Marilynne Robinson is in awe of humanity. “Properly speaking, we are the stuff of myth,” she enthuses in her fourth essay collection, What Are We Doing Here? Open the book to almost any page, and your eye will land on sentences like that. Human beings possess a “splendid dignity,” she says at one point. Our preserving literacy and practicing scholarship are “a spectacular demonstration of the capacities of the human mind,” she says at another.

The kind of creativity, intelligence, and eloquence that Robinson sees in her students in the MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop are “pregnant evidence … of what is possible in us.” “Let us face the truth,” she writes in a sentence that might have served as an epigraph for the book as a whole, “that human beings are astonishing creatures, each life so singular in its composition and so deeply akin to others that they are inexhaustibly the subject of every art.” “After all,” she concludes, “we are very remarkable.”

At times this drumbeat can feel monotonous, which is almost inevitable in a collection like this, in which each chapter was originally delivered as a lecture at a different university, seminary, or church. (As someone who gives lectures myself, I know how easy it is to keep saying the same thing in different ways.) But then there are moments when Robinson expresses the thought so arrestingly and movingly that one has to stop reading and sit still in wonderment.

Consider this sentence: “Great pity and very great respect are owed to all those generations who lived and died before us, not least because they, through war and plague and famine, conferred a precious heritage on us of art, language, music, and thought.” Here is Robinson’s characteristic enthusiasm for humane learning (and what that learning implies about the grandeur of our “souls”), but here too is a far-seeing gratitude for how we’re able to enjoy that learning, how it has come down to us through the foresight of people who thought it worthwhile—as hunger and grief gnawed at their stomachs—to copy, safeguard, and enshrine great works of art for generations yet unborn.

Robinson Against Reductionism

Taken as a whole, however, the book is not simply a reverent paean to human complexity and beauty; it is also an exasperated polemic. The flip side of Robinson’s celebration of the human is her disdain for any and all forms of thought and culture that she sees as reducing that complexity and beauty.

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On the one hand, she sees this reductionism at work in our political media, in which the conspiracy theories peddled on Fox News, for instance, have prevented many Americans from taking the true measure of President Obama’s achievements and moral seriousness. (Robinson includes an entire chapter celebrating Obama, with whom she has carried on a public friendship.) Borrowing the term Christianism from the journalist Andrew Sullivan, a pejorative label for what he and she see as a toxic form of conservative Christianity, Robinson criticizes her fellow believers for fixating on a mechanistic doctrine of salvation that whittles divine mysteries down to size. We Christians, Robinson thinks, are largely responsible for why so many contemporary Americans see nothing compelling or awe-inspiring in religion or theology.

But much more of the book is taken up with Robinson’s criticisms of a different sort of reductionism. It’s not only Christians who are guilty of forgetting the splendor of the human. Scientists too—whose research has opened up windows onto dazzling, dizzying complexity in the heavens above and the equally unfathomable intricacies of the body and its microbial residents below—exhibit the same blindness. “The understandings of human nature that have been proposed to us as scientific diminish us,” Robinson laments, “even as science itself is amazed by our complexity, even as science itself is a demonstration of our brilliance.” That qualifier—“proposed to us as scientific”—is crucial, since Robinson does not think that real science gives reductionism any quarter. It is only a kind of misguided religious zeal that allows scientists to go beyond the evidence of their own discipline and declare that the human soul is nothing but a material process.

To combat these various assaults on human dignity, Robinson turns to some of her heroes: the 16th-century Reformer John Calvin and the English and American Puritans, Calvin’s heirs. “Very characteristic of recent theories about humankind is the assumption that we are the creatures of our race or genes or the traumas we have suffered or the shape of our brain,” says Robinson, pinpointing yet more forms of determinism. But the 18th-century American Puritan Jonathan Edwards, among others, “taught me how to understand that something much richer and stranger is going on than any of these schemes can begin to suggest.”

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To Robinson, it is no accident that New England, dominated as it was by Puritan immigrants from old England, quickly distinguished itself as more humane—more directly responsible for American democracy and progressivism—than the Anglican-dominated South, whose penal codes were far harsher. Puritans like Jonathan Edwards celebrated human dignity because they believed we were created in the image of God. And that belief, in turn, became the bedrock of their ethics, because “[h]ow we think about ourselves has everything to do with how we act toward one another.” The more they cultivated awareness of the mystery of their own humanity, the more the Puritans were prepared to shelter and dignify the humanity of others. Their writings can help us do the same today, Robinson thinks.

Dignity and Depravity

Inspiring as all this is, I find myself wondering if it only represents part of the truth. I have no quarrel with the basic content of Robinson’s humanism or her celebration of all the beauty and complexity that human beings represent and have achieved. But it is striking to me that the direction of Robinson’s thinking consistently runs from Calvin and the Puritans’ language about God to what that language does in the human realm. Put differently, Robinson seems much less interested in theology for its own sake than in theology for the sake of anthropology. She’s more at home discussing how the vocabulary of religion—“soul” and “faith” and “love”—lends dignity to humanity than she is in discussing the converse: how the vocabulary of religion is meant to elevate humans’ gaze from themselves to their Creator.

Robinson, the champion of John Calvin, is different from Calvin in this regard. When he comes to expound the famous psalm about human dignity—“Yet you have made [human beings] a little lower than the angels, and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet” (Ps. 8:5–6)—Calvin says this:

My readers … must be careful to mark the design of the Psalmist, which is to enhance … the infinite goodness of God; for it is, indeed, a wonderful thing that the Creator of heaven, whose glory is so surpassingly great as to ravish us with the highest admiration, condescends so far as graciously to take upon him the care of the human race.

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For Calvin, in other words, talk about the glories of humanity redounds to God’s greater glory, but Robinson overlooks this.

It is also striking how little Robinson’s celebration of humanity is qualified with an emphasis on humanity’s fallenness. She appreciates Calvin’s great insistence on humanity’s capacity for learning, self-consciousness, and responsibility, but she omits almost entirely the side of Calvin that says things like this:

[W]e know that, by the fall of Adam, all mankind fell from their primeval state of integrity, for by this the image of God was almost entirely effaced from us, and we were also divested of those distinguishing gifts by which we would have been, as it were, elevated to the condition of demigods; in short, from a state of highest excellence, we were reduced to a condition of wretched and shameful destitution.

(There are occasions where Robinson does mention human sinfulness, but they are mostly about how today’s cultural “conservatives” are attacking humane liberalism and thereby undercutting their own dignity.)

It’s unfortunate that Robinson omits this, because—paradoxically—laying more stress on human depravity might actually advance, rather than detract from, the humanism she wants to promote. As counterintuitive as it seems, recognizing the human capacity for cruelty and injustice has the potential to make us more compassionate toward others, more forgiving of human frailty, and more ready to acknowledge that others share the same mixture of good and bad motives, the same cocktail of noble and base behavior, that we know to be characteristic of our own souls. Belief in original sin, as Alan Jacobs has argued in his book on the subject, “serves as a kind of binding agent,” bringing the human family together. In a strange twist, the deterministic scientists and angry Christians that Robinson repeatedly denounces may have latched onto something to which Robinson herself is blind: For all of our glories, human beings remain trapped in vicious circles of self-infatuation, self-preservation, and self-sabotage, and only something stronger than art, scholarship, and democracy can finally rescue us.

In one essay, Robinson describes the poet Wallace Stevens with the phrase, “Brilliant consciousness pondering the imponderable.” That phrase would apply equally well to Robinson herself. These essays represent one brilliant mind’s attempt to ponder the imponderable, and even their shortcomings can’t dim the brilliance of the results.

Wesley Hill is associate professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

What Are We Doing Here?: Essays
Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Book Title
What Are We Doing Here?: Essays
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Release Date
February 20, 2018
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