Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson

Virago, 2015, 322pp 

Another holiday read. 

Over the last few years I have made my way though Robinson's Gilead trilogy; Gilead, Home and Lila. I have been entranced by the fictional world she has created, full of finely drawn, characterful characters. The novels are slow burners rather than racy page turners. They offer a thoughtful and compassionate account of the human condition. We are broken and flawed, yet we may hope for mercy and redemption. Robinson's fictional output is an extended meditation on the meaning of grace. 

Imagine what it would be like to have Marilynne Robinson expand on some of the theological themes pondered in her novels. You, know where old pastor friends, John Ames and William Boughton discuss predestination, or try and make sense of suffering and evil in God's world. We need imagine no more. For here, without the intermediary of her fictional characters, Robinson attempts to do just that.

In a conversation with Barak Obama, a transcript of which appears at the end of the book, the author gives a matter of fact explanation for publishing these essays, "I give lectures at a fair rate, and when I have given enough of them to make a book, I make a book" (p. 289). Fair enough.

It's obvious from her novels that the writer is deeply familiar with the thought of John Calvin. Here she avers, "I am a Calvinist...I really am a Calvinist" (p. 116). She loves Calvin's humanistic appreciation of the dignity of human beings and his admiration for man's dazzling achievements, 'the manifold agility of the soul, which enables it to take a survey of heaven and earth; to join the past and present; to retain the memory of things heard long ago; to conceive whatever it chooses by the help of imagination; its ingenuity also in the invention of such admirable arts'" (p. 26). 

Robinson deprecates reductionist accounts of human consciousness on the part of some Neuroscientists, for whom the "self" is an illusion created by electrons in the brain. As she points out, however, "If Shakespeare had undergone and MRI there is no reason to believe there would be any more evidence of extraordinary brilliance in him than there would be evidence of a self or soul" (p. 11). The old humanists were on the right track, who "took the works of the human mind - literature, music, philosophy, art, and languages - as proof of what the mind is and might be" (p, 11).

This should not be taken to mean that Robinson is anti-science. Far from it. She returns again and again to the counter-intuitive world of quantum physics, where the normal rules that govern the physical universe seem to break down into randomness. Robinson sees this as in line with Jonathan Edwards's conception of, 'the arbitrary constitution of the Creator'. What she calls "the givenness of things" (p.84). Things are as they are because that is what they were given to be by God.  

Science is the product of the human impulse to understand our world. And understand it we can, at least to some degree, which is a remarkable thing in itself. "Einstein said the the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible" (p. 154). That the human mind can comprehend the universe is testimony to the fact that God has created it and made us in his image that we may see his wisdom displayed in his mighty works. 

One of the impressive things about these essays is their range. Robinson is a true polymath. Chapters are devoted to the Reformation, the theme of Grace in the plays of Shakespeare, the idea of Servanthood in Protestant thought. There are essays on Metaphysics and Theology. The chapter, Son of Adam, Son of Man, is a mini-biblical theology. While the essays are diverse they cohere around a key thought; the dignity and value of human life against the vast backdrop of universe. She is content to put human beings centre stage because they have the distinction of being made in the image of God. The sustained application of this theological principle is one of the things that makes these essays so illuminating. 

Avid Robinson readers will also appreciate the insight given into her creative writing processes, "I feel a novel begin to cohere in my mind before I know much more about it than it has the heft of a long narrative" (p. 218). It's fascinating to learn that John Ames just 'showed up' when Robinson was in a Massachusetts hotel room waiting to spend Christmas with her sons. As she took up a pen to to write on blank piece of paper, the first sentence was in the voice of the old pastor (p. 302).

There is a basic flaw, however, in Robinson's configuration of Christian theology. A surprising one for a self-confessed Calvinist. She certainly accepts that man is a fallen creature and takes sin seriously. But not, perhaps, seriously enough. For all Robinson's talk of grace, she writes of "our ontological worthiness to be in a relationship with God" (p. 272) and "To properly value this pledge of fervent love, the Incarnation, we must try and see the world as deserving of it" (p. 201).

Gilead, we have a problem. The words just quoted are dangerously close to advocating a kind of 'L'Oriel theology', 'Because you're worth it!' That is a misconception, for if grace is deserved, it is no longer grace. What makes God's love for the world depicted in John 3:16 so amazing is that the world in its sin lies under God's condemnation (John 3:18) and is subject to his wrath (John 3:36).  There is nothing in us to compel God's grace. Grace is his free, undeserved favour, or it is nothing at all.  

This failure to attach sufficient gravity to the plight of human beings in sin means that Robinson struggles to find a place in her system for the Cross. She is happy to see the death of Jesus as a pledge of God's love for the world, "a gesture of such unthinkable grandeur and generosity-over and above the generosity of Creation itself" (p. 197).  But she admits to having difficulty with the idea of Jesus' death as sacrifice (see p. 193-195). The author wonders where that conception would leave those who lived and died before the Cross.

A close reading of the New Testament shows that Christ's sin-atoning death had a retrospective as well as prospective aspect, see Romans 3:24-26 and Hebrews 9:15. Robinson's answer to the question, 'what of those who lived before the Cross?' is somewhat different. She sees Christ as an active presence in the world from the beginning through his identification with the poor, needy and oppressed (p. 200). 

In all, Robinson offers a pretty thin doctrine of the atonement. Certainly not one that is recognisably Calvinistic. Calvin's account is considerably thicker and more robustly biblical, "Christ, in his death, was offered to the Father as a propitiatory victim; that, expiation being made by his sacrifice, we might cease to tremble at the divine wrath." (Institutes of the Christian Religion, II:16:6). Robinson, I venture to say, wouldn't put it quite like that.

In Lila, the novelist has her eponymous lead character imagine, "In eternity people's lives could be altogether what they were and had been, not just the worst they ever did, or the best things either." That way Lila could dream of seeing her old departed friend and guardian Doll once more, despite the fact that Doll had little interest in the Christian faith. Even wicked old Mack would be there, "wondering what the catch was". (Lila, Virago, 2015, p. 259-260). The universalstic drift of of Lila's vision is obvious. It is a projection of Robison's belief that the piety of sincere pagans is acceptable to God (p. 207). All people will be restored in the end; our friends, our enemies, to a 'heaven of souls' (p. 239). Where that leaves Matthew 25:46 and other biblical texts, I'm not exactly sure. Again, the saving necessity of Christ's death and faith in the same are not given sufficient weight.

I am a great admirer of Robinson's fictional output. There is much to mull over in this beautifully written set of essays. But something is lacking here. Where is the balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul? The full depths of God's love for human beings is revealed in that "while we are still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). We did not deserve to have Christ bear our sins. We do not deserve to have his righteousness reckoned to our account. "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8). Grace is the ultimate given thing. Rather, grace is God giving himself to us and for us in the person of his Son. The cry of the redeemed is not, "We are ontologically worthy to be in a relationship with God." No, to the Lamb in the midst of the throne they sing a new song,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
    from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
    and they shall reign on the earth.”
(Revelation 5:9-10).

The redeemed people of God shall be with Christ, be made like Christ and will reign with Christ. Then we will see the the heights to which human beings can be raised by the grace of God. At last we will see what is man. 

1 comment:

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