Mark Goldblatt reviews

The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought
by Marilyn Robinson


"These essays," Marilyn Robinson concedes in the introduction to The Death of Adam, "were written for various uses and occasions over a number of years." The author of a best-selling novel, Housekeeping (1981), as well as a previous nonfiction work Mother Country (1988), Robinson has nevertheless put together a collection that is remarkable in several respects -- not the least of which is that the disparate pieces actually gain by their juxtaposition. Taken individually, the essays are loosely structured, digressive to the point of rambling, and at times logically dubious. Taken collectively, however, they cohere to reveal a cast of mind that is both unsettling and challenging to a rationalist view of the world.

Saying that, however, I remain skeptical of Robinson's classification of the pieces as "essays." I think "sermons" is nearer the mark, and the slightly oxymoronic "academic sermons" nearer still. There is a lectern vs. pulpit tension that runs through her writing, that compels her, for instance, to interrupt a carefully reasoned disquisition on the intellectual pitfalls of Darwinism with a gratuitous swipe at American capitalism -- noting how "in this unfathomably rich country" we are "contriving new means daily to impoverish the poor among us." Nevermind that she has already counted Marx on Darwin's side or that only in an "unfathomably rich country" would the designated "poor" occasionally be spotted with pagers. The reader's response to such asides will likely depend less on his own politics than on his capacity to sit still during homilies.

Two major themes recur throughout these ten pieces. The first is Robinson's celebration of her Presbyterian, Calvinist heritage -- a heritage she perceives as consistently slighted by the smug cynicism of modernity. The second is the moral obligation of scholars and critics to return to primary sources rather than to formulate their opinions on the basis of what other scholars and critics have written.

Typical is the opening piece, the lengthiest single entry in the book, called simply "Darwinism." She begins with a critical distinction between evolution, "the change that occurs in organisms over time," and Darwinism, "the interpretation of this phenomenon [that is, evolution] which claims to refute religion and to imply a personal and social ethic . . . antithetical to the assumptions imposed and authorized by Judeo-Christianity." In other words, rather than going after the core theory itself, she is going after what Darwin and his followers made of the theory. Her analysis highlights several telling flaws -- most notably the fact that the catchphrase "survival of the fittest" (adopted by Darwin but actually coined by his contemporary Herbert Spencer) is a virtual tautology that reduces to "survival of the survivors." The only sense of it that wouldn't be tautological, Robinson argues, is as a justification for the way things turn out. And here's where things get ugly. Darwin's theory was inspired by the work of the British economist Thomas Malthus, who argued against intervening in the suffering of the poor because such efforts only allow them to multiply their numbers and, in the long run, produce greater suffering.

According to Robinson, Darwin took Malthus's "grim thesis, that alleviation of misery only results in greater misery" and made it even grimmer "by concluding that those who die deserve to, as the embodiments of unfavorable 'variations.'" Human beings, Darwin argued, were perfected by the struggle to survive. By now, it's not difficult to see where Robinson's indictment of Darwinism is headed. The final stop is her primary source, the famous man's own words -- unfamiliar, no doubt, to many who consider themselves Darwinists: "At some future period," he wrote in 1871's The Descent of Man, "the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world....The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state...even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla."

Suddenly, Robinson's true purpose emerges: to contrast the ethical bankruptcy of the Darwinian worldview with the moral vision underlying the biblical scheme of creation. It is not, she contends, the theory of evolution that has set anthropology, in the wake of Darwin, against Scripture. (Fundamentalists might quarrel with her on this score.) Rather, the opposition is rooted in the Bible's ethic of charity, "a burden laid on the back of Europe by Christianity." Darwinism, in short, has become the psychologically palatable antidote to our charitable impulses, the rational justification to turn our backs on suffering.

The case Robinson lays out against Darwin and Darwinism is an amalgam of logic and rhetoric. It is true that Darwin was inspired by Malthus, whose views on the inevitability of population growth outpacing food supply have long since been discredited. That fact, however, does not entail that Darwin is thereby also discredited. Inspiration does not equal logical reliance. Likewise, it is true that the phrase "survival of the fittest" is problematic; however, it becomes less problematic when we substitute the morally-neutral term "most adaptable" for the morally-charged term "fittest." Darwin's primary concern, it should be noted, was to demonstrate the mutability of species, not to justify it. The fact that Darwinists have sought to do so in his name, or even the fact that he himself held racist views, does not necessarily undermine the coherence of his theories.

Robinson's analysis is bracing even if her conclusion, in this instance, remains polemical. Then, again, what are polemics if not secular sermons? The distinction of Robinson's polemics is that they wander back into the realm of the spirit. So when she announces her belief "that the prevailing view of things can be assumed to be wrong," the "things" that concern her most are spiritual matters.

In "Puritans and Prigs," for example, she undertakes an ambitious two-pronged argument. She seeks to rescue Puritanism from its caricature as the antithesis of tolerance and sophistication, and to expose the hypocrisy of the cult of political correctness -- the "prigs" of her title -- whose raison d'etre is the perpetual display of their own tolerance and sophistication. Essentially, she wants to reverse the poles. She traces the roots of Puritanism to the writings of John Calvin, the 16th-century French theologian and clergyman, whose church in Geneva was to become a guiding light not only for the Reformed English Church but, subsequently, for the Puritans who fled England for North America in order to establish congregations along even stricter Calvinist lines. Our image of these early New Englanders now derives from equal parts Salem witch trials and The Scarlet Letter -- an image she attributes to a priggish "eagerness to disparage without knowledge...when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved."

Robinson points out that the term Puritan actually encompasses Quakers, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians -- in whose debt we remain for "great universities and cultural institutions and an enlightened political order." For Robinson, the essence of Puritanism is not superstitious zealotry but merely "a distaste for the mannered and elaborated." Indeed, as Robinson notes, their "simplicity in dress" and "aesthetic interest in the functional" have come to be the "bone and marrow of what we consider modern."

By contrast, she encapsulates the phenomenon of politically correct priggishness via the first person, in the voice of a kind of imaginary alpha-prig: "Once we were crude and benighted," thinks the prig, "and in fact the vast majority of us remain so, but I and perhaps certain of my friends have escaped this brute condition by turning our backs on our origins with contempt." It's a pithy, useful formulation. The prig must denigrate the past in order to maintain a sense of his own superiority. Since, however, he is by no means superior, the denigration must be girded with steady doses of ignorance and misinterpretation. Implicit, too, is the reason prigs tend to gravitate towards theoretical approaches that disregard primary texts or that allow for willful misreadings.

Binary oppositions such as truth and falsehood, good and evil, and justice and injustice are, for the prig, mere phantasms, the product of superstitious minds warped by that great instrument of Judeo-Christian oppression, the Bible. Convinced that rational hierarchies are always contingent on who holds the power, and that absolutes do not exist, the prig is thus "a creature of consensus" -- since consensus alone determines "right" and "wrong." While for Calvinists evidence of salvation is found in charitable acts, for prigs "salvation is proved by a certain fluency of disparagement and disavowal." Though I don't know if Robinson would approve the example, it is hard to read these words and not think of the intellectual group hug that now passes for feminism on American campuses. In any event, with her gift for epigram, Robinson writes: "The second worst thing that can be said about these virtuous people is, they have not at all escaped the sins of their kind. The worst thing that can be said is they believe they have escaped them."

The centerpiece of Robinson's book is a two-part entry called "Marguerite de Navarre." The title, however, is disingenuous. The topic is the life and thought of John Calvin -- but, Robinson declares, "if I had been forthright about my subject, I doubt the average reader would have read this far." De Navarre (1492-1549) was the sister of King Francois I of France. She was also a religious writer and, according to Robinson, a decisive influence on Calvin's thinking through her interest in, and support of, a Platonic-based reformed theology against the dominant Aristotelianism of the Scholastics.

We are wading into deep waters here, but a brief digression will help make sense of both Robinson's specific point and her overall approach. The Reformation of the 16th century can be traced to a combination of sociopolitical factors, but the core theological breach lies between the Catholic emphasis on God's rationality and the Reformers' emphasis on God's will. Both sides began with a recognition that the world operates in accordance with certain rational principles. Mathematical laws, for example, are predictive. But what can be inferred about God's nature from our observation of the rationality of the world? Catholic theologians, following Thomas Aquinas, answer that the world's rationality is a reflection of God's own rationality -- a view that Aquinas himself drew from Aristotle's notion of the First Cause as the rational principle that sustains the workings of the universe. Accordingly, human reason represents the image of God in man. To follow the dictates of reason is to be godlike. Reason complements revelation; the two, taken together, are equally authorized by God as guides for holy living. Hence, the metaphor of God's two books: the Book of Creation, accessible to reason, and the Book of Scripture, accessible to faith. This, in turn, justifies the intellectual and moral authority of the Catholic Church -- even when certain of its teachings find no clear biblical support -- since its collective wisdom represents a tradition of reason, a tradition of wise men guided by the light of God's rational image within them.

The Reformers -- and Calvin is their exemplar -- likewise began with an acknowledgment of the world's rationality. However, they argued that nothing of God's own nature can be gathered by the fact that he created a rational world. Rather than follow Aristotle by way of Aquinas, the Reformers hearkened back to St. Augustine's Christian reworking of Platonism -- in particular, Plato's supposition of a greater reality, inaccessible to us, that sponsors the lesser reality that we perceive. That greater reality, in Platonic terms, Augustine identified with God. But the stress, in Augustine's thought, lay in the impassible distance between the two realities. The intimate connection between God's rational nature and the rationality of the world -- the conceptual basis of Aquinas's thought -- cannot be made following Augustine's line of thinking. Following Augustine, therefore, Calvin attributed the world's rationality not to God's own rationality but to his will -- he willed a rational world, yes, but that world in no way defines or circumscribes him. To suppose that God can be known, even at a distance, through the exercise of human reason, through observation and inference, is to scale him down to human dimensions, to diminish him conceptually.

The rational mind is no longer the image of God in us, and its exercise no longer carries divine authorization. Rather, reason is a mere tool, like a prehensile thumb, that helps man function in the world. Speaking of "physics, dialectic, mathematics and other like disciplines," Calvin writes, "all this capacity to an unstable and transitory thing in God's sight." Human reason, in other words, has no proper application in spiritual matters. It "neither approaches, nor strives toward, nor even takes a straight aim at...who the true God is or what sort of God he wishes to be toward us."

But the consequences of the Calvinist severing of human reason from God's nature are profound. If rational method is not justified by its reflection of God's own rational nature, it can lead us astray as easily as lead us to righteousness. (Martin Luther, indeed, called reason the "headspring of all mischiefs.") Whereas the Catholic emphasis on God's rationality seeks to harmonize reason and revelation -- since the source of both is God himself -- the Reformers' emphasis on God's will sets reason and revelation at odds. Only the latter is God-sanctioned; the former is a survival mechanism. The collective wisdom of the Church, that rational enterprise of learned men, is no longer binding on individual Christians. God did not give the faithful Church Councils; he gave them the Bible.

Revelation, in short, is elevated above reason, and when the two conflict, the latter must submit to the former, not vice-versa. The Bible is not necessarily a thing to be made sense of, but to be believed. It is illuminated not by rational method but by the light of faith. And the faith of a single believer can stand against the collective learning of a millennium of study. There is no use in "reasoning out" which parts of scriptures should be taken literally, which analogically and which metaphorically. It is safer, from the Reformers' standpoint, to take the words at face value on the basis of faith -- even if reason cries out that the words cannot be literally true. Rational truth is not necessarily God's truth.

But the elevation of faith above reason as a spiritual arbiter has the practical consequence of decentralization of ecclesiastical authority. Breakaway sects need not justify, in rational terms, the necessity of their separation; the strength of their conviction becomes its own justification. Thus, following Luther and Calvin, Protestantism continued (and continues) to divide and subdivide as the center of theological gravity shifted from traditional understanding  to individual witness -- which is why the Reformation itself is unthinkable without the advent of the printing press and popular literacy. The reaction to this splintering impulse has ranged from extreme tolerance (as in the case of the modern Quakers who recognize no formal ministry and prescribe no system of worship) to extreme intolerance (as in the case of the theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who expelled dissenters on account of their corrupted, and corrupting, faith).

Now, then, let us return to Robinson's two recurring themes: the celebration of the Calvinism that underlies her Presbyterianism heritage, and her desire to direct her readers back to primary sources rather than to formulate opinions on the basis of what scholars and critics have written. The two can now be seen as one. The spirit of Calvinism is the return to the primary source -- that is, the Bible. What Robinson is paradoxically advocating is a kind of intellectual Calvinism: a mistrust of the explications and advocacies that have amassed around original texts, that have come indeed to substitute for the original texts, and an almost evangelical urging of her readers to return to the original texts themselves.

Nowhere is her evangelism, in every sense, more effective than in "Psalm Eight." It is her most blatantly sermonic piece, a meditation on the Davidic psalm that begins, "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars...What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" God's mindfulness of man is, for Robinson, the signal element of Divine Providence, the working out of a universal plan laid out in the beginning. Nothing is by chance; every seed that falls to the ground is taken into account. Of that seed, she writes: "One might as well say the earth invades the seed, seizes it as occasion to compose itself in some brief shape. Groundwater in a sleeve of tissue, flaunting improbable fragrances and iridescences as the things of this strange world are so inclined to do. So a thriving place is full of intention, a sufficiency awaiting expectation, teasing hope beyond itself."

It is a passage, I think, worthy of Calvin himself. In any event, we are at a considerable remove from the desiccations of academic prose. This is a good thing. It is (dare I say?) a blessing. Perhaps that's the word that best characterizes Robinson's book. Whether or not you're convinced by her arguments, you'll feel better for having heard them.




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