Reading Marilynne Robinson: Liberation through Tradition
Marilynne Robinson is the most unusual of contemporary fiction writers. She’s the only recent Pulitzer Prize winner I know of who also happens to be a staunch Calvinist, who regularly writes theological essays and has been known to preach on the side. Her version of old-fashioned Protestantism is central to her novels and has been central to my own reassessment of Christian history.
It’s strange for a Protestant to find herself in theological purgatory, but that’s my metaphor for my current limbo between the progressive “Mainline” denominations and my own desire for tradition. First and foremost, I desire a denomination that is liberal but apolitical. Lest that sound like a contradiction, by “liberal” I mean the general Protestant tradition, dating back to Luther, that derives its authority from the Bible and trusts everyday people enough to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. Unfortunately, this style of Christian liberalism has mostly been eclipsed by today’s various Protestant churches, who seem determined to divide themselves into what I see as two broad camps. On one side are the dwindling mainstream denominations, like the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and American Baptists. These are the older groups who composed the majority of American Christians until the 1960’s and were famously moderate—perhaps to a point of being elitist or complacent. On the other side are the evangelical and pentecostal denominations that have garnered so much attention since the 1970’s. These groups tend to prioritize a more personal relationship with Christ and usually lean toward social conservatism when it comes to politics.
What’s confusing is that the more politically “conservative” churches are actually the newest on the American scene, following in the wake of Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and other 20th century cultural crusaders. Meanwhile, the mainline churches that can trace their histories back a few hundred years have responded to the culture wars with an unapologetically progressive approach. What’s someone like me, who’s searching for an apolitical but traditionalist faith, to do?
I was raised as a Congregationalist in a Connecticut meetinghouse, where the localism, small town gossip, white steeple, and reserved New England liberalism were about what you’d expect. We read the Bible in Sunday school, but our Church education was quite lax, and you might even say, lacking. Still, Congregationalism has the charm of being what is arguably the oldest denomination in America. It is the faith that Alexis de Tocqueville credited with inspiring self-rule and democracy. During the First Great Awakening, Congregationalist ministers like George Whitefield insisted that, as members of the world’s “parish,” we are ultimately answerable only to God. I love the unpretentiously white sanctuary, the little doors on the pews, and the hymns that date back to Martin Luther. But lately, I’ve had trouble reconciling my own desire for a more traditionally “liberal” religious experience, one that emphasizes reading the Bible for oneself and accepting believers from all walks of life, with the overtly progressive political agenda of the contemporary United Church of Christ (the Congregationalists merged with the UCC in 1957). For instance, the national UCC promotes a fairly narrow view of “economic justice” and endorses controversial causes. Does today’s Congregationalism still leave room for liberal traditionalists?
The novelist and essayist, Marilynne Robinson, has brought me solace and perspective on this question. Her own Congregationalist faith is undergirded by an unusual zeal for the theology of John Calvin, which Robinson has managed to take to the mainstream. Today’s UCC, which dates back to the Puritans, is still ostensibly Calvinist, but, as a kid, I never once heard Calvin’s name mentioned in church. Robinson’s work has served, so far, as my most comprehensive introduction.
In a nutshell, John Calvin and his followers, whose views are broadly synonymous with what is known as “Reformed theology,” helped propel the Protestant Reformation through the 16th and 17th centuries. Calvinists rely on the authority of scripture and the idea that once we’re called to salvation by God, grace is irresistible. Of course, Calvinism is also famous for some dicier claims about predestination and mankind’s total depravity. Because Calvin emphasized that you cannot ingratiate yourself into heaven by good works alone, he concludes that, if you are saved, it is thanks to God, not your own doing. According to Calvin, God chooses an “elect” of the saved that transcends what individual believers do here on earth. For the most part, this problematic theology has receded into the background for mainline Protestantism, though the UCC’s official preamble “claims as its own the faith of the historic church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant reformers.” Unlike the Catholic or Anglican churches, the UCC has very little institutional hierarchy, meaning that beliefs vary widely from congregation to congregation and from pastor to pastor. Most UCC-ers are free to leave Calvin’s landmark Institutes of the Christian Religion to gather dust in their seminary libraries. But that freedom wouldn’t exist without Luther and Calvin’s 16th century willingness to question Christianity’s status quo and dethrone papal authority.
Robinson reminds us of this freedom, which is, fundamentally, the freedom to live, worship, and read the text of the Bible for oneself. And, of course, the freedom to read and interpret serves as an important theme for a Pulitzer Prize winning author like Robinson. In her latest collection of essays, aptly titled, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Robinson connects her own love of reading and writing with the laws of Moses, the teachings of Calvin, and freedom of thought. For Robinson, Christian history and literary life are deeply connected. In her epistolary novel Gilead, for which she won the 2005 Pulitzer, Robinson imagines the musings of an elderly Iowa pastor, John Ames, who, as his health declines, composes letters to his young son. Ames meditates on the nature of family, American history, sin, grace, and the almost overwhelming beauty of the world. Left to another writer, the character of Reverend Ames might seem stodgy or out-of-touch. In Robinson, he is poetic and prophetic. He has become one of my favorite literary figures.
Ames combines a peaceful acceptance of death with a radical love for the world, especially the American landscape. In his last written words, John Ames admits that Gilead, Iowa “does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love—I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence.” This is Calvinism at its best: The earth-loving individual cedes his ultimate fate to God and treats salvation as the ultimate gift. Robinson manages to evoke Calvin’s regard for hope, beauty, and the liberality that she says comes from “unconditional generosity.” I re-read Gilead this summer in my own occasionally shabby but still wonderfully quaint small town and from there was inspired to tackle some Calvin. In light of Robinson’s ability to capture a warm, hopeful and domestic version of American Protestantism, I fancied that Calvin was talking about my backyard when he wrote “There is not one little blade of grass, there is no color in this world, that is not intended to make men rejoice.” He certainly challenged my previous perception of the Puritans as 16th century killjoys.
Likewise, in her 1994 essay “Puritans and Prigs,” Robinson attempts to rescue the Puritans from their reputation as stern, witch-burning radicals. She emphasizes their contribution to higher education and their focus on the fundamental mysteriousness of life. In fact, she places Quakers under the Puritan umbrella and would likely add Swarthmore to the list of Puritan accomplishments.
When Americans scorn the Puritans, writes Robinson, “we make ourselves ignorant and contemptuous of the first two or three hundred years of one major strain of our own civilization.” Worse, we have become perfectionists who, convinced of our ability to shape society in our own image, disallow for the realities of sin and suffering and, at the same time, forget the need for repentance, forgiveness, and grace. I take this to be a critique of dogmatic conservatives and liberals alike. When we hitch our faith to some version of political perfection, we overlook what a complicated world we live in and, in turn, overlook how much religious work—the kind that transcends easy political answers—is necessary. Political obsessions are dangerous, from a theological point of view, because they quickly assume that mankind is at the center of all things. In contrast, Calvin comprehended how small human beings are in the face of the cosmos—and thus, how important it is for us to focus on generosity and grace.
Robinson’s efforts to revive Calvinist tradition within Mainline Protestantism has provided me a sense of guidance and structure within the modern church’s remarkably unstructured body. Through Robinson, I am finding that a respect for church tradition can itself be liberating. Is it bizarre that a contemporary creative writer would inspire a college student to start reading John Calvin? Absolutely. That’s the magnificence of Marilynne Robinson.
Danielle is an Honors English major and Political Science minor from Durham, CT. She advises the middle school youth group at Swarthmore Presbyterian Church.Alexis de Tocqueville, beauty, Christian, death, family, freedom, George Whitefield, grace, hope, John Calvin, literature, love, Marilynne Robinson, politics, Reformed theology, Swarthmore College, theology