Two literary thinkers ponder sin and belief in a disenchanted world
Absence of Mind:
The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (Terry Lectures)
by Marilynne Robinson
Yale University Press
$24.00 List Price
There are more Christians in the United States than in any other country in world history, but much of Christianity makes us queasy. Many of our megachurch preachers choke on the word sin, and when politicians talk of "evildoers" they seem to be speaking a dead language. It's easy to forget, in this sunny state of theological affairs, that for most Anglo-American believers the concept of evil was once as close at hand as a taxicab on Fifth Avenue or Piccadilly Circus. We hailed it not only to navigate the twists and turns of war and crime but also to reckon with our personal calamities. Evil explained things. From the Great Flood forward it has helped us to make sense of the otherwise unsensible: genocide, injustice, and the sickness unto death.
A few years ago I reviewed an Oxford University Press series on the Seven Deadly Sins. What struck me most about these books was how blasé their authors were about their subjects. What Catholic theologians had for centuries denounced were to them mere sicknesses (or, in the case of lust and sloth, virtues). Among college students today, the only thing worse than being branded a proselytizer is being branded a moralist. And that was true even before a long train of prominent conservatives—David Vitter, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, John Ensign, Mark Sanford, Ted Haggard—married moralism to hypocrisy in many an inquiring young mind.
The British literary critic Terry Eagleton seeks to thread the needle between these conservative foes of evil and the liberals who find the notion of sin unspeakably out of date. In his new book, On Evil, he