Marilynne Robinson: voice for our times

Marilynne Robinson: voice for our times Marilynne Robinson
What Are We Doing Here?

by Marilynne Robinson (Virago, £18.99)



Born in 1943, Marilynne Robinson is a celebrated American novelist and essayist, a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005, a National Humanities Medal and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction in 2016 – the year she was also named in Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people. So she certainly qualifies as a voice of our times.

She is best known for her widely read novels Housekeeping (1980) and Gilead (2004). These are largely based on both rural life and faith in that part of evangelical America from which she comes and is still in many ways attached to but with which she has an uneasy relationship.

Her chosen themes include the relationship between religion and science, nuclear pollution, John Calvin, and contemporary American politics. Time magazine again reports she “is a dissident, though she may not sound like one”. And indeed she does refer to the great reformer Martin Luther quite often.

Her most recent book is a collection of essays entitled What Are We Doing Here?, comprising lectures she has given in churches, seminaries, and universities over the last few years. It includes chapters like ’What is Freedom of Conscience?’, ‘Theology for This Moment’, ’The Sacred and the Human’, ‘The Divine’ and ‘Mind Conscience Soul’ as well as reflections on contemporary America.

These are not light reading, but are very much worth the effort.

Pastoral context

Her chapter ‘Theology for This Moment’ is of particular interest in a pastoral context as she is very aware of the ‘signs of the time’ in which we live. Her view is on a grand scale as she writes of ‘this theatre of God’s glory we share with those strangers, our neighbours’.

Here, she writes, “love means awe, and awe means love”.

She calls for a Christian way of thinking/theology that would address anything and any relation among things, and give the world a supple, inclusive language, far more adequate to what we know, less restricted in what we acknowledge, than any we have at present.’

For many Catholics this reflects the thing that has emerged in Pope Francis’ speaking and writing over the past several years as he looks at the world and looks at the Church in our times.

She is deeply critical of many modern “systems and ideologies”, which she says are “simple and simplifying – the invisible hand, the survival of the fittest, the dictatorship of the proletariat, superego, ego and id”. She denounces them as ‘antibiotics of the intelligence, killing off a various ecology of reflection and experience in order to eliminate one or two troublesome ideas.’


What is called for is a way of Christian thinking, a theology “that would embrace rather than exclude”. Again one has the impression that is what we are so desperately seeking within the Church but not always managing to attain as we fight ingrained ways of thinking. At the same time she calls for a departure “from the narrowness and aridity of the secular thinking” that has, to a large extent, displaced theology in our time.

It is here that she comes to the core of her argument, and it is very eloquent when she speaks of the importance in Christian thinking of a language that speaks of “the beauty of holiness”, “grace and peace” – phrases that evoke a particular experience, a synthesia of thought and aesthetic response.

This is a language, she argues, that has been excluded in our time because it simply does not fit into the dominant scientific discourse which “cannot acknowledge”such terms. “Yet the celebration of holiness in every form of art has shaped civilisations.”

She emphasises the fact that despite its own mistakes and common misperceptions, “Christian theology uniquely among the forms of Western thought need not proceed by exclusion. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Christ was in the beginning with God and without him nothing was made that was made.

“The categorical blessing put on all that exists raises the problem of evil, certainly, but more important it asserts a very broad, unconditional reality, a givenness that in its fullness reflects divine intent…a theology for our time would acknowledge this reality along with the entire complex of subjective experience – love, generosity, regret, and all their interactions – without a diminishing translation into self-interest. It could create a conceptual space large enough to accommodate human dignity.”

This is certainly thinking outside a certain theological box; but, I imagine, it will almost certainly resonate with the thinking of many contemporary Catholics living in that very modern, and often troubling, space that lies between belief and doubt, much like Robinson herself.

There is much of interest in this volume, but it is certainly best read a chapter at a time, and on occasions when one has the leisure to think about it what is said.

Nevertheless it would make for summer reading of a special kind.

Patrick Claffey lectures in the School of Religions and Theology in Trinity College.