Marilynne Robinson interview: The faith behind the fiction
Multiple award-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson reflects on two related themes – the importance of religion and the mysteries of the mind. Interview by Kay Parris
Writing in the Times shortly after the publication of Marilynne Robinson’s third novel in 2008, Brian Appleyard opined: “I’m not saying you’re actually dead if you haven’t read Marilynne Robinson, but I honestly couldn’t say you’re fully alive.”
Her first novel, Housekeeping, was published in 1981; 24 years passed before the second, Gilead, and then four years later came a sibling novel to Gilead – Home. Three novels to date, three lots of plaudits and awards. Her fictional works are sparse in number. Yet this is a novelist acknowledged as one of the great American writers of the 21st century.
Marilynne Robinson was raised as a Presbyterian; she worships now as a Congregationalist and remains a staunch apologist for the ideas of John Calvin – particularly in relation to, on the one hand, his contribution to societal principles and culture, and on the other his understanding of the personal sense one can cultivate of the presence of God. “Perception is at the centre of Calvin’s theology… the great energy that rips galaxies apart also animates our slightest thoughts,” she said during an interview for Christianity Today – and it is for us to struggle endlessly between centering on this vision of God in the living of our lives, or giving in to self-centredness.
Writing in an essay published in her 1998 book, The Death of Adam, she said of the Old Testament: “It is more insistent than Marx ever was in championing the poor and the oppressed.” And in condemning modern capitalism she has said: “The sin most insistently called abhorrent to God is the failure of generosity, the neglect of the widow and orphan, the oppression of strangers and the poor, the defrauding of the labourer.”
In the decades between her first two novels she lectured and taught at many universities and institutions, including at the Iowa writers workshop where she teaches still. She also produced two works of non-fiction and read religious history and theology voraciously. She returned to fiction in 2004 with Gilead, an intensely theological novel – depicting a letter of reminiscence and rumination from an elderly Congregationalist minister, John Ames, to his young son.
Home, written four years later, returns to Gilead, not to provide a sequel but to look again at the same period, focusing this time on the house of Ames’ best friend Robert Boughton, a Presbyterian minister, and the frustrated, yearning lives of his grown-up children. In quite different ways, both novels are moving to the point of heart break, and they get a grip on you that barely loosens with the passage of time.
An acclaimed novelist bringing serious theology into fiction is not a common phenomenon. Robinson’s religous characters carry their faith around like a heavy torch, burdensome at times to hold on to, but illuminating every shadowy corner of their lives – their thinking, relating, disapointments, joys, their stagnation, their fumbling attempts at communication – not necessarily with hope, but always with lucidity. Faith for Robinson is what lifts all those and so many other human experiences into something significant.
Where religion has “dropped out of the cultural conversation” she wrote in one essay, we begin to adopt “a very small view of ourselves and others”. In sidelining theology, she believes, we diminish ourselves. In a piece on Marguerite de Navarre and John Calvin in The Death of Adam, her collection of essays on modern thought, she writes: “Theology, which for so many centuries was the epitome of thought and learning, has been forgotten, or remembered only to be looted for charms and relics and curiosities.”
In a series of lectures for Yale University last year, Robinson brought these same perspectives to an exploration of the place and nature of human consciousness among the mysteries of the universe. As a result of the modern Western tendency to exclude the experience of the mind from crucial areas of modern thinking such as science, “our conception of humanity has shrunk.” Yet, the “beauty and the strangeness” of consciousness and subjectivity cannot be ignored, we cannot separate them from ourselves and our endeavours.
Humanity does have significance, says Robinson, and this is just as well: “It is only prudent to make a very high estimate of human nature, first of all in order to contain the worst impulses of human nature, and then to liberate its best impulses.”
In July 2010, Yale published these lectures in a book entitled Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self – and this formed the basis for Marilynne Robinson’s discussion with Reform.
You’ve said religion is not well represented. What do you mean by that?
For some time religion has been put to the uses of political and other factions. This has happened very frequently in history. Its power makes it very subject to abuse. And the abuse turns its power against its own most distinctive teachings –”Love thy enemy” comes to mind.
Is there a better way to talk about religion?
Religion – like everything else in human experience that is grounded in conscience, reflection, compassion, decision, and in traditions of culture and learning and of art – is an anomaly if and when the complexity and value of the individual mind is denied. In the absence of the acknowledgment of inwardness and its expressions, we have no language to speak of religion, other than in terms of the shibboleths and tribalisms that can indeed afflict it, as they do human communities and institutions in general.
You mentioned in your new book how the psychologist and philosopher William James described the nature of religion as: “the feelings, acts, experiences, of individual men in their solitude so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” That seems to resonate a lot with how you approach the subtlety and complexity of characters in your novels. Do you agree with James that this is essentially the nature of religion?
I agree with James, though I don’t find his definition exhaustive. Community is an important element in religious life. But people come together to enrich their solitude with a fuller comprehension of the tradition, thought and experience they find in community. One consequence of religious belief is a habit of assuming that life has a profound significance, in its broadest outlines and in its finest details. Belief is a habit of thought, generally a refinement of it. It can indeed make people complex. Or, since people are always complex, it can create a characteristic kind of complexity in them which is often very rich.
I am interested in this phrase from your book: “It may have been perverse of destiny to array perception across billions of subjectivities…” – You are talking here about how our only grip on reality is through our minds, but are you also alluding to possibilities of group consciousness?
There does seem to be a strong tendency toward group consensus that overrides individual judgment. In its milder forms it may be necessary to mutual comprehension and to social cohesion, but it is sometimes disastrous and more often disgraceful and so it must be guarded against continuously.
To step back and appraise any question around which consensus has formed is a very difficult thing to do because consensus by definition is assumed on all sides to be true and right, and this makes it difficult for skepticism to find a purchase even in the minds of people who pride themselves on their readiness to act as critics. On one hand, we know that subjectivity influences perception in every instance, and this is a frustration to people who feel the need to make absolute statements about anything, including subjectivity. On the other hand, its variety is wealth and stability, at the scale of history and culture.
A thought-provoking question from your book is: “Does the mind open on ultimate truths at least potentially or in momentary glimpses?” Do you believe that it does? If so, why do you believe that?
I believe that certain major elements in my own thinking – mostly learned from theology in one form or another – are indeed ultimate truths, however imperfect their articulation or my understanding. My reception of my religious tradition would not be possible if I questioned the capacity of the mind for that kind of insight. This must be true for all religious people.
You argue that even if it turns out that all life on earth has come about purely through accidents – this wouldn’t “dispel mystery or diminish scale”. But surely it would?
However we decide to think about it, the universe is still vast and complex beyond reckoning, and it might well be only one in any number of universes. The absolute nature of being is still completely unresolved – is it holographic, shadows on a surface in some sense, or a phenomenon of scores of suppressed dimensions?
Contemporary science speculates very radically, with fewer constraints of givenness than our ordinary conceptions of existence permit us to imagine. What is time? What is gravity? Then there is the human mind, as great a mystery as anything in nature. It is all glorious. To me it implies divine origins, but it is unfathomable and splendid in itself, without interpretation.
You say compassion and conscience are two of the most engrossing human experiences. Are they phenomena suited to scientific study, or do they illustrate your thinking about the tension between science and religion?
I really don’t accept the idea of tension between science and religion. The tension is between religion and a tradition of thought that consistently claims the authority of science, but in fact has hardened around a fairly small clutch of assumptions – a very unscientific thing to do. Conscience, for example, is a major factor in societies of all kinds because of its relation to guilt and shame, pride, honour, duty and so on. It makes most people act well enough in most circumstances, in the terms of their particular culture.
Science would be interested in a phenomenon of such obvious importance. It would try to find ways to define and study it. These people who call themselves scientific dismiss it, or account for it in such severely reductionist terms that it is made indistinguishable from any behaviour that might attract mates or satisfy hunger. The great revelation this kind of “science” would bring us is that, properly understood, everything is the same thing. It is a little like my saying that the chair I am sitting in is composed entirely of atoms, and so is Jupiter, and the distinguishing features of each of them are only distractions from this true and essential understanding of their nature. The most important difference between their grand generalisations and mine is that mine can be demonstrated.
You are now a Congregationalist, you were previously a Presbyterian. What do you see as being the difference?
American Congregationalism is more democratic. Presbyterianism is itself democratic by the standards of religious institutions, but Congregationalism is a tradition of autonomous, self-governing, self-sustaining congregations (whence the name) who vote as a body on every significant issue or policy and are not obliged to accept guidance from any other authority in anything that pertains to the congregation. They elect their pastor and can remove her or him.
As a group they are, and have always been, in advance of the society at large by years or decades in their response to questions of social justice. In my experience, this polity creates a very harmonious, generous and responsible church community. Democracy seems very right to me, and more, by my lights, is better.
Which is your favourite of your novels so far and why?
Home is, at the moment, because, here in America, it lags behind the others. It receives less critical attention and seems to have fewer readers than the other novels.
There is great sadness in your novels. Religion doesn’t bring happiness, but it does bring great dimension to the lives of its religious characters.
There is great sadness in life, for example at the inevitable end of great happiness, or in the frustration of profound love. Religion makes experience meaningful and sacred – or it expresses the fact that these things are true of experience, properly understood. It does indeed add another dimension to experience.
What do you personally get out of going to church?
I have gone to the same church for more than 20 years. It is my village, so to speak. I see children come into the world and elders pass out of it, and I see lives unfold around me. That is a little part of it. Then I have occasion, rare in the world, to hear a good and learned man say something he takes to be true, to a congregation listening in good faith for whatever truth he has to offer. Finally, I think differently, otherwise, in that place than I do anywhere else. It is as if I can put the world and myself aside for an hour and hear and think more purely.
This article was published in the September 2010 issue of Reform.