Mystery Cult

In “Darwinism,” the impassioned polemic that opens The Death of Adam (1998), the first of her four philosophical-theological essay collections, Marilynne Robinson hurls a flaming spear at all of modern thought:

Now that the mystery of motive is solved—there are only self-seeking and aggression, and the illusions that conceal them from us—there is no place left for the soul, or even the self. Moral behavior has little real meaning, and inwardness, in the traditional sense, is not necessary or possible. . . . There is little use for the mind, the orderer and reconciler, the artist of the interior world. Whatever it has made will only be pulled apart. The old mystery of subjectivity is dispelled; individuality is a pointless complication of a very straightforward organic life. Our hypertrophic brain, . . . that house of many mansions, with . . . all its deep terrors and very rich pleasures, which was so long believed to be the essence of our lives, and a claim on one another’s sympathy and courtesy and attention, is going the way of every part of collective life that was addressed to it—religion, art, dignity, graciousness. Philosophy, ethics, politics, properly so called. . . . How much was destroyed, when modern thought declared the death of Adam.

Robinson has not quit the front lines of theological and cultural controversy since then, though she has also, over the same period, published three exquisitely beautiful, wholly untendentious novels, the acclaimed Gilead trilogy. With an equal abundance (though varying proportions) of eloquence and lyricism, her essays have made a case for her Calvinist vision, while her novels have made a world out of it.

Religious thinkers have tried to beat back rationalism in many and various ways. Pascal cajoled; de Maistre snarled; Kierkegaard mocked; Newman preached; Chesterton punned; C. S. Lewis allegorized. Robinson mystifies. I don’t mean that she’s ever willfully misleading or obscure, but rather that she looks at the commonplace and continually finds the uncanny, the ineffable, the mysterious. She regards the idea that human nature and behavior are lawlike and predictable, let alone that sociobiology or psychoanalysis can even begin to account for the complexity and depth of a single personality, as a fatal failure of imagination. She is like Blake shuddering at a clockwork universe, praying, “May God us keep / From Single vision and Newton’s sleep,” though her own bêtes noires are Darwin and Freud.

More precisely, it’s their contemporary epigones she objects to in her latest manifesto against our despiritualized world, The Givenness of Things—especially evolutionary psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists, who draw out and embrace the supposedly antireligious implications of Darwin’s and Freud’s discoveries. Evolution may be unimpeachable, she acknowledges: We may have descended from creatures without minds, through modifications caused by accidental genetic mutations that conferred advantages or disadvantages in the competition for survival. Yet we have minds, and souls too, she insists, however we got them; and not all of life is a competition for survival. There may be no thought without brain activity, but brain activity is not all there is to thought.

Merely is a fighting word in Robinson’s lexicon. The self is not “merely” physical; virtues are not “merely” adaptations. The gravest intellectual sin in her catechism is reductionism: of mind to computation, generosity to self-interest, beauty to functionality, love to desire. We don’t even know what “physical” means, she protests: “On scrutiny the physical is as elusive as anything to which a name can be given.” It “frays away into dark matter, antimatter,” and beyond; it is “a pure artifact of the scale at which and the means by which we and our devices perceive.” It is sheer arrogant pretense to employ such an unstable category to discredit the idea of the soul, whose character was “established in remote antiquity, in many places and cultures, long before such a thing as science was brought to bear on the question.”

Evolutionary psychology is equally pretentious and vacuous, with its insistence that any traits not obviously necessary to “establish and maintain homeostasis, . . . to live and propagate,” are somehow less real than those that are. “So generosity is apparent and greed is real, [and] the great poets and philosophers toiled in the hope of making themselves attractive to potential mates.” Like cognitive neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists are soul-deniers.

The soul is Robinson’s guiding idea, her master concept (not to mention her stock-in-trade as a novelist). “A great deal depends, perhaps our humanity depends, on our sensing and acknowledging that quality in our kind we call the soul,” Robinson writes. Nonphysical, it is and is not the self; it is stained by moral failings but “untouched by the accidents that maim the self or kill it.” The soul is “sacred” and “immortal”—a “statement of the dignity of a human life and of the unutterable gravity of human action and experience.” Heroism, creative fire, immortal longings are irrefutable evidence of the soul. That science will someday explain the soul’s existence in terms of “nuts and bolts,” “signals and receptors,” is an empty promise.

Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013, mixed media. Installation view, David Zwirner, New York.
Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirrored Room—The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013, mixed media. Installation view, David Zwirner, New York. Deshaun A. Craddock/Flickr

Science is, in any case, no longer in a position to make promises. With recent developments in quantum physics and cosmology, Robinson declares, our conception of being has exploded and all bets are off. Undecidability, indeterminacy, nonlocality, entanglement, multiple universes—nowadays, any scientifically literate person must be prepared to swallow ten impossible things before breakfast. Reality is so very strange, it appears, that believing in God, immortality, and free will is hardly a stretch. If even space and time are utterly mysterious, why expect that grace or the soul would be any less so? “Anyone who has spent an hour with a book on the new physics knows that our old mechanistic thinking, useful as it is for so many purposes,” Robinson argues, “bears about the same relation to deeper reality that frost on a window pane bears to everything beyond it, including the night sky and everything beyond that.”

What might Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, or E. O. Wilson (all of whom Robinson pillories in one essay collection or another) say in response to her anathemas? They would first of all, I imagine, reject her insinuation that Darwinism logically implies social Darwinism, and indeed that the Darwinian revolution was partly inspired by Malthusianism. What’s more, the long string of victories that the forceful and cunning have compiled in the state of nature’s never-ending contest for survival does not guarantee them equal success in the state of culture. Indeed, there is no contest for survival in the state of culture, since culture is simply a society’s way of spending its surplus over subsistence. Moreover, force and cunning are not the only successful strategies even in the state of nature; cooperation often trumps them. On the primeval savanna, teamwork sometimes outwits tooth and claw.

Neuroscientists might also point out in their defense that the up-to-date among them no longer refer to the brain as a hunk of meat (an image that greatly annoys Robinson) but as a design space, and to the mind as a software module (though this may annoy her only slightly less). As for the soul, they may respectfully reply that while they’re perfectly comfortable with the vernacular sense of “soul” or “spirit,” the metaphysical sense of the term—something “untouched by the accidents that maim the self or kill it,” and which will be reunited with the body at the Last Judgment—is just a blank to them, so could Robinson, please, try once more to explain it?

And the new physics—does it license Robinson’s ontological maximalism? Some physicists think so; some don’t; most have no opinion and no interest. But even those who agree with her generally limit their wilder imaginings to the subatomic or intergalactic spheres. Few would agree that because quarks may have free will, people have free will; or that because an electron may be in more than one place at the same time, a mountain may be in more than one place at the same time; or that because subatomic events may have no cause, everyday events may have no cause. Very freaky things do happen at quantum scales, but statistically they cancel out. In any case, wouldn’t it be a bit perverse of God to have made His existence seem so implausible to the pre-quantum cohort of skeptical physicists?

The Givenness of Things is by no means wholly polemical. Much of it is devoted to theological discussion of, or meditation on, the interpretation of Scripture, the nature of Christ, and the inexhaustibly inventive and persevering love of God for humanity. The prose is as finely wrought as in any of Robinson’s novels, though less relaxed and elegiac. Not every reader will be convinced by her arguments, or even understand them, but any reader not tone-deaf will be enchanted by her grave, urgent music.

The surest way to take the moral measure of a professedly devout Christian is to ask how she feels about Matthew 25, where Jesus says to the saved and the damned: “What you have done to the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done to me.” Robinson feels very strongly about it. “The souls we let our theories and our penuries frustrate are souls still, and, if Jesus is to be trusted, they will be our judges, they are now our judges.”


George Scialabba is a contributing editor of The Baffler and the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For? (2009) and For the Republic (both Pressed Wafer; 2013).