A World of Beautiful Souls: An Interview with Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is an instructor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is the author of the 1981 novel, Housekeeping, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award for that year. Since then she has written two works of non-fiction: Mother Country in 1989 and The Death of Adam in 1998. Her most recent novel is Gilead, a kind of memoir composed by an Iowa preacher who is facing the end of his life. Gilead was reviewed here in Perspectives in December 2004. Last month Gilead was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for literature.

Perspectives: What was the genesis of Gilead–what made you decide to write in the voice of a 76-year-old pastor from Iowa?

Marilynne Robinson: I have been very interested in the history of the Middle West–more specifically, in the strand of it that makes it a continuation of New England history, which is of interest to me because I lived in Massachusetts for many years and because my favorite writers lived there. The Middle West is a true mosaic of ethnic communities, each with its own narrative. So I know that my perspective is very limited. Still, because these New Englanders came into the region so early, and because they were intent on realizing important reforms of many kinds, they had a great influence in a formative period. That was very interesting to me. I have a habit of doing historical research about places where I live. For a while I read a great deal of English and French history to help me understand what I saw in those places. In this case, I found that a voice presented itself to me, which was theological and Iowan. What I had learned, intending only to learn, crystallized as a novel. And I did once see the sun set as a full moon rose, something I never will forget. (See Gilead, p. 14.)

P: To those with an eye for such things, Gilead contains a lot of solid Reformed theology (of especially the Calvinist sort). Could you remind our readers how you first became interested in John Calvin and how Reformed theology has shaped your own thinking since then?

MR: I was brought up in an atmosphere I learned in retrospect to recognize as Presbyterian. (At the time, it just seemed like the way of the world.) I became a Congregationalist in Massachusetts. These are two scions of the tree of Calvinism, of course, but I don’t think that was ever pointed out to me, except once or twice in an American literature class in college. The fact had no apparent significance for me. Then, here at the Iowa Workshop, I decided to teach a seminar on Moby Dick. Gilead That book is so filled with theology that I decided I should read the theology it would most likely be responding to. So I read Calvin’s Institutes. Not only did this greatly illuminate my reading of Melville, and his contemporaries, it also made me understand much more about the religious culture I had very passively received.

The greatest consequence of my reading Calvin was discovering how utterly the understanding of his thought and his tradition has been distorted by the polemic against him. He is a very major figure in Western history, as no one disputes. So the polemic has been a profound distortion of history itself. I had been on a long campaign of self-re-education, reading Adams and Marx and Malthus and Darwin–the people who are so great that everyone thinks he knows what they said and need not bother to read them–and I found that there are huge misconceptions surrounding them all. So Calvin’s situation is not wholly unique.

In any case, Calvin absolutely dazzled me. He is a great metaphysician. He has made the grandest synthesis of Scriptural theology with ethics, aesthetics, theory of consciousness, so many things. I don’t know anyone who compares with him except Karl Barth, whose thought, finally, is not of the same scale, but who really is explicitly or implicitly rephrasing or reformulating Calvin much of the time. His Lectures on the Theology of John Calvin is great. It seems to me that Barth’s encounter with Calvin–and like so many of us, he had not really studied him before–set the terms for Barth’s subsequent work. (If I overstate my case, it is because there is more Barth than I can ever hope to have read.) One great difference, if not the great difference, between Calvin and Luther is precisely the metaphysical dimension of Calvin’s thought. It is a rejection of Aristotle, and it is not Platonism, either. The omnipotence of God is understood by him as, so to speak, the dynamic of being, the continuous recreation that continuously re-expresses the being of God. The old cosmologies are static. This one is relational, something the pagan imagination could never have come up with. Of course Luther had many other things on his mind. And a capacity for metaphysical thought is very rare.

One of the great gifts I have received from Calvin is the idea of experience as encounter. This is consistent with his understanding of communion, which is so utterly misunderstood. It floods life in general with meaning, moment to moment, and it clears away that old, persistent distinction between sacred and secular, so oddly invidious toward most of God’s creation. This seems right to me, and wonderful. I learned from it to ask a very basic question: What is in this moment? That is, what am I being given to see, to understand? Many things of great value have come from my asking that question. Aside from his metaphysics, there are two things Calvin says that are deeply important to me. One is his insistence that any person one encounters is an image of God, with all that implies in terms of the obligation to honor and comfort, and with all it implies about the astonishing privilege of being given the occasion to encounter such an image, and to honor and comfort. This comes straight from Jesus’ parable on the sheep and the goats at the end of Matthew, and it is central to Calvin’s metaphysics of encounter–in which atmosphere, I think, it takes on a special richness of meaning. Because, understood in his terms, these images of God are God. This understanding really does purge contempt, resentment, suspicion, even boredom. It forbids the thought that the other, however familiar, is not still the most profound mystery. There is a deep aesthetic in that, and a demand for the greatest attentiveness.

Calvin says something else I have not seen elsewhere, which is so Christian I don’t know why it is not the first lesson in Christian ethics. He says that Christ stands waiting to take our enemies’ sins upon himself. That is, Christ forgives or waits to forgive,   A reality suffused with the glory of Christ–which to my mind is grace–is so deeply beautiful that I am pleased to grant it the status of truth.   and has expiated the offenses one has suffered, or will suffer, at the hands of an enemy. It is the will of Christ that the wrongs we suffer should count not at all against those who afflict us. That has to be true, yet it seems to me fairly staggering in its implications. Again, how does one encounter those who mean us harm? If we believe in grace, then graciously because the grace of God is intended for them. There was nothing naive in this thinking of Calvin’s. He and his like were threatened with very cruel death, and many did suffer and die. He had real enemies. Nevertheless…

P:The New York Times Book Review gave your book a glowing endorsement. At one point the reviewer called Gilead a “fiercely quiet” book. A few weeks later Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg said that it looked as though you had “rounded up the most ordinary words in the English language” but you then newly dignified those words through the thoughts of a quiet old man. How would y
ou describe your own writing style, and do those comments capture what you aim for in your writing?

MR: In my fiction I try to be faithful to the voice of the narrator. That accounts more than any other thing for the difference between Housekeeping and Gilead in terms of language.

P: Throughout Gilead you depict Reverand Ames as trying to strike a balance between affection for this present life on earth and a properly pious hunger for “heaven.” In the end, Ames appears to settle for a both/ and view of the earthly being renewed rather than an either/or approach in which the earthly gets replaced by something completely unlike anything we had ever before known. What is your own belief about what has traditionally been called “the kingdom of God” and how did you come to that view?

MR: It is striking to me that, from the point of view of theoretical physics, eternity is highly manageable as a concept, while time is a complete anomaly. I read articles about string theory, and the idea is that most of the dimensions of being are not expressed–not “unfurled,” I believe they say. These things strike me as serviceable metaphors for an intuition of mine that this is not the definitive or quintessential reality, or even very like it. Since the odds against the existence of this universe, this planet, this species, this self, are infinitely high, I think the kind of positivism that would limit possibility to the known terms of existence cannot be justified. I don’t want to seem to be offering a proof, even a negative one, because I think that is all nonsense. Intuitively, however, I feel all this that passes around us is about much more than the birth and death of a million generations, the rise and fall of citadels and states. The sense of something more is as intense as delusion, even or especially among those who won’t grant it a place in metaphysics and who try to answer to it in the terms of this world. More generally, human civilization seems to me to be a great yearning beyond itself, a fretting against limits or even an inability to remember that there are limits. Human beings are out of place in the world, out of scale with it. This being true, another reality might astonish me, but it would not surprise me. Over against all this, a reality suffused with the glory of Christ–which to my mind is grace–is so deeply beautiful that I am pleased to grant it the status of truth.

P: As a preacher, I found your apparent familiarity with the preaching life to be astonishing. What enabled you to capture the interior of a pastor’s heart and mind so adroitly?

MR: I’m glad to know I was adroit. I am indebted to the pleasant custom of my church, which calls upon lay members to preach from time to time. I have had to think about the sermon as a form. I have read and heard a great many sermons. And I think preparing a class or a lecture makes some of the same demands. What is worth saying, and why? What is the question, and how to do justice to it.

P: The storyline involving Jack Boughton struck me as an extended (and lyric) vignette of grace in action–a wonderfully prolonged re-telling of the Prodigal Son parable. What does grace mean to you and do you think the church typically displays it in as lovely a way as Reverend Ames ultimately does?

MR: There is great variation from church to church and from Sunday to Sunday. I had a student once, a Jewish girl from a non-religious background, who told me she believed in God because when she did something very generous, she did not feel it was she who was doing it. She felt lifted above herself, and very happy. I think grace is like that, the strangest and most natural thing in the world, a liberating compulsion, the moment in which one is least and most oneself. I do think the churches teach and express grace–unless something goes terribly wrong, as we all know it can, and does–and I think there is an intrinsic loveliness in grace, as there is in light, which might be no more than the jewel in a raindrop but which still shows much that is essential to the nature of light. All of which is only to say that there is no describable proportion between what is said or done and what is communicated. I like that word “lovely.” At root it must mean having the quality of love, or of something loved. I wish loveliness were something the churches more consistently attempted, a certain gentle respect for the souls that come to them. That’s Calvin again: if we were persuaded of the holiness of our situation, our encounter, we would stop calculating, stop manipulating. That sort of thing has been much too prevalent in the churches for the last few decades.

P: Some of your devoted readers, who had been eagerly waiting for over two decades for another novel, expressed initial disappointment that you were writing about a pastor of all people. Yet many seem to be quite taken by Gilead–one self-designated atheist who submitted comments to Amazon.com claimed that he found your book transforming and a fine testament to true Christianity. Has anything about the reception of your new book thus far surprised you?

MR: I’m surprised. But I’m always surprised. I’ve written about Idaho, plutonium and Calvinism, and now a dying pastor in Iowa. If any writer has ever courted obscurity, surely I have. I know some people at least expect to resist the narrator’s piety, but few really do, I suppose because he is neither a cynic nor a fool. For some reason it is not conventional for serious fiction to treat religious thought respectfully–the influence of Flannery O’Connor has been particularly destructive, I think, though she is considered a religious writer, and she considered herself one. In any case, in my line of work, teaching writers, I have conversations with people from time to time about what their real thoughts are, and often I find that their real thoughts are beautiful and deep. The student I mentioned in the response above was very shyly telling me her dearest secret. It is difficult to make people draw on their best thinking. They are self-protective. The assumption is that this is The Age of Cynicism. On the basis of my experience, I must disagree. Calvin again: the world is teeming with beautiful souls, and if we greet them as Christ, they may well show us the face of Christ.

Scott Hoezee is Minister of Preaching and Administration at Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and coeditor of Perspectives.