Marilynne Robinson has spent all her life trying to rescue, in her own words, “wounded or discounted reputations.” She has resisted blind deference and dogmatic thinking, even if she has always defined herself as a liberal with a religious sensibility (one of her previous books was a dialogue with President Obama). Her most recent book, What Are We Doing Here? is an eclectic series of essays ranging from freedom of conscience, theological virtues, and the history of Puritanism to the role of humanities in today’s world, integrity, and slander. They offer modest solutions for preserving one’s intellectual independence and autonomy in an age of increasing ideological conformism.
Robinson is worried by the current polarization of the American society. “We have allowed ourselves to become bitterly factionalized,” she writes, “and truth has lost its power to resolve or to persuade.” She has little patience for self-confident or intolerant discourses that ignore truth for the sake of defending the interests of a particular faction or ideology. In contemporary America, she notes with a touch of sadness, it is more temperament than reliance on facts that leads people to identify themselves with one side or the other. Both sides of the political spectrum have surrendered thought to ideology and have come to espouse overconfident views, “deficient in humility,” that produce “a slick, unreflecting cynicism” which is eroding our political and cultural life.
Among the examples of ideological thinking Robinson singles out those interpretations of our past that intentionally distort our national character or heritage. She is uneasy about the historical narratives embraced by both the Left and the Right that flatten our historical landscape and heritage. Our country, she writes, “is in a state of bewilderment that cries out for good history” that should liberate us from cynicism, conventionalism, and narrowness of vision. Some narratives uncritically celebrate competition and self-interest and encourage the simplistic individualist heroics celebrated in the works of Ayn Rand. We must question our subservience to the notion of competition because there is more to living a meaningful life than being constantly engaged in rivalry with our fellow citizens. Our predecessors understood that in addition to self-interest, other virtues such as honor, prudence, and loyalty are needed in order to create a good and decent society.
At the same time, Robinson criticizes those views that regard everything that has happened in America as driven only by profit and crude self-interest. While she believes that American history has had many dubious narratives, she refuses to see America as an unredeemable netherworld and an unfree country. In her view, we need to recognize what we have achieved thus far and preserve the heritage we have received and fight to improve our laws and institutions for the sake of coming generations.
The book also discusses the contemporary assault on humanities. Robinson is worried by the claim that the main mission of the university is to create skilled labor for the new economy. She takes issue with the predominant obsession with efficiency and utility and insists that universities do not need to train foot soldiers, ideal helots, or robots for the new economy. Rather, their main mission is to cultivate imaginative and innovative citizens who can contribute to a full and generous national life. Universities must also encourage students to let themselves by “ravished” by good books, art, and music and thus acquire a sense of larger vistas. This is one of the ways in which they can prevent the slow suicide of the Western civilization.
Arguably, the Left and the Right may not see these problems the same way, but Robinson believes that the differences between the two poles may not be as significant as we often think. In her view, in essential ways, both sides share a set of false assumptions and flawed conclusions that are never critically examined. “The Left does not understand the thinking of the Right,” she claims, “because it is standing too close to have a clear view of it.” In her view, both aisles share a good dose of ideological thinking that creates a sense of powerlessness and denies free choice. Through their deterministic narratives, they tend to exclude personal agency and inhibit free thought. It is no accident, Robinson notes, that Marxism and social Darwinism arose together and it is hardly surprising that they have “disgraced” themselves in similar ways.
Surrendering ourselves to ideologies such as capitalism, Marxism, or Darwinism comes at a high price. Ideologies tend to simplify and reduce reality to one single factor—class, race, the invisible hand of the market, the survival of the fittest, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the superego, etc. They are deterministic and in the end, they deny individual agency. As such, in Robinson’s own words, ideologies are “the antibiotics of the intellect” that eliminate independent thinking and stifle our capacity for meaningful choice. Ideological thinking, she warns, is a form of reasoning borrowed from someone else; it is blind to experience and glosses over the complex nature of reality. That is why embracing an ideology often amounts to a betrayal and capitulation of free thought that no one should ever be forced to make. In this regard, Robinson follows in the footsteps of Ortega y Gasset, who once claimed that aligning oneself with the Left, as with the Right, is only “one of the numberless ways open to man of being an imbecile: both are forms of moral hemiplegia.”
What Are We Doing Here? offers a moving literary and theological take on centrism as something beyond politics, rooted in a compassionate and humble sense of how the world really works. Robinson’s defense of centrism is an acknowledgment of the complex and intricate nature of our moral, social, and political universe. In her corner of the world, there are no abstractions and politics occupies only a limited sphere. Instead, one finds real people, fragile human beings, searching for grace and beauty as much as for freedom and comfort. Her universe is infused with the spirit of humility, generosity, and faith; it has a place for the sacred as well as the highest human capacities, such as generosity, love, and aesthetic sense. It is no mere accident that Robinson has chosen to live in Iowa, teaching in a public university. She welcomes attempts to spread learning, democratize privilege, and open the best of what humanities contain to anyone who wishes to have access to them.
Robinson’s book should be read by all those who feel alone in the center, but also by those who are in love with their own certitudes. It reminds us that centrism is a human scale philosophy that transcends politics and ideology. Although no one will ever please the factions of the day by holding centrist opinions, it is there that we are most likely to meet with common sense and reasonableness. “The little school of thought I speak of,” she writes, “never leaves the little sphere of common sense.” It is not obsessed with ideological purity and avoids the complacency and condescending tone of those who claim to possess the truth. In her complex world, there are no struggles between true believers and nonbelievers, no litmus tests, no appeals to conformity or fanaticism. She thinks that we all would be better off if we brought a little more doubt into our beliefs.
Marilynne Robinson’s moderate and civil tone and voice are much needed in our age of rancor and division, dominated by Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Discussing inconvenient truths and maintaining intellectual rigor are necessary to sustaining our culture and civilization. Her book is an indictment of all “Technicolor fantasies” espoused by ideologues of all stripes. As such, it is an elegant invitation to rediscover the virtues of moderation and humility without which we will not be able to remain human.