Marilynne Robinson’s “Absence of Mind”

I recommend you check out David Bentley Hart’s review of Marilynne Robinson’s book “Absence of Mind”. The literary talent behind Gilead, and Home (among others), and the keen mind behind The Death of Adam offers a published version of last years’ Terry Lectures given at Yale University. With her discerning eye and broad scope — encompassing culture, science, history, and philosophy — she takes on the modern “parascientific” myths about the human mind that are popularly shopped to us. Trust me, philosophy of mind is a high stakes hurt locker of questions and literature; and often the questions and the literature don’t match. According to Hart (whom I trust), Robinson (who I respect) has handled this important topic responsibly, deftly, and insightfuly.

If you’re not immediately interested because of DBH’s endorsement or because, well, it’s Marilynne Robinson, here’s a taste of what Hart has to say.

What Robinson’s book shows perhaps most clearly is that reductionism is not a philosophy honestly distilled from experience, but a dogma imposed upon it. For roughly a century and a half, Western culture has been falling ever more thoroughly under the sway of the prejudice that modern empirical science is not only the sole model of genuine truth but also capable of explaining all things. It is a strange belief, but to those who hold it sincerely, nothing is more intolerable than the thought that anything might lie beyond the probative reach of their “mechanical philosophy.” And so the exclusion of interiority, and of the self’s consciousness of itself, from their understanding of our humanity is simply inevitable, no matter how irrational or arbitrary that exclusion may be. “Subjectivity,” writes Robinson, “is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.”

Even his criticism is a compliment:

If, though, I had to come up with some complaint to make against the book, I suppose I could fret for a few moments that its rhetorical power might possibly distract many readers from the cogency of its arguments. Ours is the age of “bullet” headings, after all, and expository prose is expected to come in bland, easily digestible fragments, composed entirely of short, often repetitious declamatory sentences. There is some danger, consequently, that Robinson’s literary grace — the expressive force of her language, the dense economy of her sentences, the fluidity with which she moves from point to point — will be mistaken by some as willful obscurity, or resented as a cruel tax upon their patience.

It would, however, be a dark day for civilization if writers of Robinson’s gifts could be swayed by complaints of that sort. In point of fact, much of the joy of reading Robinson comes from her ability to translate complex ideas into words suited to their subtleties. Beginning with her remarkable debut novel Housekeeping (1980), all of her work, fiction and essays alike, has been marked by a luminous intelligence and a rather attractive intellectual severity, communicated in a language that wastes no words and that demands attentiveness. Absence of Mind is a short book, but also an intensely reflective and penetrating one, and it offers considerable rewards for anyone willing to read it carefully, and to think along with it. For all its brevity, it makes its case with surprising comprehensiveness.

If you haven’t read Robinson before, consider this your call to duty.  I haven’t read Absence of Mind yet, but it has just rocketed up on my list.


Elder Sophrony: Crossing the Abyss

During his life the Elder Sophrony Sakharov lived an intense yet hospitable life: a life characterized by love.  This love appears clearly in his writings.  They are both warm and personal, strong and soaring.  They invite and challenge.  I believe he was able to do this largely because his vision was expanded by suffering, the kind of suffering that is common to all humanity and especially common to the people of this present age.  Meaninglessness.

Consider these sections from a chapter from his book His Life Is Mine entitled “The Bliss of Knowing the Way”. Pardon the length, cutting out anything at all was exasperating.  You can read the whole chapter here.

Those with no experience of prayer find it hard to believe how prayer broadens the horizons of the spirit. Sometimes prayer consumes the heart like fire; and when the heart succumbs to the burning flame, unexpectedly there falls the dew of divine consolation. When we become so conscious of our frailty that our spirit despairs, somehow, in an unknown fashion, a wondrous light appears, proclaiming life incorruptible. When the darkness within us is so appalling that we are paralysed with dread, the same light will turn black night into bright day. When we properly condemn ourselves to eternal infamy and in agony descend into the pit, of a sudden some strength from Above will lift our spirit to the heights. When we are overwhelmed by the feeling of our own utter nothingness, the uncreated light transfigures and brings us like sons into the Father’s house.

How are these contrasting states to be explained? Why does our self-condemnation justify us before God? Is it not because there is truth in this self-condemnation and so the Spirit of Truth finds a place for Himself in us?

Even remote contact with the Divine releases the soul from all passions, including envy, that vile offspring of pride. The man who continues with a humble opinion of himself will be given greater knowledge of the mysteries of the world to come. He will be delivered from the power of death. United through prayer with Christ, he realises that in eternity the whole content of being will belong to him, too, through the perpetual dwelling in him of the Holy Spirit- of the Trinity, it would be truer to say. Father, Son and Holy Spirit will make Their abode with him. By virtue of this, every good or word or deed, from whatever source, will become part of his eternal divinised life. Thus, in the words of St Paul ‘as having nothing yet we possess all things’ (2 Cor. 6.10). If anyone performs deeds to the glory of God which bring him both temporal and eternal renown, the man of prayer feels not envy but joy at our common salvation. My brother’s glory will be my glory, also. What blessedness to behold fellow humans radiant with the Holy Spirit! Yet even this is but a pale reflection of our joy in the Kingdom to come where, in a superabundance of love which never diminishes, the spirit of man will embrace the fulness of god-man being.

Let us not forget, however, that the way to this superabundant love lies through the depths of hell. We must not be afraid of this descent since without it plenitude of knowledge is unobtainable.

Sometimes the trials and difficulties which befall put us in the position of a traveller who suddenly finds himself on the edge of an abyss from which it is impossible to turn back. The abyss is the darkness of ignorance, and terror at being captive to death. Only the energy of a saintly despair will get us across. Upheld by some mysterious strength, we cast ourselves into the unknown, calling upon the Name of the Lord. And what happens? Instead of smashing our heads against unseen rocks, we feel an invisible hand gently carrying us over, and we come to no harm. Throwing ourselves into the unknown means trusting to God, having let go of all hope in the great ones of the earth and setting off in search of a new life in which first place is given to Christ.

Traversing the abyss of the unknown can also be likened to swinging along a cable stretched from one side to the other. The hands of Christ crucified link the far ends of the abyss. The soul that has been given the dread privilege of travelling along this cable can find no words to describe it, just as those who have passed beyond the grave cannot tell us of their experience on the new plane.

The spiritual vision just outlined dissolves into contemplation of the crucified Christ. His arms are outstretched to gather all peoples into one, to link the far concerns of the world; His body, hanging on the cross, forms a stupendous bridge between earth and heaven. Uniting in Himself both God and Man, He calls upon us to follow in His steps. It is not a simple matter to portray what meets the spiritual eye at such times. Just as a heavy body precipitated beyond the range of terrestrial gravity becomes subject to the mechanics of space and moves at a speed impossible on the surface of the earth, so it is with our spirit when prayer in its upsurge towards God overcomes the passions which pin us down, to move in the luminous sphere of the Divine and contemplate the sublime and hitherto unknown. In the depths of our consciousness we apprehend the unoriginate Truth, and the Spirit testifies to our immortality. Thus the first dread vision of darkness and mortality changes to a vision of light and life indestructible.

At first the struggle for prayer seems to be beyond our strength but if she persists the soul will eventually be able to contain within herself at the same time sorrow and joy; despair and hope. There is no more alternating between elation and depression, since all states are gathered into a single whole. Through knowledge of God the soul has acquired profound peace.

O God and Father, without beginning;
Thou Who art blessed throughout all ages;
Who hast revealed unto us the mystery
of the way of Thy salvation:
Renew our nature, by Thy Word abiding in us,
and make us the temple of Thy Holy Spirit,
that being ever guarded by Thy might
we may give glory to Thee in a worthy manner,
now and for ever.

“Naive” and “Death By Church”

One of the things I’ve been tracking is the current Christian trend of hating religion and religious establishments.  Sometimes is takes rather hostile and aggressive tones (Derek Webb for example) while other times it takes the form of well meaning Christian encouragement and empathy. I say “encouragement and empathy”, because I’m not really sure what to make of books like Mike Erre’s Death By Church, and other such books.  Regardless of its goal and genre, Death By Church is certainly not pleased with institutionalized Christianity.  If anything it is organized Christianity that plays the part of the Big Bad Wolf as the Christian Red Riding Hood takes the Gospel to the mission field of Grandmother’s house.  But why is this, and how can it be that getting Red Riding Hoods together in a way that makes you file your taxes so often — apparently — creates an anti- Gospel monster?

Personally, I don’t think that it does; or at least that this happens automatically.  I think that there is a very common trendy perception that it does, and the straw man has been scotch-taped onto the real thing.  It’s a part-for-the-whole error, where the sins of the few create the perceived identity for the whole.  More importantly, this trendy habit created by kitsch universalists of the Hollywood variety has not only caught on but picked up steam in the Protestant world.  This is sad, though unsurprising, considering that this habit of mitigating the possibility of  the Church being the present body of believers who are being actively guided and corrected by Christ their Head through the Holy Spirit.  For many, and this includes Protestants, maturity looks like critiquing, and there’s a certain enthusiasm and self-satisfaction that criticism breeds.

Trust me.  As witnessed by this blog, I know the fruits of criticism well.

It certainly is not the case that there is nothing to criticize.  Erre’s shots are moderately delivered at just targets.  For him, Death By Church is a sign of love for the people of God. It is addressed to the church as a kind of warning sign.  This is where the confusion kicks in: that the mean Church is the thing killing the poor innocent Church.  Oh yeah, because the Church (institutional) is not the Church (invisible)?

All of this to say: hating religion and the institutional church (even if I don’t think it is the Church Christ Instituted) makes me sad.  Really, really sad.  It hit me again today when I was listening to the new album from one of my favorite bands, Sleeping at Last.  The song is called “Naive“, and as most S@L songs do, it tries to end hopefully.  I’ve posted the lyrics after the jump. Continue reading ““Naive” and “Death By Church””

Graham Greene’s not-so-Green Pastures

For years I’ve heard that I should read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and I finally picked it up this week. The previous week I had the pleasure of watching the BBC miniseries version of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” which left me profoundly moved yet quite unsatisfied. Waugh was a great admirer of Greene, a fellow Roman Catholic novelist, and at one time defended three of Greene’s novels (including The Power and the Glory) from a bishop’s condemnation.

The Power and The Glory is much like Brideshead in its incessant bleakness, but in an greatly dissimilar setting. As opposed to the height of British civilization, the novel is set in a barren and sun-scorched part of Mexico. The book circles like a vulture around the exile of an unnamed whiskey priest  – with an illegitimate child whom we get to meet for the few precious moments the priest gets to spend with her.

Our unnamed priest is stuck in a Mexican state that has banned both the Roman Catholic Church and alcohol, so our poor protagonist is unable to participate in both his vice and his sacred duty. He’s the last priest in the region other than a cowardly priest who capitulated to the demands of the state, and as such has married and refuses even to offer up even the most necessary of public prayers, or hear confessions.

In the tenth year of the priests’ fugitive state the governor, discovering that a priest is still in his province,  offers a 700 peso reward for the priests’ capture (as opposed to the 500 pesos offered for an American bank robber and murderer). The most attractive character of the book, an ordered and cleanly lieutenant, is determined to catch the “treasonous” priest who epitomizes everything he despises about life. Of all the characters in the book, only the lieutenant seems to have any purpose or direction.  The majority of the book is spent as the priest moves from impoverished town to impoverished town; partly wanting to escape across the border – or die – but feeling compelled to offer what only a priest can offer. As he hauls his confused and haggard carcass around the police take hostages from the villages he’s been to; shooting those who have helped him. The pious despise him because of his sins, and the rest for all the trouble he brings. He wishes he could turn himself in, but he’s bound by a sense of divine duty: “It’s not about what you want, or what I want…”

While the book maintains a cool sort of distance from the priest, the real meat of the book is the intimate spiritual struggle that accompanies his ceaseless scramble from place to place. It’s as if the only thing that keeps him from settling into despair is the movement from place to place: peace and home might still be somewhere, and the process of elimination just keeps moving along.

He has no illusions of being a saint or a martyr, but his own sin and poverty have broken through enough of his pride to allow him to love in some way everyone he meets – though they are not saints either. Even the miserable fang-like half breed that continually plays the part of his Judas he holds in high regard, and when the times come when he wants to be captured, he refrains because he wouldn’t want to encourage someone to sin by betraying him.

There are really only two things that the priest thinks he is good for (even his prayers he thinks useless): the absolution he offers people at the end of confession, and serving the Eucharist. These graces are totally unmerited, “putting God in someone’s mouth” is a tremendous gift, and for this reason his identity as a priest is never compromised. The good life, decency, peace, and piety, in this world are all illusions, but the Eucharist… well that’s the center of reality, or at least the center of this man’s meaning.

It would be wrong to say that I didn’t like the book – I appreciate it tremendously – but I have some trouble agreeing to the reality that Graham Greene spins. First of all, I have to agree with RCC theologian Hans urs von Balthazar that the pervasiveness of sin in Greene’s world is misleading. Saints are real, but they are not the sort that Greene has ever met.  Though I appreciate the heavy theme of the glory of suffering, there’s a sickness to this thread, due to the immoderation of the theme. The victorious Christian life is not either the pietisitic pride of Greene’s Mexican spinsters, or the collapsing despair of his fugitive priest. And these are the only options available in this world.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” is certainly true, but “Thou preparest a table for me in presence of mine enemies” is also true.  I found Greene’s depiction of the worthlessness of a purely pietistic faith convicting, and some true beauty in the weeping, sweating, and suffering priest.  But there is more purpose to the Christian life than suffering. There are walks in the cool of the day with God; the are green pastures that He makes us lie down in.

The sacramental life cannot be overemphasized, but the sacraments can be mistakenly pulled from their context.  They Holy Mysteries are nothing if not life-giving.  True they are the greatest instance of our unmerited relationship with Christ, but how can one separate them from the life of prayer? I think of the Russians – they know pain – but there is a joy in Dostoevsky and a mirth to Tolstoy that Greene cannot seem to take seriously. As blessed Chesterton would say, mirth is perhaps the one thing that we should always take seriously.