The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought
Marilynne Robinson (1998, Houghton Mifflin)
"History has a history, which is not more reassuring nor less consequential than the figures and events it records or constructs or reconstructs, or erases. Calvin, whoever he was and is, walked in the fires of controversy and polemic for centuries, flames of a kind that generally immortalize rather than consume. Yet Calvin somehow vanished."
Marilynne Robinson wants Calvin back--the substance of him, what he wrote and thought and believed, as opposed to what has been said about him by people who may never have read him at all. In what opinions did he follow Chrysostom, and in what, Augustine? (And what, in turn, did they say, exactly?) She points out, with justice, that reading all of what Calvin read would take a vast amount of time, to say nothing of reading all of what he wrote; but reading him in the original would tend to correct our impression that Calvinism meant primarily oppression and repression; Geneva was also the home of radical forms of democracy, and of scholarship and inquiry that spread to the enlightenment of the world.
She is not under the impression that historians ever arrive at an ultimate truth: "The idea that all history is parochial should be understood to mean only that all history is defective. It must not be taken to justify the very kind of error that makes the enterprise so often futile or dangerous, and surely not to suggest that the problem can be solved or avoided, rigorous as the attempt to do so must be." No, we must keep our critical apparatus as sharp for the errors of the present as for those of the past.
These essays touch on other seldom-touched touchstones of our past; their wisdom and lucidity is daunting. Robinson is serious on serious subjects, but we feel her compulsion to wrestle with them, and her joy in doing so. She is working to reclaim sacredness as a human inheritance, and with it, she hopes, democracy, learning, and civilization itself. No small hope, but dare we hope for less?