What Are We Doing Here?

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...

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Title:What Are We Doing Here?
Author:Marilynne Robinson
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What Are We Doing Here? Reviews

  • Tashfin Awal

    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.

  • Ted Morgan

    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.

  • Mark Jr.

    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.

  • Haley

    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 (

    ). 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 (

    ). 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.

  • Jenny (Reading Envy)

    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.

  • Northpapers

    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.

  • Krista

    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

    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

    , 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.

    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

    -humanist world – where it is fashionable to call humans the

    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:

    And in a later lecture she ties it all up thusly:

    Surely, where science and religion converge must be a lovely and satisfying place to live. And while this

    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

    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.

    is on the personal relationship that Robinson developed with President Obama:

    And the final essay,

    , was on Robinson's aging mother and how watching Fox News made her fearful; tormented by anxieties and regrets:

    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.

  • Kathleen

    My review for the Chicago Tribune:

    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:

    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.”

  • Tiffany

    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.

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