In her recent collection of essays What Are We Doing Here?, the Calvinist novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson explores the spiritual condition of the modern U.S. and asks what can be learned from its Puritan forebears. Micah Meadowcroft finds much to praise in the volume, but argues that Robinson seems unable to grasp the implications of her own insights:
I find Robinson’s apologia for [the 14th-century English theologian] John Wycliffe and [the 17th-century English revolutionary] Oliver Cromwell, the Puritans and Great Awakenings, and the literati and radicals of the 19th century to be familiar and comforting. But I also find Robinson’s apparent conclusions perplexing. Materialist science and cultural atheism, forgetting God and in doing so forgetting what a piece of work is man, surely is, [as Robinson believes], sufficient explanation for nearly all this mess around us now. But shouldn’t we ask how that happened? . . . For Robinson, what does responding to our current situation demand?
Most concretely, [she claims], it demands more funding and support for America’s public universities, apparently. They are indeed great treasures of our more learned past, when the liberal arts—an education fit for free men—were extended to farmers. They and the private institutions founded throughout the colonial period and first half of the 19th century are the best of that thicket of democratic institutions we call Tocquevillian. “In the West,” [Robinson writes], “it was theology and its consequences that built these great institutions, and the ebbing away of theology that has made them seem to many to be anomalies, anachronisms, and burdens as well.”
Seemingly unsure whom to blame for these schools’ transformation from their religious and popular origins into the ideological certification systems they are today, Robinson tells for them a story of shortsighted, Benthamite lawmakers sacking these cities of learning, and gives no notice to the [sometime perverse] incentives created by federal funding and oversight or to the sources of the atheism and relativism she decries. This typifies the weakness of many of her essays collected here; there is a complicated past and a complicated present, [yet] the relationship between the two [seems to Robinson to be] so simple as not to require speculation or explanation.