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Marilynne Robinson

A Truth too Great for Us

Ross Melanson
Modern Language Association 2008 Annual Convention
1 September 2008

Due to the limitations of this format, footnotes have been removed from this essay.  The entire paper, with footnotes, is available upon request.

The accomplished American author, Marilynne Robinson, has confessed that she holds to “a religious belief in intellectual openness” and that it is the essence of her fictional practice, the basis for the style and substance of her two novels, and the motive behind her nonfiction. In stating this, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author is admitting to a driving, common thread amidst the diversity of her work. In addition, she is suggesting that clarity regarding the motive and substance of this theology of openness would provide a powerful lens through which to see her work.

Robinson has argued that all major theologies have arisen in polemic contexts and “written as a challenge to prevalent theologies.” She has also suggested that all “theology is written as retrieval – written trying to reach back to a more authentic Christianity”. Her body of work, which is more theological than anything else, is guided by these attributes. Therefore, her theology of openness is, simultaneously, a polemic against modern American thought as an attempt at retrieving its earlier grandeur.

Her biography and corpus chronicle an increasing awareness that she is an inheritor of a particular theological tradition stemming from John Calvin. Proportional to this emerging awareness is an increasingly adverse reaction to various aspects of modern thought. Robinson’s emerging Calvinist identity, combined with her simultaneous repudiation of many modernist assumptions, work their way to maturity throughout her written work, producing a religious spirituality of openness that has, by her own admission, “fed her soul and given shape to every piece of work [she] has put [her] hands to”.

As the term “intellectual openness” insinuates, there is a particular theory of knowledge that pervades Robinson’s thinking and relates to her theology of openness. This theory, which gives emphasis to the evolutionary and social nature of human understanding, explores the relationship of historic knowledge to both present and future knowledge. This view insists that human comprehension, along with the civilization that represents it, advances because of the assumption that it must and it will be modified, even if undone and abandoned, by an intellectual journey. This intellectual journey, she points out, is driven by curiosity regarding what is currently mysterious and unknown. Her emphasis on the evolutionary nature of knowledge exposes the problematic reality that the most profound advancements of a civilization are typically accomplished by a radical undoing of the very intellectual borders that currently define it. In this, she associates the essence of knowledge’s advancement with both courage and revolution, making the extent of the social upheaval it causes directly proportional to fears manifest in the resistance to it.

The bulk of Robinson’s work concerns itself with the breakdown in the communication of knowledge from a past generation to a future one. While exploring the nature of this breakdown, her work gives emphasis to the dangerous role that a disposition of severe certitude about beliefs plays. Specifically, her work gives attention to the role it plays in blocking the advancement of knowledge, in denying the processes of its development, and in transforming the fundamental understanding about the very nature of the knowing process itself. Specifically, her work is a response to a perceived breakdown of communication between the 19th and the 21st centuries. Though her work concerns itself with the role modernist thinking has played in hindering this communication, it gives special emphasis to the role that 20th century American thought has played in interrupting the translation of culture, civilization, and knowledge.

From the beginning of her education, Robinson was becoming disenfranchised with the intellectual and social tone of her era. During her studies, she found a galvanized tonality that was adamantly predisposed against metaphysical thought and given to an economic model of society. Increasingly, she found herself skeptical about a culture enraptured with what she calls “petty determinisms” – views that saw the world as a closed system. In her estimation, these views serve to deprecate the human mind, jettison contemplative thought, and thwart the advancement of humanism. Eventually, she reasoned that contemporary American thinking itself had become “closed,” meaning it had its conclusions so thoroughly built into its assumptions that it intimidated any consideration of exploration and demanded a “blind loyalty to certain fixed beliefs.” It is her reaction to this intellectual fundamentalism, her concern about its role in interrupting the conversation of thought within the 20th century, and her emerging Calvinist sensibilities that developed a need for what would become her “open theology.”

It was Robinson’s encounter with the text of a 19th century American Calvinist, an assigned text for a class on American philosophy, that marked her first exposure to Calvinist thought. This text, from Jonathon Edwards’, The Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, was her first conscious encounter with thoughts genuinely contrarian to those prevalent within her modernist schooling. The metaphysical assumptions of the text challenged her thinking and opened her understanding to new possibilities of thought. It presented her with the seminal, cosmological assumptions that would become more fully understood by her later studies. This exposure made her aware of the existence of another era of time that was saturated with thoughts significantly more broad and invigorated than the stale thinking of her own time. Regarding the impact of this text on her thinking, she writes, “it was my first, best introduction to epistemology and ontology, and my escape – and what a rescue it was – from the contending tedious determinisms that seemed to be all that was on offer to me then.” Amidst her immediate reactions to this text, Robinson experienced what could be called a “conversion,” provided one interprets the term as she does – an overwhelming, “visionary experience” that befalls an individual and which is, essentially, an “alteration of consciousness.” Within her own biographical narrative, she sees her encounter with this text as a memorable day in her interior life and she admits to walking away from the text thinking differently than before she encountered it.

Though this seminal experience created new categories for Robinson’s thinking, it was her relationship to her literary heritage that filled in those categories. Throughout her education and career, she had long sought to reconcile herself to the legacy of the 19th Century American literary canon. Her love for writers such as Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman eventually plunged her contemplation into the rich pool of 19th century thought and practice. While she was preparing to teach a seminar on Moby Dick, a deeply theological text by her favorite author, Robinson made the fate-filled decision to study the religious works that she thought Herman Melville’s writing would most likely be responding to. As a result, she read John Calvin’s seminal work, Institutes of Christian Religion. What she had initially encountered in Edwards’ text, she found fully explained in Calvin’s. Her reading of Calvin’s cornerstone text not only illuminated her understanding of Melville, it profoundly advanced her understanding of all his contemporaries. It gave her what she had previously lacked – an understanding “of the intellectual culture that surrounded what they did.” From this study, she came to understand the very weighty cosmological inheritance that Melville and other early American writers had received from their Calvinist forebears. She also came to understand that many of the core emphases of their texts, and many of the aesthetic elements that constituted their work, were all deeply rooted in Calvinist thought. In this regard, she concludes, “Behind the aesthetics and the metaphysics of classical American literature, again and again we find the Calvinist soul, universal in it singularity, and full of Calvinist wonder.” Given the fundamental role that the 19th Century American literary canon played in forming a truly American sensibility, it is not surprising that Robinson came to the conclusion that, if America was the cradle of democracy, Calvinism was the cradle of American thought and aesthetics

Further explorations of Calvin’s work caused her to understand much more about the religious culture that she had, up to then, only passively received. In this sense, it matured her identity, making her consciousness of the fact that cultural elements had been at work in her life at the social level. From this point on, she became an active participant in the development of her own American understanding.

Studying the Calvinist foundations of 19th century thought, brought her to the conclusion that there had been a rupture in the dialogue of American culture and that all sorts of things that were brought up in America’s early conversation were eventually dropped without being resolved. She observed that 19th Century American thought was constituted by large-scale thinking, propelled by complex, nuanced metaphysical sensibilities. She concluded that it was this robust “intellectual culture that was yielding use of language and use of perception at very high levels of sophistication.” Her work records her convictions that the conversation of American culture had strayed from such lofty philosophical contemplations and social ambitions and turned it into idle chatter surrounding a mode of thinking “closer to sociology than to metaphysics.”

By her own admission, many years of Robinson’s life was spent “trying to restore the larger context” that made these 19th Century writers begin the American dialogue as they did. As she grappled with the nuances of Calvinist thought, her affiliations with them grew and she understood their introductory comments in the American dialogue more fully. Her eventual understanding of their metaphysical assumptions, their convictions about social development, and their epistemology of perception did much to develop her theology of openness.

Robinson declares Calvin’s “metaphysics of encounter” to be one of the greatest gifts she has received from his legacy. It was this theology of experience as a source of religious understanding that was the most real dissent of the Reformation. This radical doctrine denied the Platonic and Aristotelian motifs that placed God at a cognitive removal from all elements of being. In the process, she argues, it erased the static view of the world that tended to see its constituent elements as mere objects of contemplation – as mere means to a greater, rational truth hidden within or beyond them. In its place, it developed a dynamic cosmology that proved significantly more relational. Robinson’s theology of openness shares Calvin’s disposition in this matter.

At the foundation of Calvin’s theology, she notes, was the radical belief that God’s power was the very essence at the heart of all Being. It was the great universal of creation and the very substance that carried all elements of existence from one moment to the next. Effectively, this made all Being a continuous act of recreation that, in turn, continually re-expressed the Being of God. In this view, she notes, the historic understanding of the absolute divisions between the spiritual and physical were transformed. This theology caused God to be seen as so utterly present to creation, and active within it, that it broke down the “persistent distinction between the sacred and the secular.” It was this radical perspective, Robinson notes, that made all being (nature) understood as a sacrament – a means to encounter God and a means through which God encounters humanity.

As a consequence of all this, spirituality was no longer equated with other-worldliness, but with the physical and the phenomenal. Personal experience and everyday life became understood as the means to spirituality itself and, therefore, every moment demanded careful attention. The assumption was that all experiences issuing from any encounter with being (nature) was saturated with meaning, given that God’s working presence was assumed to be in it. This made both conscious observance and conscious reflection a means to a revelatory experience and made the human mind the locus of it.

The radical nature of this perspective cannot be over-stated. It gave the everyday and the natural a sacramental quality and it emancipated the concepts of sacramentalism and spirituality from institutionalism. It gave both concepts independence from a priesthood ordained by the Church and empowered the individual as the ultimate locus of spirituality. In effect, this view displaced authority from a centralized conception hovering dictatorially over society, diffused authority into everything surrounding the individual, and then refocused it in the mind of a person consciously contemplating the significance of their own very individual experiences. In this, Robinson notes, Calvin and his followers centered spirituality on an individual’s knowing and perceiving, rather than their acceptance of and submission to prescriptions. 
 In this, lies the assumption that the legitimacy of knowledge lies in the metaphysics of encounter from which it emerges and not in the knowledge itself. Throughout the writing of Calvin, the 19th century writers, and Robinson’s work there is an emphasis on the validity of experience itself and a suspicion regarding everything that follows that. In all their work, there is the validation of concrete reality at the heart of an experience of encounter followed by experience, itself. Everything subsequent to that is viewed with suspicion because it can distract attention for the authenticity of it.

Robinson’s convictions regarding this reflect the general tone of her predecessors. Her belief is that initial, authentic, and legitimate human experiences eventually give way to systems of belief. Her contention is that these systems tend to “warp, contract, and harden” the authentic convictions emerging from these experiences, transforming their legitimacy and making subsequent adherents disingenuous, meaning significantly removed from the actual origins of their own beliefs. Her conclusion is that this process removes authority from actual, individual, immediate experience and encounter,  placing it in the hands of those who mediate the measure of authenticity to the constituents through their own visions or interpretations of the legitimate historical experience. These interpretations, in Robinson’s estimation, effectively move all adherents away from the foundational reverence, awe, and wonder systemic in the initial experience toward a formulated conception and practice that carries an air of the familiar, rather than the unique or sacred. She also assumes that these interpretations are an effective move away from mystery toward certainty, and from the developmental toward the conclusive, meaning she assumes that these interpretations and their adherents tend to atrophy a grander vision into something significantly smaller. In effect, her concern is that these interpretations compress the complicated nuance of an initial, open-ended, and yet defining experience into to a simplified rendition that, ultimately, confuses practice with essence and ideological structure with substance.

While systems of belief threatened to efface the significance of a metaphysics of encounter, they also threatened to eliminate the evolutionary nature of knowledge. Robinson points out that the engineers of the 19th century literary canon did not see understanding as a destination to which one arrives and saw it more as ambience through which one would journey. This view, she notes, insisted that people were “being led through the experience of life in order to have a profounder understanding” and that they learned by “continuous encounter and new knowledge.” It also equated proper behavior with seeking the new and unknown elements hidden within and lying beyond what was currently seen or perceived as the “true” or the “real.” In this way, the thinking of the 19th century associated understanding with a process that was continuously expanding, always opening, continually moving toward an invigorating complexity that challenged the understanding of the individual and demanded their sustained attention and stewardship. In this way, it disassociated understanding from confident adherence to a set of doctrines or as synonymous with practicing or protecting a set of ethical standards and equated it more with a disposition, or an approach to knowing, itself.

In terms of motive, Robinson’s theology of openness seeks to redress the warping, hardening, and contracting of systems of belief systemic within her own era and she is motivated by the desire to revitalize the authenticity of the initial impetus for them. It also seeks to question the sense of conclusion in much of modern American thought. This desire to evoke the awe and wonder of initial discovery and to restart the adventure of experimentation in thinking gives a reformationist flavor to Robinson’s body of work and explains much regarding both its motives and content. As with all reformationist approaches, Robinson’s rests on the conviction that there is an earlier, preferable, glorious state from which the current circumstance has fallen. The implication of this presentation; of course, is that she sees it having strayed from the initial experiences represented in the authors within the 19th century American literary canon.

The Calvinists to whom Robinson gives regard, hold to the complex and heavily nuanced notion of “perception.” This concept, she notes, has captivated her attention and has been her “greatest interest and pleasure in life.” In essence, perception refers to the ability within a person to take notice of an encounter between the radically individual and particular concreteness of their own being and the particularity hidden by the surface of any other “thing.” Perception is thus the ability to “see” that which lies beyond the elements that strikes the eye and is the ability to “see” that which is reaching out toward us from behind those elements. Robinson suggests that this concept in Calvin’s writing refers to the potential for experiencing the “sacred.” Here, the “sacred” refers to a perception of the absolute otherness of that which is observed. Essentially, the “sacred” refers to the most essential quality of an object apart from a sense of its usefulness in relation to objectives. It is an absolutely aesthetic experience that gives valuation to an observed object as an existence in its own right.

In the Calvinist perspective, the viewer was encouraged to look onto the world in such a way as to efface the self – to look onto the world stripped of their social economy of valuation. This encouragement to see the world as true and absolute from the perspective of an individual without any social baggage of valuation was to be done in order to have “pure perception.” This was a way of “seeing” (understanding) the world “without anything accidental being of more interest or more importance than perception itself.” For Robinson, such a perspective was “not a report on reality but [was] the primary locus of reality itself.” In essence, this form of Calvinism was attempting to see the world as a pure aesthetic experience – a world saturated in the beauty of pure Being and absolute reality. It was an attempt to see the world stripped of humanity’s arrogant interpretation or valuation. Put another way, it was an attempt to see the world merely as an expression of God.

The appeal of this type of viewing to Robinson and her 19th century influences is its emancipation from utilitarian moorings. The desire to see objects “purely” deals with more narrowing views of pragmatism that chauvinistically looks at objects through the lens of predetermined ends; hence, judging and object’s value by its usefulness in regard to achieving those ends. This allows the viewed object to speak of its own value, not as an object of use, but as an object of God’s use.

Robinson’s developing disposition of openness has determined much in regard to the essence of her work. It can be observed, for example, as giving shape to the style and substance of her fictional practice. Because of this, an examination of these factors would illuminate the essence of what Robinson might mean by “openness”

Robinson’s novels are heavily layered with nuance. Her thin plots carry rich characterization through prose that are weighed down with a staggering number of references and allusions to sources that are complicated in themselves. Her practice thickens nuance by weaving an ever-complicating understanding of her characters through an intricate web of metaphors. As her minimal plots advance, these metaphors get more extended and inter-related. The over-all effect of this approach to writing gives it a sense of mysterious complication.

As they advance through her narratives, readers are asked to carry so many inter-related concepts, details, experiences, and sensibilities that they become daunted by what is being asked of them. This fills readers with an awareness that they are dealing with an object that is beyond immediate understanding and likely beyond the grasp of a certain, encapsulating interpretation. This is furthered by the fact that Robinson’s approach seems to be guided by exploration of these ideas, rather than conclusions about them. In the absence of a discernible didactic meaning from the author, the readers can only follow her example. In this, they are left to ruminate, grapple, and consider what the meaning of this complexity might be to their own experience.

Gilead, more overtly than Housekeeping, gives emphasis to the evolutionary and social nature of human understanding as it explores the passing of information from the past, through the present, toward the future. In Gilead, the confounding numbers of ways it can be discerned embodies the complication within this process.

In writing his “begats,” John Ames relays the religious and social heritage that has been passed from his grandfather, through his father, to him – the essence of which he now seeks to leave as a heritage for his son. Ames’ narrative conveys the complications that ensue when subsequent generations seek to refine, expand, rework, and reinterpret a legacy in the presence of those in the process of leaving it. The many disagreements of interpretation and the broken or fractured relationships that emerge from them leave the reader wondering what essential quality of Christianity is legitimately surviving the gauntlet of this human frailty. In the end, it is not surprising to find that it is a disposition of active reflection rather than a certain adherence to a set of doctrines and ethical practices that falls from the Ames’ family tree.

Ames’ very personal attempt at writing a legacy for his son takes place at a very interesting point in America’s collective history. While recording his account of his family’s past, Ames’ narrative records the transition of American sensibilities during and after the civil war. At the point of Ames’ writing, during the 1950s, America stood on the edge of an era that was to be marked by emancipation for a variety of marginalized groups. This saturates the book in an awareness of past and potential revolution, insinuating the role that eras of transitions play in either continuing or blocking it.

Another layer of transition is apparent when one considers Robinson’s social ideas. Within her essays, she has been overt about her opinion that a glorious religious understanding has been lost in American life. She has suggested that the religious sensibilities of the American Midwest in the 19th century determined an era of great intellectual and moral courage. It allowed them to see the error of the culture around them, caused them to have social practices that seem advanced, even by today’s standards, determined their role in the war. Gilead takes place at a point in history where what was started in the Civil War was about to become more fully realized in the civil rights movement. Implicit in this, of course, is that there was a lapse of conviction through which the spirit of revolution had been lost, a period in which the conversation of emancipation had been dropped.

These layers of transition allow Robinson to explore the nature of knowledge’s transition from generation to generation. While doing so, it alerts the reader to this issue as well. In effect, it causes the reader to have consciousness of the relationship between the past, present and future in regard to both understanding and practice.

Within Robinson’s novels, the phenomenal world plays an important, if not central, role. The elements, phenomena, and effects of nature often steal away from the text’s focus and attempt to captivate the reader amidst the distraction. Scattered throughout Gilead, there are several moments in which natural phenomena are regarded with wonder and awe, apart from any consideration of their use. Throughout the book there are moments taken to consider the beauty of bubbles floating upward, a sun-drenched young couple dancing in a sprinkler, two grease-covered mechanics smoking and laughing at each other’s jokes, or a cat lying in the sun. These moments cause the reader to reflect upon the beauty of these moments as “moments of beauty.” These types of considerations relate to, and exemplify, the philosophy of perception that shapes Robinson’s theology of openness.

In actuality, however, many of these same moments are extended metaphors. As such, they try to convey the very Calvinist conception that ordinary moments of life are being used as means of conveying import, significance, as well as meaning. In the use of metaphor, she is attempting to say that there is something of great significance hovering behind the surface of all seemingly ordinary things and events. This quality within objects and events seeks to convey something to us about the intrinsic, inexpressible, mystery we call Being. In using metaphor, Robinson is attempting to alert us to a view of the world that is substantially less mechanistic and utilitarian. It is her attempt to open up our imagination to see a world not as an object of consideration, but as an ambient knowledge through which we should journey with conscious reflection and consideration. We should live, she suggests, as if the world is addressed to us and that it is speaking about the beauty of an unfathomable mystery. In this sense, her use of metaphor is not a mere affectation of literature – it is a way of seeing the world.

It seems apparent that Robinson’s growing discomfort with modern American thought and her attraction to its more glorious roots has related dialectically within her thinking and has produced her disposition of religious belief in intellectual openness. This disposition represented her choice to identify herself with an earlier American sensibility that saw society as on ongoing, open-ended experiment in democratic self-understanding. It has also caused her to shape her thinking around complex, highly-nuanced metaphysical sensibilities which anticipate, demand and respect the engaged workings of an individuated mind. From this, a body of work has emerged that is as aesthetically deep as it is intellectually wide. Without doubt, she leaves behind a legacy that will transcend the limitations of our time and become a witness to beauty for generations to come.


Robinson and Optimism

“I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do. I want to feel that art is an utterance made in good faith by one human being to another. I want to believe there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it.” 

Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought

Would it not be awful if one could legitimately argue that we have become so gripped by a terror at complexity that we are enamored with the mere utility of nearly everything?  This is the kind of question that haunts.  It suggests the possibility that great numbers of people, for the greatest amount of any given day, celebrate their love for things that infer nothing about a consciousness of meaning.

Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitizer Prize-winning author of Gilead, has suggested the notion that it is just as easy to imagine people as profoundly noble as it is to imagine them in any number of disparaging ways.  And, as much as my thoughts tend toward cynicism regarding the intentions of others, I know that there is a great measure of truth to what she is saying.

I can, after all, imagine any one of us to be in some corner of the world, pouring over some great work by a greater mind than our own.  I can conceptualize a farmer, for instance, after a hard day’s labour in the scorching sun, perched on a chair under a fan of light, reading Walden and wondering, for all the world, what Thoreau meant by it.  I can also envisage a nurse, with feet propped up and her uniform still on, sipping warm tea as she attempts to parse out the difference between what Calvin actually infers in The Institutes of Christian Religion and what subsequent interpreters have implied.  And I can imagine both the nurse and the farmer doing so simply for the wonder of doing it, each celebrating their mind for their mind’s sake

I know that this is not always or primarily the case but, like Robinson, I would like to hold on to the notion that there are artistic, scientific, and philosophical geniuses spread throughout this world scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it.

When I have looked for these people, I have to admit that I have found them.  And, when I have found them, I have been inspired by them.  I cannot say that I have felt the same when I have taken on a disparaging view of humanity.

I am no optimist.  However, I do not think there is much to drink from fountain of despair.  In addition, it seems more honorable that we would live with a notion of each other that hopes something for us and expects something from us than to live in any other way.