There are more Christians in the United States than in any other country in world history, but much of Christianity makes us queasy. Many of our megachurch preachers choke on the word sin, and when politicians talk of "evildoers" they seem to be speaking a dead language. It's easy to forget, in this sunny state of theological affairs, that for most Anglo-American believers the concept of evil was once as close at hand as a taxicab on Fifth Avenue or Piccadilly Circus. We hailed it not only to navigate the twists and turns of war and crime but also to reckon with our personal calamities. Evil explained things. From the Great Flood forward it has helped us to make sense of the otherwise unsensible: genocide, injustice, and the sickness unto death.
A few years ago I reviewed an Oxford University Press series on the Seven Deadly Sins. What struck me most about these books was how blasé their authors were about their subjects. What Catholic theologians had for centuries denounced were to them mere sicknesses (or, in the case of lust and sloth, virtues). Among college students today, the only thing worse than being branded a proselytizer is being branded a moralist. And that was true even before a long train of prominent conservatives—David Vitter, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, John Ensign, Mark Sanford, Ted Haggard—married moralism to hypocrisy in many an inquiring young mind.
The British literary critic Terry Eagleton seeks to thread the needle between these conservative foes of evil and the liberals who find the notion of sin unspeakably out of date. In his new book, On Evil, he rejects post-9/11 efforts to affix this term to terrorism. He also rejects efforts to set the term aside. We can get along without moralism, Eagleton argues, but we cannot get along without the concept of evil.
But what is evil? Eagleton never really says. He starts off well, taking liberals and Marxists alike to task for wishing the idea away. Later he blasts Richard Dawkins and other "new atheists" for their "mindless progressivism"—their "staggeringly complacent belief that we are all becoming kinder and more civilised." But right about the time he floats the notion that evil's motto is "For the hell of it," it becomes hard to shake the suspicion that Eagleton is succumbing to a similar sort of progressive complacency. His desire not to sound like a bourgeois moralist overwhelms his desire to say something new—or even plain—about evil.
At a minimum, any book of this ilk needs to provide a clear definition of its controlling term, including how evil differs from related matters such as wickedness, immorality, and wrongdoing. Here Eagleton flirts with the notion that evil is about "purposeless or nonpragmatic wickedness." On this view, Stalin would be immoral but not evil, since he "massacred for a reason," while Hitler would be both immoral and evil, since he presumably massacred without one. By the same logic, terrorism today is wicked but not evil, since terrorists have their purposes and their politics. So far, so good. But not long after he advances this logic, Eagleton withdraws it, concluding on further reflection that evil does "have purposes of a kind" and "a grisly kind of rationality," too.
Eagleton, who was raised Irish Catholic, shows his roots in Scholasticism when he describes evil as "a condition of being as well as a quality of behaviour," but his best theorizing here is psychological rather than theological. Drawing heavily (and usefully) on Sigmund Freud's theory of the death drive, he interprets evil as a sort of vampirism, "leeching life from others in order to fill an aching absence in oneself." Evil's enemy, he writes in his most sure-footed jab at his subject, "is not so much virtue as life itself."
Though he self-identifies as a Marxist and a Catholic, Eagleton is also something of Calvinist, if by that term we mean someone for whom the Christian faith torques around the tension between a sovereign God and a sinful humanity. The same is true of novelist Marilynne Robinson, who in Absence of Mind has written an equally provocative and equally frustrating book.Best known as the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004), and Home (2008), Robinson copped to her Calvinism in the collection of theological essays The Death of Adam (1998). There, rather than damning the Reformation scion John Calvin as repressive and illiberal, she praised him for glorying in the pleasures of the soul afire. Today we think of Calvin (when we think of him at all) as a groveler with a pathologically low view of humanity. ("Every one of us is, even from his mother's womb, a master craftsman of idols," he wrote.) And Robinson, too, affirms original sin. But she also finds in Calvin, and in Christianity, a far more convincing account of the majesty of the human mind and human experience than that of Darwin's aspiritual canonizers.
Absence of Mind, which originated in a series of lectures at Yale, meanders like a good novel must and a good lecture must not. So it is at least as flawed as the soul according to Calvin. In comparison with her novels, whose edges are diamond cut, Absence of Mind is deckle edged and far more elliptical than it needs to be. Some targets, however, are clear amid the clutter, and often the author hits her mark.
Robinson seeks chiefly to debunk what she calls "parascientific literature." From Freud to Steven Pinker, much of what passes for scientific writing in the modern period, she argues, is scientific in name only. Real science is forever searching after truth. Parascience, by contrast, is dogmatic, forever pretending it is in the "clutch of certitudes," not least the certitude that religion is a sham. And here I can only say, "Amen." But her rants against new atheists who patronize and condescend are often patronizing and condescending themselves, as if all science were parascience, or as if Freud's fantasy that civilization originated in a "primal murder" damned all atheism for all time.
What is really at stake in Absence of Mind, however, is not so much theology as anthropology, since what Robinson is defending most passionately is not so much God as a certain view of the human person. She takes on efforts by Marx and other secular saints to reduce religion to something else. But the real lack she sees in these cultured despisers is "awe for what human beings are, what the mind is." In the end, Robinson traces modernity's illness to overgeneralization. Not every religion is the same nonsense, she argues, and no individual mind can be reduced to a "universal human character with a single narrative."
It is hard not to see a novelist at work here, particularly the novelist behind Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home—all studies of the mysteries of the subjective mind, and elegantly particular protests in their own right against what William James called the power of the intellect to shallow. What Robinson is defending here is subjectivity, which is to say the human capacity that makes literature—both its writing and its reading—possible. Her brief for "the beauty and strangeness of the individual soul" is a brief not only for God but also for Housekeeping's Sylvia and Gilead's Reverend Ames. Robinson refuses to reduce the individual mind to something else (Freud's drives, Marx's class interests), because if it can be explained away not only God is dead but also the novel. Robinson has far more faith in our ability to know our own motives and desires than most any reader even vaguely familiar with Freud will possess. But it is hard not to credit her, as both a novelist and an essayist, for insisting that human nature is an "unsolved problem."
So Absence of Mind is not only an apology for God and mind and particularity and subjectivity. It is also and ultimately an apology for mystery. One of the dogmas of the new atheism is that religious folk are blind believers. That is why religion is, in the words of philosopher Richard Rorty, a "conversation stopper." But according to Robinson, science (or, more precisely, its parascientific imposter) is actually at least as likely to close down conversation via pretenses of infallibility. (The pope, it should be noted, has only spoken infallibly once—in 1950, to affirm the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary into heaven before her death.) If, as Robinson writes, "unknowability is the first thing about reality that must be acknowledged," then Freud and Marx, Dawkins and Pinker, don't know the first thing about it.
This point is no less true for being a truism, and Robinson deserves praise for insisting on it so forcefully. I, too, want to glory in human beings as creatures of an elegant confusion. So I suppose I should forgive Eagleton for his failure to tell us clearly what evil is, since evil is likely at least as insoluble a problem as human nature. However, I find myself wondering whether such matters as sin and subjectivity might be better addressed on Robinson's home ground of literature and Eagleton's home ground of literary criticism than in the lecture and the essay. While both On Evil and Absence of Mind provoked me into thinking more carefully about things that really matter, I'll take the Reverend Ames musing in Gilead on "vast spaces between us"—how human beings are "such secrets from each other"—over either of these books any day.
Stephen Prothero is a religion professor at Boston University and the author of God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne, 2010).