Marilynne Robinson's Small, Rich Body of Work

The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought and Absence of Mind, The Dispelling of Inwardness From the Modern Myth of the Self (the paperback edition of which was released this year) are not arguments for the existence of God or the validity of Christianity in the mode of, say, C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity or G.K. Chesterton's Catholic apologia Orthodoxy.She doesn't go in for turf wars; there are no battles with secular liberals or right-wing evangelicals. She cites popular atheists such as Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens only in passing.

There are two main themes to these books. The first is that the liberal conscience of Christianity traces back to the Old Testament or, as she puts itin The Death of Adam, "The law of Moses puts liberation theology to shame in its passionate loyalty to the poor." She also believes, fervently, that the origins of modern Protestant liberality, the kind that possessed the mid-19th century abolitionists, are to be found in Calvinism. Both theses came as surprise to me, though I will have to wait until I can find a large chunk of reading time before I can give assent.

Her other and perhaps larger concern is that there is no essential divide between religion and science. "What I wish to question," she writes in Absence of Mind, "are not the methods of science, but the methods of a kind of argument that claims the authority of science or highly specialized knowledge, that assumes a protective coloration that allows it to pass for science yet does not practice the self-discipline or self-criticism for which science is distinguished." Science can tell us nothing about the purpose of life, nor can it even tell us about the origins of scientific principles, she says. Rather, she writes, "scientific phenomena often demonstrate, as physics and cosmology tend to do, that the strangeness of reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science, and that the assumptions of science, however tried and rational, are very inclined to encourage false expectations."

THIS IS PERHAPS a starting point for a dialogue between believers and nonbelievers. Robinson's sentiments, after all, aren't greatly different on this matter from those of Albert Camus, who wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, "You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry ... So that science that was supposed to teach me everything ends up in a hypothesis."

Robinson, of course, is not a skeptic like Camus. She merely wishes to suggest, as she does in When I Was A Child, that:

For almost as long as there has been science in the West there has been a significant strain in scientific thought which assumed that the physical and material preclude the spiritual. The assumption persists among us still, rigorous as ever, that if a thing can be 'explained,' associated with a physical process, it has been excluded from the category of the spiritual. But the 'physical' in this sense is only a disappearingly thin slice of being, selected, for our purposes, out of the totality of being by the fact that we perceive it as solid, substantial.

Robinson regards When I Was A Child as "an archeology of my own thinking," and the essays it contains are pointed to both secularists and fundamentalists. To the former she notes, "The contempt of a writer such as H.L.Mencken for popular religion is simultaneous and identical with his contempt for women's rights and his melancholy belief in the futility of efforts to improve the status of black people." To the latter, "In my Bible, Jesus does not say 'I was hungry and you fed me, though not in such a way as to interfere with free market principles.'"

I know little about Calvinism or the beauty of Protestant hymns or many other concerns that animate Robinson's work. Before I sat down to read and reread her entire oeuvre I hadn't realized how someone whose background and outlook were so different from my own could lead me to see things in a different way—to understand that "We live on a little island of the articulable which we tend to mistake for reality itself." To read Robinson it to feel both outrage at the abuse of our planet while also caring about a dog of no special consequence.

I 'm not saying I want to see Marilynne Robinson sitting next to Grover Norquist on Bill Maher's Real Time, where her voice might sound merely rhetorical. But it's a voice that I want to hear—or overhear—more often, one that reveals a soul which burns with ahard gem-like flame and needs to be added to our national dialogue.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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