “the image of peaceable, egalitarian and ecology-loving natives,” an argument that would certainly incline him to welcome information to the effect that these pre-stateans are indeed violent, it would be reassuring to see a slightly more evenhanded use of evidence. It would be reassuring also to see some note taken of the susceptibility of such observations to hoaxing and manipulation that has been made so clear in the matter of the Tasaday, the Samoans, and, quite possibly, the Yanomamo, together with an acknowledgment that those who use such observations are susceptible in turn to overvaluing data that tend to confirm them in their views.”

Other questions arise. What is meant by warfare? Would its victims include the millions killed in the regions of Africa from which rubber was taken for use by the armies of World War I? Or are only European and American casualties counted? Does colonialism itself fall outside the definition of warfare, presumably on the grounds that only one side has effective weapons? Should this reckoning exclude the non-male deaths at the siege of Stalingrad or the fall of Berlin? If the point at issue here is how prone societies are to engage in lethal violence, then male mortality caused by warfare is clearly too narrow a category to be meaningful. This is true even putting aside the fact that these pre-state people lack written records, and that traditional narratives of warfare tend to grossly exaggerate the numbers involved in it.

And is it not a little preposterous to make comparisons like this one on the basis of percentages when there are such radical differences in the sizes of these populations? Pinker notes that “two deaths in a band of fifty people is the equivalent of ten million deaths in a country the size of the United States.” Is this a meaningful statement? Any extended family with twenty-five members suffers a death from time to time. Is this in any way equivalent to the loss of five million people out of the whole population? The destruction of ten million people would require a prolonged and determined campaign of violence mounted by societies that were equipped to carry it out — not unthinkable, given the history of the Western world. It would mean that the methods required to engage in violence on such a scale would have to have been in readiness, as we all know they are. Does this reflect at all on our predispositions? More to the point, deaths in a band of fifty could never fall below two percent, while the United States could lose two and a half million people and not exceed one percent, which, by this style of reckoning, would make us the less violent society. And why are we comparing a male war party to the entire population of the United States in any case?

Finally, is it reasonable to debunk the myth of the Noble Savage by pondering any twentieth-century society, however remote and exotic? We can have no knowledge of their history, so we cannot know if what appears to us as primitivity is not dispossession and marginalization. Pinker himself notes that some kind of cultural impoverishment happened among the Tasmanians after they migrated from Australia. I hold no particular brief for the notion of primal innocence, yet neither am I content to see so defective a case made against it. But the point of the graph Pinker uses to illustrate his argument is to make a statement about essential human nature, to tell us what we are, to propose an answer to as grave a query as we can make of ourselves, an answer leveraged against highly questionable data presented as if it had he authority of scientific objectivity behind it.

The Myth Of The Threshold
There is a slackness that is pervasively characteristic of this important conversation. I incline to attribute it to the myth of the threshold I mentioned earlier, the notion that, after Darwin, after Nietzsche, after Freud, after structuralism and post-structuralism, after Crick and Watson and the death of God, some assumptions were to be regarded as fixed and inevitable and others as exposed for all time and for all purposes as naive and untenable, supplanted by a better understanding. Galileo is invoked often.

In denominating any moment in history, whether real or imagined, as the threshold moment, a writer or school is asserting a prerogative, the right to characterize the past and establish the terms in which discourse will be conducted from this point forward. Some transformative concept has obliged us to rethink the world in its new light, assuming pervasive error in previous thought and its survivals. The flood of neologisms into certain disciplines seems meant to signal radical departure.

Since Darwinism is an important model for many writers in this style, one might expect the evolution of culture to have a place in their worldview. But this transformation they describe is like saltation so complete as to have leapt free of genetic inheritance. In culture as in nature there is no leaving the past behind, but to have done so, to have stepped over a threshold that separates old error from new insight, is the given from which these schools of thought proceed, as posture and as method. Triumphalism was never the friend of reason. And the tone of too many of these books is patronizing. Still, however these writers regard their readers, as bringers of truth to those who sit in darkness they should act on their stated devotion to intellectual rigor.

I was educated to believe that a threshold had indeed been crossed in the collective intellectual experience, that we had entered a realm called “modern thought,” and we must naturalize ourselves to it. We had passed through a door that could swing only one way. Major illusions had been dispelled for good and all. What we had learned from Darwin, Marx, Freud, and others were insights into reality so deep as to be ahistorical. Criticism was nostalgia, and skepticism meant the doubter’s mind was closed and fearful. To an age of doubt this ought to have seemed a naive response to any body of thought. But these ideas presented themselves as the last word in doubt, the nec plus ultra of intellectual skepticism.

And so they have been regarded for generations, achieving a remarkable pertinacity through their association with epochal, and oddly immutable, change. There have always been new interpretations budding off from these seminal works, themselves budding off again and again, revisions of various sorts typically announcing with the prefix “neo-” their claim on the world’s attention, and at the same time their undiminished fealty to the school from which they inight otherwise be seen to depart. The prefix “post-” signifies nifies, of course, that they have crossed some sort of threshold, and can therefore make some new claim on the world’s attention.

The schools of thought that support the modernist consensus are profoundly incompatible with one another, so incompatible that they cannot collectively be taken to support one grand conclusion. That they are understood to have done so might reasonably be taken to suggest that this irresistible conclusion came before, perhaps inspired, the arguments that have been and still are made to support it. I propose that the core assumption that remains unchallenged and unquestioned through all the variations within the diverse traditions of “modern” thought is that the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away, excluded from consideration when any rational account is made of the nature of human being and of being altogether. In its place we have the grand projects of generalization, solemn efforts to tell our species what we are and what we are not, that were early salients of modern thought. Sociology and anthropology are two examples.

The great new truth into which modernity has delivered us is generally assumed to be that the given world is the creature of accident, that it has climbed Mount Improbable incrementally and over time through a logic of development, refinement, and elaboration internal to itself and sufficient to account exhaustively for all the complexity and variety of which reality and experience are composed. Once it was asserted, and now it is taken to have been proved, that the God of traditional Western religion does not exist, or exists at the remotest margins of time and causality. In either case, an emptiness is thought to have entered human experience with the recognition that an understanding of the physical world can develop and accelerate through disciplines of reasoning for which God is not a given.

It is usual to blame Descartes for the error that has been overcome. This is that same Descartes who proposed the pineal gland as the seat of the soul yet is blamed for creating a dichotomy between the mind/soul and the physical body, a dichotomy that has plagued Western thought, if reports are to be credited. A nonspecialist might wonder how this locating of the soul in the deep interior of the brain differs in principle from locating the moral sense in the prefrontal cortex, as contemporary writers do, to demonstrate how free they are from the errors of Descartes. Descartes is another threshold figure, though he is a marker for notions that have been and must be departed from. It is a given that the march of the modern has many stragglers, indeed that any of us, even the very vanguard, might backslide into Cartesianism in some unguarded moment.

James L. Kugel
The prestige of the style of thought and argument that has associated itself with science has had consequences for branches of learning that might seem to have been immune to their influence. A “science of religion,” which has been profoundly affected by the imposition of anthropological models of primitivity on this most seminal text, has had enormous consequences for Old Testament scholarship. I am reading a rather strange book titled How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, by James L. Kugel. Kugel’s thesis is that the Bible was not in its origins a religious literature and came to be regarded as one only late in the period before the Common Era. Be that as it may. He has this to say about the similarities between the flood narratives in the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis: “Someone who reads the Babylonian flood story will likely find it interesting, or perhaps troubling (because of its clear connection to the Genesis account).

But any question like `How are we to apply its lessons to our own lives?’ would be greeted by such a reader with incomprehension, or derision. `Lessons? Why it was written by a bunch of Mesopotamians four thousand years ago!’ If that same person then reads what is essentially the same story in the book of Genesis but finds it full of all sorts of uplifting doctrines — well, such a person is either being dishonest or has simply failed to recognize a fundamental facts.’

Elegant Babylonia, Greece to Assyria’s Rome — ancient, yes, and far from primitive. There are no grounds for supposing that a “bunch of Mesopotamians” could have had nothing to tell us, or could have said nothing to interest the biblical writers, for that matter. We are entirely in the habit of finding meaning in the writings of ancient India or China or Greece. We are also familiar with the phenomenon of literary allusion. The Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian flood stories are theodicies, certainly among the earliest examples of this interesting genre. Why does catastrophe occur? What does it mean? The nature of the gods and their expectations of and feelings toward human beings are explored in these narratives.

The biblical flood tells the story again, with changes that make it monotheistic, that make the great destruction God’s response to human violence and not, as in the Babylonian versions, to the intolerable noise we make. And so on. God is loyal to us, but not because he is dependent on us, as the other gods are dependent on human beings to feed them. In other words, reframing the story is granting its given, that humankind can experience devastation, and then interpreting it in a way that radically restates the conception of God and humankind implied in it. Babylonian culture was powerful and influential. The Gilgamesh epic was found in various forms throughout the ancient Near East. It is absurd to imagine that the most dramatic part of it could simply be patched into the Hebrew Genesis and no one would notice the plagiarism. To retell their story with changes would be to defend against its pagan theological implications, and also to address what are, after all, questions of very great interest.

All this assumes that these ancients had an intellectual life, that they had meaningful awareness of surrounding cultures. Archaeological evidence of continuous contact is well established. Kugel is an Old Testament scholar, certainly better informed than I am about the brilliance of Babylonia. But the implication of the passage quoted above is that the Babylonian origins of the flood narrative exclude it from the kind of reading — for Kugel the discovery of “all sorts of uplifting doctrines” — customarily made of Scripture. The low estimate of Babylonia becomes the basis for a lowered estimate of the Hebrew Bible — the modernist declension. Assuming one narrative is without meaning, we may or must assume the other is, too. This conclusion in all its parts is perfectly arbitrary.

Much of the power of an argument like Kugel’s comes from the notion that the information on which it is based is new, another one of those world-transforming thresholds, one of those bold strokes of intellect that burn the fleets of the past. This motif of a shocking newness that must startle us into painful recognition is very much a signature of “the modern,” and potent rhetorically, more so because we are conditioned to accept such claims as plausible. But it often achieves its effects by misrepresenting an earlier state of knowledge or simply failing to enquire into it. In 1622, Hugo Grotius, the renowned early legal theorist and scholar, wrote a treatise titled On the Truth of the Christian Religion. It was translated into English many times, beginning in the seventeenth century. In sections XVI and XVII Grotius argues for the truth of Genesis on precisely the grounds that other ancient cultures had their own versions of the same stories.

These “testimonies of foreigners” show “that the most ancient report was so held among all nations, as the writings of Moses proclaim. For the writings on the `Origin of the world’ which he bath left behind, were, for the most part, the same also in the most ancient histories of the Phoenicians…partly, also found among the Indians and Egyptians … and the formation of animals, and, lastly, of man, and that, too, according to the Divine Image, is mentioned: and the dominion given to man over the other living creatures: which you may everywhere find in very many writers.”

I cannot claim to have found so much similarity as he does between Genesis and ancient literatures in general. My point here is simply that where similarities occur they need not be taken to compromise the authority of the biblical text, even if one cannot agree with Grotius that they can be taken to affirm it. To address Kugel’s point more specifically, Grotius is clearly aware of other ancient Near Eastern versions of the story of the Deluge. He says, “Those things which we read of, wrapped up by poets in the license of fables, the most ancient writers had delivered according to truth, that is, agreeably to Moses, viz. — Berosus, in his history of the Chaldeans; Abydenus, in his of the Assyrians, who even mentions the dove sent forth, as doth also Plutarch, one of the Greeks.”” Berosus was a Babylonian historian who flourished in the fourth and third centuries before the Common Era. Abydenus was a Greek historian of Assyria who wrote in the third century BCE. Fragments of their work survive in other early texts.

So there were ancient sources available to Grotius in the early seventeenth century which made clear the Babylonians and Assyrians had flood narratives that paralleled the Deluge in Genesis in some detail. Again, that this is a proof of the truth of Moses’ account, as Grotius argues it is, that it can in fact be cited in defense of Moses, is clearly open to question. But the notion very common in biblical scholarship since the nineteenth century, reiterated by James Kugel, that the existence of these ancient Mesopotamian narratives was a startling modern discovery which must inevitably raise doubts about the meaningfulness of the scriptural Deluge and about the integrity of Scripture in general is clearly false. The decline of classical learning and the mischaracterization of the nature of traditional belief are both factors in contexts like this one. Another factor that seems to me to be equally important is the great myth and rationale of “the modern,” that it places dynamite at the foot of old error and levels its shrines and monuments. Contempt for the past surely accounts for a consistent failure to consult it.

The Power Of The Intellect To Shallow
The kind of flawed learnedness required to draw attention to the biblical adaptation of the flood narrative in the Epic of Gilgamesh is a classic instance of what William James called the power of the intellect to shallow.’  Again, I mention Kugel because I have his book at hand. This kind of scholarship, tending always to the same conclusions, has dominated Old Testament studies from the middle of the nineteenth century. Kugel’s very flat statement that someone who takes a different view is “either being dishonest or has simply failed to recognize a fundamental fact” is the kind of claim to the intellectual high ground that is perhaps the most consistent feature of the kind of thought that styles itself modern.

The degree to which debunking is pursued as if it were an urgent crusade, at whatever cost to the wealth of insight into human nature that might come from attending to the record humankind has left, and without regard for the probative standards scholarship as well as science should answer to, may well be the most remarkable feature of the modern period in intellectual history.


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.


Reading Selections from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

January 19, 2011

[From an review] The narrator, John Ames, is 76, a preacher who has lived almost all of his life in Gilead, Iowa. He is writing a letter to his almost seven-year-old son, the blessing of his second marriage. It is a summing-up, an apologia, a consideration of his life. Robinson takes the story away from being simply the reminiscences of one man and moves it into the realm of a meditation on fathers and children, particularly sons, on faith, and on the imperfectability of man.

The reason for the letter is Ames’s failing health. He wants to leave an account of himself for this son who will never really know him. His greatest regret is that he hasn’t much to leave them, in worldly terms. “Your mother told you I’m writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea. Well, then. What should I record for you?” In the course of the narrative, John Ames records himself, inside and out, in a meditative style. Robinson’s prose asks the reader to slow down to the pace of an old man in Gilead, Iowa, in 1956. Ames writes of his father and grandfather, estranged over his grandfather’s departure for Kansas to march for abolition and his father’s lifelong pacifism. The tension between them, their love for each other and their inability to bridge the chasm of their beliefs is a constant source of rumination for John Ames. Fathers and sons.

The other constant in the book is Ames’s friendship since childhood with “old Boughton,” a Presbyterian minister. Boughton, father of many children, favors his son, named John Ames Boughton, above all others. Ames must constantly monitor his tendency to be envious of Boughton’s bounteous family; his first wife died in childbirth and the baby died almost immediately after her. Jack Boughton is a ne’er-do-well, Ames knows it and strives to love him as he knows he should. Jack arrives in Gilead after a long absence, full of charm and mischief, causing Ames to wonder what influence he might have on Ames’s young wife and son when Ames dies.

These are the things that Ames tells his son about: his ancestors, the nature of love and friendship, the part that faith and prayer play in every life and an awareness of one’s own culpability. There is also reconciliation without resignation, self-awareness without deprecation, abundant good humor, philosophical queries–Jack asks, “‘Do you ever wonder why American Christianity seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?’”– and an ongoing sense of childlike wonder at the beauty and variety of God’s world.

As is my custom, reading selections, those times when you pinch yourself, or think “Isn’t that splendid?” follow:

I really can’t tell what’s beautiful anymore. I passed two young fellows on the Street the other day. I know who they are, they work at the garage. They’re not churchgoing, either one of them, just decent rascally young fellows who have to be joking all the time, and there they were, propped against the garage wall in the sunshine, lighting up their cigarettes. They’re always so black with grease and so strong with gasoline I don’t know why they don’t catch fire themselves. They were passing remarks back and forth the way they do and laughing that wicked way they have. And it seemed beautiful to me It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over Sometimes they really do struggle with it I see that in church often enough. So I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you’re done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except that laughter is much more easily spent.

Writing Has Always Felt Like Praying
There was more to it, of course. For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you’re only a little fellow now and when you’re a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any of a number of reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there’s an intimacy in it. That’s the truth.

Ludwig Feuerbach says a wonderful thing about baptism. I have it marked. He says, “Water is the purest, clearest of liquids; in virtue of this its natural character it is the image of the spotless nature of the Divine Spirit. In short, water has a significance in itself, as water; it is on account of its natural qua1ity that it is consecrated and selected as the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. So far there lies at the foundation of Baptism a beautiful, profound natural significance.” Feuerbach is a famous atheist, but he is about as good on the joyful aspects of religion as anybody, and he loves the world. Of course he thinks religion could just stand out of the way and let joy exist pure and undisguised. That is his one error, and it is significant. But he is marvelous on the subject of joy, and also on its religious expressions. … That mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet.

On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.

Great Grandfather
When someone remarked in his hearing that he had lost an eye in the Civil War, he said, “I prefer to remember that I have kept one.

Putting On Incorruptibility
I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly. As I was walking up to the church this morning, I passed that row of big oaks by the war memorial —  if you remember them — and I thought of another morning, fall a year or two ago, when they were dropping their acorns thick as hail almost. There was all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they’d fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such energy in the things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me.

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

Water II
You and Tobias are hopping around in the sprinkler. The sprinkler is a magnificent invention because it exposes raindrops to sunshine. That does occur in nature, but it is rare. When I was in the seminary I used to go sometimes to watch the Baptists down at the river It was something to see the preacher lifting the one who was being baptized up out of the water and the water pouring off the garments and the hair It did look like a birth or a resurrection For us the water just heightens the touch of the pastor’s hand on the sweet bones of the head, sort of like making an electrical connection I’ve always loved to baptize people though I have sometimes wished there were more shimmer and splash involved in the way we go about it. Well, but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water.

Echoes Of The Incarnation
They say an infant can’t see when it is as young as your sister was, but she opened her eyes and she looked at me. She was such a little bit of a thing. But while I was holding her, she opened her eyes. I know she didn’t really study my face. Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. Boughton and I have talked about that, too. It has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of an infant. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any. Boughton agrees.

Growing Into The World
This morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success. I don’t know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn’t spent almost eight decades walking around in it. People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives. That’s clearer to me every day.

Each morning I’m like Adam waking up in Eden, amazed at the cleverness of my hands and at the brilliance pouring into my mind through my eyes — old hands, old eyes, old mind, a very diminished Adam altogether, and still it is just remarkable. What of me will I still have? Well, this old body has been a pretty good companion. Like Balaam’s ass, it’s seen the angel I haven’t seen yet, and it’s lying down in the path.

And I must say, too, that my mind, with all its deficiencies, has certainly kept me interested. There’s quite a bit of poetry in it that I learned over the years, and a pretty decent vocabulary, much of it unused. And Scripture. I never knew it the way my father did, or his father. But I know it pretty well. I certainly should. When I was younger than you are now, my father would give me a penny every time I learned five verses so that I could repeat them without a mistake. And then he’d make a game of saying a verse, and I had to say the next one. We could go on and on like that, sometimes till we came to a genealogy, or we just got tired. Sometimes we’d take roles: he’d be Moses and I’d be Pharaoh, he’d be the Pharisees and I’d be the Lord. That’s how he was brought up, too, and it was a great help to me when I went to seminary. And through the whole of my life.

Man Is Born To Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upward
Once when Boughton and I had spent an evening going through our texts together and we were done talking them over, I walked him out to the porch, and there were more fireflies out there than I had ever seen in my life, thousands of them everywhere, just drifting up out of the grass, extinguishing themselves in midair, We sat on the steps a good while in the dark and the silence, watching them. Finally Boughton said, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” And really, it was that night as if the earth were smoldering. Well, it was, and it is. An old fire will make a dark husk for itself and settle in on its core, as in the case of this planet. I believe the same metaphor may describe the human individual, as well. Perhaps Gilead. Perhaps civilization. Prod a little and the sparks will fly. I don’t know whether the verse put a blessing on the fireflies or the fireflies put a blessing on the verse, or if both of them together put a blessing on trouble, but I have loved them both a good deal ever since.

The Sin Of Covetise
I believe the sin of covetise is that pang of resentment you may feel when even the people you love best have what you want and don’t have. From the point of view of loving your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19: 18), there is nothing that makes a person’s fallenness more) undeniable than covetise — you feel it right in your heart, in your bones In that way it is instructive I have never really succeeded in obeying that Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.” avoided the experience of disobeying by keeping to myself a good deal, as I have said I am sure I would have labored in my  vocation more effectively if I had simply accepted covetise in myself as something inevitable, as Paul seems to do, as the  thorn in my side, so to speak “Rejoice with those who rejoice.”  I have found that difficult too often I was much better at weeping with those who weep I don’t mean that as a joke, but it is kind of funny, when I think about it.

As I have said, I think she (his wife, his son’s mother) experienced a good deal of sorrow in those years. I have never asked, but one thing I have learned in my life is what settled, habitual sadness looks like, and when I saw her I thought, Where have you come from, my dear child.  She came in during the first prayer and sat in the last pew and looked up at me, and from that moment hers was the only face I saw. I heard a man say I once that Christians worship sorrow. That is by no means true. But we do believe there is a sacred mystery in it, it’s fair to say  that. There is something in her face I have always felt I must be sufficient to, as if there is a truth in it that tests the meaning of what I say. It’s a fine face, very intelligent, but the sadness in it is engrafted into the intelligence, so to speak, until they seem one thing. I believe there is a dignity in sorrow simply because it is God’s good pleasure that there should be. He is forever raising up those who are brought low. This does not mean that it is ever right to cause suffering or to seek it out when it can be avoided, and serves no good, practical purpose. To value suffering in itself can be dangerous and strange, so I want to be very clear about this. It means simply that God takes the side of sufferers against those who afflict them (I hope you are familiar with the prophets, particularly Isaiah.)

Setting Things Apart So That Their Holiness Will Be Perceived
What the reading yields is the idea of father and mother as the Universal Father and Mother, the Lord’s dear Adam and His beloved Eve; that is, essential humankind as it came from His hand. There’s a pattern in these Commandments of setting things apart so that their holiness will be perceived. Every day is holy, but the Sabbath is set apart so that the holiness of time can be experienced. Every human being is worthy of honor, but the conscious discipline of honor is learned from this setting apart of the mother and father, who usually labor and are heavy laden, and may be cranky or stingy or ignorant or overbearing. Believe me, I know this can be a hard Commandment to keep. But I believe also that the rewards of obedience are great, because at the root of real honor is always the sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object. In the particular instance of your mother, I know that if you are attentive to her in this way, you will find a very great loveliness in her. When you love someone to the degree you love her, you see her as God sees her, and that is an instruction in the nature of God and humankind and of Being itself. That is why the Fifth Commandment belongs on the first tablet. I have persuaded myself of it.

Grandfather’s Preaching
Here is what he wrote and what he said:


When I was a young man the Lord came to me and put His hand just here on my right shoulder. I can feel it still. And He spoke to me, very clearly. The words went right through me. He said, Free the captive. Preach good news to the poor. Proclaim liberty throughout the land. That is all Scripture, of course, and the words were already very familiar to me at the time. But it is clear enough why he would feel they needed special emphasis. No one lives by them, unless the Lord takes him in hand. Certainly I did not, until the day he stood beside me and spoke those words to me.

I would call that experience a vision. We had visions in those days, a number of us did. Your young men will have visions and your old men will dream dreams. And now all those young men are old men, if they’re alive at all, and their visions are no more than dreams, and the old days are forgotten. We fly forgotten as a dream, as it says in the old hymn, and our dreams are forgotten long before we are.

The President, General Grant, once called Iowa the shining star of radicalism. But what is left here in Iowa? ‘What is left, here in Gilead? Dust. Dust and ashes. Scripture says the people perish, and they certainly do. It is remarkable. For all this His anger is not turned away, but His Hand is stretched out still.

The Lord bless you and keep you, etc

Only a few people seemed to have been paying attention, Those who did came very near taking offense at the notion that they were perishing even though the terrible drought has begun to set in that would bankrupt and scatter so many families, even whole towns. There was a little laughter of the kind you hear when the outlandishness of a thing is being generally agreed on But that was the worst of it. My grandfather stood there on the stage in his buzzard-black preacher’s clothes, eyeing the crowd with the dispassionate intensity of death itself with the banners flying around him. Then the band struck up and my father went to him and put his hand on his left shoulder, and brought him down to us. My mother said, “Thank you, Reverend,” and my grandfather shook his head and said, “I doubt it did much good”

I have thought about that very often — how the times change — and the same words that carry a good many people into the howling wilderness in one generation are irksome or meaningless in the next. You might think I am under some sort of obligation to try to “save” young Boughton, that by inquiring into these things he is putting me under that obligation Well, I have had a certain amount of experience with skepticism and the conversation it generates, and there is an inevitable futility in it. It is even destructive. Young people from my own flock have come home with a copy of La Nausée or L’Immoraliste, flummoxed by the possibility of unbelief; when I must have told them a thousand times that unbelief is possible And they are attracted to it by the very books that tell them what a misery it is. And they want me to defend religion, and they want me to give them “proofs.” I just won’t do it. It only confirms them in their skepticism. Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.

The Attempt To Defend Belief Can Unsettle It
In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. We participate in Being without remainder. No breath, no thought, no wart or whisker, is not as sunk in Being as it could be. And yet no one can say what Being is. If you describe what a thought and a whisker have in common, and a typhoon and a rise in the stock market, excluding “existence,” which merely restates the fact that they have a place on our list of known and nameable things (and which would yield as insight: being equals existence!), you would have accomplished a wonderful thing, still too partial in an infinite degree to have any meaning, however

I’ve lost my point. It was to the effect that you can assert the existence of something – Being — having not the slightest notion of what it is. Then God is at a greater remove altogether — if God is the Author of Existence, what can it mean to say God exists? There’s a problem in vocabulary. He would have to have had a character before existence which the poverty of our understanding can only call existence That is clearly a source of confusion. Another term would be needed to describe a state or quality of which we can have no experience whatever, to which existence as we know it can bear only the slightest likeness or affinity. So creating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem.

So my advice is this — don’t look for proofs Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them That is very unsettling over the long term “Let your works so shine before men,” etc. It was Coleridge who ~said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect. I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.

Existence Is The Essential And Holy Thing
Now here is the point I wish to make, because this is the thought that came to me as I was putting all this before the Lord. Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing. If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgression then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional beside the exquisite primary fact of existence. Of course the Lord would wipe them away, just as I wipe dirt from your face, or tears. After all, why should the Lord bother much over these smirches that are no part of His Creation.

Well, there are a good many reasons why He should. We human beings do real harm. History could make a stone weep. I am aware that significant confusion enters my thinking at this point. I’m tired — that may be some part of the problem. Though I recall even in my prime foundering whenever I see the true gravity of sin over against the free grace of forgiveness. If young Boughton is my son, then by the same reasoning that child of his was also my daughter, and it was just terrible what happened to her, and that’s a fact. As I am a Christian man, I could never say otherwise.

Controlling Anger
My father was telling himself and all the rest of us that Edward’s transgressions were trivial beside his own. He was also saying, to himself and to the rest of us, that there was an aptness in this present embarrassment and disappointment which• made it valuable and instructive to him — that there was seeming design in it that might mark it in fact as the Lord’s benevolence, a sort of parable meant to deepen his own understanding. This construction of the matter would certainly have forbidden, or at least discouraged, any impulse he might have felt to blame Edward. The thoughtlessness of any individual, when it is seen to be in service to the mindfulness of the Lord, cannot justify anger.

I have used this line of reasoning any number of times myself, when I have felt the need and found the occasion. And the fact is, it is seldom indeed that any wrong one suffers is not thoroughly foreshadowed by wrongs one has done. That said, it has never been clear to me how much this realization helps when it comes to the practical difficulty of controlling anger. Nor have I found any way to apply it to present circumstance, -though I have not yet abandoned the effort.

We Are Secrets From Each Other
So we were quiet there for some time. Your mother came out with a pot of hot cider and cups, and she sat there quiet right along with us, the dear woman And I spent the time thinking how it would be if Jack Boughton were indeed my son, and had come home weary from whatever life he had, and was sitting there still and at seeming peace in that peaceful night. There was a considerable satisfaction in that thought The idea of grace had been so much on my mind, grace as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials There in the dark and the quiet I felt I could forget all the tedious particulars and just feel the presence of his mortal and immortal being. And a sensation came over me, a sort of lovely fear, that made me think of Boughton’s fear of angels

Now, I may have been more than half asleep at that point, but a thought arose that abides with me. I wished I could sit at the feet of that eternal soul and learn. He did then seem to me the angel of himself, brooding over the mysteries his mortal life describes, the deep things of man And of course that is exactly what he is. “For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him (1 Corinthians 2:11: “For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.”) In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable — which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.

Maybe I should have said we are like planets. But then I would have lost some of the point of saying that we are like civilizations. The planets may all have been sloughed from the same star, hut still the historical dimension is missing from that simile, and it is true that we all do live in the ruins of the lives of other generations, so there is a seeming continuity which is important because it deceives us. I am old enough to. remember when we used to go out in the brush, a lot of us, and. spread out in a circle, and then close in, scaring the rabbits along in front of us, till they were trapped there in the center,. and then we would kill them with sticks and clubs. That was during the Depression, and people were hungry, and we did what we could. I am not finding fault. (We didn’t take the jackrabbits, only the cottontails. We all knew there was something objectionable about jackrabbits, though I don’t remember anyone saying just what it was.) There were people eating groundhogs. The children would go to school with nothing in their lunch buckets but a boiled potato or a scrap of bread with lard smeared on it. In those days the windows of the church used to get so pelted with dust that I’d get up on a ladder and sweep them down with a broom so there would be light enough inside for people to read their hymnals.

The times were dreadful, but it was just how it was, and we got very used to it. That was our civilization. The valley of the shadow And it might as well be Ur of the Chaldees for all people know about it now. For which I thank God, of course, though, since it had to happen, I don’t regret having been here for it. It gives you another look at things I have heard people say it taught them there is more to life than security and the material comforts, hut I know a lot of older people around here who can hardly bear to part with a nickel, remembering those hard times. I can’t blame them for it, though it has meant that the church is just now beginning to come out of its own Depression.  “There is that scattereth, and increaseth yet more, and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth only to want.” Much in this very town proves the truth of that proverb. Well, the church is shabby for the same reason it’s still standing at all. So I shouldn’t really complain. It is a good thing to know what it is to be poor, and a better thing if you can do it in company.

Prodigal Renunciations
I’ll tell you, if my grandfather did throw his mantle over me, so to speak, he did it long before I came into this world. The holiness of his life imputed a holiness to mine, or to my vocation, that I have tried to diminish as little as I could. I have tried to be careful of my reputation and also of my character. I have tried to keep the Gospel before me as a standard for my life and my preaching And yet there I was trying to write a sermon, when all I really wanted to do was try to remember a young woman’s face.

If I had had this experience earlier in life, I would have been much wiser, much more compassionate. I really didn’t understand what it was that made people who came to me so indifferent to good judgment, to common sense, or why they would say “I know, I know” when I urged a little reasonableness on them, and why it meant “It doesn’t matter, I just don’t care” That’s what the saints and the martyrs say. And I know now that it is passion that moves them to their prodigal (yielding abundantly, profuse) renunciations. I might seem to be comparing something great and holy with a minor and ordinary thing, that is, love of God with mortal love. But I just don’t see them as separate things at all. If we can be divinely fed with a morsel and divinely blessed with a touch, then the terrible pleasure we find in a particular face can certainly instruct us in the nature of the very grandest love. I devoutly believe this to be true. I remember in those days loving God for the existence of love and being grateful to God for the existence of gratitude, right down in the depths of my misery I realized many things I am at a loss to express. And of course those feelings become milder with time, which is a mercy.

I Do Wonder Where It Will End
Two or three of the ladies had pronounced views on points of doctrine, particularly sin and damnation, which they never learned from me. I blame the radio for sowing a good deal of confusion where theology is concerned. And television is worse. You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end.


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