Puritan redemption

what are we doing hereReview by Nick Mattiske

Book | What Are We Doing Here?  | Marilynne Robinson

American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson is particularly interested in rehabilitating the Puritan founders of the US in this work.

Although they have a reputation for dour strictness, they were, she argues, relatively tolerant for their time and their legacy is liberty not prohibition.

According to Robinson, democracy can be traced not from the Enlightenment, but to unfashionable Calvinists and Cromwell, people who insisted on freedom of conscience and education because they saw human minds as images of God.

As in her other books of essays, Robinson upholds the concepts of self and mind, and contrasts this view with modern reductionism, particularly in anthropology, which sees us as simply bundles of Darwinian reflexes.

As well as being dubious scientifically – other areas of science are constantly turning up evidence of astounding complexity – this reductionism impoverishes our view of human capabilities. If you repeatedly tell people they are merely self-interested, then that is what they will be.

It is no coincidence, Robinson says, that this mindset accompanies the currently fashionable utilitarian impulse in our universities.

The shift from education to training reinforces capitalist ideas of competition and survival.

Yet in the religious roots of our universities is the idea that a broad education is linked to the full flourishing of human beings and an enrichment of our whole society.

Robinson readily admits she is not hip. She rejects fashionable intellectual paradigms and is a champion of neglected historical figures and movements. Her interest in what is written out of history makes these essays of interest.

At the very least, she exemplifies the  broad type of education, inherited from the religious outlook, that should stop us using the word ‘puritan’ as insult.

Available from Hachette Australia, paperback edition RRP $27.99


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