Marilynne Robinson and Secularism
W. Robert Godfrey
Recently I read a paragraph which was a rather minor annoyance, but which illustrates for me a big problem in our society: namely the freedom many secularists in America feel to treat a Christian point of view with great disdain and a profound sense of superiority. My example comes from The New Yorker magazine of August 2, 2010. While I read The New Yorker mainly for the cartoons, I also am interested in the book reviews. In the section entitled “Briefly Noted” I found a paragraph on Marilynne Robinson’s new book, Absence of Mind. As I had read her novels Gilead and Home, as well as her volume of essays, The Death of Adam, with great interest, I was intrigued to discover this new work and eager to find out what the reviewer might write. The new volume contains the lectures that she delivered at Yale University in a distinguished series on religion and science. The reviewer notes her critique from a religious point of view of neo-Darwinians and Freudians, a critique which he or she does not find convincing. Then the paragraph ends: “Robinson is eloquent in her defense of the mind’s prerogatives, but her call for a renewed metaphysics might be better served by rereading Heidegger than by dusting off the Psalms.”
While the reviewer no doubt intended to be witty and clever, I found the closing sentence snide and demeaning on three levels. First, I wonder how well the reviewer knows either Heidegger or the Psalter. The evidence in the paragraph suggests that he or she does not. Should one either commend or condemn writings with which one is not very familiar? Second, did the reviewer really read the book? On my quick examination of the book – I have not yet had a chance to read it as carefully as it deserves – I find only two brief and oblique references to the Psalter in the whole book. What is the reviewer complaining about, except to suggest that modern man can learn nothing from the Psalter? Third, does the reviewer remember that Heidegger’s metaphysic was not insightful enough to keep him from being a committed member of the Nazi Party or helpful enough to keep a number of his graduate students from committing suicide? Perhaps the reviewer should rethink the snide remarks and recall that Heidegger’s writings are opaque to all but at most a few hundred graduate students, while the Psalter has provided comfort, inspiration, and insight to millions of Jews and Christians for almost 3000 years.