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“John Calvin Got a Bad Rap”

Kimball, Roger | The New York Times, February 7, 1999, Section 7


p. 14

Kimball reviews Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought and does so respectfully. Kimball admires Robinson for her toughness and independence of thought. She’s “contrarian,” defending the thought of Calvin and the social lives of Puritans, whom, she says, “’we disparage without knowledge or information’ just for ‘the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows was socially approved.’” Much of her essay writing is against modern thought. Especially she’s against cynicism. She won’t take “the extent of one’s disillusionment as an index of one’s wisdom.” We’re cynical. We de-romanticize everything. “Thus it is, in her words, that ‘when a good man or woman stumbles, we say, “I knew it all along,” and when a bad one has a gracious moment, we sneer at the hypocrisy. It is as if there is nothing to mourn or admire, only a hidden narrative now and then apparent through the false, surface narrative. And the hidden narrative, because it is ugly and sinister, is therefore true. What we have, she says, is ‘puppet theories of human nature.’ They are simple and they endow proponents with the illusion of elite knowledge. ‘How thrilling to know that human culture is really only a reflection of economic forces (Marx), that love is merely an alibi for lust (Freud), that altruism is a blind for genetic propagation (some followers of Darwin).’ Lots of reductive scientism around. Especially Darwinism, which has given us the ‘’’modern fable,’ namely, that ‘science exposed religion as a delusion and more or less supplanted it. But science cannot serve in the place of religion because it cannot generate an ethics or a morality. It can give us no reason to prefer a child to a dog, or to choose honorable poverty over fraudulent wealth. It can give us no reason to prefer what is excellent to what is sensationalistic. And this is more or less where we are now.’” Puppet theories of human nature (Kimball, characterizing Robinson) “are always out to dissuade us from thinking words like nobility, honor, courage, loyalty, love, and virtue actually mean what the dictionary tells us they mean.”