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REVIEW: Pulitzer-winning author gives new defense for faith


Some readers will recall Marilynne Robinson’s plenary address at the 2009 Christian Scholars Conference at Lipscomb University. It was a stirring speech on the power of the Christian salvation narrative to bring confidence to our faith.
A similar speech at Yale University’s 2009 Terry lectures is the basis for “Absence of Mind,” a collection of four essays by Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winner and Christian theologian. In it, she elucidates a Christian take on the way science has distorted modern thinking.
Robinson, a member of a Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City, Iowa, is best known for her Pulitzer-Prize winning 2004 novel “Gilead.” The fictional autobiography is told from the perspective of a small-town pastor, who details his struggles with faith and forgiveness at the end of his life, using abstract musings that combine quotes from the pastor’s studies of the Bible, theologians and philosophers.
In the nonfiction “Absence of Mind,” Robinson joins the ranks of those who defend Christianity against the populist arguments made by the familiar figureheads of New Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and, most relevant for Robinson, Daniel Dennett, a philosopher who focuses on theories of the mind and consciousness.
Many of their theories contribute to “parascientific literature,” an epithet Robinson coins to mean social or political works that assume an atheistic world view based in a loose understanding of science. Robinson sees this invasion as an urgent issue for the modern Christian.
A troublesome problem arises in many Christian apologetic works, in which the authors too willingly meet these atheists on their own secular assumptions. This often leads to arguments that concede important Christian beliefs, such as the axiom that nothing exists except matter.
Some works, however, breach these presuppositions by not merely retaliating against the opposition, but by generating new or forgotten reasons for belief. Noteworthy among such books are David Bentley Hart’s 2010 “Atheist Delusions,” which shows the beneficial influence Christianity has had on culture historically, and Paul K. Moser’s 2009 “The Elusive God,” which investigates how a loving and just God reveals himself in a way that accords with both divine reasoning and human volition.
Like these, Robinson’s “Absence of Mind” defends Christianity through the lens of the mind. One of the most admirable declarations she makes is to argue the incompatibility of the major modern views of the mind. She declares, “There is simply no way to reconcile the world view of Darwin with that of Freud, or either of these with the theories of Marx or Nietzsche or B.F. Skinner.”
For readers unfamiliar with these thinkers’ complex philosophies, Robinson gives their historical context and key ideas before defending this statement. She goes on to compellingly argue that it is unreasonable to accept the major schools of the mind in some kind of patched unity. She shows why one must, at best, choose a single atheistic philosophy and discard the rest in order to be faithful to any of them.
Those readers expecting either an exhaustive study or a linear organization will not find it here. Robinson’s chapters roam about the varied historical terrain of how Western thought has treated the mind. She spends an entire chapter on Sigmund Freud, whom she calls “by far the greatest and the most interesting contribution to parascientific thought and literature ever made.”
Overall, though, the book reminds me more of a symphonic movement in which themes are recurrent — revisited each time with new modulations and expressions.
The reader will conclude this book not only with the practical resource of another method for defending Christianity, but also with a profound appreciation of the mysterious and complex beings we are.
Robinson’s style verges on the mystical, but does so with a poetic grace that allows for layers of understanding that only surface after a second or third reading.
I recommend this work as a personal study of the mind or as an educational aid in meditation. It is the kind of book whose ideas the reader finds manifesting themselves in everyday life, since thinking is a ubiquitous part of human existence.
If we are to believe Robinson when she says that “the human mind itself yields the only evidence we can have of the scale of human reality,” then the value of “Absence of Mind” cannot be overstated.
NATHAN SHANK recently moved from Norman, Okla., where he attended the Alameda Church of Christ. He is now a Ph.D. student in the Department of English at the University of Kentucky.

Filed under: Reviews Staff Reports

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