THE GIVENNESS OF THINGS: ESSAYS
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX, 2015.
Marilynne Robinson, best known for her four novels, Housekeeping, Gilead, Home and Lila, is a prolific essayist. The Givenness of Things represents her most recent compilation of essays. A self-described theist, Robinson identifies as a Protestant and makes no apologies for assigning priority to the Christian faith. The 17 pieces in the Givenness of Things derive from talks presented at various churches, universities and other institutions. Each chapter is assigned a one-word title, such as “Humanism,” Servanthood,” “Grace,” “Memory,” “Realism” – titles not always, I might add, the most predictive of content covered.
The book’s title traces back to the power transformative words have upon us – words such as “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Some words or phrases change how we perceive ourselves and our place in the world. We encounter a wide array of such truths in these pages – givens with no proof required: Period. God. Creation. In the spirit of the importance of words, she describes herself forthrightly as an “Apostles’ Creed Christian.”
Robinson’s worldview is nurtured by the industry of literacy, reading and writing. She suggests that creation must have anticipated the world of “bookishness” from the start. In the book’s first essay, she declares, “Humanism was the particular glory of the Renaissance.” The discovery of lost texts, along with the end of plagues and wars, she says, created a context within which we could uncover the amazing capacities of humankind.
“Reformation,” the next chapter, reminds us how that world-shaking event accelerated this thirst for knowledge. Robinson has a high regard for John Calvin. When she discovered his work, it was as if she had regained a memory that she had lost. He is her “particular saint,” and she holds a substantial if not complete collection of his works. According to Robinson, Calvin argues that even the most illiterate person is made for contemplation. She quotes Calvin: “It is evident that the Lord abundantly manifests his wisdom for every individual on earth … an intelligible creation addresses itself in every moment to every person.”
All the intellectual energy of that era – aided by the printing press and economic progress – encouraged the enjoyment, refinement and development of the thought of readers and writers. Along the way Robinson rehabilitates some dissenting groups and writers – Tyndale, Wycliffe, the Lollards and staunch Puritans – often overlooked by scholars who practice “the hermeneutics of snobbery.” She does so by pointing out the kinship between readers who could read and writers who, without condescension, eagerly served their fellows with translations, catechisms and literature in the vernacular, culminating, of course, in the English Bible. Ink was in the air. And then there were the Reformers – Calvin and Martin Luther. About Calvin’s achievement, she says, “I have just enough relevant experience (with the difficulties of publishing) to inform my awe.” All this enormous energy dedicated to books and reading constituted, says Robinson, a celebration of consciousness, a gift rooted in our status as image-bearers of God.
In her chapters “Grace” and “Servanthoood,” she turns toward several works of William Shakespeare for illumination. Grace – which she says has no synonyms – was, at this time, the subject of a lively controversy throughout Europe. The question debated was this: Must the offender offer an apology before he has a right to expect forgiveness? Shakespeare was on the generous side of the issue. Even feckless Lucio, in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, is given the line, “Grace is Grace, despite all measure.” In her chapter “Servanthood,” Robinson emphasizes that all this literary activity was carried on in the spirit of a community, where people mutually participated in the great gift of reading and writing. As already noted, she believes some minor characters in this drama – Tyndale, Wycliffe, the Lollards – have been slighted. She has studied them hard, and perhaps some graduate student will benefit from her prompting. She goes on to analyze the role of servants in Shakespeare’s plays who are presented neither as homeless itinerants nor mere servile serfs but as attached to households in a relationship that gave them identity and dignity.
OUR MODERN DARKNESS
So much for the texture and culture of an earlier world, infused with all the amenities that Christian humanism could provide. All of this pits that world against our present world, oriented towards technology, material well-being, wealth and prosperity. Modernity’s rearrangement of priorities, argues Robinson, has brought about bad consequences – especially during the past 15 years. Her reference to this state of affairs appears in such essays as “Decline,” “Fear,” “Value,” “Limitations” and “Realism.”
In these latter essays, Robinson reports that our world has lost its optimism, its generosity of spirit. The word magnanimity comes to mind. Even evangelicals sometimes display an unbecoming harshness. We have become cultural pessimists. We live in a time of “joyless urgency, many of us preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own.” Neuroscientists have diminished our sense of man’s special place in the universe. Their vocabulary displays this tendency – we are only this and merely that. One biologist says man is nothing more than an insect perched on an aphid for a few hours some afternoon. Such scientists reduce everything to the physical – and that includes the brain. According to Robinson, such reductionism comes at a price: “Reverence for the sacred integrity of every pilgrim’s progress through earthly life seems to be eroding.” Is there a soul? Scientists tell us such “mythical foolery” must be discarded.
Robinson acknowledges that some degree of scientific reductionism, which describes the brain as a mere “packet of neurons” where all behavior has a physical basis, is no doubt true. But these scientists, against common sense, cannot account for what Jonathan Edwards calls “Affections.” He speaks of the “arbitrariness of creation,” the idea that when God created us, he wired us for certain emotions, feelings, “that valuable inner world, in which we live and move from birth to death”: We change our minds. We regret our failures. We experience fear. We weep. We laugh. Robinson reminds us that we know things because we encounter them in real life. Reductionist scientists need to look beyond describing our behavior as “twitchings of nerve cells” and into the real world. In brief, Robinson contends for the recognition of man’s true status and place in the world as God’s image and representative.
Interestingly, she devotes a chapter, “Son of Adam, Son of Man,” to a vindication of the historicity of the gospel narratives. Brushing off much of what she regards as useless scholarly lumber, she proposes the provocative idea that the gospel writers, who might well have known each other, might have conferred together about a division of labor. Why should Mark do a genealogy of Jesus’s ancestry when Matthew has done it so well? And why should several writers tell the same parable? She derides the biblical critics who, adopting the current fad, think it intelligent to dismiss the Old Testament as an irrelevance. That, she argues, plunges a sword into the very heart of divine revelation.
And there is so much more. How well Robinson can diagnose the maladies of the age: disarray in education, which increasingly devalues the liberal arts; the subtle losses we suffer in the way we trivialize our Sundays; the wide sense of fear in the land, without adequate reason. Such fear is not an emotion suitable for a Christian, she says, and it can lead to irrational responses. She raises questions about our addiction to guns, pondering what responsibility we might bear when a responsible owner of a fine collection of beautifully crafted guns, kept under lock and key, dies and passes them on to the next generation, which might not be as responsible. We must, she says, be attentive to our posterity.
Robinson uses her Bible in creative ways as she makes the case for the historicity of the gospel narratives. In the chapter “Limitations” she decries how casually some philosophers and scientists neglect the disciplines of ontology, metaphysics and theology – those studies that probe deeply into what undergirds the moral architecture of the universe. The secularists among us, often unknowingly, contribute to a culture heedless of the transcendent relationships of human life. That makes for polarization, rancorous tensions between sacred and secular and a reluctance to admit our fallibility. We need, she says, to hear more about sin. We are left with broken lives, a devaluation of the traditional virtues of humility, wisdom, awe and reverence. We show little concern for of the poor. Where should we turn? According to Robinson, it’s all about grace.
I have left little room to comment on Robinson’s mastery of style – those wonderful, rolling sentences – almost as if she is reluctant to end them – as they embody a probing mind at work. Let this selection give at least a brief insight into that mind and art:
My church is across the street from a university, where good souls teach with all sincerity – the factually true, insofar as this can be really known; the history of nations, insofar as this can be faithfully reported; the qualities of an art, insofar as they can be put into words. But to speak in one’s own person and voice to others who listen from the thick of their endlessly various situations, about what truly are or ought to be matters of life and death, this is a singular thing. For this we come to church.
Steven Van der Weele, now retired, taught English at Calvin College for 34 years.