April 27, 2018KR Reviews

On Marilynne Robinson’s What Are We Doing Here?

New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018. 315 pages. $27.00.

My mother went to Catholic school, and my father avoided the nurse’s office in his public school because he was a Christian Scientist. By the time I was born, neither of them were raring to return to organized faith, so I’ve never said a prayer or attended a religious service. When I first read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead in graduate school, though, my proud atheism refigured into something a bit more flexible. When in that novel the pastor John Ames displays his theological latitude, I felt for the first time that religious thought can beget open-mindedness. “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life,” he writes in a letter to his son, “every one of them sufficient.”

In What Are We Doing Here?, a collection of the author’s newest writing about faith, history, and the American intellectual environment, Robinson works with characteristic patience and care. Her subjects expand into (literally) cosmic questions even as they winnow out smaller, more discernible truths. Nothing is taken for granted in these pieces, which interrogate Puritan history, the vitality of public institutions, and the decline of magnanimity, to name several of the book’s most fruitful fixations. Above all, though, Robinson scrutinizes theology, acknowledging the harm religion has wrought while also expressing her weariness of the cold incurious calculations our culture has made in the name of pragmatism, science, and profit. And if it seems like religion, history, science, and politics swirl together in these essays, it’s because they do. “Well, democracy is my aesthetics and my ethics and more or less my religion,” Robinson writes at one point, making it clear that her interests are rarely mutually exclusive.

Within this constellation of thought, these essays offer up a discourse for an otherwise incommunicado American moment. Attuned to the impact of language and cultural perception, Robinson calls attention to the fact that our public discussion has lost something vital to human intellectual and emotional life:

The ways we think do themselves deserve thought. For example, if concepts with religious history such as soul or conscience can be sufficiently redescribed in other language, this in no way diminishes their reality. If they might be redescribed and are not, then we should wonder why they are not, how their exclusion from the vocabulary of self-declared humanism is rationalized, and what the effects of the exclusion might be.

Here Robinson doesn’t lament that American society has gone the way of secularism, only that it has left something important behind in its eagerness to avoid talking about the “soul or conscience.” After all, these are not scientific words, and so they don’t square with today’s accepted vernacular. Pointing out that “the ways we think do themselves deserve thought,” Robinson reminds us that there’s value in exploring the amorphous dark matter of existence (and by the way, Robinson is fond of referencing actual dark matter, an ineffability with which even science must contend). If society is now employing a lexicon absent of metaphysical language, what will happen to the ideas behind these terms? “If they cannot be redescribed in a nonreligious language,” Robinson writes, “then we need to consider what is threatened or lost when religious language is lost.”

With this commitment to redescription, Robinson becomes a translator of sorts, searching for ways to transform theological English—not for the sake of proselytizing, but for the sake of restoring admiration to an increasingly anesthetized culture. This is pure linguistic alchemy, a distillation of complexity and grace. In one particularly striking opening line, she writes, “I have read enough about the fundamental complexity of all things, down to the very protons and neutrons, to feel at ease saying this: Beauty disciplines.” Uncertainty is a gift, and Robinson suggests that the inscrutable should invite wonder, not frustration. Regarding that unintelligible dark matter which “holds the galaxies together,” she allows herself a combination of scientific curiosity and religious awe:

It is like a parable, this aloof and unknowable power sustaining us, the patron, so to speak, of the spangled heavens, which are so grand to our sight, and baubles when the universe is thought of whole. Whatever it is, it is utterly unlike the matter that is familiar to us, so I have read. And just as excellent, and fully as remarkable, that humankind has managed to catch a glimpse of it.

If there’s an argument for applying theological language to scientific marvels, it’s surely the delight Robinson expresses in her celebration that “humankind has managed to catch a glimpse” of something vast and incomprehensible. This expanding gratitude, it seems, is one of the temperaments that might be “threatened or lost when religious language is lost.” To understand this sentiment, one need only consider how rare it has become to hear the words “excellent” or “remarkable” applied to uncertainty and humankind’s limitations.

Robinson traffics in theology partly because it affords her a flexible yet ordered language, a vocabulary and outlook she refers to as an “ultimate coherency that can embrace equally the true, the tentative, and the flawed, as reality itself embraces them.” A description like this of theology’s ability to accommodate many things at once washes away the qualms nonreligious readers might otherwise feel about Robinson’s commitment to the divine. Where an agnostic like myself might worry that this author—a favorite novelist, to boot—sets beauty on the page for some ulterior motive (theistic and strict), here Robinson assures skeptics that theology actually enables her work to expand, not contract. In this way, her theology implicates her artistry. She spends pages upon pages tracing and exploring ideas, and when she finally funnels them into her own viewpoint, suddenly we find ourselves looking at the world through her eyes, and we understand the novelist in her. “I personally don’t believe God would submit himself to proof,” she writes. “The very thought seems irrelevant to me. I do enjoy the liberation of amazement that comes with seeing the world as the work of God, but that is another thing.” The liberation of amazement. This is the artistic impulse, the kind of perceptive appreciation that leads to a book like Gilead, the pages of which are filled not by scenes, necessarily, but by observations about the world and the way it reveals itself in a manner that does indeed liberate amazement, even for people who don’t see the world as a “work of God.”

What comes to mind, then, is that Robinson’s novels and essays are her very own attempts to “redescribe” religious language. Because her work—which seems always to deal in some capacity with spirituality if not theology—has spoken so movingly to a largely secular readership, it’s clear her words have become translations of the worldview she’s so worried contemporary life has left behind. Early in What Are We Doing Here?, she remarks, “So great is my respect for secular people that I wish they had a metaphysics worthy of them.” Well, since her writing is so full of that very same “ultimate coherency” of “the true, the tentative, and the flawed” that she attributes to theology, it’s easy to see that we nonbelievers do have a worthy metaphysics—the one she herself delivers in her books, which offer beauty and grace to be shared between believers and secularists alike.

Taylor Lannamann
Taylor Lannamann's writing has appeared in Georgia Review, Tin House Online, The Literary Review, and Joyland, among other publications. He holds an MFA in fiction from the New School and is currently at work on a novel and a short story collection.