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Book review: What are we doing here? (Marilynne Robinson)

Review of What are we doing here?, by Marilynne Robinson (Virago, 2018).

Hardback RRP: £18.99, ISBN 978-0-3490-1046-5

I am probably the sort of Christian of which Marilynne Robinson is suspicious, whom she accuses of capitulating to crass scientific reductionism and the hermeneutic of suspicion, about the biblical corpus and human nature both. And an Anglican no less: we do not come off well in these essays, as foils in her admirable and persuasive celebration of Puritanism, in its British and American manifestation both. There should therefore be much for me to dislike in her latest collection, which is equally an ode to Puritanism and Calvinism and a rant against what she thinks of as modern scientific anthropology, an alchemical stew of Marxism, Freudianism, and neo-Darwinism. 

“These psychologies I mention imply or say outright that there is no mind […] no self.”  It is eliminative materialism she denounces, which is the metaphysics that results from the empiricist’s rejection of metaphysics. And fair enough, though Robinson risks both caricature and over-reaction in her trenchant criticism of scientism. Neither social psychologists nor cognitive psychologists—the people whose company I keep—would deny either mind or self, for example: and “the notion that all behavior is essentially self-interested” is, at best, a misunderstanding of Richard Dawkins’s unfortunate rhetorical anthropomorphism. It is true that our theories about many human phenomena are reductionistic: romantic love evolved to promote procreation; visual art is a by-product of our bipedalism; the belief in gods is caused by the misattribution of agentic causality. But these causal hypotheses—some testable, many much less so—entail no value judgement on the phenomena in question. What they are is not determined by where they came from. 

It is, at the end for Robinson, about value, though she is not unconcerned with questions of ontology. She believes that the prevailing so-called scientific view of human beings is demeaning, implying as it does varieties of determinism on one hand and a myriad of unexaminable motives on the other. She laments the desacralizing of human nature and of human virtue in particular, which are commonly converted into “forms of self-interest”, genetic, economic, or otherwise. But the science need not be interpreted in this way, in antagonistic relationship with her theistic view of the human person: rather, psychological science’s pessimism about human nature can be seen as consistent with her Puritans’ penchant for the scrupulous examination of conscience, predicated on the notion that self-deception is rampant in the postlapsarian mind. 

Like most other people, Robinson is at her best when she is celebrating her loves, which in this book include Jonathan Edwards, Oliver Cromwell, and Barack Obama; the United States, and Iowa specifically; the liberal arts. Reading Robinson on Edwards feels like reading Eagleton on Marx. “I am too old to mince words”, she writes in the Preface, but this applies as much to her capacity for enthusiastic endorsement as for acerbic accusation. I am, in any case, convinced that there should be more Protestantism in my theological diet. 

I am aware that this review does not come across as a ringing endorsement of the book, which is a failure of execution on my part. What are we doing here? Is deeply rewarding, not just because it is good for us in some abstract and long-term way. I found myself reading sections out loud to people around me; being kept up at night and ruminative during my commute by the questions Robinson raised and the perspective she so uniquely brought to questions to faith and virtue, meaning and value. For those of us who had not have the great privilege of the liberal education for which Robinson is so effective an evangelist, these essays are not a bad place to begin.

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