The Washington Post
When I Was a Child I Read Booksby Marilynne Robinson
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
A New York Times Bestseller
A New York Magazine Best Book of the Year
An Economist Best Book of the Year
Pulitzer Prize–Winning Author of Gilead
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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
A New York Times Bestseller
A New York Magazine Best Book of the Year
An Economist Best Book of the Year
Pulitzer Prize–Winning Author of Gilead
Marilynne Robinson has built a sterling reputation as not only a major American novelist but also a rigorous thinker and an incisive essayist. In this lucid but impassioned collection, Robinson expands with renewed vigor the themes that have preoccupied her work. When I Was a Child I Read Books tackles the charged political and social climate in this country, the deeply embedded role of generosity in Christian faith, and the nature of individualism and the myth of the American West. Clear-eyed and forceful as ever, Robinson demonstrates once again why she is regarded as one of our essential writers.
The Washington Post
“Brilliant . . . As the credo of a liberal Christian, Robinson's new book of essays stands on its own. But it is also an illuminating commentary on her novels . . . This collection is a rewarding reminder that the author's faith infuses every word she writes . . . Like every good preacher, Marilynne Robinson judges others while including herself--in theory at least--in the judgment.” Andrew Delbanco, New York Times Book Review
“With her newest book of essays, When I Was A Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson affirms that my deep admiration and respect for her are well-placed. ‘Every great question is very old,' she writes, and here, as has been the case throughout her career as a writer, the great questions concern her most. Robinson displays an exceptional gift for deciphering the zeitgeist and offering generous counsel . . . Not only is her book wise; it is full to the brim with clear, resonant, melodic prose. These essays do two things very well. First, they provide a clear, largely unflattering diagnosis of America . . . Second, her essays affirm the extraordinary meaningfulness of words . . . She wants to dig deeply into our minds, examine the history and biases that underlie our assumptions, and re-animate our consciousness . . . Every measured sentence in this book serves as a bracing antidote to the thoughtless bobble-headed chorus of consumerism, the bellicosity of atheistic scientism, and the monotonous, disorienting mantras of the economists. Robinson uses her extraordinary gifts as a thinker and writer to offer a close-up look at what our world is and how we got here, and she very deliberately complicates our assumptions . . . Robinson seeks to waken rather than enchant, and her deliberate complications shatter the simplistic, polarizing rhetoric that plays fast and loose with truth as it fumbles for sound-bite clarity . . . When I Was A Child doesn't offer much for the earnest optimist, eager to change the world. But it thunders with love, compassion, difficult hope and extraordinary wisdom.” Kurt Armstrong, Paste Magazine
“The Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist returns with a collection of essays that are variously literary, political and religious . . . Robinson is a splendid writer, no question--erudite, often wise and slyly humorous (there is a clever allusion to the birther nonsense in a passage about Noah Webster). Articulate and learned descriptions and defenses of the author's Christian faith.” Kirkus
“Author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Gilead, Robinson weighs in with a series of tightly developed essays, some personal but mostly more general, on the Big Themes: social fragmentation in modern America, human frailty, faith. Her project is a hard-edged liberalism, sustained by a Calvinist ethic of generosity . . . In these times of the ever-ascending religious right, in the aftermath of what she sees as the ideologically secularist-driven cold war, Robinson bravely explores the corrosive potion of ‘Christian anti-Judaism' and what it really ought to mean to be ‘a Christian nation.'” Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
“There is more food for thought in one of Robinson's well-turned paragraphs than in entire books. Esteemed for her award-winning novels Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), Robinson is a consummate and clarion essayist. In her third and most resounding collection, she addresses our toxic culture of diminishment, arguing that as our view of society shrinks, public discourse coarsens, corruption spreads, education is undermined, science denigrated, spirituality and loving kindness are siphoned from religion, and democracy itself is imperiled . . . Intellectually sophisticated, beautifully reasoned with gravitas and grace, Robinson's call to reclaim humaneness beams like the sun breaking through smothering clouds . . . The great success of Robinson's novels will ensure interest in her brilliant reflections on the most urgent questions of our lives.” Booklist (starred review)
“The indomitable Marilynne Robinson radiates genius in her collection of essays.” Vanity Fair
“[When I Was a Child I Read Books] is the equivalent of an uncommon library ticket, an admission to the subjects that most obsess her: the frail human enterprise, faith and its absence, mysteries that elude language. . . This book is scholarly closework, as painstaking as a Victorian sampler but more subtle. She is determined never to undervalue or oversimplify. There is a sense that to be meditative is a necessary part of being alive. She is especially clear on the absurdity of seeing religion and science as adversarial . . . Robinson is adept at studying the small print and reading between the lines but she never forgets to look up at the stars.” Kate Kellaway, The Guardian
“When I Was a Child, by far Robinson's most political work to date, turns her old questions to the problems now directly confronting us. The book is a defense of what she considers the grand traditions of American democracy--generosity, hope, and a radical openness to new experience--waged against a society that seems to believe itself in irreversible decline . . . Robinson's great virtue as an essayist is her ability to combine a deep knowledge of this country's literary, intellectual, and religious canon with a demotic, impassioned tone that is American in the highest sense . . . Robinson is a representative of the grand tradition of liberal Protestantism, still carrying the flame for the likes of Jonathan Edwards and Paul Tillich . . . For those who prefer their liberal American dream in the language of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, Robinson has, for the past three decades, been the standard-bearer.” Charles Petersen, Bookforum
“The greatest pleasures of this book are its provocations, which are inseparable from its prose. Ms. Robinson channels the cadences of Emerson and Whitman and says that she owes the stately shape of her sentences to her school-days reading of Cicero. ‘I seem to know by intuition a great deal that I cannot find words for,' she writes, ‘and to enlarge the field of my intuition every time I fail to find these words.' On the evidence of language itself, she marvels at the capacity of human perception. She describes the wonder expressed by a group of French students about the number of English words that describe light--glimmer, glitter, glisten, glean, glow, glare, shimmer, sparkle, shine--which testify to a human need for distinctions beyond the bare essentials. Words like ‘grace,' ‘soul' and ‘miracle,' she suggests, speak to registers of experience that even the most secular among us are reluctant to relinquish. When I Was a Child I Read Books may seem like a book addressed to Christians--some of the essays have the whiff of the pulpit--but Ms. Robinson's church is exceptionally broad. Her essays are psalms to an indivisible America.” Thomas Meaney, The Wall Street Journal
“At her best she's a wise, droll and incisive essayist. These pieces concern faith, education, family, writing and reading, and . . . they're enlightening and a pleasure to read . . . Some of the most effective and immediate essays in the collection deal with Robinson's decision to become a writer and how she approaches her craft . . . These pages will be of great interest to her many devoted readers and would-be novelists alike.” Kevin Canfield, The Kansas City Star
“It's never been easy to categorize Marilynne Robinson, whose new collection of essays . . . is no exception. Each of the pieces gathered here practices what Robinson preaches, combating the lazy habit of using ‘a straight-edge ruler in a fractal universe' . . . she works to free her readers from the ‘tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind,' in which we ‘try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell' . . . When we are alone, Robinson suggests, we're best positioned for a ‘meditative, free appreciation of whatever comes under one's eye'--including other people, who we're otherwise apt to misread. As this collection makes clear, Robinson's own eyes read widely--and well.” Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Robinson's penchant for complex sentences and lofty subjects mirrors the thoughtfulness of what she wants to say. And while she may be an old-fashioned stylist, she is also a progressive thinker who yokes rigorous scholarship with profound attention to her subjects . . . Her new essay collection, ‘When I Was a Child I Read Books,' may best be served with a straight-back chair and a mug of piping-hot black coffee. But I say, strap yourself in. Robinson's words, girded by a scholar's seat and a stimulant, will sharpen you up . . . Having read these essays, I have a better understanding of the sort of mind that could create ‘Gilead,' a novel of quiet grace, and ‘Housekeeping,' a book so beautiful and other-worldy that at times it threatens to float away altogether.” Maggie Galehouse, The Houston Chronicle
“The latest turn in Robinson's thinking is toward politics, specifically her strong intuition of political crisis in America. She's talked politics before, but it's never been quite this intense or urgent . . . Besides the essays' tone, which is consistently heartfelt, moving from grave (‘We do not deal with one another as soul to soul.') to joyful (‘I love the writers of my thousand books.'), her political concerns give the book a kind of informal unity . . . She includes almost zero references to TV, movies, Facebook, celebs, or anything to do with pop culture. Her lonesome distance from the mainstream is eccentric, but it's also what gives her essays their strange power to diagnose America's discontents. It's a perspective that's simultaneously alienated and engaged, public and personal . . . if any of her thought somehow seeped out into America I think we'd be much better off for it.” Alex Engebretson, The Millions
“It is difficult not to quote Ms. Robinson at length, so finely calibrated are her sentences. Here, it's a tonic to see a rhetoric of such righteous anger turned, for once, against those who believe it is virtuous to attempt to deprive their fellow citizens of aid and succor . . . these essays represent what Robinson calls ‘an archaeology of my own thinking, mainly to attempt an escape from assumptions that would embarrass me if I understood their origins.' This is what education is for, and this book is a tool for those who would be archaeologists of their own thinking. Even when one disagrees with her, Ms. Robinson is always worth reading because she is as gifted a stylist as the English language has at present. Sentence after sentence demands to be reread for the pleasure the mind takes in well-made things . . . Anyone who has read Housekeeping (1980) or Gilead (2006) knows that she is a great novelist. It's time to recognize that Ms. Robinson is also a thinker of the first order, one of the finest we have ever had.” Michael Robbins, The New York Observer
“In an age when such American politicians as Michele Bachman display an astounding ignorance of the history of her own country . . . Robinson's essay collection [is] a valuable contribution to public discourse in the United States.” Philip Marchand, The National Post
“Robinson's country is at a political and moral crossroads, so she wants to remind her readers of its history, what it stood for and how far away it has moved from its founding principles . . . Her rhetoric is of the gentle, thoughtful kind that nevertheless hides a rapier, which she unleashes just when she needs it. Mary Wollstonecraft was once insultingly called a ‘hyena in petticoats' by a man who felt threatened by her intellect. Like Wollstonecraft, Robinson's intellect, too, is threatening. And if it can threaten us into action, is all the greater for that.” Lesley McDowell, The Independent
“When I Was a Child is a broadside defense of literature and classical liberalism that demands we include the unfashionable Old Testament as a foundation of both. Through rigorous citation and deep personal reflection, Robinson builds an excellent case . . . Over the book's 10 essays, Robinson systematically marshals text-based evidence that upends popular beliefs about faith, America and their uneasy commingling--all themes explored in her novels Housekeeping, Gilead and Home as well . . . When I Was a Child feels progressive in its belief that humanity has written stories that hold their virtue over millenniums. And her commitment to those texts is ultimately humble before all that we don't know.” August Brown, Los Angeles Times
“Robinson offers her essays in the face of this confusion, as ‘night thoughts of a baffled humanist' . . . She aims to defend both religion and humanism from their not-quite-so cultured despisers, many of whom may be found self-identifying as ‘religious' or as ‘humanists.' . . . Robinson takes aim . . . at those who would diminish the human person . . . Whatever else these new essays are--and they are many wonderful and interesting things--they are Robinson's determination not to diminish mystery, not to make foolishness of the world or the human person by forcing theories to limit our wonder at God, the human brain and mind, the cosmos. The essays are tonic for our adoration-starved religious and scientific cultures, bracing in their critique and hope-giving in the alternative way of seeing that they open up for us.” Wesley Hill, Books & Culture
“This is a rare writer about America and one it seems to me we need. Desperately. Whether writing about Jefferson or Johann Friederich Oberlin or ‘the dark gorgeousness' of the mind of Edgar Allan Poe, Robinson is a self-described ‘humanist' who says ‘the presence of human consciousness is a radical qualitative change in the natural order' . . . Her imagination of other lives, in these essays, defines an imperiled democracy to which, she says, we need to remain loyal . . . One of the year's stealthy great books.” Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News
“[Robinson] questions accepted opinion and helps us think through its implications and its reasonableness . . . Be ready to have certain assumptions challenged and to think through important issues while enjoying a master of prose.” Gordon Houser, The Wichita Eagle
“Most striking of all is Robinson's mental work ethic. She seems to be incapable of a lazy conclusion . . . Robinson's great strengths [are] independence and eccentricity . . . Robinson, though some of her views are well known, is never predictable, for her discipline is to look at every question as though she were considering it for the first time. It is impossible not to be fortified and enlarged by a few hundred pages in her company.” Stefan Beck, The Barnes and Noble Review
“A provocative--and deceptive--plainness is a constant feature of Robinson's work, which asks us to accept the hidden richness of the mundane . . . [When I Was a Child I Read Books is] the fascinating expression of a rooted and contrary mind.” John Broening, The Denver Post
“In a climate increasingly averse to compassion and unappreciative of curiosity, Robinson has published When I Was a Child I Read Books, a glimmering, provocative collection of essays, each a rhetorically brilliant, deeply felt exploration of education, culture, and politics . . . When I Was a Child is a brutally, beautifully intelligent jeremiad on the cynical state of American culture and politics, but Robinson is rare today in that she uses the language of faith to advance the most cultivated humanistic values all in an attempt to defend what she sees as an imperiled American greatness . . . When I Was a Child strives to burn off the blather and tame the wolfishness that currently bedevils our society.” Michael Washburn, Boston Globe
“These rich, uncompromising essays are not for everyone but--to make a Robinson-like distinction of my own--their rewards should be for anyone, of any faith, who cares to dive deeply into a distant world.” Emily Stokes, Financial Times
“What this collection does contain in abundance, though, are intelligent discourses on contemporary intellectual culture . . . Robinson . . . illuminates the cobwebbed corners of her mind. The effort required to relish the collected works presented here will be worth it.” Noori Passela, The National
“If there is any fear that the fast-moving world of the Internet and the iPhone has destroyed our powers of concentration, or our ability to think lucidly and beautifully, or to create surprising and powerful designs from philosophical concerns, that fear will be put to rest by Marilynne Robinson's new book of elegant essays . . . Robinson's voice is thoughtful and intimate, but she does some thundering, too, on ancient, complex and important subjects . . . Her ideas are unconventional, and she sees the world in surprising ways . . . Taut, eloquent and often acerbically funny, these essays present a formidable response to slack scholarship, an indignant refutation of the policies of punitive frugality toward the poor and a challenge to anyone who denies the power, mystery and significance of the human soul. Robinson's language is elegant and her reasoning precise, and reading these essays is like taking a draught of water from a cold spring. They offer us something rewarding, deeply essential and long-sought, even if we only realize it now.” Roxana Robinson, The Washington Post
“For Robinson, human beings--and especially, readers--must collectively imagine humanity, because imagination creates moral communities. It is through language--silent, personal, and solitary experiences of language -- that we engage in an ‘amazing human conversation,' one that delivers us to ‘place[s] across millennia, through weal and woe.' . . . [An] illuminating collection . . . What . . . ring[s] true in When I Was a Child are the intimate notes . . . In the title essay, Robinson writes lovingly about her childhood encounter with solitude that attuned her to mystery. It is this repeated emphasis on mystery that most differentiates this set of essays. ‘When I see a man or a woman alone,' writes Robinson, ‘he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.' Robinson's religious faith is learned and self-reflective, rooted in a lonesomeness that ‘allows one to experience . . . radical singularity, one's greatest dignity and privilege.' Robinson's form of religious faith requires relentless introspection and loneliness. It's a faith that rejects easy platitudes and easy answers.” Michelle Kuo and Albert Wu, The Los Angeles Review of Books
“Whether writing fiction or nonfiction . . . Robinson displays a compelling blend of intensity and austerity . . . In some of the . . . best moments [in When I Was a Child I Read Books], Robinson describes her life as a reader, with ‘my library all around me, my cloud of witnesses to the strangeness and brilliance of human experience.' She expresses gratitude for the books which have ‘taught me most of what I know....and trained my attention and my imagination.' And in the title essay, she recalls herself as a ‘bookish child in the far West.'” Carmela Ciuraru, Biographile
“Readers . . . have come to expect a blend of acute observation, deep learning, courageous assertion and compelling prose. Happily, Robinson's new book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, provides readers with all of this and more: a rare combination of wisdom and beauty that transforms our vision of our current cultural moment . . . Robinson's book urges Americans to stop our herding and our name-calling, to refuse to engage in wolfishness and blather and to nurture the radical power of the individual self through the agency of the word--in short, to drop everything and read.” Angela Alaimo O'Donnell, America
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Read an Excerpt
When I Was A Child I Read Books
By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2012 Marilynne Robinson
All rights reserved.
Freedom of Thought
Over the years of writing and teaching, I have tried to free myself of constraints I felt, limits to the range of exploration I could make, to the kind of intuition I could credit. I realized gradually that my own religion, and religion in general, could and should disrupt these constraints, which amount to a small and narrow definition of what human beings are and how human life is to be understood. And I have often wished my students would find religious standards present in the culture that would express a real love for human life and encourage them also to break out of these same constraints. For the educated among us, moldy theories we learned as sophomores, memorized for the test and never consciously thought of again, exert an authority that would embarrass us if we stopped to consider them. I was educated at a center of behaviorist psychology and spent a certain amount of time pestering rats. There was some sort of maze-learning experiment involved in my final grade, and since I remember the rat who was my colleague as uncooperative, or perhaps merely incompetent at being a rat, or tired of the whole thing, I don't remember how I passed. I'm sure coercion was not involved, since this rodent and I avoided contact. Bribery was, of course, central to the experiment and no black mark against either of us, though I must say, mine was an Eliot Ness among rats for its resistance to the lure of, say, Cheerios. I should probably have tried raising the stakes. The idea was, in any case, that behavior was conditioned by reward or its absence, and that one could extrapolate meaningfully from the straightforward demonstration of rattish self-interest promised in the literature, to the admittedly more complex question of human motivation. I have read subsequently that a female rat is so gratified at having an infant rat come down the reward chute that she will do whatever is demanded of her until she has filled her cage with them. This seems to me to complicate the definition of self-interest considerably, but complexity was not a concern of the behaviorism of my youth, which was reductionist in every sense of the word.
It wasn't all behaviorism. We also pondered Freud's argument that primordial persons, male, internalized the father as superego by actually eating the poor fellow. Since then we have all felt bad—well, the male among us, at least. Whence human complexity, whence civilization. I did better on that exam. The plot was catchy.
The situation of the undergraduate rarely encourages systematic doubt. What Freud thought was important because it was Freud who thought it, and so with B. F. Skinner and whomever else the curriculum held up for our admiration. There must be something to all this, even if it has only opened the door a degree or two on a fuller understanding. So I thought at the time. And I also thought it was a very bleak light that shone through that door, and I shouldered my share of the supposedly inevitable gloom that came with being a modern. In English class we studied a poem by Robert Frost, "The Oven Bird." The poem asks "what to make of a diminished thing." That diminished thing, said the teacher, was human experience in the modern world. Oh dear. Modern aesthetics. We must learn from this poem "in singing not to sing." To my undergraduate self I thought, "But what if I like to sing?" And then my philosophy professor assigned us Jonathan Edwards's Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, in which Edwards argues for "the arbitrary constitution of the universe," illustrating his point with a gorgeous footnote about moonlight that even then began to dispel the dreary determinisms I was learning elsewhere. Improbable as that may sound to those who have not read the footnote.
At a certain point I decided that everything I took from studying and reading anthropology, psychology, economics, cultural history, and so on did not square at all with my sense of things, and that the tendency of much of it was to posit or assume a human simplicity within a simple reality and to marginalize the sense of the sacred, the beautiful, everything in any way lofty. I do not mean to suggest, and I underline this, that there was any sort of plot against religion, since religion in many instances abetted these tendencies and does still, not least by retreating from the cultivation and celebration of learning and of beauty, by dumbing down, as if people were less than God made them and in need of nothing so much as condescension. Who among us wishes the songs we sing, the sermons we hear, were just a little dumber? People today—television—video games—diminished things. This is always the pretext.
Simultaneously, and in a time of supposed religious revival, and among those especially inclined to feel religiously revived, we have a society increasingly defined by economics, and an economics increasingly reminiscent of my experience with that rat, so-called rational-choice economics, which assumes that we will all find the shortest way to the reward, and that this is basically what we should ask of ourselves and—this is at the center of it all—of one another. After all these years of rational choice, brother rat might like to take a look at the packaging just to see if there might be a little melamine in the inducements he was being offered, hoping, of course, that the vendor considered it rational to provide that kind of information. We do not deal with one another as soul to soul, and the churches are as answerable for this as anyone.
If we think we have done this voiding of content for the sake of other people, those to whom we suspect God may have given a somewhat lesser brilliance than our own, we are presumptuous and also irreverent. William Tyndale, who was burned at the stake for his translation of the Bible, who provided much of the most beautiful language in what is called by us the King James Bible, wrote, he said, in the language a plowboy could understand. He wrote to the comprehension of the profoundly poor, those who would be, and would have lived among, the utterly unlettered. And he created one of the undoubted masterpieces of the English language. Now we seem to feel beauty is an affectation of some sort. And this notion is as influential in the churches as it is anywhere. The Bible, Christianity, should have inoculated us against this kind of disrespect for ourselves and one another. Clearly it has not.
For me, at least, writing consists very largely of exploring intuition. A character is really the sense of a character, embodied, attired, and given voice as he or she seems to require. Where does this creature come from? From watching, I suppose. From reading emotional significance in gestures and inflections, as we all do all the time. These moments of intuitive recognition float free from their particular occasions and recombine themselves into nonexistent people the writer and, if all goes well, the reader feel they know.
There is a great difference, in fiction and in life, between knowing someone and knowing about someone. When a writer knows about his character he is writing for plot. When he knows his character he is writing to explore, to feel reality on a set of nerves somehow not quite his own. Words like "sympathy," "empathy," and "compassion" are overworked and overcharged—there is no word for the experience of seeing an embrace at a subway stop or hearing an argument at the next table in a restaurant. Every such instant has its own emotional coloration, which memory retains or heightens, and so the most sidelong, unintended moment becomes a part of what we have seen of the world. Then, I suppose, these moments, as they have seemed to us, constellate themselves into something a little like a spirit, a little like a human presence in its mystery and distinctiveness.
Two questions I can't really answer about fiction are (1) where it comes from, and (2) why we need it. But that we do create it and also crave it is beyond dispute. There is a tendency, considered highly rational, to reason from a narrow set of interests, say survival and procreation, which are supposed to govern our lives, and then to treat everything that does not fit this model as anomalous clutter, extraneous to what we are and probably best done without. But all we really know about what we are is what we do. There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell. The advice I give my students is the same advice I give myself—forget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous. By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true. Why is it possible to speak of fiction as true or false? I have no idea. But if a time comes when I seem not to be making the distinction with some degree of reliability in my own work, I hope someone will be kind enough to let me know.
When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire—a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. None of them is active by itself, and none of them is determinative, because there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability to consider and appraise one's own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul.
Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word "soul," and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.
Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes "soul" would do nicely. Perhaps I should pause here to clarify my meaning, since there are those who feel that the spiritual is diminished or denied when it is associated with the physical. I am not among them. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul says, "Ever since the creation of the world [God's] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made." If we are to consider the heavens, how much more are we to consider the magnificent energies of consciousness that make whomever we pass on the street a far grander marvel than our galaxy? At this point of dynamic convergence, call it self or call it soul, questions of right and wrong are weighed, love is felt, guilt and loss are suffered. And, over time, formation occurs, for weal or woe, governed in large part by that unaccountable capacity for self-awareness.
The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world. From it proceeds every thought, every art. I like Calvin's metaphor—nature is a shining garment in which God is revealed and concealed. As we perceive we interpret, and we make hypotheses. Something is happening, it has a certain character or meaning which we usually feel we understand at least tentatively, though experience is almost always available to reinterpretations based on subsequent experience or reflection. Here occurs the weighing of moral and ethical choice. Behavior proceeds from all this, and is interesting, to my mind, in the degree that it can be understood to proceed from it.
We are much afflicted now by tedious, fruitless controversy. Very often, perhaps typically, the most important aspect of a controversy is not the area of disagreement but the hardening of agreement, the tacit granting on all sides of assumptions that ought not to be granted on any side. The treatment of the physical as a distinct category antithetical to the spiritual is one example. There is a deeply rooted notion that the material exists in opposition to the spiritual, precludes or repels or trumps the sacred as an idea. This dichotomy goes back at least to the dualism of the Manichees, who believed the physical world was the creation of an evil god in perpetual conflict with a good god, and to related teachings within Christianity that encouraged mortification of the flesh, renunciation of the world, and so on.
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, vigorous 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. We all know that if we were the size of atoms, chairs and tables would appear to us as loose clouds of energy. It seems to me very amazing that the arbitrarily selected "physical" world we inhabit is coherent and lawful. An older vocabulary would offer the word "miraculous." Knowing what we know now, an earlier generation might see divine providence in the fact of a world coherent enough to be experienced by us as complete in itself, and as a basis upon which all claims to reality can be tested. A truly theological age would see in this divine Providence intent on making a human habitation within the wild roar of the cosmos.
But almost everyone, for generations now, has insisted on a sharp distinction between the physical and the spiritual. So we have had theologies that really proposed a "God of the gaps," as if God were not manifest in the creation, as the Bible is so inclined to insist, but instead survives in those dark places, those black boxes, where the light of science has not yet shone. And we have atheisms and agnosticisms that make precisely the same argument, only assuming that at some time the light of science will indeed dispel the last shadow in which the holy might have been thought to linger. Religious experience is said to be associated with activity in a particular part of the brain. For some reason this is supposed to imply that it is delusional. But all thought and experience can be located in some part of the brain, that brain more replete than the starry heaven God showed to Abraham, and we are not in the habit of assuming that it is all delusional on these grounds. Nothing could justify this reasoning, which many religious people take as seriously as any atheist could do, except the idea that the physical and the spiritual cannot abide together, that they cannot be one dispensation. We live in a time when many religious people feel fiercely threatened by science. O ye of little faith. Let them subscribe to Scientific American for a year and then tell me if their sense of the grandeur of God is not greatly enlarged by what they have learned from it. Of course many of the articles reflect the assumption at the root of many problems, that an account, however tentative, of some structure of the cosmos or some transaction of the nervous system successfully claims that part of reality for secularism. Those who encourage a fear of science are actually saying the same thing. If the old, untenable dualism is put aside, we are instructed in the endless brilliance of creation. Surely to do this is a privilege of modern life for which we should all be grateful.
Excerpted from When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson. Copyright © 2012 Marilynne Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Housekeeping (FSG, 1981), Gilead (FSG, 2004), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Home (FSG, 2008), and three books of nonfiction, Mother Country (FSG, 1989), The Death of Adam (1998) and Absence of Mind (2010). She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.
- Iowa City, Iowa
- Date of Birth:
- November 26, 1943
- Place of Birth:
- Sandpoint, Idaho
- B.A., Brown University, 1966
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I never highlight anything in a book. I keep my books pristine. You would not believe all the highlights that are now in When I Was A Child I Read Books. I was compelled to mark many passages. Robinson writes exactly what I think; but I do not have the ability to write. Great praise for the essays.
but it arrived quickly:)