Marilynne Robinson writes: “I miss civilization and I want it back.”

Marilynne Robinson may be as close as we get these days to an old fashion person of letters. She has produced three astonishingly good novels, Housekeeping, Gilead (for which she won the Pulitzer Prize), and Home.

I have been re-reading, with great pleasure, her book of essays entitled The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. This is one of the most insightful examinations of the intellectual underpinnings of American life one can find. For people who read, and especially for people who read theology, like many who come to this blog, Robinson is a gift: a public intellectual who thinks theology is important. At the same time her amateur status frees her from the binding templates of the theological guild, and she views theology as an art.
 
Here is a sample from Death of Adam. Note how prophetic she was in naming the monism of free market economics as the reigning model for “how things are.” In the last year many have lost confidence in that false god:
 
“It seems to me that there is now the assumption of an intrinsic fraudulence in the old arts of civilization. Religion, politics, philosophy, music are all seen by us as means of consolidating the power of the ruling elite, or something of the kind. I suspect this is a way of granting these things significance, since we are still in the habit of attending them, though they are no longer to be conceded meaning in their own terms. If they have, by their nature, other motives than the ones they claim, if their impulse is not to explore or confide or question but only to manipulate, they cannot speak to us about meaning, or expand or refine our sense of human experience. Economics, the great model among us now, indulges and deprives, builds and abandons, threatens and promises. Its imperium is manifest, irrefragable—as in fact it has been since antiquity. Yet suddenly we act as if the reality of economics was reality itself, the one Truth to which everything must refer. I can only suggest that terror at complexity has driven us back on this very crude monism. We have reached a point where cosmology permits us to say that everything might in fact be made of nothing, so we cling desperately to the idea that something is real and necessary, and we have chosen, oddly enough, competition and market forces, taking refuge from the wild epic of cosmic ontogeny by hiding our head in the ledger.
 
I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do. I want to feel that art is an utterance made in good faith by one human being to another. I want to believe that there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it. I miss civilization and I want it back.”
(The Death of Adam: Essays of Modern Thought, Picador, 1998, p. 3, 4)
 
 

 

 

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