By Scott Korb
On its face, Marilynne Robinson’s tightly packed new book Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self may appear to be just another salvo in the ongoing war between religion (books) and science (books). And by temperament, my own sympathies typically lie with those writers ostensibly in the religion camp—Karen Armstrong, say, or Chris Hedges, or recently, even Adam Gopnik—whose books and essays and lectures usually aim to suggest, on the one hand, a common theme of compassion running through religious teachings, and on the other, a complexity and inwardness to religious belief that science (books)—or, “parascience,” as Robinson puts it—ignores, or, at the very least, minimizes. As a case for religion, Absence of Mind dutifully fires its shots. Take for instance what Robinson says early on about Daniel Dennett, whose Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon Robinson just happens “to have in hand” as she writes. (It could, after all, be any number of these parascientific books.)
Dennett sheers off the contemplative side of faith, its subjectivity, as if the collective expressions of religion and the inward experience of it were nonoverlapping magisteria, as if religion were only what could be observed using the methods of anthropology or of sociology, without reference to the deeply pensive solitudes that bring individuals into congregations to be nurtured by the thought and culture they find there.
Yet, whether she’s writing in defense of altruism, dismantling Freud’s vision of the parricidal self, explaining how “memetics” (and all those pesky memes) undermines genetics, or drawing that not-so-fine line between science and parascience (“between a Newton and a Comte,” she writes), the core of Robinson’s religious argument has almost nothing at all to do with God. Rather, she stresses the centrality to our experience of emotions and self-awareness. Where she talks of God she goes straight for the
To discount or attempt to discredit any assessment of our human experience that accounts for compassion and conscience, for example—as parascience does (that is, discounts and discredits), Robinson argues—is “a suppression of, and an assault on the legitimacy of, an aspect of mind without which the world is indeed impoverished.” That enriching aspect of the mind is, in religious terms, the soul. And so, to disavow the soul is to disavow an essential aspect of the mind, which is ultimately the undoing of parascientific writing and its complete absence of mind.
Now, what Robinson has over both the parascientific writers whose work she rejects and the religion writers with whom she finds common ground is a long career (though few books) as a fiction writer, where she has demonstrated—and in her way, provided evidence of—the very contemplative, subjective lives of the faithful she defends in her new book. Just crack Gilead, the long letter of a dying father to his young son, and read. The soul—and if you can imagine it, your own soul—is impossible to miss.
You are drawing those terrible little pictures that you will bring me to admire, and which I will admire because I have not the heart to say one word that you might remember against me.
When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?
The fact is, I don’t want to be old. And I certainly don’t want to be dead. I don’t want to be the tremulous coot you barely remember.
These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.
I might seem to be comparing something great and holy with a minor and ordinary thing, love of God with mortal love. But I just don’t see them as separate things at all.
Scott Korb is co-author, with Peter Bebergal, of The Faith Between Us and associate editor of The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, winner of the American Historical Association’s 2009 J. Franklin Jameson Prize. His latest book is Life In Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine (Riverhead, 2010). He currently teaches religion and food writing at the New School and New York University. Read his tumblr at lifeinyearone.tumblr.com.
Marilynne Robinson talks about Absence of Mind at The Washington Post‘s “On Faith” blog; Michael Dirda reviews the book. The Globe and Mail interviews Robinson and John Gray reviews the book. Rowan Williams’ review at The Telegraph. Chris Lehmann’s review at The National. Read an excerpt from Absence of Mind at The Guardian. (h/t to Integral Options Cafe)