The Givenness of Things

Essay

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Marilynne Robinson
  • New York, NY: 
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    , November
     2015.
     224 pages.
     $26.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780374298470.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

A friend once complained to me that he thought Marilynne Robinson’s novels were “slow.” Slightly aghast, my response was that glaciers are slow, but they dig deep. They gather force patiently through time, and their full effects are seen only as they recede. They rewrite continents.

This comparison is apt for Robinson’s collection, The Givenness of Things. The pieces vary by occasion. They are written for disparate audiences, sometimes as commencement speeches, sometimes as invited lectures on a chosen or assigned topic. Necessarily, then, the reader does not quickly arrive at a neatly formulated thesis. However, over time, a sustained argument comes into view. Points of emphasis build through repetition; interesting asides are picked up and elaborated. Robinson’s thinking gathers force less by the secure scaffolding of an academic essay than by the gathered observations of human beings thinking and acting in these early hectic years of the 21st century.

Or failing to think. Robinson is convinced that we Americans have become a forgetful people. The list of things that we have forgotten is long: we have forgotten the legacy of the Reformation; we have forgotten the value of the common good manifested in things like publicly funded libraries and schools; we have forgotten the principles of the Civil Rights Movement; we have forgotten the intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual capacities of the common person; and we have forgotten that our minds are more than our brains. Fundamentally, we have forgotten ourselves. In the process, Robinson says, we have forgotten God. 

This last points to Robinson’s Christian vision. Her title rings with philosophical complexity but primarily manifests as a conviction concerning the sacredness of the ordinary and common things of life, a sacredness that reflects the divine regard that God has for human beings and for the entire created order. This sacredness is fully manifest in the incarnation. Robinson rejects a common view of the incarnation as a glorified rescue mission that yanks human beings out of the muck they’ve made of the world. The incarnation exalts the humble and humbles the exalted: “Jesus of Nazareth is the great and culminating instance of the exaltation of the humble … Christ humbled himself and took the form of a slave. He humbled himself not in the fact of being human, but to show us the meaning of making slaves of human beings … I do not mean to relegate him to human things more than others … I mean instead that Creation must have a quality at its center and in its substance to which we as human beings belong. I mean that God’s first act of grace toward us was to make us worthy of his attention and loyalty and love” (200).

To Robinson, we seem hell-bent on disregarding this divine attentiveness. We certainly fail to emulate it. In these anxious economic times, “we are panicked into reducing ourselves and others into potential units of economic production” (123). Our politics has come to mean little more than the venal self-aggrandizement of the few. In a handful of decades, we have abandoned the rudiments of a popular intellectual life. John Calvin’s notion that human thinking was one of the surest signs of the image of God in us has been replaced by the conviction that we can best understand ourselves by looking at the neurons of mice rather than by reading the novels of someone like … well … Marilynne Robinson.

This inability to remember the unique place of human beings in the cosmos manifests in our disregard for one another. Among Robinson’s most important reaffirmations is that the culture of Protestantism was initiated out of a religious and metaphysical regard for the divine—even exemplary—worth of the common person. Our rapacious economic system and our suspicion that the poor are only worthy of an education that fits them for economic servitude demonstrates this disregard: “The argument could be made that we are now living among the relics or even the ruins of the Reformation … A ruin may be the respect for one another as minds and consciences that is encoded in the First Amendment to the Constitution and institutionalized in the traditionally widespread teaching of the liberal arts, the disciplines that celebrate human thought and creativity as values in their own right and as ends in themselves. The fine colleges founded in the Middle West when it was still very much a frontier … offered demanding curricula from the beginning, assuming that the young men and women who found themselves on the prairie would want to be educated to the highest standards. Rather than tuition, the colleges required all these little academic outposts to make logic and classical history available to the figurative—or literal—Ploughman on equal terms with anyone” (26).

Ironically, it is hard to imagine Robinson’s essays finding an audience among the poor and vulnerable whom she champions as part of the glory of the givenness of the world. Or even among the middle-class. Reading her nuanced interpretation of William Shakespeare, marveling at her ability to apply Calvin directly to the issues of our contemporary polity, convicted by her recovery of Piers the Ploughman as a source for contemporary ethical reflection, I wondered who these essays were written for. Our universities and colleges are filled now with people intimately familiar with Clayton Christensen and his Innovative University, but for whom the names Piers Ploughman and John Calvin elicit a raised and quizzical eyebrow. 

In this sense, Robinson’s work strikes me as a voice from the ruins. I think she would agree. Her argument that we ought to recover a Reformation sense of the metaphysical value of common human beings in the cosmos—a worth and glory exemplified in the incarnation—strikes me as utterly convincing. But those temple walls have fallen. What rebuilding, if any, can or should begin?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Kerry Powers is Dean of the Humanities and Professor of English at Messiah College.

Date of Review: 
September 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Lila, Home, Gilead (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), and Housekeeping, and four books of nonfiction: When I Was a Child I Read Books, Mother Country, The Death of Adam, and Absence of Mind. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

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