A Calvinist intellectual worth arguing with

Marilynne Robinson: ‘unhip’

What Are We Doing Here?
by Marilynne Robinson, Virago, 315pp, £19

As a novelist and essayist, Marilynne Robinson is unusual – unusual for our time, that is. “I have adopted myself into an old Protestant tradition, once important in England and America, now relatively unknown in the world at large and in America as well,” she writes. It has “a rich and brilliant theology and a remarkable history”, but it is only a “small part of Christendom”.

She explores this theme in 15 essays in this book. Most were given as lectures, and if Robinson’s audiences were alert and appreciative, then the condition of American culture is healthier than is often supposed, for Robinson is demanding, her arguments close-knit, her range of references – historical, theological – wide. She requires concentration from a reader – how much more from an audience.

She is successful, a hugely admired novelist whose works include Housekeeping and Gilead. Yet, from an article on the internet she learns that “if someone were bio-engineered to personify unhipness, the result would be Marilynne Robinson”. It’s a charge she accepts happily, even with pride. What, after all, could be less hip than a septuagenarian woman born in Idaho, teaching in the Iowa State University and declaring that she is a Calvinist? Well, there are certainly not so many who profess themselves as that.

Even in my own once-Presbyterian Scotland, John Calvin and his follower, or vicar, John Knox, are, as Bertie Wooster would have put it, “down in the cellar with no takers” – few anyway.

Robinson writes about important subjects: freedom of conscience, theological virtues, “Our Public Conversation – How America Talks About itself”, “Integrity and the Modern Intellectual Tradition”. She quotes copiously, especially from the Bible, and, in it, from the Epistles of St Paul who is – again unfashionably? – one of her heroes.

Oliver Cromwell is another – a serious, God-fearing Puritan. Hers is Carlyle’s Cromwell, a true God-inspired Hero, an Idea of Cromwell, from which a good deal is omitted – no mention, for instance, of atrocities in Ireland, nor of what we should now call ethnic cleansing: the consignment of the native Irish Catholics “to Hell or Connaught”. Moreover, she is, to my mind, somewhat indulgent, even starry-eyed, about the Interregnum after the execution of King Charles. She thinks it an experiment in parliamentary government, failing to remark how the base of Cromwell’s support grew ever narrower, his authority maintained only by the army. When death removed him, the republic died with scarcely a whimper.

“American culture,” she writes, “sprang from English Dissenters … The visionary literature of England idealised the echoing green, the world as it was before this systematic creation of poverty and destruction of the poor” by the clearing of the land for sheep (deplored by Thomas More) and the enclosure of the commons.

Fair enough, though some of those who benefitted from these agricultural reforms were themselves Puritans; and the men who profited magnificently from the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the selling of monastic lands were often the most zealous Protestant Reformers.

Robinson is far too intelligent not to be aware of the moral complexity of social, economic and political change, and she is rightly hostile to ideological thinking as a surrender of individual judgment – “a betrayal of all the splendid resources our culture has prepared for us”.

Yet, where she approves, she is not always discriminating. It is natural for an American to think highly of the noble sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and to overlook the hypocrisy that led Dr Johnson to ask how it was that “the loudest yelps for liberty come from the drivers of Negroes”.

But Dr Robinson thinks slavery the responsibility of the English who became rich and financed their economic expansion from the transportation and sale of Africans. So indeed they did, and so perhaps it was, but a seller needs to find a purchaser and slavery, however vile an institution, is as old as human history. Moreover, if Puritan Calvinists came to deplore slavery, so did Jesuits in South America.

She does still seem to see the American Civil War as a struggle between Light and Darkness. Edmund Wilson, who as a New England boy of Scotch-Irish descent was at first horrified to hear his Virginian cousins denounce Abraham Lincoln as “a bloody tyrant”, presents a fairer picture of that war’s moral complexity in Patriotic Gore, his wonderfully rich study of the literature of the Civil War.

There are other minor, some very minor, irritations – Dr Robinson’s frequent use of the term “British Law” at a time when there was no such thing, but rather English Law (both Common and Statute) and Scots Law.

Indeed for a proudly professed Calvinist, it is strange to find Dr Robinson almost completely ignoring Scotland, where the Established Church was Calvinist, instead drawing more on English Dissent. Is this perhaps because Puritanism – like communism – wears a more attractive face in opposition than in government?

These are mere quibbles perhaps, but, since Marilynne Robinson is a writer who dwells, always interestingly, on the virtue of intellectual rigour, and who herself writes with an admirable self-assurance, she invites, and surely welcomes, critical argument.

That said, there is much rich matter in these essays. They are simultaneously challenging, disturbing and rewarding.