Marilynne Robinson’s When I was a child, I read books

Her new book of essays is out.

One of the essays is here (Guernica)

We should drop the pretense that we know what we don’t know, about our origins and about our present state. Specifically, we should cease and desist from reductionist, in effect invidious, characterizations of humankind.

I would like to propose a solution of sorts, ancient and authoritative but for all that very sporadically attended to. What if we were to say that human beings are created in the image of God? It will certainly be objected that we have no secure definitions of major terms. How much do we know about God, after all? How are we to understand this word “created”? In what sense can we be said to share or participate in the divine image, since the Abrahamic traditions are generally of one mind in forbidding the thought that the being of God is resolvable to an image of any kind?

But it is on just these grounds that this conception would rescue us from the problems that come with our tendency to create definitions of human nature that are small and closed. It would allow us to acknowledge the fact, manifest in culture and history, that we are both terrible and very wonderful. Since the movement of human history has been toward a knowledge and competence that our ancestors could not have imagined, an open definition like this one would protect us from the error of assuming that we know our limits, for good or for harm. Calvin understood our status as images of God to have reference to our brilliance. He said, truly and as one who must have known from his own experience, that we are brilliant even in our dreams. There is much that is miraculous in a human being, whether that word “miraculous” is used strictly or loosely. And to acknowledge this fact would enhance the joy of individual experience and enhance as well the respect with which we regard other people, those statistically almost-impossible fellow travelers on our profoundly unlikely planet. There is no strictly secular language that can translate religious awe, and the usual response to this fact among those who reject religion is that awe is misdirected, an effect of ignorance or superstition or the power of suggestion and association. Still, to say that the universe is extremely large, and that the forces that eventuate in star clusters and galaxies are very formidable indeed, seems deficient—qualitatively and aesthetically inadequate to its subject.

Another essay from the collection “Reclaiming a Sense of the SacredChronicle is particularly thought-provoking and moving.

 

When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire—a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. None of them is active by itself, and none of them is determinative, because there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability to consider and appraise one’s own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul.

Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word “soul,” and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes “soul” would do nicely.

Another excerpt is here (Commonweal)

Reviews are here:

A comparison of her and Terence Malick (Tree of Life)

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