Tag Archives: Absence of Mind- Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson and James Kugel 2 of 3 posts

Several months ago, I posted a critique of Kugel.

Well lo and behold Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind has a similar critique in her book pp 24-29. I was not expecting to find it here. Robinson had the same sense that I did that Kugel’s book was equally non-humanistic.

Robinson’s version of the critique is that Kugel assigns “primitively” on the Bible, “this most seminal text”  Kugel states that all meaning in the book is eisegetical and that any lessons for our life would be greeted by the Biblical authors with incomprehension. The book is not even religion but etiology for political and social realities.

In contrast, Robinson declares that no one would be reading the Bible today if it did not have what to teach.

Kugel states that books from Mesopotamia like Gilgamesh written 3000 years ago has no messages-so too the Bible has no messages

Robinson writes that: on the contrary, Gilgamesh is one of the great stories of human civilization and its quest for immortality is eternal. There was brilliance to Babylonia. “The low estimate of Babylonia becomes the basis for a lowered estimate of the Hebrew Bible – the modernist declension.” Gilgamesh is not part of a religious canon and does not have exegesis and is still a great contribution to civilization

Robinson says that China, India, and Greece all have ancient works that allow us glimpses into how humanity deals with theodicy, anthropology, and catastrophe. If the Upanishads, Gilgamesh, and Homer have what to teach then so does the Bible

In this case, Robinson claims that we can learn from the monotheistic changes to the story. We cant assume Gilgamesh was just patched into Genesis and no one noticed the plagiarism- It was reworked to teach a specific message.

She thinks that Kugel assumes ancients had no culture and he has a low estimate of their creativity.

Kugel backs himself into the same false dichotomy as the fundamentalists and the new atheists. For Kugel, if the Bible is not that of the Scribes and their midrashic traditions, where texts are read intertextually and contemporaneously, then it is not religion.

Robinson also points out the conceit of moderns to think they are first to notice the ancient near east background in the bIble and the use of Gilgamesh. Grotius used Biblical similarities to Gilgamesh to argue for truth of Bible because they provided external confirmation!! She says, of course Moses used the fables and religions of antiquity – so what?

She concludes that Kugel’s claim that anyone who disagrees with him is dishonest is a modernist goal of showing others wrong. His need or anyone’s need for debunking the past as an urgent crusade without concern for the wealth of pre-modern knowledge, she rejects simply as a conceit.

Absence of Mind- Marilynne Robinson 1 of 3 posts

Friends recommended that I read Marilynne Robinson’s writings, especially her Pulitzer winning novels. She is touted as a master craftsmith of the written word, theological believer, and creating her own form of Neo-Calvinism. So I decided to pick up her recent response to the skeptics.

Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, by Marilynne Robinson, Yale 158 pages

The book is her answer to the new atheists in which she argues that we have humanism, subjective self, and human experience. She does not respond to their claims as much as say that there is more to the world. She claims that they are creating a lack of mind, a lack of self. And that they are only creating a “para-scientific literature”

She quotes Dennett’s definition of religion “as about social systems avow with a belief in a supernatural agent.” Dennett is not talking about private religion, religious experience, religion as meaning in life or creation of moral order. Maimonidean rationalism, Buberian dialogue, and new age renewal is not religion for Dennett.

Robinson shows that the problem of materialism, scientism, and behaviorism are not new problems. She claims that the Materialist position is separated from the wealth of human insight. The subjective human mind is what gives us knowledge of the human experience.

She opens her book with a description of how scientists feel a sense of discovery, accomplishment, and fulfillment when they solve a scientific problem. From a human point of view, science is not just facts in a text book.

She is an advocate of the writings of William James and his radical empiricism. And treats the new atheists as rejecting James. She reduces much of their materialism and the selfish gene to the nineteenth arguments of T. H. Huxley. (more on this in later post- post #3) And she uses Freud as her example of psychological reductionism.She finds ever new ways of showing that these new writings do not add anything to the debate of the last two centuries. (Except that a generation of science trained religious fundamentalists are discovering them for a first time. They trade the absolute claims of their material religious fundamentalism for a secular version.)

She thinks they are bypassing Donne, Bach, the Sufi poets and Socrates. She considers as essential to human life metaphysics, imagination, human experience, and in turn these are to be considered a revelation from God

Even in the social realm, she finds their obsession with Fundamentalists misleading. She asks: what of the religion of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or her own cultured Calvinism?  She does accept  from the new atheists that some of the fundamnetalists were equally bad for the soul since they are just as materialist and not concerned with the self as the new atheists.  They are also obscurantist and anti-education. She suggests and I agree, “that some of the new atheism is a reaction to militant religious fundamentalism.”

She agrees with Harvard popularize of science Stephen Gould, that religion and science have nothing to do with each other. Gould used to be assigned at YU and the subject of frequent public lectures by the Bio dept.

Pinker considers that religion offers the answers to the ultimate questions, but since the ultimate questions are unanswerable then we dismiss the whole activity. To this  she answers, no, no, no. Questions that are deemed unanswerable has driven the thoughts of humanity. The history of civilization  answers these questions in ever new answers and forms. From the Library at Alexandria  to the Library of Congress we have collections that enrich our lives- ideas, texts, human experiences, quests for meaning.

She is defiantly preaching the choir. She assumes her reader has read, or at least can read, Grotius, Calvin, Spenser, Emerson, Jung, Searle and Putnam. Those who cannot are the very materialists swayed by the new rhetoric. And those who defend against the new atheists through materialist apologetics and trying to refute scientific method wont find comfort here either.  Religion is not in the scientific realm. Yet, Robinison as a committed non-liberal Calvinist does point in the direction that future discussions of a viable religion position needs to take.

Quotes from reviews:

Robinson makes a strong, unapologetic case, not for mystery but for self-respect.

We look in the mirror, Marilynne Robinson writes in “Absence of Mind,” and we see an untrustworthy, self-interested creature with an untrustworthy mind. No wonder a philosopher such as Tolle, for instance, who offers the idea that we aren’t so bad after all, that we have a right to believe in the value of experience and the mystery of the universe, might be clung to like a floe that a polar bear has finally found to rest upon.

Winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Gilead,” Robinson in this new nonfiction work questions the authority of science, not its methods, which she sees as evidence for the capacity and beauty of the human mind. She is annoyed by the arrogance of modernist thought, which has entrapped us for so many generations: “After Darwin, after Nietzsche, after Freud, after structuralism and post-structuralism, after Crick and Watson and the death of God, some assumptions were to be regarded as fixed and inevitable and others as exposed for all time and for all purposes as naïve and untenable.”

Robinson, however, affirms her own “very high estimate of human nature”: “We have had a place in the universe since it occurred to the first of our species to ask what our place might be.”

But positivism and modernist thought have had the opposite effect: They encourage the “exclusion of felt life”: We are discouraged from making explanations about our place in the universe. Subjectivity is not allowed; instead, there is what Robinson calls an “absence of mind.”

Guardian Review by Karen Armstrong

Washington Post Review