Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Two Men One Stovepipe Hat

Despite the obvious theological differences I often find myself in sympathy with Marilynne Robinson, who's just been interviewed for the Paris Review series. As usual there are a couple of sharp insights:
The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave consistently with our own dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this endlessly.

Which is the best defense of the O.T. I've heard against the charge that it's deficient in human feeling.
We archaize Abraham Lincoln—he’s somehow premodern—at the same time that we use Marx to epitomize modernity. Yet the two of them were engaged in the same conversation. The slave economy and the industrial economy were interlocked. Marx is considered modern because he describes an ongoing phenomenon, industrialism, which once again is starting to resemble slavery—child labor and so on. You take a course as a sophomore in college called Modern Western Civilization and you get Marx and Nietzsche, but you don’t get Lincoln. The fact that they were all wearing frock coats and stovepipe hats doesn’t register.

Then there's her annoying take on Dawkins:

The New Atheist types, like Dawkins, act as if science had revealed the world as a closed system. That simply is not what contemporary science is about. A lot of scientists are atheists, but they don’t talk about reality in the same way that Dawkins does. And they would not assume that there is a simple-as-that kind of response to everything in question. Certainly not on the grounds of anything that science has discovered in the last hundred years.

The science that I prefer tends toward cosmology, theories of quantum reality, things that are finer-textured than classical physics in terms of their powers of description. Science is amazing. On a mote of celestial dust, we have figured out how to look to the edge of our universe. I feel instructed by everything I have read. Science has a lot of the satisfactions for me that good theology has.

There's an important truth somewhere in the neighborhood of this remark; it really is the case, for instance, that the New Social Sciences are uninterested in predicting and discovering interesting new phenomena, and this makes them intellectually drab. But Dawkins et al would reply that they'd be writing about cutting-edge research except that someone has to push back against the idiots in Kansas, and this involves writing about old, well-understood science. And there's something tiresome about the literary world's what-the-bleepish fondness for quantum mechanics.

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