Eagerness to scorn earns firm reproof
THE DEATH OF ADAM: ESSAYS ON MODERN THOUGHT By Marilynne Robinson Houghton Mifflin 254 pp., $24 This splendidly provocative set of essays might, with equal justice, have been given the subtitle "Against Shallowness." What animates Marilynne Robinson's spirited campaign to enrich our current discourse on politics, religion, and society is her dismay at the glibness, vacuity, and cheap cynicism that have come to characterize too many of our discussions and debates. A major part of this problem, she feels, is our dismissive attitude toward history and the past. When it comes to our attitude toward national heroes such as Lincoln and Jefferson, she wittily remarks, "ill-informed condescension" has replaced "traditional ill-informed respect." Robinson's expressed goal is to discover other and better ways of thinking about the issues that most concern us as a society. The topics she discusses include everything from the legacy of the Puritans and the influence of social Darwinism to the worship of the marketplace and its harmful effects on the institution of the family. Crucial, perhaps even central, to her enterprise is her heroic effort to challenge the widespread prejudice against John Calvin and Calvinism. Our general attitude toward the Puritans, Robinson argues, "is a great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without knowledge or information about the thing disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved. And it demonstrates how effectively such consensus can close off a subject from inquiry." Robinson castigates intellectual dishonesty and moral shoddiness across the full range of the political spectrum. This is one of the reasons her essays are so stimulating and her insights so refreshingly unexpected. Indeed, reading this book certainly changed - or, at very least, challenged - some of my own preconceptions. Although I've always had a sneaking fondness for the Puritans, I had never thought to question the assumption that their Calvinist theology inclined them to be somewhat rigid, intolerant, parsimonious, and uncharitable. Robinson traces the roots of these misconceptions to the influential works of the Roman Catholic historian Lord Acton and the German sociologist Max Weber. Boldly disputing them both, Robinson goes directly to the actual writings of John Calvin and other Calvinist divines, like New England preacher Jonathan Edwards. What she finds are repeated, insistent injunctions to practice charity, not only toward the "deserving" poor, but to all who are in need. She quotes Edwards: " 'God gives us direction how we are to give in such a case, viz. bountifully, and willingly.... We may also observe how peremptorily this duty is here enjoined ... in the strongest possible terms.... God doth not only say, Beware that thou do not actually refuse to give him, but, Beware that thou have not one objecting thought against it, arising from a backwardness to liberality.' " "No doubt," remarks Robinson, "Edwards would take a very fiery view indeed of present attitudes to the poor, of our 'backwardness to liberality,' so ignorantly based on a supposed reclaiming of traditional values." If we want to blame someone or something for the current enshrinement of acquisitiveness and greed as cultural values, Robinson suggests we look, not to the Puritans, but to those she calls "Darwinists." This mindset, she contends, is not confined merely to the small group of late Victorian thinkers known as "social" Darwinists who explicitly aimed to apply the notion of the "survival of the fittest" to human society. The philosophies of Malthus, Nietzsche, even Freud, she argues, are all based on the idea that generosity, humaneness, and Judeo-Christian morality itself are all somehow "unnatural" and, hence, false. In place of our traditional moral values, we now worship the "natural" forces of the marketplace: "We act as if the reality of economics were reality itself, the one Truth to which everything must refer." In her moving chapter on "Family," Robinson scathingly exposes the inconsistency of those who pose as champions of "family values," yet pledge their higher allegiance to an economic doctrine of "tooth-and-nail competitiveness" that deprives working people of a living wage to support their families. She is also scornful of the fashionable poses that pass for liberalism nowadays: of those who are more concerned with tokenism and politically correct terminology than in the real problems caused by decreasing wages, increasing work hours, and the specter of joblessness. To praise "The Death of Adam" as strikingly nonconformist, contentious, impassioned, and audacious might suggest something wildly eccentric and intemperate. To commend it as thoughtful, serious, and meticulous might imply dullness. In truth, Robinson has given us a book that is both original and sober, brimming with fresh insights and perspectives that could well help elevate the level of our public discourse. Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.