What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson


I love Marilynne Robinson’s fiction, but I probably should have bothered to find out more about this book before picking it up, because, while there were moments of illumination, a lot of this book was over my head. Or, more accurately, I didn’t care enough about the subject matter to do the work it would have taken me to understand these essays fully. Robinson’s writing is sharp and eloquent, but also quite dense and academic–most of these essays were originally lectures delivered at various universities and seminaries.

There are two major themes: religion as it pertains to modern American life and culture, and the Puritans. Many of these essays are about Robinson’s fascination with the early colonial history (and the British history that preceded it), and specifically about the Puritans’ role in the shaping of America. To put it her argument simply and bluntly: the Puritans got a bad rap. But, beyond a few interesting tidbits, like how the Puritans were fiercely committed to education, and how education is a vital part of American democracy–I couldn’t tell you much more about her argument. The essays were just too dense and I didn’t quite have the patience to wade through them.

I do find her thoughts about religion and science interesting, and especially appreciate the way she approaches religion from a very sensible, almost scientific place. Robinson is deeply religious, and she is also interested in excavating that belief, and trying to figure out what belief means, and where it comes from, personally and culturally. Though I didn’t give them the close reading they deserve, I enjoyed the essays where Robinson tackles the big ideas–the concepts of faith, hope, and love, for example, and what they actually mean in the physical world.

I especially loved the essay “Grace and Beauty”, where she explores how fiction and the writing of it has shaped some of her thinking. Her insights about writing and about the nature of grace are keen. She writes:

“I know that my years at the work of writing fiction have conditioned my thinking about many things. The problem of finding and sustaining a credible character, a creature made of words on a page, which, or who, can seem to a reader to be worth attending to, perhaps caring about, brings all sorts of questions with it.

When I write I make it a rule never to do anything–choose a name or a detail fo any consequence–for only one reason, or two reasons. Or three, ideally.

But I do work form a sense of the experience of human presence, which forbids that diagnosis or moral judgment should have a central place in my attempts to conure it.”

She ties the writing of fiction together with the experience of grace and beauty. As someone who spends most of my time writing and reading fiction, I’m always fascinated by the ways that fiction and real life influence and change each other. Robinson explores this idea, when writing about grace, both inside and outside of novels:

“I suspect I have not mentioned grace at all. To me it means, among many things, a sense of or participation in the fullness of an act or gesture so that the beauty of it is seen whole, the leap and the landing. Ethically it means an understanding of the wholeness of a situation, so that everyone is understood in her humanity, the perceiver extending no more respect to herself than to others, understanding any moment as a thing that can bless time to come or poison it. As an aesthetic, for the novel, at least, both the first and second definitions are in play. Theologically, grace must include the fact that we have untried capacities to live richly in a universe of unfathomable interest, and that we can and do, amazingly, enhance its interest with things we make.”

She keeps coming back to this one idea that resonated with me, and that I’ve rarely seen articulated so well: that humanity is truly amazing, and that our ability to understand even a tiny fraction of the universe actually adds to the beauty of the universe. Writing about dark matter, and how unintelligible the universe still is to us, she says: “How excellent it is that anything could be so unforeseen. And just as excellent, and fully as remarkable, that humankind has managed to catch a glimpse of it.”

She is just as amazed by dark matter as she is by God. Her ability to see the universe as a place of infinite mystery, one that contains both God and atoms, to hold contradictions, and to explore faith and science with the same rigor, is what makes her writing so interesting.

In humanity, Robinson sees both our folly and our singular achievements. A week after finishing the book, this is what has remained with me, even though most of the meat of the book has fallen away. It is truly incredible that we have done we have done–that we have language, that we have used that language to describe and understand some small part of the universe in which we exist. These things make us exceptional. They do not make us infallible. Robinson explores these two truths, not mutually exclusive–that humans are worth celebrating, that we are singular and unique in the universe, and also that we are petty and small and cruel and still ignorant about many, many things.

I wasn’t always with her as she delved into Puritan history and the intellectual and cultural shifts in religion throughout American history. I did not always understand her arguments. But I deeply respect her writing and her intelligence. If you are religions or fascinated by religion, or interested in Puritan history, you will probably get much much more out of these essays than me. And despite losing interest and patience, I still got plenty from them.

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