When I Was A Child: I Read Books (Essays)

Robinson, Marilynne
Virago Press (2012)
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A liberal Calvinist? What a strange idea, we think, compartmentalising our theological and socio-economic debate into a simple model of extreme conservative evangelicals on the one hand and extreme traditional Catholics on the other, with 'good' liberals in the middle.

In a startling collection of essays Marilynne Robinson blows this lazy paradigm into pieces. In the past I have characterised her prose as somewhat brittle, for instance in Absence of Mind but these essays are solid   and even magisterial, almost frighteningly forbidding in an age of, as she would say, rather sloppy scholarship.

Of course it is almost inevitable that there will be some serious damage wrought to lazy neo Darwinism but I was attracted particularly to this collection by the historical perspective which shows us how 19th Century American revivalists were social reformers, focusing in particular on the abolition of slavery; and I was also hardly less impressed by the exposition of the "neo-cons" as victims of the very rational cynicism they aspire to reject. There is, as Robinson notes, no greater paradox than the anti-Darwinist who believes in the competition ethic and the survival of the fittest. That wonderful observation only gives you a flavour of the pepper that has been thrown into the intellectual pot; and it needs it. Robinson rightly regrets the Christian retreat from mystery on the one hand and proper scientific scepticism on the other into a tepid collusive stance with respect to the prevailing culture. As a society we have all become obsessed with the rational outcome of competition which is hardly a Christian concern; and this capitulation is under-cutting our culture, our theological robustness and, paradoxically, our ability to compete! She does not go on to look as I hope one day she might, into the competitive advantage of heterodoxy, but she shows every sign of knowing how that debate might turn out.

The central point of these essays is the way that objectivism demeans us and the way in which, by accepting it, we demean ourselves. We have been reduced to scientific ideology, a crazed modern religion whose major, self-referential tenet is that nothing exists which its crude 19th Century paradigm cannot verify. And the strangeness is the paradoxical collusion of this narrow scientific pursuit and Christian fundamentalism - although Robinson is careful not to use this term - which has led to the development of ideological tribalism and the fear of difference which both foregrounds self-interest and is the chief cause of self-harm. Robinson is unnervingly direct in her conclusion that, whatever its shortcomings, the United States Federal Government did not trigger the financial crash of 2008 yet it is now characterised as the root of all evil. Austerity, she goes on to say, in the most telling aphorism in the whole collection, is: "an assertion and a consolidation of power, capable of cancelling out custom and social accommodation. What ... sticks in their craw is that America has never been capitalist. ... The preamble to the Constitution requires Government to 'promote the general welfare'."

One of Robinson's primary concerns is the way that reductionist science and economics have an impact on places of learning, attempting to narrow their range of activity through attacking meritocratic institutions as elitist.

As to the origins of American liberalism, Robinson writes persuasively about the role of Judaism in general and Moses in particular, pointing out that there is much in the Book of Deuteronomy which display more compassion than is to be found in the civil and criminal law of countries that called themselves Christian. And this leads neatly into by far the most fascinating part of the collection which delineates liberal Calvinism, first in its place of origin and then in the United States.

A fascinating collection which will dispel a good deal of political, sociological and theological stereotyping; a triumph, as I am sure she would wish, of academic research over sloppy journalism.