What Are We Doing Here?
New essays on theological, political, and contemporary themes, by the Pulitzer Prize winnerMarilynne Robinson has plumbed the human spirit in her renowned novels, including Lila, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Gilead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. In this new essay collection she trains her incisive mind on our modern political climate and the mysteries of faith. Whether she is investigating how the work of great thinkers about America like Emerson and Tocqueville inform our political consciousness or discussing the way that beauty informs and disciplines daily life, Robinson's peerless prose and boundless humanity are on full display. What Are We Doing Here? is a call for Americans to continue the tradition of those great thinkers and to remake American political and cultural life as "deeply impressed by obligation [and as] a great theater of heroic generosity, which, despite all, is sometimes palpable still."

What Are We Doing Here? Details

TitleWhat Are We Doing Here?
Author
ReleaseFeb 20th, 2018
PublisherFarrar Straus and Giroux
ISBN-139780374282219
Rating
GenreWriting, Essays, Nonfiction, Politics, Philosophy

What Are We Doing Here? Review

  • Jenny (Reading Envy)
    January 1, 1970
    This is not a lightweight read, as Robinson is an academic first, one who happens to write novels. Most of these essays are speeches Robinson gave at universities between 2015 and 2017, on themes of religion, politics, holiness, humanism, etc. She was clearly on a John Edwards, Calvinism, and Cromwell kick because several of the essays reference these characters, as well as looking at the true history of America and its "Puritan roots." While I believe Robinson understands something deep about h This is not a lightweight read, as Robinson is an academic first, one who happens to write novels. Most of these essays are speeches Robinson gave at universities between 2015 and 2017, on themes of religion, politics, holiness, humanism, etc. She was clearly on a John Edwards, Calvinism, and Cromwell kick because several of the essays reference these characters, as well as looking at the true history of America and its "Puritan roots." While I believe Robinson understands something deep about humanity, I personally prefer the experience of her perspective of it in her fiction than in her essays, but there was is one favorite that I feel everyone should read, one that I luckily found myself reading on Presidents' Day. It's called "A Proof, a Test, an Instruction," and looks at Obama's presidency from a different perspective. It can be a balm for people weary of 45. I also think it's interesting to note that it is one of the few written for print rather than a speech, and I think it is in more of a type of essay I enjoy reading - it has more personal reflection to balance the scholarship and points she is trying to make than the rest of them. So this won't be for everyone, but if you are interested in religion and theology, in examining current events through a historical Calvinist lens, or want to delve deep into her thinking, this will be the book for you. I saw her speak a few years ago at the university where I work, and her quiet command of her topics is really something. Thanks to the publisher for providing access to this title through Edelweiss. It came out today, February 20th, 2018.
    more
  • Hadrian
    January 1, 1970
    Collection of some essays retreading Robinson's favorite topics - the role of the university in American life, the Midwest, bipartisanship, mainline Protestantism, John Calvin. Multiple essays carry the banner of rehabilitating Puritanism and seeing in it the forerunners of democracy, political liberalism, and much else of American intellectual life.
    more
  • Kathleen
    January 1, 1970
    My review for the Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifesty...What does a set of theological essays — essays that aim plainly to consider the nature of God and religious belief in the context of both politics and individual consciousness — have to offer an increasingly secular country?Marilynne Robinson intends to find out in her latest book, “What Are We Doing Here?,” an erudite, authoritative and demanding collection that probes questions of faith and doubt, history and ideology t My review for the Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifesty...What does a set of theological essays — essays that aim plainly to consider the nature of God and religious belief in the context of both politics and individual consciousness — have to offer an increasingly secular country?Marilynne Robinson intends to find out in her latest book, “What Are We Doing Here?,” an erudite, authoritative and demanding collection that probes questions of faith and doubt, history and ideology that both divide America and bring it together. As she says in her preface, “I know it is conventional to say that we Americans are radically divided, polarized. But this is not more true than its opposite — in essential ways we share false assumptions and false conclusions that are never effectively examined because they are indeed shared.”The ensuing 15 essays on such philosophical subjects as “Our Public Conversation: How America Talks About Itself” and “Considering the Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope and Love” prove unsparing in their examination of a dizzying assortment of assumptions about what “our core values” as a nation may or may not be, as well as what “we lose when we ignore early American history and, to the extent that when we notice it, mischaracterize it.”The author of four acclaimed novels — including 1980’s “Housekeeping,” which won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award; 2004’s “Gilead,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize; 2008’s “Home,” which won the Orange Prize; and 2014’s “Lila,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award — Robinson is also an accomplished writer of nonfiction.This, her sixth nonfiction book, continues in the voraciously intelligent and meditatively faithful vein of such previous essay collections as “The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought” and “The Givenness of Things.” Subjects that could be construed as a bit dry — science, public education, religion, consciousness — receive graceful treatment here.In the title essay, she contemplates and defends the joys and uses of the humanities, citing examples from “Hamlet,” de Tocqueville, and Whitman to name a few. “If I seem to have conceded an important point in saying that the humanities do not prepare ideal helots, economically speaking,” she writes, “I do not at all mean to imply that they are less than ideal for preparing capable citizens, imaginative and innovative contributors to a full and generous, and largely unmonetizable national life.”And in “Theology for This Moment” she observes: “No other species than ours could be called earnest.” Fittingly, this is an extremely earnest book, sincere and intense in its convictions.The majority of the pieces were delivered as lectures at churches, seminaries and universities; thus, most have the distinctly instructive and at times admonitory tone of that kind of educational talk to an audience. When she warns against the tendency of both the right and the left to “flatten the historical landscape and to deal in moral equivalencies,” and laments that “we have surrendered thought to ideology,” one sometimes wonders if she is not, perhaps, engaging in some of the same flattening. Of whom exactly does this putative “we” consist?This elegantly written book’s appeal to general readers who lack an intimate familiarity both with Christian scripture and Protestant history may frankly be somewhat limited. “In What Is Freedom of Conscience?”, for instance, she writes: “Conversely, it is somewhat unrespectable to have an interest in Cromwell, who is stigmatized in a way that makes him a sort of latter-day Albigensian, a religious fanatic hostile to all of life’s pleasures, and an autocrat besides.” But she follows this somewhat insiderish, divinity school observation with “Stigma is a vast oubliette. Amazing things are hidden in it” — statements pleasing for their metaphoric and metaphysical beauty and provocativeness.Asserting that the language used by the left and the right to make declarations of value is often fraudulent and impoverished, and that “Between them we circle in a maelstrom of utter fatuousness,” doesn't quite qualify as bold, or particularly insightful. But if one needs to be reminded that the moral realm is complex, sophisticated and not always coincident with the realm of politics, then this book accomplishes that in refined prose, and from a Christian — particularly a Calvinist — perspective.Robinson’s arguments that the state of discourse in contemporary America is frustrating, and that we could all stand to think for ourselves and be kinder, are familiar but evergreen. Heady and forceful, composed and serious, Robinson warns readers against despair and cynicism, encouraging us instead to embrace — ideally, in her opinion, through “Christian humanism” — “radical human equality and dignity.”
    more
  • Haley
    January 1, 1970
    These essays, as academic rather than literary artifacts, are so much stronger than the pseudo-philosophy that so many writers attempt. In many of these essays, Robinson engages seriously with the debate between science and religion, and has much to offer on the nature of human consciousness and the role of beauty ("We have in ourselves grounds for supposing that Being is vaster, more luminous, more consequential than we have allowed ourselves to imagine for many generations"). She also makes a These essays, as academic rather than literary artifacts, are so much stronger than the pseudo-philosophy that so many writers attempt. In many of these essays, Robinson engages seriously with the debate between science and religion, and has much to offer on the nature of human consciousness and the role of beauty ("We have in ourselves grounds for supposing that Being is vaster, more luminous, more consequential than we have allowed ourselves to imagine for many generations"). She also makes a strong case for the ongoing need for the humanities, a persistent defense of Puritanism (and Cromwell, interestingly), and overall recounts interesting facets of early American history. If you are interested in a philosophy of religion, John Edwards, or early American history this collection would absolutely be up your alley. I also think it is useful in providing context for Robinson's (pulitzer-prize winning) fiction.
    more
  • Tiffany
    January 1, 1970
    Is it common to repent while reading a book of essays? Blessedly, the scriptural tradition I hold sacred declares now to be the day of salvation, so I proceed. "Slander," the final essay in the volume, is of the most powerful and terrifying sermons I've ever encountered. You come too.I think I will be assigning "Old Souls, New World" as a helpful context for students in thinking through early American literature. I found "Considering the Theological Virtues" helpful as well.In some ways, if you' Is it common to repent while reading a book of essays? Blessedly, the scriptural tradition I hold sacred declares now to be the day of salvation, so I proceed. "Slander," the final essay in the volume, is of the most powerful and terrifying sermons I've ever encountered. You come too.I think I will be assigning "Old Souls, New World" as a helpful context for students in thinking through early American literature. I found "Considering the Theological Virtues" helpful as well.In some ways, if you've read Marilynne Robinson essays in any significant way before, you'll find here the familiar, and this volume represents more time to be in the presence of the Robinson that you know--but with some expansion of territory and a helpful thickening of source-reference-allusions (still no footnotes, I lament!) that comes with her expanding cultural authority. But now, having read everything except _Mother Country_ to which I will at least in part turn now, I feel much less repelled by her confidence, her tone, which has always made me feel, if I am honest, ashamed of myself and my own lack of confidence (tied, I suppose, to my own intellectual training and my own failures of courage or intellectual vigor). I suppose I have been worked on enough by the essays now, five books in, for them to persuade me of the value of much of what she values: human beings and souls as true mediators of the divine, beauty, publicly funded higher education--especially the humanities, the warps in intellectual fabric generated by failures of reading particular historical traditions (puritans, say, or Calvin, or Moses) in context, the inspirational and metaphorical power of recent advances in physics, scripture, utter generosity, truth, the honor due to every created human being.
    more
  • Mark Jr.
    January 1, 1970
    My favorite (self-described) biblicist, Calvinist, Edwards-and-Puritan-reputations-rehabilitating, America-and-humanities-and-Western-tradition-defending, mainline Protestant, United Church of Christ liberal.Robinson is like no other writer I know. I've never seen a more wickedly incisive takedown of reductive materialism. I've never read a better defense of the Puritans, not even from their more direct theological heirs. I've never enjoyed so much having my own political proclivities questioned My favorite (self-described) biblicist, Calvinist, Edwards-and-Puritan-reputations-rehabilitating, America-and-humanities-and-Western-tradition-defending, mainline Protestant, United Church of Christ liberal.Robinson is like no other writer I know. I've never seen a more wickedly incisive takedown of reductive materialism. I've never read a better defense of the Puritans, not even from their more direct theological heirs. I've never enjoyed so much having my own political proclivities questioned from the Bible (Robinson is at her best when reminding Christians of their duties to the poor—I need to hear this). I rarely read any writer so steeped in Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin, even in my own Calvinistic tribe.Robinson does speak out of both sides of her theological mouth on at least two important issues in this collection: 1) what she calls "marriage equality" and 2) universalism. This is odd, because she's such a careful and sensitive and literary reader. She's able to say (here I paraphrase from memory), "Jesus specifically condemned" a given sin and then quote the Gospels accurately. She frequently quotes the Bible, and not just the bits that are popular in mainline Protestantism but bits you could only know if you actually read the Bible. She also has written, in a previous essay collection, a pretty stalwart and exegetically/theologically attentive defense of the OT's picture of God. She also, in this essay collection, eviscerates the tendency moderns have to separate the God of the Old Testament from the Jesus of the New. She quotes Paul in Romans 1 at some length, as well she should, in condemnation of the sins of Fox News: gossip, malice, etc. So I'm at a loss—and I've now read three of her essay collections and three of her novels—as to where her critical reading skills have gone when she affirms the morality of homosexual practice and, very briefly, affirms universalism (if I read her right). The Bible speaks clearly and definitively to these issues. All of the Christian writers of the past whom she admires would have read the Bible in just the way I do. One may disagree with the Bible, of course: God permits us that freedom in this age. But that's not Ms. Robinson's M.O. She actually affirms "the authority" (her word) of the Bible explicitly in this book. I don't understand, and I wish to.But Robinson's strengths are so strong that, even when I don't agree or am not sure I agree, I profit. Her prose style is clear but demanding—in a way that confers respect upon her readers. Ironically, it is this arch liberal, a friend of Barack Obama, who has done more to make me feel proud to be an American than anything I've read in forever. She makes me thankful for my cultural heritage, a culture whose egalitarianism made it possible for a little girl in Idaho to be given the kind of rigorous education that turns her into a Marilynne Robinson.To fellow evangelical Christians I say: read Robinson for her critiques of scientism and Darwinism and materialism; read her for her rich understanding of your own tradition as found in Puritans both English and American. Read her for careful insights into Scripture, despite and because of their liberal source. Stick around for her critiques of capitalism and Republican ideology; we need to hear them. And then just enjoy the sheer pleasure of reading someone who is so smart.
    more
  • Krista
    January 1, 1970
    It is no accident that Marxism and social Darwinism arose together, two tellers of one tale. It is not surprising that they have disgraced themselves in similar ways. Their survival more than one hundred and fifty years on is probably owed to the symmetry of their supposed opposition. Based on a single paradigm, they reinforce each other as legitimate modes of thought. So it is with our contemporary Left and Right. Between them we circle in a maelstrom of utter fatuousness. What Are We Doing He It is no accident that Marxism and social Darwinism arose together, two tellers of one tale. It is not surprising that they have disgraced themselves in similar ways. Their survival more than one hundred and fifty years on is probably owed to the symmetry of their supposed opposition. Based on a single paradigm, they reinforce each other as legitimate modes of thought. So it is with our contemporary Left and Right. Between them we circle in a maelstrom of utter fatuousness. What Are We Doing Here? is a collection of “mostly lectures...given in churches, seminaries, and universities over the past few years”; reflecting not only Marilynne Robinson's usual preoccupation with Calvinist thought, but extending her ideas to the current American political climate. Because these lectures were given so close together, but at different venues, they often circle and repeat the exact same points over and over again; making this, as a reading experience, slightly more tedious than necessary. These essays are challenging (I can't imagine sitting in an auditorium and listening to Robinson speak without the benefit of going back and rereading the passages I didn't understand the first time through), and they're sometimes dry, but I never found them boring; there's definitely value in collecting the current preoccupations of such a deep thinker in one place like this.When Stephen Hawking died recently, the social media that I follow included posts by religious folk who said such things as, “I am deeply saddened that he died not knowing God the Creator of all things”, and responses from those “rational thinkers” who then replied with, “You can believe in an invisible sky fairy all you like but, if he does exist, screw him for inventing ALS.” (I would like to note, with utter neutrality, that in A Brief History of Time, back in the 1980s, Dr. Hawking stated his goal to describe the universe in such a way that no creator God was necessary; I don't believe he accomplished this, but either way, he's either currently in possession of the ultimate truths or simply extinguished – what we believe about it is no longer relevant.) It's where Robinson responds to this particular public discourse – wherein religious belief is seen as primitive and unintelligent and scientism is seen as definitive and rational – that I was most interested. Our ways of understanding the world now, our systems and ideologies, have an authority for us that leads us to think of them as exhaustive accounts of reality rather than, at best, as instruments of understanding suited to particular uses. As a professor at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Robinson has watched as the humanities have lost their presumed validity as an area of study. Centuries of rising humanism has pushed our gods to the edge of relevance, but we now find ourselves in a post-humanist world – where it is fashionable to call humans the least of Earth's animals and regret our effects, and even our presence, on the planet (beliefs that I see on my own social media every day) – and if we no longer see value in humans, we certainly don't see value in studying the humanities at a post-secondary level. Our meanness of spirit (the transformation from “Citizens” to merely “Taxpayers”) resents funding public institutions of higher learning, insisting if we do that the young should only be studying “trades”; not recognising that it is through the humanities – art, music, literature – that humans have been expressing what is divine in themselves all along. Over several of these lectures, and especially with regards to the discovery of dark matter, Robinson makes the point that science is continually making observations that contradict what we previously thought was “settled truth”; why do we believe that science is truth in itself instead of simply one method for observing the world? Science dismisses the felt experience – mind and conscience – as mere side effects of evolution, and in several places, Robinson wonders why we don't challenge the “cynicism as ultimate truth” of Richard Dawkins, et al: Who can show me a shred of empirical evidence for the existence of anything resembling a selfish gene? The prejudice that allows these theories to claim the authority of reason and science is, among many other things, a slander on reason and science. And in a later lecture she ties it all up thusly: Science before the twentieth century supported the assumption that reason was, as the physicists say, flat, that like the laws of nature its rules were the same everywhere and in all circumstances, and that whatever they could not countenance was an error, a primitive survival, a mystification. Then along came quantum physics, relativity, a theory of cosmic origins, and science ever since has been constantly at work at a new poetry, trying to capture something of the startling elegance, novel to our eyes, that eventuates everything that is. Crucially assisted by dark matter, of course, which seems to hold the heavens together and about which little else can at present be said. Only grant that a great, creating holiness is at the center of it all, and one must arrive at something like the extraordinary language in which the ancients invested their perceptions. For the ancients, the great, creative holiness was the intuition, the conception, that forced their language so far beyond the limits of the commonplace. Science departed from its origins in religion not so very long ago. If these two great thought systems are not now once again reaching a place of convergence, the fault lies with religion, which, in a fit of defensive panic, has abandoned its profoundest insights and has never reclaimed them. Surely, where science and religion converge must be a lovely and satisfying place to live. And while this was the most interesting thread for me personally, it wasn't the only one in this collection. Robinson makes much of Americans' lack of knowledge of their own history and origins – and especially with respect to the (apparently unfairly maligned) Puritans; the freedom-fighting abolitionist knowledge-seekers who founded both Harvard and Yale deserve to be remembered for more than the pejorative “Puritanical” (more than once Robinson asks, non-rhetorically, if there weren't witch trials in the South at the same time). Robinson traces and retraces the religious writings of Jonathan Edwards and quotes from The Actes and Monuments of the Martyrs by John Foxe; with several references to the Golden Rule, Robinson seems to be making the point that if we were to recognise the divine in both ourselves and in our neighbours, there would be no poverty or income disparity – the death of God was the death of faith, hope, and charity, which led us directly to where we find ourselves today, yelling at each other over the internet.There are two personal pieces in this collection that don't seem to fit with the scholarly tone of the others, but they are both fascinating reads. A Proof, a Test, an Instruction is on the personal relationship that Robinson developed with President Obama: Having spoken with the president, having had some direct experience of his humor, his intelligence and courtesy, and his goodness, I consider it probable that those who have opposed him so intractably did so because they knew how remarkable a leader he could be. They were threatened by the possibility of a great president, one who could lead the country in a direction they did not favor and give prestige to a vision they did not share. And the final essay, Slander, was on Robinson's aging mother and how watching Fox News made her fearful; tormented by anxieties and regrets: I, her daughter, a self-professed liberal, was one of those who had ruined America. I would go to hell for it, too, a fact she considered both regrettable and just. Where this kind of Left-Right chasm can open within a family, it seems obvious that there is something wrong with public discourse today. Robinson's writings have given me much to think about in this regard.
    more
  • Ted Morgan
    January 1, 1970
    For some reason, I don't quite grasp her essays but I love their depth. Ms. Robinson is a subtle writer who suggests more than states (I think) and is remarkable as a highly theologically literate thinker and author. I keep going back to her works for refreshment.
    more
  • Northpapers
    January 1, 1970
    We have invented common ground so that we can fight on it. This ground is a place that is safe from conceptions of mind and spirit and a significant amount of nuance in our history. It has been hammered flat. But our terms come at the immeasurable cost of all that is immeasurable.In this dry and diminished conversation, Marilynne Robinson answers a deep-seated thirst for wonder. Her approach is to take exception to our culture's basic assumptions about who we are and explore them in the light of We have invented common ground so that we can fight on it. This ground is a place that is safe from conceptions of mind and spirit and a significant amount of nuance in our history. It has been hammered flat. But our terms come at the immeasurable cost of all that is immeasurable.In this dry and diminished conversation, Marilynne Robinson answers a deep-seated thirst for wonder. Her approach is to take exception to our culture's basic assumptions about who we are and explore them in the light of her primary interests- Jesus, Moses, the enlightenment, Shakespeare, John Calvin, Puritans, New England, and current theories about matter, the universe, and our origins. These exceptions form lectures and articles that she writes on occasion, and when she has enough of them, she compiles a new book.The approach bears good fruit as it circles around her central concerns, yielding new phrases, insights, and lights by which to see. Sometimes, because they are designed as independent essays, they retread the same territory in the same way throughout the collection. These redundant moments diminished some of the thrill of revelation I felt while reading ("Oh, I guess we're going to be talking for a while about how misunderstood the Puritans are again"), but the overall impact of the collection was profound for me.Those who find her essays scattered are probably not aware of how deeply focused they are on recognizing the complex, irreducible glory of humanity. She sees in us the image of an immeasurable god and enormous potential for perception and beauty. She urges us to see it in ourselves and our neighbors as well.The breathtaking workings of her mind on our basic nature and purpose have helped to redefine my thinking in important ways. While reading this book, I gained deeper and more resonant definitions of ideas central to my life- faith, hope, love, and beauty. I also gained a restored sense of wonder at people- who we are, our stories, and the unpredictable ways we shape and are shaped by our world.
    more
  • Tashfin Awal
    January 1, 1970
    I received this book for free through Goodreads Giveaways and have chosen to give my honest opinion about it.This book was actually such an interesting read! It's always refreshing to see such an inquisitive angle to things we often take for granted, and to challenge our perceptions of the factors in our lives which we consider above us. While some of the ideas here relied a bit too much on biblical literature for my taste, it was overall an intellectually stimulating read that I would definitel I received this book for free through Goodreads Giveaways and have chosen to give my honest opinion about it.This book was actually such an interesting read! It's always refreshing to see such an inquisitive angle to things we often take for granted, and to challenge our perceptions of the factors in our lives which we consider above us. While some of the ideas here relied a bit too much on biblical literature for my taste, it was overall an intellectually stimulating read that I would definitely recommend flipping through at least, if not fully diving in.
    more
  • Jonathan Berry
    January 1, 1970
    Marilynne Robinson is one of the most thoughtful writers of our time, capable of finding and savoring beauty in humanity, despite the millions of ways we pile insult and injury upon each other. In this newest collection of essays, talks, and addresses, she engages questions and concerns at the forefront of the American consciousness: What is the role of education, and to what extent are our current educational systems serving the populace as they ought? What can be done about the frightening acc Marilynne Robinson is one of the most thoughtful writers of our time, capable of finding and savoring beauty in humanity, despite the millions of ways we pile insult and injury upon each other. In this newest collection of essays, talks, and addresses, she engages questions and concerns at the forefront of the American consciousness: What is the role of education, and to what extent are our current educational systems serving the populace as they ought? What can be done about the frightening acceleration of polarization within the country, and how can we have any meaningful conversations nowadays? Are there bounds to the domain of scientific inquiry, and to what extent does religion have a role in the modern world? And ultimately and incorporated into almost every piece: Is there a self beyond the biological machinery of the human body, or in other words, is there a soul?To say these are hard questions with which to wrestle is an understatement. To say that she succeeds in effectively engaging with them is not hyperbole. This is easily the most challenging but also most valuable book I have read this year.In several essays, most notably "The American Scholar Now," she captures the value of a broad, humanities-oriented, liberal education by tracing the origins of higher education in America as an attempt to provide broad access to a classical base of education which was previously a privilege of the elites. This was at the core of how to have a populace that would be informed and able to govern itself democratically. She also questions the motives of those who would sneer at the utility of such an education, and warns us against turning our bastions of learning into factories for the production of effective workers.In many essays, she turns to her favored subject, the Puritans. She argues that the Puritans of New England were hardly the stoic, intolerant, and exotic folk of Miller's Crucible and the general public consciousness, but rather an extremely (for the time) tolerant bunch, whose laws directly prefigure the Bill of Rights and who were not isolated but living in a historical stream that connected them to England's Lollards and the Commonwealth under Cromwell, Geneva's Calvinists, and various other groups across Europe. In doing so, she exposes the systemic biases we bring to history, and how those can blind us to useful and fascinating discoveries.She spends several essays discussing the role of theology in understanding the human condition. She argues, in "Integrity and the Modern Intellectual Tradition," "The Divine," and "Grace and Beauty," among others, that the progression of scientism and modernity, which has effectively tried to dismiss the soul, the supernatural, and the substance of faith in favor of a worldview purely explicable by observed experience, has jettisoned not only God, but all the attributes we used to refer to as "godly" within humanity, and unnecessarily. She argues, and I am compelled to believe her, that we can with full intellectual integrity wonder at the amazing discoveries of science and dream about the unknown extents into which science will shed light in the year to come, while still wholeheartedly believing in the presence of a Divine Being who intentionally spoke the World into creation. By removing God completely from the equation of what it means to be human, we are left with a relatively flimsy explanation that all is for the sake of self-preservation, and yet that there is no true self beyond one's genes, physical brain, and the material stuff of the human body.These essays/talks were penned between 2016 and 2018, indisputably a time of great change in the character and direction of America. Politics and current events undoubtedly affected her thoughts and her writing, and grow more apparent moving forward in time, but she treats them and everyone with a certain grace which is rare today. Perhaps most powerfully, in her final essay "Slander", she tackles the elephant in the room, the polarization of America and the culture of tribalism and condescension (from all sides) towards the other, which seems to accompany virtually all public conversation today. The story becomes personal as she relates how her mother, in her final years, became increasingly enamored of Fox News, and how the corresponding changes in her ideology led to an irreparable breach between them. She then turns to James 3:5-10, a passage on the power of the tongue to create blessing and perform great ill towards others. She bluntly addresses Christians, of all political leanings and persuasions, of all denominations and groups. 'In light of this passage, and many others,' she seems to say, 'how can you defend yourself?' I was convicted of my own complicit role in slander and bitter comments towards others, and thus this same tribalism and polarization. She argues that at the very least, we are called to be civil towards each other, and in reality, we are called to love one another, full stop.You see, Robinson is not merely a philosopher or commentator on current events. She is a committed Christ-follower, who is pained by the culture that she sees today. She is pained that so many would so quickly dismiss the existence of God and insist any theologic philosophy is deficient or primitive. And she is equally pained that so many who claim to follow Christ would defend their own "inalienable" rights to the exclusion of the rights of the poor, the orphan, the sojourner, the minorities...and in doing so defy Christ's call to show grace and love to "the least of these" and to love the neighbor as one's self.You've got to read this.
    more
  • Peter
    January 1, 1970
    In the history of England there was a fault line that ran between the Catholics and the Protestants, the Tories and the Whigs, and this was duplicated in America’s DNA, beginning with the contrast between the harsh punitive laws of Sir Thomas Dale’s slave-driving, profit-seeking Virginia and the humanistic rights and liberties of John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony. Robinson returns to this theme in multiple essays (which are the re-worked texts of lectures at Universities, etc.), wondering In the history of England there was a fault line that ran between the Catholics and the Protestants, the Tories and the Whigs, and this was duplicated in America’s DNA, beginning with the contrast between the harsh punitive laws of Sir Thomas Dale’s slave-driving, profit-seeking Virginia and the humanistic rights and liberties of John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony. Robinson returns to this theme in multiple essays (which are the re-worked texts of lectures at Universities, etc.), wondering why the Puritans have gotten such a hackneyed reputation for restrictiveness and lamenting the fact that the Puritan value of individual rights has been completely ignored to the advantage of the rights-of-property plantation libertarians. Her essays on faith and religion I found less compelling, but she strikes again on the themes of compassion and consideration for suffering that is the duty of good Christians (and people) everywhere.
    more
  • James
    January 1, 1970
    What Are We Doing Here? has been my first foray into Marilynne Robinson's non-fiction essays, and it was like drinking from a fire hose! There is so much density of thought, so much artistry of language, that I am certain I could read it a number of times and still see different and compelling ideas come to the fore in new ways.Compiled from a number of her lectures from the past few years, this recently-released collection is timely, and Robinson seems to have her finger on the religious, cultu What Are We Doing Here? has been my first foray into Marilynne Robinson's non-fiction essays, and it was like drinking from a fire hose! There is so much density of thought, so much artistry of language, that I am certain I could read it a number of times and still see different and compelling ideas come to the fore in new ways.Compiled from a number of her lectures from the past few years, this recently-released collection is timely, and Robinson seems to have her finger on the religious, cultural, media, and academic pulses of our day as she presents a nuanced alternative to outrage. But she's old enough to have been around the block a few times and doesn't hold back, either. "We have surrendered thought to ideology," she says in the first essay. "Every question is for all purposes the same question, every answer the same answer." Indeed. This collection proposes some different questions, different answers.Because these essays were originally lectures, there are many similar themes that emerge through the book. Even for an academic, writer, and speaker as compelling as Robinson, I suppose one cannot reinvent the wheel every time one is asked to speak. Thus, a number of themes surface over and over: her deep respect for the individual human as created in the divine image (and her related interest in the value of the humanities as a pursuit); her interest in "redeeming" bad or misunderstood history (the Puritans, and how they weren't puritanical in the sense we imagine the word, feature prominently in a number of essays); and the uncomfortable tensions between science and religion (which she doesn't seem to buy either being mutually-exclusive); among others.Though well-respected by individuals of diverse faiths (or none), Robinson's Christianity shows in this collection, and she is not apologetic of it. Nor should she be. She says, "I write books that are straightforwardly Christian, and I write religious and theological essays. A question I am asked, almost always by Christians, is: Weren't you afraid? This question truly, deeply gives me the creeps. I have been confirmed again and again in the belief that I live in a free country. I write about what is on my mind." One of her most pointed and powerful Christian in my estimation was the final one (or maybe that's because it is fresh in my mind, having been the most recently read). The essay, "Slander," is critical of the political Christian right (a concern which I, though likely more conservative than she, share) and holds all Christians to account for the power of their words.This book won't be everyone's cup of tea. But that's okay. That won't bother Robinson at all. "There are a great many fine books in the world... so if some readers are turned away from mine by my choice of subject, they are at no risk of deprivation."If you do, however, decide to read this book, make sure to take a deep breath first. Also, make sure you have a dictionary on hand. You're going to need it!
    more
  • Marks54
    January 1, 1970
    I had never read anything by Marilynne Robinson before I read this new book of essays by her. Having done so, I must acknowledge that I now need to read more books by this author, probably starting with her novel, Gilead. This is a marvelous book of essays on humanism, religion, metaphysics, ethics, Puritanism, writing, conscience, and plain old critical thinking. These essays are challenging, well thought through and rigorous, and demanding on the reader. I felt like I was under increasing pres I had never read anything by Marilynne Robinson before I read this new book of essays by her. Having done so, I must acknowledge that I now need to read more books by this author, probably starting with her novel, Gilead. This is a marvelous book of essays on humanism, religion, metaphysics, ethics, Puritanism, writing, conscience, and plain old critical thinking. These essays are challenging, well thought through and rigorous, and demanding on the reader. I felt like I was under increasing pressure to keep up with the author’s thoughts, references, and linkages - along with some concern about my ability to do so. The essays are fairly short and well written. They are challenging. If there is some repetition over the course of these assembled essays, that is OK, since apparently the Robinson has taken the idea of “practice makes perfect” to heart in working up her arguments across several works.I could not possibly rehash or summarize the ideas at play here. I can mention a few highlights that caught my attention.1). Ideology and dogma are substitutes for careful critical thinking and should be avoided if one is seeking out the truth - or at least its general neighborhood.2) The sciences of the mind (psychology, economics, etc.) are poor substitutes for what we have long known about the life of the mind, the pursuit of truth, and accountability to conscience. Because empirical research can highlight some set of behaviors does not mean that less visible experiences or unimportant are less valuable.3) Indeed, the new sciences of the mind have attempted to banish values and principled choices from people’s lives leading to a progressive improvishment of our common life. This is not to say that science is the enemy at all but that some scientists act more like theocrats than do actual theocrats.4) The Puritans got a bad rap nearly across the board and revisiting Jonathan Edwards and others of the Great Awakening would be a worthwhile effort for thinking people to consider.5) The Puritans and others similarly maligned wanted individuals to be true to their own consciences, critical in their own thinking, and unwilling to entertain and own thoughts that they would not wish to own on their deathbeds (I am still processing this one). To thine own self be true - or something like that. It is perfectly fine to think about theology and ethics and metaphysics - just do so critically and honestly. The point is to live what one believes, walk the walk, etc.Robinson’s essays are thoughtful, interesting, and challenging in their demands. I will certainly read more of her work and see what its further implications are for me.
    more
  • Sharon Gallup
    January 1, 1970
    This was one of my free giveaways win. it took me a bit of time to read this as yes it isn't a story it is essays written by Marilynne Robinson. If you are a christen who believes in the bible this is a really informative of why we are here and how the past and future follows the teaching of the bible and in God and Jesus Christ and the teachings of mankind. (love, conscience and faith, hope and the practices of life). I took alot out of these essays but it didn't change alot of my mind set. I b This was one of my free giveaways win. it took me a bit of time to read this as yes it isn't a story it is essays written by Marilynne Robinson. If you are a christen who believes in the bible this is a really informative of why we are here and how the past and future follows the teaching of the bible and in God and Jesus Christ and the teachings of mankind. (love, conscience and faith, hope and the practices of life). I took alot out of these essays but it didn't change alot of my mind set. I believe that all mankind are born with a blank and clean slate. That all values of God, religion, faith, etc are taught by the person that raises them. Each person passes on their beliefs and knowledge by what they are taught and told. Now don't get me wrong i am not saying it is wrong. but i believe there is a greater power that controls all life rather it is human, animal etc. But do i believe that it is a man or a spirit i don't know. I have seen the good in religion and i have experienced the bad in religion. Do i believe there is life after death, i honestly have to say i don't know. All i know is I pray I haven't gone through all the hell i have lived and experienced the good to think that when i die it is the end. that there hopefully is more to existence then complete death but do i believe it is a place that is a question i will only know when I die. Religions have changed and more so to suit the living and as life changes so much of the teachings changes with the times.
    more
  • Michael Gonzales
    January 1, 1970
    I just LOVE Marilynne Robinson. This is to say that my review is surely biased. I’ll be brief. If you’re bored by those subjects to which Robinson *religiously* gravitates—Puritanism, critiques of positivism, Western history, theology, etc.—then yeah, you might find this book unenjoyable, but also frustrating and challenging, which you might find ultimately satisfying. She repeats herself. Revisits the same subjects and figures, occasionally the same insights. The reason, that these essays first I just LOVE Marilynne Robinson. This is to say that my review is surely biased. I’ll be brief. If you’re bored by those subjects to which Robinson *religiously* gravitates—Puritanism, critiques of positivism, Western history, theology, etc.—then yeah, you might find this book unenjoyable, but also frustrating and challenging, which you might find ultimately satisfying. She repeats herself. Revisits the same subjects and figures, occasionally the same insights. The reason, that these essays first appeared as lectures delivered to different audiences, doesn’t change the experience of the her new audience, the reader of this book of collected essays. But, as I’ve said, her thought is challenging, so I found myself appreciating the repetition. By the fourth or fifth essay, I felt more confident in my mental construction of the intellectual historical lineage from England to New England. I also felt I saw the bigger picture of Robinson’s position on the world. As a devoted fan, I appreciate as much insight into Robinson’s viewpoint as I can. If you’re a Robinson fan, proceed. If unfamiliar with Robinson but familiar with her addressed subjects, then I also recommend you proceed. It’s difficult, but ultimately rewarding.
    more
  • Clayton
    January 1, 1970
    An uneven collection, with too many discussions of the same narrow range of topics--mostly Puritanism, Protestant theology, the decline of the humanities, and "Darwinism," which Robinson continues to deploy in her shifting, own idiosyncratic way that bears little relation to the life and works of Mr. Charles D. In What Are We Doing Here?, she sticks mostly to the hits that longtime readers know and love. Nothing wrong with that--Emersonian that she is, Robinson's essays always seem to start as l An uneven collection, with too many discussions of the same narrow range of topics--mostly Puritanism, Protestant theology, the decline of the humanities, and "Darwinism," which Robinson continues to deploy in her shifting, own idiosyncratic way that bears little relation to the life and works of Mr. Charles D. In What Are We Doing Here?, she sticks mostly to the hits that longtime readers know and love. Nothing wrong with that--Emersonian that she is, Robinson's essays always seem to start as lectures, which she refines and remolds as she gives them before they finally mutate into a different lecture for a different crowd, either applying different sources to the same idea, or the same ideas to different sources. So the lectures are all great, individually, although reading them straight through can turn into a bit of a slog. To be clear, Robinson is still one of the great English prose writers living today, compassionate, thoughtful, and absolutely merciless towards people who don't read their primary sources. And when she stretches herself, as she in a standout essay on truth and Fox News, she's still the best game in town.
    more
  • Chris devine
    January 1, 1970
    What are we doing here? Wasting my time. This book is so dry and annoying, it's somehow both religious and anti religious at the same time, and I can pretty much sum the whole book up with don't be a dick. It seems like she's trying to fix the world, specifically the US, and if everyone lived by the slogan don't be a dick, we'd be pretty ok. The one redeeming essay was A Proof, a Test, an Instruction, which was primarily about Obama, and it was interesting, but at 11 pages it's a small gold nugg What are we doing here? Wasting my time. This book is so dry and annoying, it's somehow both religious and anti religious at the same time, and I can pretty much sum the whole book up with don't be a dick. It seems like she's trying to fix the world, specifically the US, and if everyone lived by the slogan don't be a dick, we'd be pretty ok. The one redeeming essay was A Proof, a Test, an Instruction, which was primarily about Obama, and it was interesting, but at 11 pages it's a small gold nugget in a pile of dirt.I won this in a goodreads giveaway
    more
  • Micah
    January 1, 1970
    These challenging essays ranging from meditations on Faith, Hope, and Love, to a reexamination of the Puritanism and Calvinism also offer hope to those ruefully wondering why they chose to throw themselves into the humanities. I couldn't always keep up with Marilynne's sharp mind, and I might have tapped out of one or two essays after repeated mentions of the name "Oliver Cromwell," but overall, I was stretched and edified by this collection.
    more
  • Marina
    January 1, 1970
    This is a good book, I gave it 3 stars because I couldn't finish it. If I had started it at any other time other then the middle of a busy semester I would have been able to finish it and love it. So for right now it hasn't been finished, however, I will come back to it when I able to read more then 1 or 2 pages at a time.
    more
  • Bob
    January 1, 1970
    Summary: A collection of essays based on talks given, mostly at universities, between 2015 and 2017, questioning what she sees as a surrender of thought to ideology."I know it is conventional to say we Americans are radically divided, polarized. But this is not more true than its opposite--in essential ways we share false assumptions and flawed conclusions that are never effectively examined because they are indeed shared" (Preface, p. ix).The thread that connects these essays, mostly transcript Summary: A collection of essays based on talks given, mostly at universities, between 2015 and 2017, questioning what she sees as a surrender of thought to ideology."I know it is conventional to say we Americans are radically divided, polarized. But this is not more true than its opposite--in essential ways we share false assumptions and flawed conclusions that are never effectively examined because they are indeed shared" (Preface, p. ix).The thread that connects these essays, mostly transcriptions of talks given at universities (I was present for and blogged about one of these, here presented as "The Beautiful Changes") is that in much of our intellectual discourse, we have "surrendered thought to ideology." We unthinkingly tout maxims from Marxism or Darwinism, often without real acquaintance with Marx or Darwin. We speak critically about Puritans, Oliver Cromwell, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards without a real appreciation of what they thought and wrote (apart from a brief excerpt of one sermon of Edwards), and the culture they helped shape. She introduces this theme in her opening essay, on freedom of conscience, maintaining that we have Cromwell and the much-maligned New England Puritans to thank for the idea of freedom of conscience, in contrast to the Anglican controlled South that enforced uniformity of worship and upheld slavery.In the second and title essay, she pushes back against the much touted demise of the humanities, asking "what are we doing here, we professors of English?" She argues for the recovery of a discourse about the beautiful in an economy that tries to monetize everything, and that we do so with depth and eloquence. In the next essay, on theology, she contends for a recovery of a concept of Being, recognizing both the greatness of God and the greatness of human beings. She goes on to challenge the modern assumption that we are simply thinking animals with Edwards conception of us as capable moral agents. She questions the eclipse of the terminology of the divine and what is lost in our discourse in consequence. She explores Emerson's idea of the "American scholar" and the very different idea of university education's end--monetized and measured by its ability to propel a new generation into a cultural elite.The next three essays explore further the ideas of beauty. Both "Grace and Beauty" and "The Beautiful Changes" argue for a kind of divine freedom that precedes reality and that the ordered grandeur and elegance seen by both scientists and theologians bespeak the grace of God. Between these two essays is a tribute to a different kind of beauty and comes out of the personal friendship Robinson enjoyed with Barack Obama. She writes,"There is a beauty at the center of American culture which, when it is understood, is expressed in a characteristic eloquence. Every new articulation renews the present life of the country and enriches historic memory to the benefit of future generations. Barack Obama speaks this language, a rare gift. He is ours, in the deep sense that Lincoln is ours, a proof, a test, and an instruction. We see ourselves in him, and in him we embrace or reject what we are" (p. 125).The longest essay, "Our Public Conversation" is a sprawling reflection on America's conversation about itself, and particularly its history, which in Robinson's estimation, it often gets wrong. Here again, her example is the Puritans, and how in fact the rights we so cherish arose out of Puritan culture, rather than in spite of it.The latter part of the work focuses on questions of character--our conceptions of mind, conscience and soul; the theological virtues of faith, hope and love; integrity in our modern intellectual tradition, the richness of intellectual and moral life of the New England Puritans (yes, those Puritans again!), and finally a challenging and convicting essay on slander and the scriptural warnings against every careless word. If everyone engaged in public discourse could read and take this to heart, it would turn out public discourse upside down!Robinson is one of those you need to read closely and more than once as her mind ranges widely with rich use of allusion and metaphor while exploring a chosen theme. When I didn't, I lost the thread of her argument. It is also true that in this collection, Robinson belabors her defense of the Puritans (although essay collections often recur to their author's favorite themes). At the same time, one finds a forthrightness in challenging unthinking assumptions, including those of her fellow Christians, who wonder if she is fearful about her open portrayal of religious themes in her novels and other works. Her response is that she has always written what she is interested in, and simply is glad there is an audience that has also found it of interest.Perhaps Robinson's love of the Puritans and the intellectual rigor she finds in Calvinism offers her a unique point of view in her critique of American intellectual culture. As C. S. Lewis has argued in his case for reading old books, two sides may be "as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united -- united with each other and against earlier and later ages -- by a great mass of common assumptions." Reading books from a different age, in this case the Puritans, and other great theologians of the church, may give Robinson that ability to spot those common assumptions--the ideologies we unthinkingly embrace that substitute for thought, that foster our disagreements and stifle our public discourse and intellectual life. We may delight in pointing out the flaws in the Puritans but do we let them speak to ours? This is what I believe is implied as Robinson asks, "what are we doing here?"
    more
  • Joshua Parks
    January 1, 1970
    Many of these essays share a similar topic: a defense and re-appraisal of the Puritans' theological, cultural, and political legacy. While it was interesting to see Puritan thought from several angles throughout the book, those essays did eventually get a bit tedious. More enjoyable, challenging, and interesting to me were the topical essays scattered in between, specifically those about public universities, President Obama, the theological virtues, and slander. That final "Slander" essay in par Many of these essays share a similar topic: a defense and re-appraisal of the Puritans' theological, cultural, and political legacy. While it was interesting to see Puritan thought from several angles throughout the book, those essays did eventually get a bit tedious. More enjoyable, challenging, and interesting to me were the topical essays scattered in between, specifically those about public universities, President Obama, the theological virtues, and slander. That final "Slander" essay in particular opens with the heartbreaking story of Robinson's deteriorating relationship with her late mother, whose increasing consumption of slanderous mass media turned her last years into needlessly fearful and unkind ones. May we all heed that warning.
    more
  • Peter Reczek
    January 1, 1970
    Marilynne Robinson is always thought provoking. A bit too religious but an important public intellectual.I wish I could write like her!!
  • L
    January 1, 1970
    Some of the essays are simply wonderful (the final essay in particular), while others feel a bit repetitive. Maybe I’m just not interested enough in Puritans (although it is a topic of interest!), but several of the essays felt a little dry. I’m all for grounding an analysis of our current state of affairs in the past, but it often felt like the point of an essay was to reflect on Puritans and their role in history rather than use them as a point of reference for understanding the present. Which Some of the essays are simply wonderful (the final essay in particular), while others feel a bit repetitive. Maybe I’m just not interested enough in Puritans (although it is a topic of interest!), but several of the essays felt a little dry. I’m all for grounding an analysis of our current state of affairs in the past, but it often felt like the point of an essay was to reflect on Puritans and their role in history rather than use them as a point of reference for understanding the present. Which is fine, but the end of results is a lot of Puritans. Perhaps more than I had bargained for. Still, when she hits her stride the volume is more than redeemed. The writing itself is lovely, although it definitely veers on the side of the poetic rather than academic.
    more
  • Bonnie
    January 1, 1970
    This collection was a mixed bag of academic lectures for a specialized audience and salient op-eds on our current religious and political climate. I do not share Robinson's deep enthusiasm for John Calvin and the Puritans, though I appreciated her perspective. I very much appreciated the essay "Slander" and its implications for religious people. I do which there would have been an organization by content, date, or theme, as well as context for each essay or lecture. Robinson is a skillful writer This collection was a mixed bag of academic lectures for a specialized audience and salient op-eds on our current religious and political climate. I do not share Robinson's deep enthusiasm for John Calvin and the Puritans, though I appreciated her perspective. I very much appreciated the essay "Slander" and its implications for religious people. I do which there would have been an organization by content, date, or theme, as well as context for each essay or lecture. Robinson is a skillful writer, but many of these essays do not read well outside a specific academic audience.
    more
  • Laura
    January 1, 1970
    There are two major themes in these essays: religion as it pertains to modern American life and culture, and the Puritans. Many of these essays are about Robinson’s fascination with the early colonial history (and the British history that preceded it), and specifically about the Puritans’ role in the shaping of America. To put it her argument simply and bluntly: the Puritans got a bad rap. But, beyond a few interesting tidbits, like how the Puritans were fiercely committed to education, and how There are two major themes in these essays: religion as it pertains to modern American life and culture, and the Puritans. Many of these essays are about Robinson’s fascination with the early colonial history (and the British history that preceded it), and specifically about the Puritans’ role in the shaping of America. To put it her argument simply and bluntly: the Puritans got a bad rap. But, beyond a few interesting tidbits, like how the Puritans were fiercely committed to education, and how education is a vital part of American democracy–I couldn’t tell you much more about her argument. The essays were just too dense and I didn’t quite have the patience to wade through them.I do find her thoughts about religion and science interesting, and especially appreciate the way she approaches religion from a very sensible, almost scientific place. Robinson is deeply religious, and she is also interested in excavating that belief, and trying to figure out what belief means, and where it comes from, personally and culturally. Though I didn’t give them the close reading they deserve, I enjoyed the essays where Robinson tackles the big ideas–the concepts of faith, hope, and love, for example, and what they actually mean in the physical world.I especially loved the essay “Grace and Beauty”, where she explores how fiction and the writing of it has shaped some of her thinking. Her insights about writing and about the nature of grace are keen. She ties the writing of fiction together with the experience of grace and beauty. As someone who spends most of my time writing and reading fiction, I’m always fascinated by the ways that fiction and real life influence and change each other. Robinson explores this idea, when writing about grace, both inside and outside of novels:“I suspect I have not mentioned grace at all. To me it means, among many things, a sense of or participation in the fullness of an act or gesture so that the beauty of it is seen whole, the leap and the landing. Ethically it means an understanding of the wholeness of a situation, so that everyone is understood in her humanity, the perceiver extending no more respect to herself than to others, understanding any moment as a thing that can bless time to come or poison it. As an aesthetic, for the novel, at least, both the first and second definitions are in play. Theologically, grace must include the fact that we have untried capacities to live richly in a universe of unfathomable interest, and that we can and do, amazingly, enhance its interest with things we make.”She keeps coming back to this one idea that resonated with me, and that I’ve rarely seen articulated so well: that humanity is truly amazing, and that our ability to understand even a tiny fraction of the universe actually adds to the beauty of the universe. Writing about dark matter, and how unintelligible the universe still is to us, she says: “How excellent it is that anything could be so unforeseen. And just as excellent, and fully as remarkable, that humankind has managed to catch a glimpse of it.”She is just as amazed by dark matter as she is by God. Her ability to see the universe as a place of infinite mystery, one that contains both God and atoms, to hold contradictions, and to explore faith and science with the same rigor, is what makes her writing so interesting.In humanity, Robinson sees both our folly and our singular achievements. A week after finishing the book, this is what has remained with me, even though most of the meat of the book has fallen away. It is truly incredible that we have done we have done–that we have language, that we have used that language to describe and understand some small part of the universe in which we exist. These things make us exceptional. They do not make us infallible. Robinson explores these two truths, not mutually exclusive–that humans are worth celebrating, that we are singular and unique in the universe, and also that we are petty and small and cruel and still ignorant about many, many things.I wasn’t always with her as she delved into Puritan history and the intellectual and cultural shifts in religion throughout American history. I did not always understand her arguments. But I deeply respect her writing and her intelligence. If you are religions or fascinated by religion, or interested in Puritan history, you will probably get much much more out of these essays than me. And despite losing interest and patience, I still got plenty from them.
    more
  • David Curry
    January 1, 1970
    Marilynne Robinson alerts us in the introduction to her collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, that she is “too old to mince words.” While we can remind her that she also fully partakes of the tendency of the elderly to repeat themselves, we need to concede that some of what she repeats is eminently worth hearing — for instance, her passionate argument against turning America’s colleges and universities into business schools and training programs and in favor of currently devalued libera Marilynne Robinson alerts us in the introduction to her collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, that she is “too old to mince words.” While we can remind her that she also fully partakes of the tendency of the elderly to repeat themselves, we need to concede that some of what she repeats is eminently worth hearing — for instance, her passionate argument against turning America’s colleges and universities into business schools and training programs and in favor of currently devalued liberal arts curricula.It needs to be said, however, that these essays can be pretty hard to read and are sometimes hard to take, as when she tries to get this one by us: “It would be a great presumption on my part to generalize, farther, at least , than to say that the highest intellectual and aesthetic achievements of every culture I know of seem to be associated with and addressed to their highest disciplines of religion, to their theology.” Many a reader, including this one, will want to reply that this is already a great presumption. (What are you doing there, Robinson? Perhaps trying to set yourself up as a writer whose achievements are among the rare highest of our time?)Most of these essays were originally developed as lectures, and they too often get weighed down by the strained and/or flaunted erudition that I still remember from a symposium on existentialism I endured as an undergraduate. That grueling symposium was occasionally relieved by humor or wit, qualities that are disturbingly hard to find in Robinson’s essays. Well, we are dealing with an essayist who hangs her hat (her claim, not mine) on a word like “entelechy,” and that’s that.Can I be forgiven if when I came to her “The Beautiful Changes,” I imagined it being delivered aloud by Professor Irwin Corey?Robinson is at her best when she comes down from her pulpit and is more matter of fact, as in “The American Scholar Now,” and when she is less focused on religion and theology, as in “Grace and Beauty.” In the latter essay, writing about a recently discovered secondary human immune system, she almost casually and rather endearingly begins one sentence with the expression “since nature is elegant.”One of the most engaging essays,“Our Public Conversation,” in which she notes that she has “arrived at the conclusion that American history is substantially false …,” disinters the fact that Tsarist Russia sent troops to support the Union during the American Civil War and that they may have been critical to the outcome. From that same essay: “Consensus really ought not to trump reason or preclude it, though it does, routinely.”“A Proof, A Test, An Instruction,“ one of the few essays that did not originate as a lecture, is a thoughtful and appreciative consideration of Barack Obama that first appeared in the pages of The Nation. As a reader, I do not often skim, but this book eventually forced me.I would be remiss not to point out that Robinson’s novels are another matter. There her grounding in religion and theology deepens her, she is saved and made larger by the rigors and challenges of fictive method, and she indeed occupies a unique position among all living American novelists I know of. I particularly recommend her 2004 novel Gilead, which deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize.
    more
  • Anna
    January 1, 1970
    Some of it I loved and some was eh.
  • Katie
    January 1, 1970
    I think I would actually send people interested in Robinson’s ideas about religion to her novels, rather than this book. I appreciate how she structures her writing on a sentence level, but these essays are riddled with straw men and “I don’t like the implications of X, therefore not X” type of arguments. The most interesting parts were her defense of the Puritans and the final essay, “Slander.”
    more
  • Maureen
    January 1, 1970
    Yes, GoodReads, I'm finished, as in I stopped reading it, gave up, pulled the plug...can't do it. I wish I could. I LOVE her fiction, but these essays are way above my pay grade. Too scholarly and dense, with many references I don't understand (do you know who the Benthamites were?). I read about half of the essays, but I'm not getting enough out of it to make the struggle worthwhile. Guess I'll never know what we're doing here...
    more
Write a review