Reading Journal 2023: The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson
At one point Robinson muses about the challenges of being both an academic and a Christian. She describes how when people discover she is a Christian it tends to result in shock and confusion.
In truth, the identifying feature that is probably more shocking is the fact that she is a Calvinist. Imagine my disillusionment then when I found myself being won over by some of her arguments for entertaining a Calvinist perspective on the givenness of things, a title which is essentially captured through a series of reflections which attempt to bridge the gap between meaning and reality. Robinson demonstrates a knack for pulling out the strengths of the system while simultaneously challenging some of its most maligned and controversial positions. Just as there is such a thing called a generous orthodoxy, it appears a generous Calvinism could apply just as well. Here we find her engaging what is typically an exclusivist and heavily dogmatic religious expression by reimagining it as a celebration of the goodness of humanity and of Gods creation. She exchanges an emphasis on depravity for a willingness to locate Evil external to what is the fundamental and given value of the human and the created world. She allows her religious convictions to assume and to evoke definite polarities- light and dark, good and evil- within her discussions of reality. And she trades a view of the cross, mired as it is in Gods death wielding ways, for a view of God’s determined involvement in the restoration of this given reality in the light of a common grace and an equal love for all people and all things.
To be clear, The Givenness of Things is not shy about its religious interests, but the book is geared towards both religious and non-religious readers. She has an interest in engaging academic discussions and intellectual discourse, and we see this woven naturally, and almost in a linear fashion, through the sciences, the humanities, and philosophy. It’s no mistake that she begins the book with an essay titled “Humanism” and ends with chapter titled “Realism”. Inbetween she offers compelling and formative discussions that interpret her humanist concern through a greater sense of what reality in fact is, expanding our views and challenging our presuppositions as she goes. Thus the final chapter on realism is able to reinterpret reality in a way that appeals to something both reasoned and mysterious, certain but also allusive, something able to be known through the sciences but something that also holds the power to reveal, thus the givenness of thing both observed and experienced.
No, she didn’t quite convince me towards calvinism, but she definitely did compel me towards meditating on the profound nature of her ideas. For as disorienting as it was to read something so intelligent and aware alongside quotes of Jonathan Edwards, this is a book I would have no problem handing to my non religious friends, to my Calvinist and my non calvinist friends. There is little doubt in my mind that it could lead to some rich discussion.