Good books that are well written are an increasing rarity these days. That is why it is always a pleasure to find a new volume from the pen of Marilynne Robinson, who is not only a novelist of distinction but also a careful and stylish essayist. In Absence of Mind she turns her attention to the self-satisfied establishment of the cultured despisers of religion and does so with subtly devastating effect.
The subtitle gives the clue to the book's theme: she is here taking to task the scientific reductionism that afflicts the modern world even as it claims to be doing the exact opposite. Popular critic Richard Dawkins can claim that evolution is the greatest show on earth, but in his imperious reduction of humanity to an ape distinguished by oppositional thumbs and the ability to watch lunchtime soap operas, he impoverishes reality.
The four chapters of this book were originally given as a series of lectures for the Dwight Harrington Foundation, the brief of which is to integrate science and religion in a way that builds "the truths of science and philosophy into the structure of a broadened and purified religion.’¦To the end that the Christian spirit may be nurtured in the fullest light of the world's knowledge." Ms. Robinson fulfills this mandate with grace.
In chapter 1, she turns the tables on the modern heralds of the new age of reason, such as Daniel Dennett and company, sweeping up the three Masters of Suspicion’Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud’along the way. The spirit of our age, she says, sees itself as having crossed a threshold that gives it a superior place from which to judge the past. Not so, she argues: this itself is a myth we have produced in order merely to privilege our perspective or, as she expresses it, to establish a "hermeneutics of condescension" that relativizes all of the past while absolutizing the present. The notion of novelty functions as a potent force in many of the (often incompatible) views that make up modernity.
For Christians, one relevant example she gives is that of approaches to the flood narratives. How often has it been said in recent years that the discovery of Ancient Near Eastern literature has completely changed the field of engagement for those involved in biblical studies? Yet as Robinson points out, much of this literature was available to previous generations. Thus Grotius in the seventeenth century was aware of similarities between Genesis and other Mesopotamian myths, and for him these implied the truth of the former; for scholars today, they prove the opposite. Wherein lies the difference? According to Robinson, we live in an era in which classical learning and awareness of the past has declined. And it is hard to argue with her on this point.
In chapter 2, she looks at the dominance of the modern "scientific" view of human nature, which ultimately excludes from the definition of humanity everything that makes us significant either as a species or as individuals. Taking up the matter of altruism, she argues that the evolutionary monism of Dawkins simply cannot provide a coherent and comprehensive account of human nature; it can only do so by imposing a Procustean behavioral bed upon us all. Robinson does not say this, but one can conclude that she believes a reductionist conclusion has been smuggled into the premise of modern Dawkinsian arguments from the start.
Chapter 3 is perhaps the most fascinating. Here, Robinson argues that Freud's influential theories, most especially that of the murder of the primal father, are to be understood in the context of certain theories of race and nationhood that were becoming ominously popular in central Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. As with hard-core evolutionary theorists, Freud's theories essentially thrust the particulars of individual consciousness to the margins, preferring to dabble with the universals of the unconscious.
In the end, as expressed almost poetically in the final chapter, Robinson knows that she has not proved her case in the sense of having dismantled notions of the stable truth of the modern world, whether Darwinian or Freudian. What she has done, however, is offered a series of reflections that point both to the grandeur of humanity and its current condition; central to that are the potencies, the triumphs and the failures of humans, not as a universal concept but as individuals. She has pointed to the fact that one does not have to see human beings as simply exalted apes; we might actually be simply a little lower than the angels.
If you enjoy erudition expressed in elegant prose, if you want a critique of the modern tendency to remove the individual mind from the narratives and explanations of history and of cultures, then this book is for you.