When I Was a Child I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson

I have tried to avoid talking about Marilynne Robinson’s Christianity, but it’s not going to work. To do that would be to pretend that her faith is not almost immediately encountered in When I Was a Child I Read Books — or her other books, for that matter — so acknowledging it is inevitable. Marilynne Robinson is a Christian. She is also a writer, and may perhaps be a “Christian Writer,” whatever that means.  But rest assured that she is not pictured smiling and looking dynamic on her dust jackets, and her writing bears no resemblance to thinly veiled self-help. Like the Bible, her work offers no assurances that Jesus wants you to be rich, quick or otherwise.

Some readers may be more comfortable with the title of Theologian, but Robinson is not exactly that either. While she mentions Christianity early and often, her essays are not focused on that single subject, and When I Was a Child is not exclusively or explicitly a Christian book.  Her faith is more akin to armor than insulation, equipping her for taking on issues like economics, history, education and democracy. Much like Reinhold Niebuhr, her nearest predecessor in a line that traces back to Whitman and Emerson, Robinson is deeply fascinated with the nature and destiny of human kind, and what we tell ourselves about those things at our moment in history.  I worry about calling her a Christian writer out of a reasonable fear that readers will hear it and deny themselves this thoughtful, exceptional, and important book.

This disclaimer has a purpose, aside from the obvious.  Because at its core, When I Was a Child is a book about assumptions. The opening essay notes “a tendency, considered highly rational, to reason from a narrow set of interests, say survival and procreation, which are supposed to govern our lives,” while a piece titled (with strong echoes of Niebuhr) “The Human Spirit and the Good Society” begins: “All thinking about the good society, what is to be wished for in the way of life of a community, necessarily depends on assumptions about human nature.” The closing essay then argues that “theories of human nature that have developed in the modern period attempt to fold us into great nature by making human complexity accidental or epiphenomenal and by seeing in our capacity to do harm the most natural thing about us.”

If Robinson repeats herself, it’s because we repeat ourselves, doing things like treating complex economic conditions with nothing but Austerity and anger, or dismissing the Old Testament as arcane legalism because we know one or two of its worst verses. There are many ways in which we have worked to steadily close our minds, and When I Was a Child offers a troubling outline of some of the assumptions that have come to guide us, including but not limited to free market economics, social Darwinism, reductive Freudian self-interest, utopianism, and the false notion that science and religion are mutually exclusive. In trying to take the measure of ourselves and the world around us, each of these is only “a straight-edge ruler in a fractal universe.”

As of this writing, a quick scan of some of my favorite publications easily supports Robinson’s claims: An article on the neuroscience of belief with the headline, “Thinking can undermine religious faith, study finds.” The review of a book by a psychological anthropologist with an “arresting hypothesis: Evangelicals believe in an intimate God who talks to them personally because their churches coach them in a new theory of mind.” A claim that humans have sex in private because it is a coveted commodity. The closest thing to theology is the self-written book of an eight year old who says he has died and come back from Heaven. It’s the New York Times #1 bestseller for paperback nonfiction.

These are bold conclusions that people will be influenced by when making bold decisions about their lives. But is it too much to ask — as Robinson does — that we give ourselves and our vast and complicated universe more credit? It seems reasonable to question conclusions, however scientific, that our desire for intimacy with a partner might be something more than our primal possessiveness. When considering a belief system that has captivated billions of people over three thousand years, might we look a little further than chalking it up to brainwashing or, on the other side, the claim (however adorable) that Heaven is for real? Yet we turn to these ideas and others again and again, and in the end, Robinson writes, we “have not escaped, nor have we in any sense diminished, the mystery of our existence. We have only rejected any language that would seem to acknowledge it.”

Acknowledging that mystery is where Robinson’s faith emerges. For her, Christianity it is a magnifier of wonder, and a reminder to be humble in the face of so much we don’t know. This is a refreshing perspective in a public debate that, in general, accepts stunted versions of faith for, as it were, gospel. Robinson pulls no punches on this topic either. When I Was a Child has plenty to say about religion, but the overall thesis is captured in my old pastor’s paraphrase of G.K. Chesterton,  “It was not that Christianity itself had been tried and found wanting; it was that it had been wanted and never been tried.” Robinson’s faith is an antidote to the Santorum-type thinkers of the world, who seem to want to constrain the difficulties and beauties of human complexity into ever-tightening boundaries of acceptable behaviors.

For all the chastising Robinson does, she has a high measure of human kind.  This too comes from her faith, but also through her knowledge of the empirical world:

“I have a favorite scientific fact that I always share with my students: The human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe. By my lights, this makes the human mind and the human person the most interesting entity known to exist in the universe.”

Again, a scan of the latest publications supports her. Neuroscientists recently speculated that the human brain has a storage capacity of up to 2.5 petabytes, roughly enough to hold 300 years of recorded video. We ought, then, to be able to remember that facts like these are remarkable and mysterious — truths that Robinson is willing to label miracles. It’s not a label we should dismiss so easily.

– Michael Moats


Leave a Reply