Because I loved the way she wrote about the inward, spiritual life in Gilead and especially Home, I snuck Marilynne Robinson’s latest book, Absence of Mind, in between the volumes of reading I have to get through for work this summer. The published version of the 2009 Terry lectures “in religion, in the light of science and philosophy” that Robinson gave at Yale University, the book had received acclaim from Karen Armstrong, Rowan Williams, and a good number of other theologians and writers on religion that I respect, so I was excited to get to it. I was sorely disappointed.
Robinson’s choice of topic for the lectures—examining the conflict between science and religion as “certain modern scientists” (e.g. Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and E.O. Wilson) present it—sounded like a great choice. Each of these men argue that our minds are unreliable, that we’re driven by self-interest in our choices, and that real truth can only be discovered by subjecting it to science, i.e. scientific positivism. I use excerpts from two of these scientists’ writings in my Science and Religion course so I was psyched to learn her perspective on the topic.
Robinson does take on the positivistic approach of these scientists in what she writes, showing how it limits what they can see and often causes them to fall into the same Cartesian fallacy that they claim fatally traps religion. She points out that seeing only through such positivism means that, in the process, those taking such a view lose both the beauty and the strangeness of the human soul. She is of course correct, but the same point about a systematically reductionist view taken by some scientists has been made by a good number of other scholars.
What was most disappointing was even the arguments presented, but the writing. As she makes her way through her polemic, there is very little beauty (and sometimes little clarity) in Robinson's words. [The exception is a passage in the last of the lectures, in which she describes the soul as “that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer so diligently. Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM.” (p. 110)]. The tone often comes across as strident, with the language extremely abstract and often very convoluted. Given the stark, simple beauty of her writing that is reflected in her novels, Absence of Mind was a great disappointment.