If you were to bioengineer a living embodiment of unhipness and demographic irrelevance, it would look like Marilynne Robinson – a 72-year-old, white academic at a land-grant college in the Midwest, who is not just a Christian but a Calvinist. She is someone who believes in predestination and thinks that the Puritans were the good guys, and who grew up looking to “Galilee for meaning and to Spokane for orthodonture”. Her extraordinary prominence is based on a handful of novels about “some old pastor in the middle of cornfields”.
That last description comes from Barack Obama, who admires her so much that, in September, he amended his itinerary on a trip to Iowa so that he could interview her. You can listen to their conversation on the New York Review of Books website. It is extremely cheering to hear a western leader listening with rapt attention to someone who has argued, “Competition is a questionable value,” and that the West “has a way of plunging into wars we weary of and abandon . . . having forgotten what our object was”. It’s refreshing to hear a politician being deferential to a thinker, as opposed to, say, a media mogul. They talk freely about the disjunction between their experience of America – as, by and large, a pretty good place to live – and the “spasm of fear” that characterises the national mood.
One of the most perplexing and significant changes in my lifetime is that America is no longer enviable. To my older children, it was still the land of rock’n’roll and movies; to my younger ones, it’s the gun-crazy home of high school shootings and scaredy-cat, trigger-happy cops. “The antidote to our gloom is to be found in contemporary science,” writes Robinson in this book, before launching into an explanation of quantum entanglement. I hadn’t seen that coming. The great joy of these essays is their unpredictability. The chapter on “grace” turns out to be a startling reassessment of Shakespeare’s late comedies. The one on “humanism” is a bracingly vitriolic takedown of the entire basis of neuroscience.
The book announces itself as a defence of the humanities and of American democracy – both of which she sees as the legacy of Protestant humanism, with its emphasis on the glorious and terrible potential of each individual. In a way it’s easy to see her appeal for someone like Obama. Here is a woman who speaks the heroic, sonorous prose of the founding fathers in the cause of right. It is as though John-Boy Walton had come again among us, ready to rescue the American project from the fear-spasm of the NRA. At its core, Christianity is about courage in the face of power, the courage to go unarmed among lions. Faith is nothing if not an expression of courage. Taking your gun to the supermarket is nothing if not cowardice.
Robinson’s solution to the “joyless urgency” of the current situation is the acceptance of the love of God. Maybe you’ll find the logistics of implementing a policy based on the operation of grace to be a tad impractical but one of the best reasons for reading Robinson is the pleasure of engaging with a mind that is not furnished like your own.
It is a pleasure that is becoming easy to avoid. In the course of their interview, Obama points out, with regard to the internet, “It’s not so much, I think, that people don’t read at all; it’s that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often . . . they’re reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view.” When you read Robinson, you are engaging with a complex, contradictory mind that is nothing like yours. Every one of us, writes Robinson, is a new throw of the dice. People with far stranger beliefs have often come to undeniable truth. It was a belief in pixies and gyres that lead Yeats to say, “The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity” – something that seems truer every day.
Robinson’s defence of the humanities and democracy and her enthusiasm for quantum entanglement are all rooted in her keen sense of the irreducible complexity of ourselves and our world, the “givenness of things”. “Nothing marvellous,” she writes, “can be excluded on the grounds of improbability.”
“Rationalism and reason,” she wrote in When I Was a Child I Read Books, “are antonyms, the first fixed and incurious, the second open and inductive.” Rationalism – defensive and inflexible – is the thread that joins religious, economic and scientific fundamentalisms of the age. In her new book, she argues: “Now we are less interested in the exploration of the glorious mind, more engrossed in the drama of staying ahead of whatever it is we think is pursuing us.”
Robinson’s Christian vocabulary, however you read it, allows her to keep complex ideas – love, for instance, or the soul – on the table. At a moment when political rhetoric is assuming a murderous simplicity, that seems important. The essays sing with the thrill of intellectual humility, with the sense that, as J B S Haldane said, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it may be queerer than we can suppose.”
The Givenness Of Things by Marilynne Robinson is published by Virago (304pp, £18.99)
Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a children’s author and screenwriter. His latest book is The Astounding Broccoli Boy (Macmillan)
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires