As the author of the Pulitzer-winning Gilead, Marilynne Robinson has keen insights into the nature of spirituality. In “Freedom of Thought,” an essay in her collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, Robinson discusses the shortsightedness of both narrow-minded scientists and narrow-minded believers. Through literature and the arts, she contends, we can move beyond this narrowness.
Robinson says that, when she writes fiction, she seeks to honor her intuition, which means that she must free herself as much as she can from constraint and open herself up to a range of exploration. Unfortunately, she says, too many of us are willing to live within constraint. This is true of those fundamentalists who have a “small and narrow definition of what human beings are and how human life is to be understood.” It is also true of those scientists who fail to see “the beautiful, terrible mystery,” the “great pathos,” of life. Everywhere she looks, she says, she sees people dumbing things down or fitting them into preconceived frameworks:
There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell. The advice I give my students is the same advice I give myself—forget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. . . . By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true. Why is it possible to speak of fiction as true or false? I have no idea. But if a time comes when I seem not to be making the distinction with some degree of reliability in my own work, I hope someone will be kind enough to let me know.
Describing her attempts to be true to experience, Robinson invokes the notion of soul:
When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire—a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. None of them is active by itself, and none of them is determinative, because there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability ton consider and appraise one’s own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul.
Robinson notes that, along with those scientists who do not acknowledge the existence of soul, there are narrow-minded believers who fail to do justice to this “masterpiece of creation.” Instead, they reduce it to “a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.”
She further observes that the classics and the Bible teach us to be wary of such reductions:
We have given ourselves many lessons in the perils of being half right, yet I doubt we have learned a thing. Sophocles could tell us about this, or the book of Job. We all know about hubris. We know that pride goeth before a fall. The problem is that we don’t recognize pride or hubris in ourselves, any more than Oedipus did, any more than Job’s so-called comforters. It can be no innocuous-seeming a thing as confidence that one is right, is competent, is clear-sighted, or confidence that one is pious or pure in one’s motives. As the disciples said, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible,” in this case speaking of the salvation of the pious rich. It is his consistent teaching that the comfortable, the confident, the pious stand in special need of the intervention of grace. Perhaps this is true because they are most vulnerable to error . . .
In her final paragraph, Robinson doesn’t distinguish between narrow scientists, narrow believers, and, for that matter, narrow novelists, but she repeats that introspection, forgiveness, and humility will save us:
The Christian narrative tells us that we individually and we as a world turn our backs on what is true, essential, wholly to be desired. And it tells us that we can both know this about ourselves and forgive it in ourselves and one another, within the limits of our moral capacities. To recognize our bias towards error should teach us modesty and reflection, and to forgive it should help us avoid the inhumanity of thinking we ourselves are not as fallible as those who, in any instance, seem most at fault. Science can give us knowledge, but it cannot give us wisdom. Nor can religion, until it puts aside nonsense and distraction and becomes itself again.
As much as I appreciate Robinson’s insights, I prefer it when she dramatizes them in a novel than when she lays them out in an essay. I get a greater sense of the depth of humanity and the complexity of a searching soul through the ramblings of her Congregationalist minister-narrator in Gilead than I do when I read her rambling essays. As she herself describes the distinction, there is a difference between knowing someone (or, I would add, knowing something) and knowing about them. Her essays don’t know her ideas the way that her novels do.
She herself explains the reason: “When [a writer] knows about his character he is writing about plot” (or, I would add in the case of an essayist, about argument). Whereas “when he knows his character, he is writing to explore, to feel reality on a set of nerves somehow not quite his own.”
But fiction or non-fiction, Robinson is challenging us all, believers and non-believers alike, to step beyond our narrow conceptions of the world and acknowledge the greater mysteries of creation. Great literature shows us the way.