Marilynne Robinson and the Emergence of Ethical Man post 3 of 3

Marilynne Robinson claims in Absence of Mind that we overcome the materialist worldview of T.H. Huxley (exemplifying the new atheists) by appreciating the deeper sense within us. I started thinking that I have heard this before Yes indeed, it is the basic position of Rabbi Soloveitchik in the Emergence of Ethical Man. We need to overcome the materialism and selfishness of Huxley’s worldview by accepting the Divine command and emerge as moral beings.

Robinson is at the forefront of changing the popular image of Calvinism Calvinist defender Jonathan Edwards’s description of man as a “loathsome insect” held over the fire of Hell by God, such a task seems ripe and even overdue. In all of her works Robinson moves the emphasis to Calvin’s idea of a God given religious consciousness. We can sense where our life has gone astray and needs the word of God.

Such warring against historical miscomprehension, however, while effectively waged by Robinson, is not the main task of her essay. Instead, she seeks to describe the religious and spiritual experience of perception in Calvin’s theology, the experience by which seeing the world leads to loving it, and witnessing mankind brings about acknowledgment of man’s infinite beauty and potential. For Robinson, “wickedness is not the only inhabitant of man’s soul. There also reside stores and stores of grace, beauty, and holiness, stores that shine forth when we truly and lovingly look at our fellow man. Created in the image of God, mankind is filled with his divine presence; it is only in comparison with this potential for sanctity and goodness that Calvin so painfully denounces man’s wickedness.” – for more on her Calvinism-see here.

According to Robinson, we have to overcome a material bestial life and learn to appreciate our life stories filled with a wide ethical range of sin and beauty. In her novels, from what I have been told, we find ourselves confronted by God’s vision of human life.

Rabbi Soloveitchik starts with the same need to overcome the scientific materialism and amoral selfishness of Huxley, he also starts with the same Protestant pessimism about human nature in its natural state. So, his solution is the need to accept the divine command of being in the image of God and accept moral responsibility for our actions. Unlike Robinson for whom this is a natural faculty, Soloveitchik treats it as “a redemptive sacrificial act” or as a need to be “confronted by God’s revelation.” We need revelation of Genesis to give meaning to our lives. We rise from our nasty brutish existence to a life of morality and intellectual integrity. He presents this rise from materialism to ethical existence in several works including The Emergence of Ethical Man, Confrontation, Kol Dodi Dofek (in shortened form), and in Ubekashtem MeSham. We gain meaning to our suffering and cognitive gestures through revelation and then as Jews we have a double confrontation in that we also have a second confrontation with God in which we are transformed into the Jewish community of Torah.

Soloveitchik lacks a natural faculty but requires a revelation; this form of revelation is called a dialectic theory. All revelation is about how God communicates with humanity. A dialectic theory concerns itself with how we are redeemed from natural existence; it is not about receiving a corpus of doctrine. Nothing can be known in a dialectic approach without revelation so revelation is about one’s basic anthropology. (for more info google Karl Barth and revelation)

As a side point, much of the blog world not trained in theology is not used to distinguishing between revelation and Torah from Sinai. The former is where the divine breaks into the human condition and the latter is the Jewish concept of what occurred at Sinai. Rabbi Soloveitchik was always interested in the former – how we go from materialism to ethical and then to halakhic. He clearly writes that he was not interested in apologetics about the latter. The former was the more serious question.

Marilynne Robinson reminds us why revelation is the more important question. How do we understand human existence that helps us transcend skepticism, materialism, and man’s brutish nature? She answers with a God given sense of the sublime and Rabbi Soloveithcik answers with a double confrontation of man before the Divine.

As a useful contrast, David Novak in Azure set up the problem the same way but offers a different answer. Novak offer a single confrontation. Like Soloveitchik, we no longer use natural theology to know God as a first cause or His involvement in the natural order. We only know God as the commander who creates our moral standards. Novak answers the skeptics and materialists by saying, of course as modern we cannot compete with you and do natural theology that gives values to the natural order. Instead, we have to acknowledge the commander and know that he gives us a natural law to guide us. Whereas Soloveitchik has a double confrontation – our universal meaning in life and then our obedience in halakhah. Novak has a single confrontation and our universal moral sense of natural law should be used to generate a natural law halakhah.

We could say that statements about God are not scientific hypotheses at all, since we are not speaking of God as a cause operating within the natural order, which is the sole order about which natural science can speak with any cogency. And, even when we do speak of God as the creator of the universe and all it contains, we are not speaking of a God whose existence has been inferred from human experience of orderly nature. Instead, we are speaking of a God who commands our community, through his historical revelation to our community, to acknowledge his creation of that natural order in which our historical relationship with him takes place.

A neo-Hasid sees God glory in all things, and does not worry about the science. None of the three thinkers, however, allows nature to prove anything because then the materialists and skeptics win. Today, only fundamentalists conflate religion and science. These are not the only three approaches but Marilynne Robinson has given us a angle to bring together several dialectic thinkers.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

4 responses to “Marilynne Robinson and the Emergence of Ethical Man post 3 of 3

  1. I am now really wanting to read this book, thank you. R. Novak can be rough sledding, but smoother with each run. His “Law and Theology in Judaism” has fine chapter on revelation.

  2. Lawrence Kaplan

    Alan: What about the rational religious consciousness in U-Vishtem? Does not this precede revelation? Again, in LMF Adam the second has a depth awareness of God prior to revelation. See my chart at the end of my article, Maimonides and Soloveitchik on the Knowledge and Imitation of God.” Am I missing something?

    • I did not include LMF on purpose. You are completely correct about LMF. No argument on my part.
      In UBM – it is a bit trickier. When describing Sinai it fits into the dialectic model, when it does religious experience it is LMF, but when unpacking the ethical and the natural state of man, I hear resonances of Emergence of Ethical Man. We get the language of selfish natural man and the need to raise ourselves. In ubm, we get a language of revelation and one of religious experience that are not co-extensive, not just as the shift from “awareness of God” to the halakhah. Maybe I should take UBM off my list.
      Thanks for the clarification.

  3. This looks to be a good read along side Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget” – a “deep human” response to the effects of philosophy deriving from technology (Singularity and “transhumanism”), than scientific reductionism, but we live in a world no less built by technologist engineers than ‘sci’ scientists (and most “mad scientists” are really just mad engineers).

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