What Are We Doing Here?

Fifteen essays by author Marilynne Robinson

By Gordon Houser

“What Are We Doing Here?” is the title of one of the 15 essays in Marilynne Robinson’s new book, What Are We Doing Here? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 USD), and while it addresses a specific audience that includes many literature teachers, it also serves as a major theme of the book, addressed to all of us.

Although Robinson is known more as a novelist (Housekeeping, Gilead, Home, Lila), this is her sixth book of nonfiction. It collects mostly lectures she’s given in the last few years.

In the preface, she notes that these essays reflect “matters of urgency . . . that arise from the way we think now.” This urgency is the result of the fact that “we have surrendered thought to ideology.”

Robinson is widely read and addresses many topics. However, because the essays come from various lectures, there is some repetition, as she returns to certain themes, such as reading history fairly, Puritanism, quantum mechanics, and our political climate.

Although her prose requires slow, careful reading, it is worth the effort. She tackles the voices of atheism and scientism not with harsh insults or simple denial but with a calm and confident alternative point of view that posits reality as created and cared for by God.

Unafraid to take unpopular views, Robinson says, “I am too old to mince words.” She is especially critical of those who are not careful in their thinking or in what they say. “There is a fundamental slovenliness in much public discourse,” she writes.

One of her recurring themes is the grandeur of the human mind. She invites “a kind of awe at the entire phenomenon of Being that embraces disciplines and categories and error and aspiration and everything they touch, that embraces thought, and error, and the work the mind does in its sleep.”

As a Christian, she believes that humans are made in the image of God and therefore demand respect. And she is critical of science that denigrates this truth. “Human consciousness has at least as great an impact on the planet as any force of nature, yet its existence is in doubt because science does not know how to describe it.”

Robinson is a careful reader of U.S. history and likes to overturn stereotypes, particularly those about American Puritans, whom she calls “the most progressive population on earth through the nineteenth century at least.” The states in the Puritan Northeast, she notes, “opposed slavery after the Revolution, . . . advanced women’s rights and achieved levels of literacy never before seen in the world,” yet they are “thought of as peculiarly harsh and intolerant.”

In one essay, “Grace and Beauty,” Robinson addresses fiction writing and notes how “beauty disciplines. It recommends a best word in a best place and makes the difference palpable between aesthetic right and wrong.” And her own poetic language shows as she describes grace as “participation in the fullness of an act or gesture so that the beauty of it is seen whole, the leap and the landing.”

In her final and most recent essay, “Slander,” Robinson draws together her concern for respectful discourse and being a faithful Christian. Noting its effect on her 92-year-old mother, she excoriates Fox News for its practice of broadcasting outlandish conspiracy theories and instilling fear in its listeners. She then explores Scripture’s abundant prohibitions against malicious speech.

“We in this Christian country are consuming one another now,” she writes, “bringing disgrace to the faith with our internecine ferocities, then alarmed that the church’s numbers dwindle.”

Throughout this book, Robinson displays her concern for America as well as for Christianity. She warns, “If we are to continue as a democracy, we must find a way to stabilize the language and temper of our debates and disputes.”

What Are We Doing Here? is not a book one needs to read straight through; the essays can be sampled separately. While Robinson has her quirks, such as her strange, extended defense of Oliver Cromwell, there is much here to reward the careful reader. She neither minces words nor takes them lightly.

Neither should we.


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