December 13, 2015


Profoundly American : Kevin Hart on The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson (Kevin Hart, December 13th, 2015, LA Review of Books)

CALVIN BEGINS his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559 Latin, 1560 French) by telling us that wisdom consists in knowing God and ourselves. Knowledge of God is revealed to us, a free gift of the Creator, and is not something that we gain from investigation or speculation. Immediately, several related things begin to come into focus. First, we see that Calvin is a modern, concerned with "revelation" (rather than illumination, as the Fathers were, or apocalypsis, uncovering, as the writers of the New Testament were) and with knowing what God is like rather than what sort of being God is. Second, we recognize that unlike the great theologians from Augustine to Aquinas and beyond, Calvin thinks of God more by way of law than philosophy: if he has an ontology (as he surely does), it is secondary, consistent with a contract between God and human beings, initiated by the free gift of revelation, and not primary, by virtue of a system of reality based on the absolutely singular being of God (ipsum esse subsistens) as distinct from the being of finite creatures who may participate in him (esse commune). And third, Calvin is a theologian for whom our relations with God turn on the divine will and not on the being of the deity. That will is held to depend entirely on the divine wisdom with nothing more fundamental. If we look, as Aquinas does, for a deeper ontological ground for our trust in God, Calvin will tell us that we are looking in the wrong place.

This Calvinist theology is tightly bound up in the very title of Marilynne Robinson's new collection of essays, The Givenness of Things, and some of its consequences are variously worked out in luminous individual pieces on experience, fear, grace, humanism, limitation, realism, and other topics. Not that the collection depends exclusively on 16th-century European theology: Robinson remains profoundly American in important respects, and "givenness," as she conceives it, is as much a homegrown Pragmatist idea as a Reformation one. If she nods to the William James of The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), she prefers the company of Jonathan Edwards, who she takes to be a pragmatist avant la lettre. Like James, Edwards nicely observes the phenomena of religious conversion, albeit with a Scriptural lens rather than with a brisk understanding of the "cash value" of our beliefs. Indeed, it is in Edwards's spirited reply to John Taylor's attack on the doctrine of original sin that Robinson finds an expression that lights up much of her world: "the arbitrary constitution of the Creator." Everything, Edwards thinks, including all the laws and regularities of the cosmos, turns on the arbitrary choice of the Creator: things could have been very different, and only our faith in God's wisdom can reconcile us to the special goodness of what we have been given.

On this understanding of reality, it is no surprise at all that Robinson defends the human being as an exception in the cosmos -- each of us is marked as sacred -- and no surprise, either, that she attacks modern science whenever it exceeds its proper bounds. If Robinson is a pragmatist, she is no reductionist: Neo-Darwinism in all its guises (including those sometimes adopted in neuroscience), Freudianism, and the Higher Criticism all fall within her winnowing gaze. As she says, "our capacity for awareness is [...] parochial in ways and degrees we cannot begin to estimate." This is no slap on the wrist for science; on the contrary, it is a "spectacular achievement" of science that we can grasp just how little we really know. Indeed, Robinson takes comfort from contemporary cosmology, especially string theory, that reality is far more complex, far more elusive than we have been told in popular science and the social sciences. We live in "island solitude," as Wallace Stevens says, free but not unsponsored, Robinson would add; and around the island of our little knowledge there roars the vast ocean of mystery.

Posted by at December 13, 2015 10:07 AM