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Absence of Mind

Pulitzer Prize-winning author moves readers beyond the platitudes of current debate

By Ambury Stuart

Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self
By Marilynne Robinson
(Yale University Press) $25.50

Marilynne Robinson is not one to coddle her readers. The author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead and the Orange Prize-winning Home, Robinson has won high praise for her novels, but they are also often des-cribed as demanding and complex.

Absence of Mind is a work of non-fiction, the summary of a series of lectures Robinson gave at Yale University on science, religion and consciousness. As with her fiction, this is a very difficult book.

Other reviews for Absence of Mind are full of praise: Karen Armstrong (author of The Case for God) calls Robinson’s arguments “prophetic, profound, eloquent, succinct, powerful and timely” but quickly adds that the book is “not an easy read.” The archbishop of Canterbury characterizes the prose as “fiercely concentrated,” deeming the work “one of the most significant contributions yet to the current quarrels about faith, science and rationality.” Finally, John Gray of the Globe and Mail describes Absence of Mind as “a gush of fresh air in the controversy over science and religion, a book that anyone who wants to see beyond the stale platitudes of current debate has a duty to read.”

Perhaps so, but I would be happier if the wonderful ideas and observations throughout this book could have been made a bit more accessible. The chapter on altruism, for example, is the best antidote I have ever found to the dreary conclusions drawn by evolutionists that choices made during the human journey are all ultimately grounded in our selfish instinct to survive and pass on our genes to the next generation.

Absence of Mind provides a more-than-adequate response to the claims of outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins and his followers, but considerable work remains to be done by the preacher or church discussion group leader before Robinson’s ideas can be conveyed to the casual listener. This effort would have value: the realization of the human spirit as something more than the remnant of a primordial survival strategy is always worthwhile.

Church people will applaud Robinson when she is able to demolish — with devastating brilliance — the arguments of those who use science to discredit belief. However, she also shows that using science to encourage faith is similarly daunting.

Even so, the work to better understand our faith in the context of our increasing understanding of Creation must go on. Both scientists and theologians must continue to demonstrate how our growing knowledge of Creation’s story can inform our faith, leading us to a better understanding of our Creator, ourselves and our place in Creation.

Rev. Ambury Stuart is an environmental scientist and minister at Glebe Road United in Toronto.
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