"The mind, whatever else it is, is a constant of everyone's experience, and, in more ways than we know, the creator of the reality that we live within . … Nothing is more essential to us." So observes Marilynne Robinson in her recent work, Absence of Mind, a slim polemic aimed at today's popular-science writers: evolutionary psychologists E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, and biologist/general grump Richard Dawkins. Such writers, says the Pulitzer-winning novelist, tend to reduce the person to brains, explaining away the strangeness and mystery of human experience. This reduction not only runs counter to our deepest intuitions; it's also bad science, offered under the pretense that the modernist thinkers of the past 200 years have already answered the question of our existence.
It's also bad theology, of course. Robinson, a Christian and Calvinist, talked to Christianity Today associate editor Katelyn Beaty about total depravity, the culture wars, and what scientific discoveries most excite her.
In Absence of Mind, your main argument is that the influential popular scientist-writers of our age (Wilson, Dennett, Dawkins, Pinker, et al.) fail to acknowledge the spiritual impulses, conscience, compassion, and other felt experiences, via the human mind, that show up in all of human history and that set our species apart from others. Why is proper attention to the "felt life" important to you?
Frankly, it seems bizarre to me to dismiss the reality of consciousness, by which I mean inwardness, subjectivity. I am pretty sure it would seem just as bizarre to me if I were an atheist. Anyone who has been moved by a poem or who has passed a sleepless night should be able to offer testimony to the reality of consciousness as experience. "Felt life" is my primary interest and pleasure in life, whether it is my own or that that I see and sense around me, in people, cultures, history, literature. There is nothing remarkable in this. To use a word I avoid, it is simply normal.
I have read that there are those who have no perception of the inwardness of other people. This is an affliction of psychopaths, a strange and pitiable incapacity. My point being that most of us know in the ordinary course of life that others have inwardness, that it is complex and potent, largely unknowable and largely unique, and that the qualities we call "human" are centered in it. This awareness is the basis of the presumption in favor of the dignity and worth of other lives.
I am not suggesting that the writers in the tradition I criticize themselves live as if they have no sensitivity to the inwardness of other people. That this would be an extraordinarily harsh judgment is itself proof of the importance of such sensitivity. Your question associates belief in the mind as you describe it with religion. This association is conventional rather than necessary. Certainly there is nothing scientific about dismissing the reality of a phenomenon whose importance is manifest in the history of the species and is likely or liable to determine the fate of the planet. Atheism has no necessary interest in dismissing the mind, either. Why this strange anthropology has flourished under the name of science and in association with the New Atheism, I don't know, though perhaps acknowledging the brilliance and profundity of human beings would seem to these writers to have inevitable religious implications.
You write, "Whoever controls the definition of mind controls the definition of humankind itself." What might a distinctly Christian definition of mind—and therefore of humanity—be?
I think a Christian definition of the mind should be: an openness to whatever the individual and collective mind reveals to us. We don't know what we are. Nothing humanly wonderful could have been anticipated by us. Our own best moments or achievements surprise us. We know that, individually and collectively, we have never lived up to ourselves. And we know that, at moments, we have surpassed any hope we had of ourselves.
My Calvinism persuades me that we are open to God, in the sense that we are not delimited, not organisms with fixed attributes in the manner of the other creatures, but are instead participants in a reality that utterly exceeds our powers of description. I think the mind should inspire religious awe in the Christian, for the richness of the human circumstance, and for human beings as such. It saddens me that Christians need to be reminded that awe is owed also to those who disagree with them, who believe otherwise than they do. I am afraid this hardening toward "enemies," toward those images of God some of them are so ready to view as enemies, indicates acceptance of the worst aspects of a body of thought they actually think they reject.
Consequences follow for us all when the individual is trivialized.
Over against the popular science writers, you write, "I believe it is only prudent to make a very high estimate of human nature, first of all in order to contain the worst impulses of human nature, and then to liberate its best impulses." How do you reconcile this belief with what Calvin's followers have called total depravity ("No one is righteous, no one understands, no one seeks God," Ps. 14)?
I am happy to welcome the psalmist to the ranks of Calvinism. "Total depravity" means that the effects of the Fall are felt through the whole person and that this is always true. It is a rejection of the pre-Reformation teaching that after baptism, sin is localized in the lower functions of the body, in "concupiscence." The effects of Calvin's teaching are to remove the special opprobrium that attached to the flesh and to draw attention to the complexities and fallibilities of consciousness.
Calvin celebrates the brilliance of mind and body, as any reader of TheInstitutes is aware. Over against this is his insistence on our tendency toward error, toward sin. So human life is full of the potential manifest in the gifts God has given us, and full of our inevitable falling short. This is a very dynamic understanding of the self. I find no difficulty in accepting both of its terms as true. Pressed for evidence, I would point to the history of civilization and the present state of the world. Calvin offered human brilliance as proof of divinity in humankind. If we accepted this, there would be a great enhancement of respect for ourselves, and, crucially, respect for others, that could only make us better citizens of earth.
You note the impression these science writers give that the West has crossed an unseen "threshold" that ought to prevent us from backsliding into, among other things, religious devotion and practices. Has the Western church succumbed to the myth of the threshold — has it let the modern thinkers tell it what it is? If so, how can it recover a robust faith without ignoring good science?
I think it is true without question that the churches and religious culture in general have been deformed by a fear of science, and especially by deference toward bad science. They have more or less accepted the notion that the more people know, the less inclined they will be toward belief — a central assumption of atheism. With this comes the idea that whatever is most toxic from a religious point of view must therefore epitomize science. And all sorts of nonsense goes unchallenged.
Christianity has abandoned its intellectual traditions, ceding that ground to anybody in a white coat. Where it has tried to muster courage, it has too often tended to become irrational and shrill. Meanwhile, a great age in true science, an absolute catalog of wonders, passes by unnoticed.
When I hear "Christianity has abandoned its intellectual traditions," what comes to mind is several prominent institutions and individuals whose work counters this statement: of the evangelical Protestant colleges, for example, Wheaton, Calvin, and Westmont; of the Catholic colleges, Notre Dame; of individuals, Alvin Plantinga, Mark Noll, Francis Collins, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Robert George; of publications, First Things and Books & Culture. Surely the majority of these don't speak in irrational or shrill tones. Or, when you say "Christianity," do you mean worshiping communities?
Considering the huge population of Americans who identify as Christians, and the wealth of American religious institutions, it would be amazing indeed if there were not also a number of individuals, universities, and publications working to sustain Christian intellectual traditions. My interest is in the larger life of Christianity, in the fact, for example, that among my estimable students there is no way to distinguish those with a religious background from those whose experience has been entirely secular, in terms of their sensitivity to allusion, or their familiarity with essential narrative, or with the basic terms in which the faith is articulated and pondered. In the great majority of cases they have been taught little or nothing.
Writers often have a natural sensitivity to religion, so a number of our students have gone on to seminary. Again, many of them are disappointed by the banality or emptiness of the experience. In some places the fad of deconstructionist criticism is still rampant — a resurgence of esotericism that does nothing to prepare ministers to act as teachers of the faithful. No doubt there are circumstances in which things are different, but it is legitimate to generalize when the subject is the health of Christian culture. The assumption seems to be ascendant now that Christians in general have no interest in history or theology. Unless they seek these things out on their own, they are unlikely to have had enough exposure to them to know whether they would find them meaningful.
The religion has not remembered its own strength over against the arguments that test it. It has not equipped the generality of people to realize that, for the purposes of the societies where it has been important, it has been the origin and sponsor of a great intellectual culture. Where have the sciences flourished as well, where has freedom of thought and inquiry developed so powerfully, as in Christian civilization? These things are not new to us, not alien, not threatening. They are properly the heritage of Christian people, and the institutions of Christianity should honor and preserve them, beginning with the seminary and the local church.
How should Christians respond to the self-sure writings of the popular science writers — especially since they don't seem to be running out of publishing opportunities?
Christianity should be itself. Christians acting like Christians would be the most effective possible evidence for the truth of what they profess. And here I am referring to the Sermon on the Mount, to Matthew 25 — those hard teachings that run so strongly against the impulses toward judgmentalism and exclusivism that assert themselves whenever any group decides to feel threatened. If Christians believe what they claim to believe, that the church is the body of Christ, how can they think any "culture wars" are necessary to its survival? Its wars, past and present, are the most telling charge brought against it. And Christians should care for what is true in every sense of the word true. This emphatically includes good science — understanding always its necessarily hypothetical workings.
One thing that can be affirmed with confidence is that human beings tend to be religious. Care should be taken to protect the beauty, dignity, and integrity of Christianity so that people are not turned away by experience that makes it seem corrupt, hypocritical, subject to manipulation by other interests, or simply crude. Again, I am not speaking here of anything besides adherence on the part of Christians to the teachings of Christ. This would be beauty and dignity enough.
What recent scientific discoveries have quickened your imagination and awe?
I love the new cosmologies, the wonderful speculations that expand the imagination of what the universe is, and what being itself might be — at levels now within the range of informed hypothesis, of course. I love knowing what we don't know — what time and gravity and space are, that is, how they figure in the history and nature of the cosmos. I love reading about microorganisms, especially those that collaborate in the physical viability of the human organism. It is all so amazing, and it continually refreshes my sense of where I am and what I am.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous coverage of Robinson includes:
Marilynne Robinson, Narrative Calvinist | John Calvin has given the Pulitzer Prize-winning author a way of seeing that imbues her novels with the grandeur of God. By Thomas Gardner (February 2010)
No Sweet 'Home' | Robinson's new novel deals with the harder side of life in Gilead. By Casey Rath (online only, November 2008)
Sister publication Books & Culture reviewed Absence of Mind in its online features this June.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more