Robinson has shown herself to be a novelist of remarkable empathy. Her essays also exhibit a unique ability to identify with characters that we moderns would rather shun. But one could worry that her empathy is selective. She rightly wants us to see the world afresh by stepping into the shoes of Jonathan Edwards and Edward VI and Oliver Cromwell. But if you’re offering a genealogy of how we got here, now, you might expect others to also find a voice. (Defensive invocations of “specialization” or “focus” won’t suffice. She’s ranged well beyond her expertise, and the focus is always inflected by present concerns, as she admits.) Her sometimes pedantic correction of our caricatures of the Puritans spends little time considering their frontier “encounters” with Native Americans, for example. To read Robinson alongside Coates is to always have the nagging impression that she’s surveying an incredibly rich tapestry but never shows us the back.
In short—and it feels odd to propose this about my favourite Calvinist—What Are We Doing Here? doesn’t spend much time grappling with evil. This might be true of her non-fiction more broadly. Her reply to the deflationary critiques of naturalists and the reductionism of rationalists appeals to a cosmos whose kaleidoscopic beauty is mesmerizing and enchanting. But the horror of a nature “red in tooth and claw” seems conveniently left aside. Creation is the theatre of God’s glory, for Robinson, but there is an act in this drama that doesn’t have much of an explanatory role: the Fall. Similarly, in order to counter the dismissals of the Puritans as dour and mean and oppressive, she paints a picture of their (relative) progressivism, their revolutionary reforms, the seed of our own politics planted in their soil. But one wonders if this is sufficient for those who have been ground underfoot by history as reason not to believe.
It feels odd to propose this about a group that believes in systemic injustice, but evil is really the aporia in much progressive thought. After all, if we are really that (originally, totally) screwed up, how can we have confidence that we’re progressing in the right direction? On this account, of course, “conservatives” who would dismiss Coates on race are pr