White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

“What Are We Doing Here? Essays” by Marilynne Robinson

Published Tuesday, October 9, 2018 By John Stovall

Even in her nonfiction, Marilynne Robinson cannot escape her passion for story-telling, so her latest collection of essays and lectures, What Are We Doing Here, features three reflections on the consequences of hyperpragmatism, the importance of history as an academic discipline, and the effects of ideology on thought.

The opening tale winds its way through the current morass of American public life, according to  Robinson’s penchant for noticing the subtle inconsistencies and fissures in our shared twenty-first century understanding.  She focuses her aim on the idol of instrumental reason, or the assumption that value is determined by competence in labor.  Robinson is not the only writer to assess the current collegiate scene as narrowly focused on economic utility, but her insight into the heights and depths of human experience elevates her analysis beyond simple screed.  Across multiple lectures, the danger of scientific overreach is addressed. For Robinson, our American obsession with instrumentality—can we get a faster widget, please—is linked inextricably to our fascination with objects and with matter.  In response, she offers a series of provocative essays that unveil the forgotten mysteries of the human soul, excoriating the “persistent impatience with the energy and originality of the mind,” and sounding the call for humanistic redress.[1]

As seen in her novels (e.g., Gilead), her reflections on existence resemble less a shrill sermon than a soft soliloquy, highlighting the intricate interplay between the ordinary routines of morning and evening.[2]  Her most strident tones occur when she speaks of the glory of the mundane, of the irreducibility and preciousness of the human being.  One of her prime weapons in her war against modern-day Benthamites is the significance of classically Christian virtues. It is not beneficial to strive for humility in a world of cash, nor is it financially prudent to earn a degree in History instead of Business Administration.[3] But the absence of metrics to calculate one’s virtue is itself beneficial, Robinson argues. In striving to attain and produce a fungible workforce, the university and corporate sectors have crossed into disputed terrain. It is not a wasteful distraction, she implores, to respond with awe to the grandeur of our lives and our world.

The peril of this first story lies more in its author than its content.  Robinson is most noted as a humanist herself, as a writer and speaker for the depths of existence, so when she advances arguments against the omnicompetence of reason, or when she speaks out against capitalism’s invention of “competition” as the spur to anti-humanism, we are not inclined to disagree.[4]  She is correct, but one fears that her prior commitment to humanism will make her pleas fall on deaf ears. For the Christian reader, attuned to the created splendor and the variety of earthly goods given by the Lord, most of Robinson’s prose will be warm as hot chocolate after a winter’s frost. The danger is that we refuse to listen as Robinson alternatively praises the Right or the Left in American politics.

Her second act involves some digging through our collective cupboard of forgotten times. Robinson refurbishes and demystifies the persona of the Puritan, displaying figures like Oliver Cromwell and Jonathan Edwards in all their glory. One of her lines is enough to scan her argumentation “early American historiography is for the most part a toxic compound of cynicism and cliché…to create a history answerable to the truth would be a gift of clarity, sanity, and purpose.”[5] To wit, Robinson unearths some surprising truths about New England legal codes and the correlation between the Ivy League and abolitionists. Along the way, she derides those who picture Puritans as dour adjectives instead of energetic verbs, pointing out the cross-cultural interactions between Edwards and Native American tribes as one sign of the progressive nature of Puritan life.

But her revival of Puritans is merely an exemplar of Robinson’s narrative about history and its virtues.  It is this relegation of history to an ancillary discipline which stirs her ire, as seen in the tendency to exalt living writers and sideline dead ones in the current academic environment, as she notes: “Now I see that wealthy countries are stepping away from ancient commitments to humanist education.”[6]  The cross-pressures of the current age are creating not only an unhealthy political atmosphere and stoking the fires of incivility, but are actually deadening our humanity.  Robinson verges on labeling such ignorance an expression of societal sin.  In an age of anti-historical tendencies and increasing echo chambers, her sheer jouissance for history is refreshing. (If only undergraduates shared the same!)

Her final, and in some ways most intriguing, tale is the one she tells about ideology and its stultification of thought.  Recurring throughout her lectures is the diatribe against the echo chamber, against the use of terms to needlessly simplify needful complexities.  Here Robinson weaves together many strands—political jargon (“the dictatorship of the proletariat”, philosophical lingo, economic inanities (“the invisible hand”)—to indicate the omnipresence of ideology.

She further castigates the impulse across American society to equate our ability to see through an object with sight itself.  In other words, we have taken the key insight of deconstruction—the intrinsic subjectivity of language—and so eviscerated language of value that we have forgotten what it means to be intellectual.  The fact that we can exercise our muscles of hermeneutical suspicion by crying ‘fake news’ or fact-checking in microseconds does not mean we are intellectually competent.

These three pathways provide the significant highways along which Robinson’s thought travels. While subjects from Seneca Falls to the Lollards meander along the feeder roads, What Are We Doing Here? never loses its focus: the great quiddity of you, of me, of those made in God’s image.  If you have lost sight of the stately majesty of being, of your own humanity, Robinson provides a resource.  If you need a way to grasp more of the common grace present in our lives, of the magnificence of language, or just want to read English done well, grab her latest.

John Stovall currently serves as Pastor of the Rock Presbyterian Church in Stockbridge, Georgia and is a doctoral candidate in history at the State University of New York, Albany. 

[1] Robinson, What Are We Doing Here, 26.

[2] Robinson, What Are We Doing Here, 236-7.

[3] I speak as a historian.

[4] Ibid., 31.

[5] Ibid., 16.

[6] Ibid., 38.

  • John Stovall