A Calvinian Curmudgeon

NOVEMBER 2012: REVIEW

by Steve Van der Weele

When I was a Child I Read Books: Essays
Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
$24.00. 202 pages.

Marilynne Robinson has become a heavy hitter on the American religious scene. In her lectures, writings, and teaching she soldiers prophetically against the mischief spread by an assortment of today’s errant ideologies. She is making it more acceptable for even secular journals to publish discourse about religious and philosophical issues—The New York Times, Harper’s, and The American Scholaramong them. Book CoverIn 2009, she gave the Terry Lectures at Yale University—later published in the book Absence of Mind—in which she challenged the dreary legacy of nineteenth-century philosophers who prepared the way for the contemporary generation of neo-Darwinists, reductive positivists, residual Freudians, and manipulators of history.

When I Was a Child—a charming title, though the subtitle Essays is a more helpful description of the book—contains ten essays on a variety of issues that stir Robinson’s passions. At the risk of oversimplification, let me summarize these recurring subjects of her discontent: (1) the diminishing of human beings, by way of that variety of scientific and cultural movements, espoused by “parascientists” (her term), which ride roughshod over the deep mysteries of being, time, purpose, origins, and endings, and which reduce human beings to a mere object of behavioral studies; (2) the supposed notion that (in defiance of common sense) we are all mere competitors with each other in a struggle for survival, that we are basically self-centered people incapable of altruism or generosity or magnanimity; (3) as a corollary, the manner in which our political institutions are being pushed in the direction of a financial oligarchy undercutting ideals that prevailed in earlier American history, ideals that addressed the common good and sought a fair distribution of the world’s prosperity; and (4) issues that inflame differences among people and groups in a way that ignores our common and glorious humanity. Robinson notes as well that some of her very capable students—wouldbe novelists—come to her classes imbued with such notions, and that some of their novels get published and influence many readers.

The first essay, “Freedom of Thought,” is a protest against “the dumbing down” of the human being—an amazing creature on an amazing planet, capable of high-spirited achievements and gifts now under siege, including art and music and education itself. Anything that breathes transcendence or shows a sense of the sacred is suspect, Robinson complains. Beauty becomes an affectation.

Chapter 2, “Imagination and Community,” concerns the pressures imposed on education in a diverse society. The earlier model of education was that of “a tradition that loved the soul and the mind . . . to encourage exploration and refinement of both.” Education took place in an atmosphere of reverence, in overlapping communities. An appreciation for wisdom—to Robinson, another name for humility—is in short supply, and requires that each person acknowledge his or her human fallibility. The hostility within and among various groups, “the marketing of rancor,” is a weeping matter. What results is a demeaning of all our institutions—law, journalism, education, and, of course, religion. One solution: “I am convinced,” says Robinson, “that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global.”

Chapter 3, “Austerity as Ideology,” the longest essay, is a lament about mistaken priorities that are being forced upon us in the name of capitalism, the economic system from which we have presumably departed. Capitalism, Robinson contends—with evidence from dictionaries—is a relatively new phenomenon, and in its present form it abnegates the past code of mutual courtesies. The current passion for austerity comes clothed in the robes of privatization. The good legislator is seen to be the one who attacks the public interest by attacking the public sector. Why, Robinson asks, can we not have competition without advantage? The current situation derives from an evolutionary anthropology that denies our status as people with a dignity conferred from a transcendent source.

Highlights from the rest of the volume include Chapter 5, the one that furnishes the title. Here Robinson attempts to define the West and to divest it of negative connotations. Growing up lonesome in Idaho has given her some quaint advantages, she writes. We need that substantive loneliness: “We need a habitable wilderness,” she says; “the whole country must hear and be reanimated by dreams and passions it has too casually set aside and too readily forgotten.”

Chapters 4 and 6 both concern the use of the Old Testament. In both essays, Robinson decries the work of those scholars beginning with the eighteenth century who disparage the Old Testament after the Reformation had given new life to the first half of Scriptures. They disparage the Old on the basis of its presumed narrowness and contradictions of the New. Robinson argues, on the contrary, that the Old Testament, read carefully, breathes a liberal spirit and a God of grace. All the judgments heaped upon Israel’s transgressions are made by the Jews themselves, adept as they were in the art of self-criticism. She calls on scholars, therefore, to restore the continuity of the two parts of the canon. It demeans us when we discredit such an enormously important source of our Western culture.

Chapter 8, “The Human Spirit and the Good Society,” prompts us—as in Absence of Mind—to reflect on what constitutes human nature. Many studies based on pre-human anthropologies dismiss the higher reaches of humanity as irrelevant, as “unnatural” when seen against what we have in common with primates. Robinson says, “I have felt for a long time that our idea of what a human being is has grown oppressively small and dull.” She adds, “Lacking the terms of religion, essential things cannot be said.”

These and the other essays in this volume continue developing Robinson’s counter-cultural voice, based on a formidable intelligence and careful close reading of texts that have influenced our culture profoundly but are rarely read, even by the intelligentsia—and this includes the writings of John Calvin.Perspectives readers will be familiar with John Hesselink’s history of engagement with Robinson about her heavy reliance on John Calvin, as described in essays that appeared in this magazine in January andMarch 2011. About Gilead, Hesselink wrote, “This one novel did more to awaken interest in Calvin in the general public than all of the fine studies by Calvin scholars published during the quincentennial celebration of Calvin’s birth in 2009.” But he noted some “mysterious gaps” in her treatment of Calvin—omissions that prompt him to call her “a Calvinian rather than a Calvinist.” (Her response appears in theAugust/September 2011 issue.)

Recently, at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, Robinson not only made three presentations herself, but was the subject of six papers about her work by conference participants. I was privy to a brief conversation between Hesselink and Robinson at the close of a Festival luncheon. In brief, though her admiration for Calvin knows no bounds, she does not feel obliged to adapt her interpretation of him to the creeds, history, and traditions that are part of the Calvinist legacy. “That would be un-Reformed she says,” no doubt with a twinkle in her eye.

Steve Van der Weele is professor emeritus of English at Calvin College and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.