My friend Tracey Finck and I were able to attend a lecture by noted author Marilynne Robinson, which was given at St Philip the Deacon Lutheran Church in Plymouth, MN. This lecture was the final lecture for 2010 in the “Faith and Life Lectures” series.
Ms Robinson’s lecture was entitled Christianity and the Writing Life: A Dialogue of Self and the Soul (from William Butler’s Yeats poem of the same name), and as such was not necessarily going to be a commentary on her very successful books Housekeeping, Gilead and Home. I have read all Ms R’s fiction, but have read only a few of her non-fiction pieces, which are marvelous. Once the lecture began it was obvious that Ms Robinson wanted to speak on her reactions to the book, “Spiritual Atheism” by Steve Antinoff. Ms Robinson is a powerful thinker and terrific apologist, so hearing her lecture about a subject of interest to her in this area was great.
Last night we heard that when Ms. Robinson picks a book to read it is often a book that she knows she will disagree with, and then for a while, her non-fiction writing ends up being a rebuttal of that book, and so it was with “Spiritual Atheism”. Not having read the book myself I was at a disadvantage, but I tried to glean what I could from her comments. In her lecture, which she read to us, Ms. R wondered aloud why the modern/post-modern world has seen fit to disdain the presence of the soul; she said that she has done significant research, and read the authors on the subject of the subconscious, and questions why people in the western world have chosen to believe that Freud and his ilk should be the ones who have the last word on this subject? Why does an idea on the subconscious from the 19th century dominate thinking in the 20th, and the 21st century? Is there nothing else to be said on this subject? Is there no one who will “confess to the presence of the soul and of its engagement of the world?” Possibly not, or a book like Spiritual Atheism wouldn’t be so widely read. According to what Ms. Robinson shared with us, Spiritual Atheism tries to make a case for the ability of the human intellect, not the soul, to be capable of almost transcendent thinking, but this can be done only by a few, very select individuals. This transcendent thought is made achievable strictly through a very high level of meditation, according to Mr. Antinoff. Hmm… My favorite sentence from Ms. Robinson’s talk about this idea is this: “Modern thinkers have snatched the soul from Western thought and have left a changling in its place.”
Ms. Robinson teaches at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, which by the way is almost 75 years old, and was the first of its kind in the world. Universities in Europe thought Americans were being ridiculous in their efforts to teach people the craft and skill of writing and considered us asinine to try. (Ms. Robinson noted that in Europe there are schools and teachers galore for ballet and painting, sculpture and music, but none for writing – go figure!) Teaching writing has only recently been given any legitimacy in Europe, and France has begun ‘an experiment’ in which they will see if there is any possibility that this type of teaching might work there. A group from France has also come to the US to document what they are calling “This present great period of American Literature”! Got to hand it to France – she at least is interested in what happens in the US in the arts.
One of the things that Ms. Robinson teaches her students is “when you write, assume everyone who reads your work is smarter than you. Never, never condescend to your readers.” Well, she certainly didn’t condescend to her audience last night. Many people were asking for a transcript of the lecture because it was hard to keep up with her!
Another theme of sorts in Ms.Robinson’s lecture was the idea that the joy and privilege of her life has been related to her conscious choice to ‘tend to her soul’. As Tracey and I drove home from the lecture we talked about what ‘tending to our soul’ might mean for us. The evidence of Ms. Robinson’s tending to her own soul is, I think, expressed in her unapologetically Christian body of work: she writes honestly and convincingly about the beauty of the Christian life. Ms. Robinson demonstrates through her books that there is tremendous strength in Christian thought and teaching; it holds up against the stresses and failure of the human condition and comes out of the fray intact. I can’t help but think of Paul’s statement,” I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…” Roman 1:16. I pray that is what will be evident in my life, and in any art I may produce, as I “tend to my soul”.