Contradictions. Complexity. Uncertainty. Ignorance. The basic features of the postnormal condition are gratifyingly explored in The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson. The title of the book is not immediately clear. But it emerges through reading the seventeen diverse essays in the book, dealing with Christian theology, university education, Shakespeare, quantum mechanics, and the dilemmas in our modern way of life.

Various givens are mentioned throughout the book – such as time and reality. Time ‘accommodates everything that has existed or will exist, utterly indiscriminate but by no means neutral, transparent or passive’. And ‘the reality we experience is given in the sense that it is, for our purposes, lawful, allowing hypotheses and prediction…. It is given in a deeper sense in the fact that it is emergent.’ Herein lies the key to the book – things are as they are.

Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things, Virago, London, 2016

The disparate chapters in the book are connected by two common threads which are woven through her essays. The first is the theme of mystery, that of the unknown, the lack of clarity in our world view. The dominance of chaos and contradiction. Her central thought is that we are so immersed in these mysteries that we have no way of establishing an objective view of them. This problem of perspective also applies to the second thread in the book: the relationship between religion and science. Indeed, it is a given that human beings – unlike other animals –  are aware of the mysteries of life and death; as a species, we have continually tried to address the challenges posed by these mysteries. Robinson casts a critical eye over solutions offered by both science and religion.

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