Marilynne Robinson is a perfect fit for Yale’s Terry Lectures, in which writers, philosophers, and scientists speak about the intersection of science and religion. Few American writers of recent vintage engage with religion with as much depth and sincerity as Robinson—even a lesser novel like last year’s Home is miles ahead of other writers on the subject. Still, on the evidence of the Yale Daily News‘ story on her first lecture, she wasn’t making her arguments particularly clear. The paper reports:
In the first talk of the four-part 2009 Dwight H. Terry lecture series, Robinson dismissed the notion that humans have reached a stage where they have fully unraveled the mysteries of the human condition, an idea she called the “crossing of the threshold.”
Hands up: Who makes the argument that we have unraveled the mysteries of the human condition, or believes in anybody who says so? After coming down hard on a line of thought that nobody believes in anyway, she goes on:
Robinson also found fault with the tendency of academics to take the “intellectual high ground” and dismiss the belief systems of seemingly primitive societies. “Religion is a point of entry for anthropological inquiries whose intents are largely invidious,” Robinson said. “But that ancient religions contemplated cosmic origins should instill awe at what humans are, the mind is.”
Again, it’s hard to imagine that academics are so cavalier in their thinking about ancient/primitive/non-Western societies. If Robinson believes that the very act of an anthropological inquiry is “invidious,” she’s making a broad-brush and hard-to-respect dismissal of an entire academic discipline; if she had evidence of a particularly invidious recent anthropological pursuit, hopefully she actually cited and discussed it. Of course, it’s hard to make too much of this without seeing the text of the actual lecture, and I’m aware that all of this is being run through the filter of a college journalist on deadline. Plus, apparently the talk was a little dense: As one student told the News, “At times it seemed somewhat impenetrable.”
Update, March 29: Videos of the first two lectures are now online.