Witness Borne and Witness Reborn: Marilynne Robinson’s What Are We Doing Here?

May 18, 2018
Title:  What Are We Doing Here? Essays
Marilynne Robinson
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publish Date:  February 20, 2018
336 pages (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-0374282219

Whenever Marilynne Robinson releases a new volume, readers have come to expect a few key notes: rehabilitations of Reformed Christianity, engagements with contemporary decline in the humanities, and above all, peaceable offerings toward cultured despisers of the faith. When I re-read her award-winning Gilead recently, it was this final note which presented itself to me more forcefully, seeing the aging John Ames encounters with his dear friend’s son, Jack Boughton, as a parable for Robinson’s non-fiction work. That is, how to offer an apologia amidst the frailties of words and the darkness of life. While her fiction continues to build out the world of the town Gilead, exploring what it means to preach the Gospel in a quietly declining world, her nonfiction has for several years offered a real-life apologia for the humanities and theology which mirrors the one Ames carries out in rural Iowa.

In her most recent volume, What Are We Doing Here?, readers of Robinson’s essays will find many familiar themes, among them the idea of what promise might lie with the Reformed theological tradition for redressing the ills of Western society. This, in and of itself, is not an entirely new project, but for Robinson, this volume marks a slight turn from previous works. Whereas in the world of Gilead, the name of God is regularly and clearly invoked, many of the essays of What Are We Doing Here invoke a more apophatic1 theology, pulling back some of the presuppositions which may have always been at play in her earlier essays. For, the essays of What Are We Doing Here?, given originally in universities and churches across the last few years, invoke God—the object of theology and the subject of theological texts—alongside a newer entrant in the Robinsonian vocabulary: Being.

In a lecture at Brigham Young, for example, she said, “We know enough now about the infinitely small and unfathomably vast, about the fine textures of Being and the torrents of galaxies and constellations” (52). It is a term which surfaces across the essays as a cipher for the mystery of existence. The same essay, naming Being as that which “participates in something as mysterious and irreducible as quantam physics—the presumption ought to be on the side of extraordinary human complexity” (59). What is in play here, it seems, is a more explicitly metaphysical move on Robinson’s part. In naming Being, Robinson is linking together humanity and the created world into a participatory mystery, one redolent of Augustine, who in reflecting on his friend’s death, remarked, “To myself I became a great riddle, and I questioned my soul as to why it was so sad and why it afflicted me so grievously” (Confessions 4.4.9). We are, Robinson suggests, part of the great quilt of quarks, black holes, and eternity; the religious and non-religious are invited into the same journey: toward the mystery in the world.

In her other essays, Robinson delves into the value of the humanities and the goods of theology in the modern world, offering conscience, the soul, and the virtues as ways to bridge the gap between the sometimes arcane mysteries of the Christian faith and the skepticism and division of the American polity. In light of her invocation of “Being,” something new is afoot. To continue from her essay “Beauty and Grace”:

Being is addressed to the mind as the mind is addressed to Being. Both should be thought of as emergent, Being infused with its roaring history and on its way to somewhere or something… To call it Deus absconditus would not be wholly wrong, since it is both hidden and manifest, elusive and radically sustaining. I suppose I always find myself writing theologically because only theology supports an ultimate coherency that can embrace equally the true, the tentative, and the flawed, as reality itself embraces them—which is to say that we, our erring kind, are as intrinsic a part of reality as mice and moonlight. (102)

In placing theology among the humanities, and humanities on the way to committing oneself to finding coherence in light of reality’s mystery, her affirmations of Calvin and Edwards—and of the Reformed tradition itself which weaves through her novels—becomes seen in a different light. It was Edwards, she writes, who “opened Emerson, Dickinson, Melville, and Whitman to me, and William James as well. He helped me wonder constructively about what Puritanism actually was” (184).

The reader of these later figures will note an odd pairing: Emersonian perfectionism as the conclusion of Jonathan Edwards’ doctrine of original sin? America’s greatest theologian of the Reformed tradition as the gateway to reading Herman Mellville’s natural theology? But, it is for Robinson the concept of “Being” which allows for this: when Edwards—author of books on biology and cosmology in addition to theology—speaks of a common fabric of creation, this leads Robinson to a different affirmation than Edwards, one of common mystery rather than an affirmation of common fragility and complicity in the sin of Adam.

Writing to audiences in colleges and churches living in a fractured world, Robinson is—I think—encouraging them to not give up on theology and the humanities as irrelevant to the world. Rather, these are the very ways that our humility and true humanity are recovered: we become more human to ourselves and to one another as we remember not only the many gifts of being human, but also our very small place in the great gift of Reality. Inhabiting theology will not drive the world apart, but, done properly, will bind it together.

At one level, this is a deeply theological move, that the story of the Bible is the story of all creation, and to heal the world is not to dismiss theology but to remember that it is perhaps the most important thing that we can do in a broken world. The humanities and all that is best about them remind us that we are frail creatures of dust who must look upwards to be able to move forward. But on another level, with these essays, we are seeing the chrysalis of Gilead opening, and emerging from this cocoon is a writer in the spirit of another theological apologist: Frederich Schleiermacher.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Frederich Schleiermacher was a German theologian of the 18th century known as the “Father of Theological Liberalism.” But pejoratives aside, what is meant by this title is actually something which evangelicals hold dear. For it was Schleiermacher who brought his own traditions of pietism and Lutheranism kicking and screaming into the modern world, not by updating them but by connecting their goods with the deepest intuited desires of his hearers. In his version of an 18th century German altar-call, Schleiermacher wrote an apology for religion, known to us as On Religion: Speeches To Its Cultured Despisers. In this work, Schleiermacher appeals to his audience, which thinks they have no need for religion, by emphasizing the way in which all the things they hold dear are in fact found most centrally in the Being beyond dogmatic strictures. This Being, intuited by them whenever they beheld the beautiful and the sublime—Schleiermacher held—approaches us in the folds of the beautiful wherever they are encountered; religion, he said, is that which helps us speak most clearly about our experiences with that Source of our intuition.

One can find this theological method of Schleiermacher in manifold ways today: in evangelical altar calls, in theologies of culture, reduced at times to bare materialism and inflated at times to denials of creation’s relative goodness. But, the fingerprints of Schleiermacher, theologically, are everywhere among both conservatives and liberals. And, it is in this collection of Robinson that we see Schleiermacher raised up again—that what we hold dear and true about Being itself invites us to reconsider what is good about theology and the humanities: namely, their articulation about Being which enfolds us all. At one level, this sheds light on the ways in which Robinson reads the Reformed tradition so amply displayed through the world of Gilead, but in another way, it helps us to approach Robinson not simply as a novelist, but as an apologist.

This apologetic movement appears from the first pages of What Are We Doing Here?, from that which posits that Paul’s respect for theological difference is a precursor to the modern conscience (7), to later essays in which faith, hope, and love find their inheritors in Emily Dickenson and John Brown. With every apologetic move, the tradition is put on trial and judged innocent, released into the world to be a faithful witness to a new generation.

But, it remains an open question, to me at least, what is lost in this approach? Should we name Paul’s forbearance in the same register as toleration? Recent work on forbearance and toleration would count this equation as dubious, as would I. Is saving Calvin and the Puritans for public ears by commending them as precursors to modern liberalism too great a cost? The jury is out. But, whatever we make of Robinson as apologist, it is important, I think, to remember that all theology is ultimately apologetic if it is to be living. Like Paul, we speak of the resurrection by way of the pagan poets, or of the body of Christ by way of analogies to Corinthian votives to Aphrodite: to bear witness is a dangerous thing done with fear and trembling.

About the Author
  • Myles Werntz is Director of Baptist Studies and Associate Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. He is the author and editor of five books in theology and ethics, and writes broadly on Christian ethics of war and peace, immigration, ecclesiology, and discipleship.

  1. i.e. mentioning something by saying it will not be mentioned  

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