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The Givenness of Things: Essays

by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is a widely known and lauded author. She has won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2005), an Orange Prize for Fiction (2009), the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (2004, 2014), and The Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction (2016), among many other awards for fiction. What she is not as well known for is her non-fiction which includes her most recent publication, The Givenness of Things: Essays, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).

A number of years ago, friend Tracey Finck and I attended a “Faith and Life Lectures” event sponsored by St. Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church in Plymouth, MN. The final lecture that year was given by Marilynne Robinson. It was called “Christianity and the Writing Life: A Dialogue of Self and Soul.”(You might recognize the title of William Butler Yeats’s poem in the title of her talk.) I think it is fair to say that most of the audience assumed the lecture was going to be about Robinson’s much loved fiction, particularly her novel Gilead. Instead, it was announced that Robinson’s lecture title referred to a response she had written to the non-fiction book, Spiritual Atheism (2009, Counterpoint), by Steve Antinoff. The audience was surprised at this news and we rattled around in our seats a bit. It definitely took me a couple of minutes to mentally switch gears from fiction to non-fiction, but soon the group was absorbed in the topic at hand.

As an introduction to the lecture Robinson explained that when she picks a book to read it is often a book that she knows she will disagree with, and then for a while her non-fiction writing ends up being a rebuttal of that book; so it was with Spiritual Atheism, a book that supports the idea that the human intellect, not the soul, is capable of something akin to transcendent thinking. In her lecture, which she read to us, Robinson wondered aloud why the modern/post-modern world had seen fit to disdain the presence of the soul. Robinson shared that she had done significant research, and read the primary authors on the subject of the subconscious, and as a result she questioned why people in the West have chosen to believe that Freud and his ilk should be the ones to have the last word on this subject. Why does an  idea on the subconscious from the nineteenth century dominate thinking in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries? Is there nothing else to be said on this matter? Is there no one who will confess to the presence of the soul and of its engagement of the world? “Possibly not,” opined Robinson, “or a book like Spiritual Atheism wouldn’t be so widely read.” Said Robinson, “Modern thinkers have snatched the soul from Western thought and have left a changeling in its place.”

At the conclusion of her brilliant and challenging lecture, Robinson graciously answered questions from the audience, most of which were not related to the topic of her address; rather they concerned her many novels.

As a result of Robinson’s presentation Tracey and I were inspired to read a non-fiction work by Robinson: Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010), and so we were introduced to a facet of Robinson’s formidable thinking and impeccable writing style that was as breathtaking as it was demanding. This same gripping writing style appears in The Givenness of Things: Essays.

Givenness is a collection of seventeen essays that offer Robinson’s thoughts on subjects such as Grace, Awakening, Theology, and Servanthood. Citing thinkers and writers Jonathan Edwards, Calvin, Karl Barth, C.S. Pierce and many others, Robinson leads the reader on a journey that seeks to challenge and expand conventional wisdom on the afore mentioned topics. A word of advice — keep your dictionary handy while you read.

Here are a couple of excerpts from The Givenness of Things: Essays

“Theology”:

“I was slow in arriving at a Christology, at least in articulating one, because any account of Christ always seemed to me too narrow–however true in part, still false for all it excluded. This problem resolved itself for me in the Prologue to the Gospel of John, this reconception of the Creation narrative that places Christ at the center of the phenomenon of Creation even while it declares his earthly presence in Jesus of Nazareth. To me this implies that a quality which can be called human inheres in Creation, a quality in which we participate, which is manifested in us, which we epitomize. It implies that Jesus is the defining instance of this essential humanity. Christ is central ontologically, and what I have called humanity is ontological as well, profoundly intrinsic to being because he was in the beginning with God and without him nothing was made that was made.”

“Givenness”:

“Jonathan Edwards is a pragmatist by my definition because he has a very active sense of the givenness of things. We know what love is–he uses the word without definition or modifier. Like every Christian moralist since Jesus, he knows love can attach itself to the wrong things, things of the world, things like power and wealth that are usually implicated in exploitation impoverishment, if the prophets are to be believed. Still it is love he is speaking of, and we understand what he means by it. Modern English speakers may be a little less discriminating in their use of the word than the ancients were, but perhaps not. When poor old Isaac expresses his love for a stew of game, he uses the same verb Moses uses in the commandment that we love God with all our heart, soul, and strength. Of course Isaac associates the stew with rugged Esau and his life in the fields and the sunlight, so, like most things we love, it exists in a web of meaning and memory… “

A final comment on Marilynne Robinson’s lecture: Another theme-of-sorts in Robinson’s talk was that the joy and privilege of her life has been related to her conscious choice to “tend to her soul.” As Tracey and I drove home from the lecture that night we talked about what “tending to one’s soul” might mean for us, and how that idea might influence our daily lives. The evidence of Robinson’s tending to her own soul is expressed through her unapologetically Christian body of work. Whether its fiction or non-fiction, she writes honestly and convincingly about the beauty of the Christian life. Robinson demonstrates through her books that in Christ one can find tremendous strength for living. Christianity holds up against the the stresses and failures of the human condition, and comes out of the fray intact. This brings to mind Paul’s statement, ” I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16).

If you enjoy Robinson’s fiction, I think you will also enjoy her non-fiction, and The Givenness of Things: Essays is a great place to start.