The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Marilynne Robinson does her best to make “liberal” attractive again.
I don’t think she ever uses the word, and I don’t mean it here in the way that conservative talk shows do. She only occasionally advocates for more involvement of the state in our lives, and then only obliquely.
No, I mean the classical liberal, non-economic sense, of being open-hearted to one another as people. Her thesis is found on the last page:
“Everything depends on reverence for who we are and what we are, on the sacredness implicit in the human circumstance. We know how deeply we can injure one another by denying fairness. We know how profoundly we can impoverish ourselves by failing to find value in one another. We know that respect is a profound alleviation, which we can offer and too often withhold” (286).
She couches the truth in very gentle terms, for an audience now unaccustomed to biblical truth. But referring to Calvin and the Puritans often, Robinson asserts that people are made in the image of God, and must be treated as such. If you can ignore her undercurrent of universalism and neo-orthodox treatment of Scripture, this is an important take-away.
The givenness of things involves our created-ness, the universe as vast and mysterious, our need for forgiveness and grace from others. She upholds “a generous and even a costly readiness to show our respect for all minds and spirits, especially for those whose place in life might cheat them of respect…. To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error” (29). This needs some tempering with a realistic view of the sin at work in everyone’s lives. But it’s refreshing, coming from conservative circles where the tendency is to only value propositional truth. If the person doesn’t hold to the truth exactly as I see it, the person is abruptly dismissed. Robinson instead calls for respect and tolerance (in the old, best sense of the word), and patient regard for the soul God is working on. As the fellow says, people need kindness, because everyone is dealing with something hard.
This leads her to defend the humanities in academia, at a time when our culture looks more to science for answers. I agree with her in this, though she may go too far in the “education as savior” direction. But she also interacts with contemporary science quite a bit, usually making the point that we don’t know as much as we think we know.
Robinson’s writing style is not very accessible – she’s more academic. 3 on a scale of 1 to 10 on that one. But her tone does convey her thesis: value the givenness of things that God has built into the souls around you.
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