Friday, November 12, 2010

Absence of Mind: A Book Review

Marilynne Robinson, a committed Christian and an admirer of John Calvin, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist as well as a widely esteemed analyst of modern thought. Among the targets of her analytical writings is the abuse which latter-day atheists make of modern science in their attempt to denigrate both religion and the unique nature of humanity — that is, specifically, the reality of human consciousness and of the human mind.

Robinson’s target, then, is not modern science as such, but the fraudulent use of science by the enemies of religion and the cultured despisers of what Robinson calls human exceptionalism. She attacked this abuse in an earlier collection of essays (The Death of Adam, 1998, 2005), and returned to it in a distinguished lecture series at Yale University entitled Absence of Mind (Yale University Press, 2010).

We found Tim DeJong willing to review this study for us and thank him for both his careful, intelligent, and extensive analysis, and for drawing attention, in his conclusion, to the urgent need for a biblical ontology of the mind. Currently a Ph.D. student in English at The University of Western Ontario, Tim was raised in Hamilton, ON, where he received a B.A. in Comparative Literature and Philosophy from McMaster University. After spending a year in Spain to complete his M.A. in English at the Madrid Campus of Saint Louis University, he is happy to be back in beautiful south-western Ontario. He lives with his wife Biz in London, ON, where they attend Pilgrim Canadian Reformed Church.

The review can be found in our “Collected Papers”; a direct link is here.


ddj said...

It seems like an interesting book. Based on this review, I am wondering if Robinson is too focused on individual, subjective religious experience, as compared, for example, to shared cultural/historical experience. Atheism as a project does not only marginalize the significance of the individual's mind, it also marginalizes the discipline of history. The decline of the humanities in the modern university is testament to this. At a conference recently NT Wright said of Dawkins and his ilk: "We need to put their feet to the fire of history." I thought there was a lot of wisdom in that comment. For thoroughgoing materialists, history itself must be meaningless - simply the most recent stage of evolution/natural selection, and essentially random. The paradox in this, of course, is that Dawkins does not realize how indebted his atheism is to Christian theology and tradition (e.g. his critique of the notion of a "created God" is specifically Christian; it was the rise of Christianity that destroyed belief in created gods.)

David DeJong
South Bend, IN

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

This review gives a fine summary an evaluation of Robinson’s book, which I hope will be widely read among us. For one thing, Robinson shows the strength of what C.S. Lewis called the prevailing “chronological snobbery,” namely the idea that what is new is necessarily better than what came before. This attitude is typically modern and affects us all. Robinson makes clear the terrible impoverishment we moderns suffer as a result of this nearsightedness. Among other things, it accounts for the willingness among contemporaries to swallow the ideologies of para-scientists like Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and the “new atheists” of today, such in spite of their disregard of the proper standards of scholarship, the illogic of their systems, and the brutalizing moral and social effects of their anthropologies. They are accepted simply because they are new, and presumably “scientific.” It is indeed time, as Tim points out, that Christian scholars concentrated on a biblical ontology of the mind. For there is considerable truth in Robinson’s statement (the impact of modern-day anthropologies makes it clear) that “whoever controls the definition of mind controls the definition of humankind itself, and culture, and history” (p. 32).

Tim said...

Thank you both for the comments; feedback is always welcome. Dave, perhaps the following explanation will help to address your concerns. You write: “Based on this review, I am wondering if Robinson is too focused on individual, subjective religious experience, as compared, for example, to shared cultural/historical experience.” It may well be the fault of my review that it remains unclear that for Robinson these two spheres are necessarily and intricately connected. First of all, it’s worth noting she does not intend, in focusing on the problem of individual mind, to invoke anything like the postmodern formula that every intuition is equally valid given that all intuitions are the products of individual minds. Her point is not that subjective experience necessarily leads to any kind of truth (in fact, she would likely assert that it most often doesn’t), but rather that any truths that humans DO intuit, are invariably intuited through the lens of subjective experience. It simply can’t be done away with, for no other reason than that we are all human beings; and that’s where she takes issue with the New Atheists. She favours William James’ definition of religion as the “feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (7). I myself would be inclined to suggest that James’ phrasing here leans a bit too strongly toward individualism. But Robinson takes that seeming problem as her key point: “The words ‘solitude’ and ‘individual’ are crucial here, since this is the unvarying condition of the mind, no matter the web of culture and language by which it is enabled, sustained, and limited” (7).

So here, finally, we get around to the concern that sparked your comment: the apparent divide between cultural history and the subjective self. Robinson’s focus is on the undeniable fact that the former is merely the amalgamation (in enormously complex webs and patterns, of course) of the latter. “It may have been perverse of destiny to array perception across billions of subjectivities, but the fact is central to human life and language and culture, and no philosophy or cognitive science should be allowed to evade it” (7-8). In other words, I suspect Robinson would be in full agreement with your point about atheism and the marginalization of history. Her book as much as makes the additional point, though, that denying the validity of the individual mind is in fact the first step toward denying the validity of history. The sustaining stories we have told ourselves over thousands of years, the ideas we have generated – our art, our culture, our history – can only matter if we grant the specific validity of the separate, distinct minds who have posited these stories and ideas, critiqued them, and retold them.

Tim DeJong
London, ON