Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Heady Discussion: Reflections on Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind


During the semester I taught English composition at the community college, I assigned my students a paper in which they wrote about how they did or did not fit an identity label of their choice.  One of my students wrote about his life as an atheist, and one of his points was that unlike religious people, he could view the world in a “clear, objective way.”  I can’t remember whether or not I succumbed to the temptation to pen “Oh really?” in the margin.

Brilliant novelist, intellectual, and woman of faith Marilynne Robinson dares, in Absence of Mind, to do the equivalent of penning “Oh really?” in the margin of Freud, Comte, Dawkins, and a host of other thinkers who have shaped modern conceptions of who we are and why we’re here.  Robinson calls attention to “parascience”—writings that claim to be objective and scientific yet are based on nonscientific and agenda-driven assumptions.  Even the widespread assumption that we have crossed a threshold point into “modern thought” and can therefore discount previous thinking as unenlightened and na├»ve is itself faulty and flies in the face of what human history has shown.  However, thought that claims to be modern is given (dangerously) special credence because of its claim to objectivity and its immediate dismissal of religious thought as primitive and conformist (when, in fact, Robinson points out these dismissers never attempt to represent or describe the intensely personal and individual experience of faith).

Despite the many failings and contradictions of these major schools of modern thought, they are in perfect agreement on one point: They all make us distrust and discount individual experience and the mind.  Increasingly, we are told to understand ourselves as the product of chemical functions, even though, as Robinson points out, no sufficient description has been offered of how these processes combine to create the complex experience of thinking and feeling. We are also told that all our actions are genetically driven, designed to pass on our own genetic code—though Robinson dwells at length on how this fails to account for some of our better impulses, namely, altruism.  If all we do is determined by the drive to pass on our genetic code, why would someone save a drowning person who is not a relative?  In short, “modern” ideas ignore what we have traditionally called the mind—the thinking, feeling, creative locus that drives our experience as human beings—and worse, they tell us our minds are not to be trusted, our motives selfish and unknown.

The book itself is a difficult read, extremely so if you’re not familiar with some of the thinkers Robinson challenges.  Interested to see how reviewers would present her erudite points to the mainstream, I surveyed some reviews and found three representative examples.  First, MichaelDirda of the Washington Post either would not or could not provide a compelling take on the book.  And I don’t mean to question his intellectual ability; instead, the way his review strung together a bunch of Robinson’s quotes (if he had been in my comp class, I would have docked the grade for overquoting) suggested discomfort on entering a rare and unpopular conversation.  Then there was Karen Armstrong writing for The Guardian, herself an author of a book on religion, who lauded Robinson’s ideas without finding anything substantial to critique.  Finally, Julian Baggini,writing for the New Statesman, gave what I found to be the fairest critique of the book, even though on a personal level, I agreed with it least.  He recognizes Robinson’s achievement and thoughts, but his eagerness to point out what the book lacks made the review more willing to answer the book’s call to dialogue than the others.  Baggini accuses the book of engaging in the same sort of generalizing and agenda-driven arguing as the parascientists Robinson calls out.  To a certain degree, he is right; but, to some degree, Absence of Mind deserves more slack than Baggini gives, for Robinson herself recognizes that she examines only one side of the religion/science debate, and more, hers is a voice not often heard, the one going against widespread assumption, and as such, she bears an extra burden of proof that cannot possibly be fully borne in the to-the-point essays she offers here.

The question of how we view ourselves as individuals and whether we believe in “the mind” is indeed fundamental to our worldview and ultimately our social atmosphere.  Robinson is right to make us think about it and to be wary of what others would hand us as scientific explanation.  After reading the book, I felt, as I have felt on other occasions, how inadequate mainstream churches are and have been for equipping us to take part in these crucial dialogues.  And yet, the sermon I heard this past Sunday in church offered, for me, a new way of understanding what I had read in Absence of Mind.  The gospel lesson was the one where Jesus says whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me, and whoever welcomes the least of these welcomes me also, so that even if you give a cup of cold water to a little one, you are doing so to me.  The sermon was all about welcoming and how the church welcomes, and it occurred to me that by doubting our ability to think, feel, and create—in a word, by doubting our minds­—we are making ourselves increasingly unwelcome in this world, and this, in turn, enables our age to be one that has, to borrow a phrase from Flannery O'Connor, "domesticated despair."  Robinson’s Absence of Mind seems like a cup of cold water, a gift to all of us in reminding us to re-examine our assumptions.

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