Marilynne Robinson on Christianity

In The American Conservative, Robert Long writes an article, “Christian, Not Conservative,” on why Marilynne Robinson’s literary – and liberal – Calvinism appeals. Here are some excerpts:

Gilead not only won the Pulitzer but sold enough copies to become “one of the most unconventional conventionally popular novels of recent times”—as James Wood put it in the New Yorker—thanks to passages like this one, near the end of the book (and of Ames’s life):

Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? … Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.

Chief among the “precious things” Robinson honors is America’s religious heritage. She is in a sense a culture warrior, striving against what her essays call our “impulse … to disparage, to cheapen and to deface, and to falsify, which has made a valuable inheritance worthless.”

* * *

Robinson grounds her liberalism in her Calvinist tradition. She responded by email to a question from TAC about the identification of American Christians with the right:

Well, what is a Christian, after all? Can we say that most of us are defined by the belief that Jesus Christ made the most gracious gift of his life and death for our redemption? Then what does he deserve from us? He said we are to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek. Granted, these are difficult teachings. But does our most gracious Lord deserve to have his name associated with concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws, things that fly in the face of his teaching and example? Does he say anywhere that we exist primarily to drive an economy and flourish in it? He says precisely the opposite. Surely we all know this. I suspect that the association of Christianity with positions that would not survive a glance at the Gospels or the Epistles is opportunistic, and that if the actual Christians raised these questions those whose real commitments are to money and hostility and potential violence would drop the pretense and walk away.

Though Robinson has written that she is “extremely reluctant” to talk about her faith, “chiefly because my belief does not readily reduce itself to simple statements,” her work is suffused with her religious sensibility: distrustful of over-precise dogma, emphasizing spiritual wonder and acts of love.

* * *

Calvin looms large in Robinson’s work: Gilead and its 2008 companion novel, Home, are surely the only bestsellers to hinge on a scene where a preacher ruminates about predestination. In her essays, Robinson presents Calvin as a Christian humanist—contrary to his stereotype as a cold-hearted theocrat—and his intellectual heirs as a vital corrective to our cheapened discourse.

As she tells TAC:

Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought and art and literature. It was at the center of learning in the West for centuries—because it deserved to be. Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically, was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and then stand pat. I believe very strongly that this world, these billions of companions on earth that we know are God’s images, are to be loved, not only in their sins, but especially in all that is wonderful about them. And as God is God of the living, that means we ought to be open to the wonderful in all generations. These are my reasons for writing about Christian figures of the past. At present there is much praying on street corners. There are many loud declarations of personal piety, which my reading of the Gospels forbids me to take at face value. The media are drawn by noise, so it is difficult to get a sense of the actual state of things in American religious culture.

Most Americans still call themselves Christians, but Robinson finds our politics afflicted by a debased and un-Christian view of ourselves. “We have forgotten that old American nonsense about alabaster cities, about building the stately mansions of the soul,” she writes in The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. Instead, we “adopted this very small view of ourselves and others, as consumers and patients and members of interest groups.”

“Our idea of what a human being is has grown oppressively small and dull,” she continues in When I Was a Child, and proposes an alternative anthropology: “What if we were to say that human beings are created in the image of God?”

Calvin writes in the Institutes that man’s creation in the image of God establishes a duty of unlimited love: “The image of God, by which he is recommended to you,” he writes, “deserves your surrender of yourself and all that you possess.” The social consequences, Robinson believes, are clear: an “unqualified requirement of generosity” that is repeated again and again in the Christian tradition: in Deuteronomy, the Gospel, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards.

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