Marilynne Robinson on The Givenness of Things
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. The New York Times Review of Books says Marilynne Robinson “is not like any other writer. She has created a small, rich, and fearless body of work in which religion exists unashamedly, as does doubt, unashamedly.” Robinson is perhaps best-known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead. This year she received the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. Her latest book is called The Givenness of Things. It’s a non-fiction collection of essays on topics like science and religion, grace, and Christology. Robinson is in her final year as Professor of English and Creative Writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She joins us over the telephone from Iowa City to talk about reading, writing, and faith. Questions and comments about this and other episodes can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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HODGES: Marilynne Robinson, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Thank you.
ROBINSON’S WRITING PROCESS
HODGES: It’s been about thirty-five years since you published your first novel, Housekeeping. That’s a book that made it on to the shortlist for the Pulitzer Prize. Your 2004 novel Gilead won that award. Today, we’re going to be talking about your latest book which is a collection of nonfiction essays called The Givenness of Things. I thought it was interesting that your total of nonfiction books now surpasses your total of fiction books, five to four.
ROBINSON: Well, you know, it doesn’t reflect any special intention on my part. I give lectures a lot. If someone asks me an interesting question, I have a tendency to write a lecture. And then over the course of time they accumulate and I publish them as books. And so what my nonfiction for the most part reflects is the fact that I like to talk to people about ideas, you know.
HODGES: People have talked about how there’s a lot of space between the novels themselves. Some people try to kind of crank out books and you’ve been more methodical about it. Are the books just naturally coming out at that rate or did you have a set plan?
ROBINSON: No, I never have a plan [laughs]. The books just emerge as they do. I don’t try to force myself to write a book when I don’t have a strong sense of what the book will be.
HODGES: Your writing process itself is really interesting. I’ve seen elsewhere you’ve talked about it. When you’re writing a book—of fiction especially—that you depend on the emergence of a voice. You say that you don’t make the voices, they come to you. I wanted to hear more about that. I mean it sounds prophetic almost, where these voices come to you and then you find yourself writing these characters.
ROBINSON: It is a kind of strange experience and I’m absolutely dependent on it, no question about that. I think that we have not been very good about articulating the workings of the mind, you know [laughs]. I mean something happens that is the integration of things that I’ve heard and seen into something that interprets them as gathered experience. I don’t know what the process is. I’ve never seen anything that psychology would describe that deals with this sort of thing. At the same time, I think it’s very, very widely characteristic of people that write fiction.
HODGES: It’s interesting—I’ve tried my hand a few times with just a couple pieces of short fiction and what I found was that I would begin with some point or some idea that I wanted to get across and then I would build characters around that or try to get to it, and it just seemed kind of forced. You teach writing; you’re at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. How do you work with students as they’re beginning to write? Do you find a lot of students approach it the way I described, where they just have this idea and then they write? Or is it more what you described which is almost something that comes to you and through you?
ROBINSON: I find that a lot of people starting out writing try to impose an intention on what they’re doing. I try very much to encourage my writers to think of the work as being exploratory. You know, “why does this fascinate me, how does it unfold, what are the complexities of it?” rather than trying to make some kind of a personal assertion through what they’re writing.
HODGES: Let’s take John Ames for example. He’s a character in your novel Gilead that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. I’ve seen where you describe his voice sort of coming to you. You sat down and just started writing as this preacher, and he seems different from you. Obviously, one, because he’s a man, and because he’s from a different era. So how would you talk to your students about that sort of experience? And talk a little bit about that character, John Ames.
ROBINSON: Well you know I ask my students to be very alert to what is happening on the page and to be responsive to it. It’s very interesting; in a way writing fiction is like painting, or probably composing music. Within limits, you create the possibility of meaningful variations and so on. The tendency of fiction, ideally, is to open, to make things larger than they might otherwise seem. I wrote the character of John Ames [laughs] fully aware that ministers do not get terribly good press in American literature. I mean, I was very interested in his voice. I was very enlisted by his voice. I didn’t even know if it was a publishable book frankly because, you know, someone dying in Iowa in 1956 [laughs] after a long career as a small-town preacher is not the most obviously fetching subject in the world. But if you are drawn into something, it becomes alive. And that’s what I try to make my students feel. When something is taking life, you know?
HODGES: Yes, and you mentioned some of these tropes when you find preachers in books. Oftentimes there will be the secretly doubting preacher, or the calculating kind of preacher that’s a hypocrite or something [laughs]. And like you said, John Ames is sort of a different figure because…it’s not that he doesn’t have doubts or questions, but you’re writing from inside his head instead of from other people’s perspectives. Do you think that made a difference in terms of how John compares to other fictional preachers that have been written about?
ROBINSON: Well you know one thing I think that is very important—always important, too important—is that people’s thinking can be extremely conventional. And it’s sort of as if, you know, if you’re going to write about a minister then immediately you know certain things should be true of him—for example, if he’s a hypocrite or whatever [laughs]. It’s like a villain twirling his mustache or something; it’s just a convention, you know? And one of the things that I find very true and striking when I do readings and then talk with people afterwards at signings and so on is that there are many people in this country who have wonderful relationships with, experiences of, clergy, either because they’re in their families or because they have known them through a church or a synagogue or whatever. The importance of ministers in American society, I think, is almost inversely proportionate to the negative image [laughs] of them we’re always recreating. I don’t know why those things happen. I have known a number of ministers in my life. I’ve found them admirable and interesting people. I’ve had no basis for treating them otherwise.
ON GILEAD AND WRITING FICTION
HODGES: So Gilead is the first book in this trilogy and it’s a trilogy that isn’t exactly linear. You revisit the same timeline in the follow-up books. If these ideas are coming through you, how did you feel about what might be revealed about the characters? I’m thinking of Harper Lee’s book [Go Set a Watchman] that she recently put out that shocked people because there was a scene that depicted a character in a shocking way. Did you get a sense that was possible with your characters as you revisited the same timeline? Or did you have a sense already of what that backstory—or that same timeline story—was like already?
ROBINSON: Well, I thought that I knew the characters, and when you know characters—whether they’re real or fictional—they can be very free in your hands but they are not likely to simply depart from what you essentially know about them, you know?
ROBINSON: I’m very loyal to my characters. I would not traduce them [laughs].
HODGES: Now, historical fiction in particular is really interesting. There’s a blog, the Religion and Politics blog of the Danforth Center, published a really interesting piece by a big fan of your books who was also a little bit critical of the second book in the trilogy, Home. [See here.] There’s a scene in Home where some characters witness on TV a brutal police crackdown against black protesters in Montgomery and this is during the civil rights movement. The piece calls your account a bit anachronistic.
ROBINSON: There is a certain amount of anachronism in that I simply consider it to be creative freedom. I wanted it to be clear what was happening in the larger culture and how it was being responded to, and you know…So I moved it. I moved the Montgomery riots a little bit. But I was writing fiction, I wasn’t writing history.
HODGES: You were an observer back then, I assume. Were you drawing on your own views from that time, sort of remembering what it felt like to see those shocking things on television?
ROBINSON: Yes. I think that that was kind of a national experience at the time. Shocking.
HODGES: Are you surprised, it seems, um, I mean things now don’t seem to get perhaps as extreme as they were at that time, but race has been a big issue in the news over the past several years here with different shootings. Have you been surprised to see that?
ROBINSON: Well, in a way it’s always a surprise. I mean shooting people who are unarmed, shooting children, it’s not something that you simply expect to happen even though you know it happens over and over again. It has been very discouraging. At the same time, at least attention has been drawn to it and there have been prosecutions and so on that are certainly called for.
HODGES: Do you think fiction has much to say to the situation that people are facing today especially people in the black community, for example? Do you see literature as a useful way to explore some of the issues that people face today?
ROBINSON: Definitely. I mean, one of the things of course that is a factor is that we’re seeing a lot more black writers. And I think that they are the people who can really speak authoritatively about how the culture appears from their side. I’m very pleased that at the [Iowa Writer’s] workshop they have now a considerable number of black writers and I look forward to seeing that become a more and more present voice in our literature.
HODGES: What are some of the discussions you have there about fiction versus nonfiction? I’m thinking of Coates’s book, Between the World and Me. So he’s writing from his own personal account, his personal voice, versus a fictional account. Do you have discussions there about the differences between fiction and nonfiction, sort of addressing these types of questions and issues?
ROBINSON: I’m sure there are discussions [laughs] among the students. I have a tendency to teach classic literature and then the kinds of discussions that I have with them tend not to be that contemporary, even though I’m often writing about contemporary politics and life. But you know, people have to do what they have to do. If what they need to say would take the form of fiction, that’s great. If it takes the form of nonfiction, that’s great. Basically what we try to do, I think, is to teach them that they have to speak out of the integrity of their own mind and experiences and then live with that. Do what they have to do.
HODGES: What about the obstacle of didacticism? Sometimes people can write a book that’s just sort of obviously preachy. Since you’ve written from the mind of a preacher, that seems to be an especially pressing risk, that your fiction is just a tool to serve some other end.
ROBINSON: [Laughs] Well you know, I don’t write fiction that way. I think I’m very carefully not to do that. I would not want to feel that impulse in myself. On the other hand, every once in a while there is a didactic book like, you know, Uncle Tom’s Cabin that is necessary and very consequential and has a right to say what it says in the way that it says it. I hope I’m not a didactic writer myself, or I certainly don’t have those intentions. But the world is large and there is plenty of space for all kinds of writing.
HODGES: What kind of things would make your book didactic? What do you consciously try to avoid?
ROBINSON: Well, I mean I’m a teacher who writes essays that are to be read at universities [laughs]. There is a very strong didacticism in my nonfiction I think, the point of it usually being that people ought to go back to original sources and reconsider them, you know? But this is obviously not a fiction subject.
HODGES: And that’s exactly why I ask the question because…as I would read, for example, as I was reading through The Givenness of Things, your recent book, and thinking back on reading Gilead,I would see intersections there, but it just made me wonder because it’s a different mode of writing for you, your fiction versus your nonfiction.
ROBINSON: Yes. One way to think about it I think is that I write nonfiction in order to educate myself. I’m the object of my own didacticism [laughs]. Though you simply can’t write about much of anything without feeling that your information is inadequate, your knowledge is inadequate. Then I do all the research that goes into making me feel confident, that I have something that I can say. For me, this is often about American history or theology, religious history. And that does become material for my novels, but it is never the point of the novels. It’s simply, you know, the weather inside my head tends to precipitate itself around those kinds of subjects.
HODGES: Have any storms cropped up that surprised you then? As you’re writing any of the Gilead series, or Housekeeping even, as you’re exploring these ideas, has anything come out that was surprising to you that you didn’t anticipate?
ROBINSON: It’s hard to say that in retrospect. When I’m writing, I’m careful not to outline things, not to think that I can anticipate how a scene will go before I write the scene. As a matter of fact, I have a rule that I don’t think about fiction unless I’m actually writing at the time because the mind goes so readily toward convention. And the thing that keeps you from becoming conventional is having to put things in concrete language. But I hope to be surprised by what I write. Then in retrospect it seems as if it was inevitable [laughs] that I would have written what I did.
HODGES: Maybe that speaks to why… I mean it seems like your books have come out kind of far apart, but they also seem to be written in a burst and maybe that process kind of explains why, if you have the rule to not think about it.
ROBINSON: Right. Exactly. Part of the pleasure of writing fiction is first of all feeling as if you’ve actually conjured something that feels like reality and then following it out, you know, seeing where it takes you, which ideally is always on one hand inevitable, on the other hand a surprise to you also.
HODGES: It sounds really fun and I frankly don’t know how you do it.
ROBINSON: You know, I talk to my students about writer’s block, the idea that they simply come to a point where they can’t proceed, which happens to every writer. But what it really means is that you have to stop and consider that there are things that you have not yet understood, and that can be a very good thing. The ideas that you have after what feels like a drought are often very strong, very complex. This campus which I walk around on all the time is sort of dotted with places where I was not thinking about my fiction and then suddenly I think, “Oh, of course.” And then I don’t let myself get any farther until I get home and can write. [Laughing]
HODGES: It’s interesting, I mean you mention the psychology of it and how you haven’t seen many people look into that. But I also wonder how sleep can be involved in that because our minds keep working, and or so we’re told, right? So writer’s block, for example, is something that some people can sleep off and other people can’t. When you’ve confronted writer’s block, what kind of things have you done to work through it?
ROBINSON: Sleep is important, there’s no question. I mean often I fall asleep and then I realize that I’m actually thinking differently when I wake up—differently in a useful way. I have written for so many years now that I understand these moments that feel like blocks as part of the process. And I simply, I read a book. I take a walk. I do something that takes weeks of time, because I know that my mind is working on a problem. And I can’t hurry it. I can’t impose my own preferences on it. I gotten so that I have sort of an appreciation for the autonomy of my mind, the fact that if I give it a problem and then forget the problem for two weeks, it will give me an answer in two weeks, you know? The mind is so much more complex than any description of it.
HODGES: It’s hard when you’re on a deadline. Sometimes I’ve been on a deadline and one tip I got that was really helpful was to write my way out of the block, which is to write about the block, like what are the thoughts I’m having about it and where did I get stuck and that sort of thing. I’ve found that to be a useful way, at least with nonfiction, to kind of work…write my way out of it.
ROBINSON: Right, well, you know, I’m never blocked as far as nonfiction goes. I seldom have a problem that a nap will not solve. [Laughs] But I’m sure that that’s true. With fiction, I never write to a deadline so I have a very, very civilized publisher who never even uses the word. So that’s a great help.
HODGES: Well it’s interesting because the voice you cultivate in your nonfiction still, it seems very literary. The sentences seem crafted and deliberate. Do you find yourself working on the tone of your pieces or is that just kind of your voice, are you just sitting down and typing your voice and you don’t have to work a lot on shaping the sentences?
ROBINSON: When I’m writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, I’m very aware of trying to make any sentence right before I go on to the next sentence. I feel as if a bad thought, a bad piece of articulation is like a structural flaw that means the things that come after it will be flawed also. And so it’s just as a matter of maintaining the integrity of the work. I’m very careful not to leave any sentence behind that I consider to be defective in any way.
HODGES: Do you find yourself rewriting a lot in either your fiction or nonfiction, or do you kind of set it out like you said, get one sentence right and move to the next?
ROBINSON: I virtually never rewrite.
HODGES: You’ve talked about reading, and how reading has been a way for you to work through writer’s block or to get ideas, so I thought it would be cool—because you’ve written some essays on this as well—to talk about what you like about reading, your experience with reading. You’ve been drawn to books since you were a little girl. You say you were reading Moby Dick when you were nine years old in Idaho and probably the only nine year old carrying around Moby Dick. So talk a little bit about your experience of reading.
ROBINSON: I have a very smart older brother. He’s two and a half years older than I, and I was always trying to do what he did, so I was sort of precocious twice over. [laughing] You know and frankly, the “Moby Dick” thing is a classic, I was always reading over my head. I was always reading more than I could understand. And I think that was a very good exercise for me. I mean, I remember this kind of excruciating patience it required, which was also a good experience. When I was in school, I would fall asleep [laughs] which the teachers very kindly interpreted as boredom. And I would be sent to the library often where there was everything, there were all these Harvard Classics and so on. And I always read just beyond what I could grasp, and it was great. I mean I felt grateful for myself as a child [laughing] for having had these aspirations.
HODGES: Like Moby Dick, for example, I read that a couple of years ago and it was a difficult read. As a child, would something like Moby Dick, what kind of takeaway could a nine-year-old have with that book compared to years of reading experience?
ROBINSON: It’s sort of hard for me to reproduce. I remember there are very, very beautiful passages of description of the ocean and so on, or even of the ship, you know. And I remember, that was very interesting to me. I think one of the things that I’ve gotten from my very long devotion to American literature, Moby Dick being such a classic, is the amazing descriptive passages that are accomplished in it, which make me feel that the world of fiction was made from the evocation of the world of experience and metaphor and meditation on the appearance of things. And I mean I’m making it sound like I was some prodigious nine-year-old, you know. But it is true that there are passages in that book that are so glorious that even then they were not lost on me. I’ve read Moby Dick over and over again.
HODGES: And you were landlocked up there.
ROBINSON: Well, but not really because we had a wonderful lake.
HODGES: Oh, okay.
ROBINSON: Yes, second largest body of freshwater west of the Mississippi. We were told.
HODGES: Which lake is it?
ROBINSON: Pend Oreille. And then Coeur d’Alene Lake, and we had lots of them there. I spent a lot of my childhood juts looking at water. [Laughs] Glad I did.
HODGES: What about books that you haven’t wanted to finish?
ROBINSON: Well, you know, for years now, a lot of my reading has been very intentional in the sense that I’m reading often primary source material and so on. I’m sort of mining it, I’m exploring it, and I have other than purely literary reasons for reading it. I don’t read a lot of fiction these days and for the last number of years. Which is no judgment on the fiction being written now, I think we’re in a very good period. But it’s simply that my curiosity about history is probably as strong an impulse as any that I have.
HODGES: Are there books that you return to though? Do you have books that you would care to revisit even though you don’t read a lot of fiction anymore?
ROBINSON: I keep seminars that are often on fiction. I have taught Moby Dick many times as a matter of fact. I teach Faulkner. You know. Those are probably the two that I am most inclined to teach. And then I also teach just nineteenth century American literature. I’m very fortunate that I can teach whatever I want to. So those are my favorite fictional writers and I go back to them again and again.
HODGES: How about with the Bible? Do you find yourself returning often to the Bible? You make use of it throughout Gilead, for example.
ROBINSON: I teach it in seminar. Last semester I taught the Hebrew Bible—the Old Testament—and this semester I’m teaching the New Testament.
HODGES: A lot people like Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Have you made use of that at all or do you stick with a more conventional translation?
ROBINSON: Well since the sort of more traditional translations are so essential to American literature particularly—to Western literature—I tend to stay with them. Alter’s impulse is to move the standard translation closer to a Hebrew sense of what the translation should be, but I’m interested in Shakespeare’s Bible, Hemingway’s Bible and so on. So I teach the Old Testament in the tradition of English language translation. Shakespeare used the Geneva Bible, so did Milton, so did most of the major writers of that period.
ON WRITING NONFICTION—SCIENCE AND RELIGION
HODGES: Yeah and a little bit later on we’ll get into John Calvin because you’ve been particularly drawn to him as a religious mind. But before we do that, let’s talk about your latest book that just came out, The Givenness of Things. And as we mentioned, it’s a collection of essays, several of them kind of walk the same ground in different ways. You said this was made up of papers that you delivered at different academic conferences and so forth. With your first piece in this book, “Humanism,” I feel like it gets right at one of the collection’s recurring discussions which is the relationship of science and religion and humanity in general. You have some pointed things to say about the current study of neuroscience. Why did you become interested in neuroscience in particular?
ROBINSON: Well, a lot of my essays are responses to the things that I encounter when I’m out in the world talking with people. If you go to conferences about psychology, neuroscience tends to be a very large subject there. And as a result of that, of course, I’ve read a good deal of material that comes from that discipline. I focused on it because I think that a lot of thought in the larger world is focused on it now.
HODGES: You criticize some scientists. There’s this sort of “scientism”—a dogmatic adherence to certain ideas of science—that you spend some time criticizing. But you also have wonderful things to say about science. For example, there’s a quote here where you say, “The new cosmologies” that scientists have sort of put together “open so many ways of reconceiving the universe that all sorts of speculations are respectable now.” And you see that as a good thing, whereas some Christians shy away from that because it seems to threaten, say, the Eden narrative or something.
ROBINSON: Right. I do have a tremendous admiration for solid scrupulous science. I feel as though I’m reading the Psalms when I read these new accounts of the universe and so on. I think that…I’m disturbed, frankly, by how readily people who consider themselves Christians turn towards fear. It seems to me as if there ought to be to be a very primary faith or trust in God as a sustaining presence that will allow you actually to look out and see what is unfolding and see what… you know, I think God is the god of history. You can’t hide from history. It seems to me to be irreligious to refuse to understanding your humanity in terms of the way of the world—the way the world…it broadens and complicates and all the rest of it. When people say they’re afraid of something I think, you know, I think that there’s a problem with their religion, frankly.
HODGES: I’d like to hear more about that. What kind of things would you rather inform people’s approach to questions like this? Because it makes sense, especially for more literalist readers of the Bible, they’ve read that Adam and Eve were created in this garden and they partake of this fruit and it’s pretty simple story. They fall, then death enters into the world, the Earth is said to be six thousand years old based on Bishop Usher’s timeline. So when they hear these stories of the cosmos being fourteen billion years old and the Big Bang and stuff, it seems like a radically different story.
ROBINSON: It is! [Laughs] There’s no question that it is. Nevertheless, there is… among the strongest thrusts of Biblical narrative—if you take the Bible whole—is that the world is full of the glory of God. That it is there to be seen, that is there to be a source of celebration and wonder. I think it might be wonder actually that they’re afraid of. I don’t… you know, I mean there’s the first creation narrative as well as the second creation narrative.
ROBINSON: And the first one is metaphysical and vast and full of the energy of being. The second I would say is kind of parable to explain the meaning of the creation of Adam and Eve, of male and female. But you know it is so ironic, scientists have done so much to sort of confirm these insights that are reflected in the first creation narrative that it seems amazing to me to reject it, as in effect they do, by insisting on the second creation narrative.
HODGES: I think that’s where it gets difficult, especially I think for more fundamentalist-minded readers, who just collapse those narratives together. Which really boils down to privileging, I think, the second narrative over the first one.
ROBINSON: Without question.
ON NEUROSCIENCE AND IDENTITY
HODGES: So your book, it’s about the “givenness” of things, this fits right into this discussion about neuroscience. Neuroscience seeks to explain human consciousness and emotion and experience strictly in terms of physical, empirical things, and the brain is basically the most complex computer known, but it’s essentially a machine. So for example if we get frightened, a neuroscientist might say, “Well it’s not you who are afraid, it’s this little patch of grey matter responding to environmental stimuli.” That’s a quote from you describing that position. Talk a bit more about that and that kind of description of what it is to be a conscious human, just this mechanistic view.
ROBINSON: I mean I think that the metaphor that would call the brain either a computer or a machine is not acceptable. We create machines that simulate certain kinds of human behavior. We create computers that simulate consciousness as closely as it can be done, which is not very close. But the essential model is the brain itself which is the most complex thing known to exist in the universe. You know, it’s without comparison. Certainly, it would not to be compared to anything that we’ve contrived to simulate it. I think that there’s an impulse in bad science to attempt to create models of simplicity that make things seem comprehensible which are not. As I said in that essay, fear is culturally created as much as anything else. If you are an Easter Islander in the seventeenth century, you’re probably not afraid of bankruptcy, you know?
ROBINSON: It’s that whole vast part of the brain that doesn’t light up that figures out whether you… that determines whether or not something is fearful. You go to a hotel and you find there is no thirteenth floor, you know, [laughing] how cultural is that, you know? And the fact that somebody’s seeing that thirteenth floor might have a little flare of panic. The panic is not accounted for by the number thirteen. Culture accounts for that. And culture is way, way more deeply impounded in the brain than in some little signal that flares, you know, the fight or flight.
ON WONDER AND MYSTERY
HODGES: Right and people that pick up this book will obviously see more of your argument there, but the idea that you spoke about earlier—the opposite of the fear is this sense of wonder. Let’s talk about that for a minute. In your chapter called “Proofs,” I see that as a rigorous defense of mystery, almost a rational defense of mystery, ironically enough, and there are a lot of religious believers today who want certainty in their faith. And some people just outright claim it. And then you’ve got critics of religion, new atheists like Richard Dawkins and people like that, who kind of adopt the same idea. They put their feet down in certainty and they criticize religion for being a poor way of dispelling mystery. Then they say “see this is why religion is terrible because it can’t handle mystery and we can, we’ve got the solution.” But there are some people who would say—I think some more scientific-minded people—who would read this essay on proofs and say “this is kind of a cop out, you’re just trying to shut down answers, you don’t like this answers and so you’re saying ‘oh it’s just a mystery.’” How do you respond to that kind of reaction?
ROBINSON: I think perhaps I’m using the word in a different sense than some people do, or most people, perhaps. You mentioned Calvin before. I think that we are led forward in experience by the new question that arises when any question seems to have been addressed, or the new thousand questions. I don’t think that this is exhaustible. You can’t read anything about contemporary cosmology and think we will ever have an exhaustive explanation of reality. It’s very primitive to imagine that we could have, you know? I mean, read about dark matter for heaven’s sake, which does not even apparently have an atomic structure, I mean it’s like completely other and it’s eighty or ninety percent of reality. It’s phenomenal what human beings have managed to understand, to grasp. And it’s phenomenal, much more phenomenal, how many things we have to, in all modesty, assume will exceed our grasp. And I’m not making a theological argument here, I’m talking about the physical universe.
HODGES: Right, and I think there are a lot of scientists who are on board with that kind of approach. I think you get some fundamentalist-minded scientists who don’t see it that way. But as far as a theological mystery, you also bring up a few of those throughout the book. One of them, speaking of Calvin, is predestination. And I think one of the most outstanding pieces in this book is “Metaphysics.” When people try to figure out predestination, you say “this is a classic instance of an inquiry beyond human capacity.” And then you have this, this is a really remarkable line. You say, “Christ is a response to certain of these questions. A response, not an answer.” What did you have in mind there?
ROBINSON: Well it’s not as if there were a question to which there’s an answer in any normal reductionist sense of those words. It’s that human life, human’s passage through the world, birth to death, is sacred. And that’s what we can… that’s the essential thing to know about it. The question for us is how do we respond to the fact of the sacredness, and that’s a question that’s continuously renewed in every encounter with human beings. So, I think that the difference between my theology and many others is that I do see it as dynamic in the sense that the questions that are given to us are new in every case, specific to our individuality in every case, and not to be solved with one underscoring of, you know, whatever. I mean I don’t even… I’m not articulate in a theological understanding that would imagine any sufficient and final answer.
HODGES: Well, it’s something hard to respond to because the very point is talking about the difficulty of [laughs] describing it to begin with, right?
ROBINSON: But that’s one of the things that I think contemporary science does so well—it gives us some sense of what is beyond the reach of our articulation. And I’m speaking here of physical reality but I consider that an analogy for reality altogether.
HODGES: Do you think there’s a religious impulse to the scientific endeavor then?
ROBINSON: Oh! I mean, Isaac Newton, a great many scientists, and I would say also Descartes and many of the other great minds and scientists—John Locke—they’re very religious, very, very religious. They write what amounts to theology. The idea that there’s any sort of necessary opposition between them is an artifact of late strange developments in science, and religion too.
HODGES: Is that maybe one of the reasons you’ve been drawn so much to scientific questions? People might be surprised in reading The Givenness of Things how frequently you’re talking about scientific issues if they’ve only read your fiction where scientific questions don’t really get raised.
ROBINSON: No, that’s true. Well it would be… speaking of the anachronism, most of the science that I talked about would be very anachronistic.
HODGES: Yeah, yeah [laughs].
ROBINSON: But I find contemporary science to be extremely beautiful. I read it before I began writing anything that reflects on it—necessarily of course [laughs]. But my reasons for reading it are a very profound admiration for a great deal of thinking that goes on and a great deal of the imagining and envisioning and hypothesizing that goes on. It’s a beautiful use of the mind.
ON JOHN CALVIN
HODGES: Let’s turn now to John Calvin. We’ve spoken about him a little bit already. He’s a reformer and theologian and he’s a touchstone for your thought and you’ve joked about how people seem surprised when they hear that because there’s this stereotype of Calvin and of Calvinists as sort of being these puritanical humorless people. There’s also a version of Calvinism today that affirms a few fundamental ideas, “TULIP” is the acronym, the things like total depravity, the idea that humans are just sort of garbage, or the idea of limited atonement—that God has selected a certain elect people to save, and elected other people to damnation without their input. I think that’s probably the “Calvin” that people have in mind when they express surprise at your affinity for John Calvin, and even I was trying to figure out what Calvin is for you.
ROBINSON: [Laughs] Well for me Calvin is what Calvin wrote. He is a very classic example of a sixteenth century French humanist. He insists on the unavoidable realization of the divinity in human beings as such, you know? He. . . That business about “TULIP,” what did a sixteenth century Frenchman know about tulips, you know? [Laughs] That silly acronym was coined in the United States, as I understand it. He’s a very non-dogmatic thinker. He does struggle with predestination, which all of the major theologians have done, you know.
ROBINSON: And as I said, I think in that essay, that I know from reading my physics that we have no idea what time is, and that this sort of incremental model of it that we have can’t be right. I think that everybody from Augustine to Calvin to, you know, Ignatius of Loyola was trying to make life understandable in terms of a model of time that is commonsensical but can’t be true. And so I don’t worry about that [laughs]. I don’t know why people fastened on that in regard to Calvin when it is true of so many writers, Luther for example.
I am very drawn by his—first of all, by his enormous admiration of the human being as such. You don’t have to read far into the Institutes to find this very explicitly stated. And then beyond that, he has a sort of visionary psychology in a sense. He treats all reality as visionary—the world continuously newly presented to any human consciousness as an address to that person on the part of God. I mean everything is always a new question basically. When you encounter someone else—no matter what the nature of the encounter—that it’s a question God is asking you, and the question is: What does God want from this encounter? Which is always assuming that whoever you encounter is as valuable to God as you are. So that’s a kind of dynamic ethic in a way. You know, the idea of the world that’s presented to you as being a visionary experience that’s full of meaning, that’s intentional. This is very beautiful to me. And I don’t find it in other theologies.
HODGES: It seems so far from some contemporary Calvinists. And that total depravity idea—you in your book outline what you call a “high anthropology,” a high human anthropology alongside your high Christology. Those are sort of the technical terms you use. But it seems to be a rejection of the idea of total depravity, which is again the sense that humans are just sort of almost repugnant creations. And it’s I think about original sin and that type of thing. Where is that in Calvin’s thought? Does he talk about depravity?
ROBINSON: Of course he uses the word deprave, you know, but that means “warped,” like you would say a mirror, a slab mirror that gives you an image but never an accurate image would be deprave. Or a text that has errors in it, scribal errors or something, it’s deprave. So or “corrupted,” corrompu. I mean he’s talking in the framework of religious assumptions that’s basically Thomistic. And Thomas said that baptism made people capable of reason. It made them… it undid the effect of original sin insofar as far as the consciousness is concerned. And for Calvin, our consciousness is on one hand very efficacious and on the other hand highly unreliable. And so he said “no, we are totally deprave,”which means that we are not more capable of reason than, for example, the unbaptized. That the drama of human understanding is always the mediation of experience through a mind that’s bears the marks of the fall.
HODGES: A limited mind in essence.
ROBINSON: Exactly. And many historians like Christopher Hill, whose a very good seventeenth century historian, they associated the rise of science very strongly with Calvinism because it assumes that on one hand you can make a good interpretation of reality and on the other hand you always have to assume that there are errors in your interpretation of reality so that a sort of scientific method arises out of it.
HODGES: It seems there was a turn then for some… It’s kind of like when you compare some of the fundamentalist evangelicals and the turn that they took in the twentieth century back to a more literalist Bible interpretation, that sort of thing, that a similar movement then must have happened within American Calvinism where there was also a sort of fundamentalist shift within the overall movement. Do you see… is that accurate then, there are divisions within Calvinism that way?
ROBINSON: Yes, well Calvinism is actually a huge tradition in this country which you don’t realize until you’ve gone somewhere else. But the great mass of Calvinism would never called itself by that name. American Liberal Protestantism is descended from Calvinism, from New England settlement Calvinism, and it has nothing to do with tulips. It has nothing to do with this insistence on depravity, or to the extent that they’ve used the word, they should’ve looked it up first. There are radical traditions of Calvinism that come from, for example, the low countries. But the most influential strain in American Protestantism is Calvinism without using the word, and that by which I mean liberal Protestantism.
HODGES: That’s Marilynne Robinson. She’s the author of the novels Gilead and Home and others. She’s also the author of a new collection of essays, The Givenness of Things. We’ll take a brief break and be right back for the conclusion of the interview.
ON THE SACRED ORDINARY
HODGES: We’re speaking today with Marilynne Robinson. She’s the author of The Givenness of Things. Marilynne, I asked you earlier about the intersections between your fiction and non-fiction. And your essay called “Experience” pointed me right back to one of my favorite passages from Gilead. In the essay you’re talking about Calvin’s view of a person as being depraved like we talked about but also as possessing a better self. In the essay, you write, “Calvin sanctifies the best pleasures of existence, from the work of our hands to our dazzling senses to the heroic aspirations of our sciences. For him, the spiritual is intrinsic to the temporal, a present pleasure most felt when we do anything that amazes us as an exercise of the God-given brilliance that we take for granted. This is soul as experience.” There’s this passage in Gilead where Reverend Ames is writing to his young son.
GILEAD AUDIOBOOK: “There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They’re in the petals of flowers, and they’re on a child’s skin. Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well-scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I’m about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye.
“The twinkling of an eye. That is the most wonderful expression. I’ve thought from time to time it was the best thing in life, that little incandescence you see in people when the charm of a thing strikes them, or the humor of it. “The light of the eyes rejoiceth the heart.” That’s a fact.
“While you read this, I am imperishable, somehow more alive than I have ever been, in the strength of my youth, with dear ones beside me. You read the dreams of an anxious, fuddled old man, and I live in a light better than any dream of mine—not waiting for you, though, because I want your dear perishable self to live long and to love this poor perishable world, which I somehow cannot imagine not missing bitterly…”
HODGES: “Existence itself seems like the most remarkable thing that could be imagined.” I just wanted to hear a little bit more about that from you because it’s such a beautiful passage.
ROBINSON: Well, you know, when I was talking before about the idea that experience is visionary intrinsically, you know?
ROBINSON: That it’s a question, not of having isolated religious visions, but of being sensitive to the fact that that character of experience is always available, waiting to be perceived, in effect. And so one of the things I think that’s striking about Calvin is he doesn’t talk about heaven very much at all, he says we can’t know anything about it. We’re given this world. This world is essentially visionary and it is a waste of what we are given to try to dwell on what we have not been given in this instance, we have not been shown or told, you know? So, I’m very aware of John Ames as seeing the sacred as implicit in the ordinary. And I think that’s truly important frankly.
HODGES: I wanted to ask before we go what you have coming up next, what you’re working on and if you foresee any possibility that you’ll be returning to the world of Gilead in the future.
ROBINSON: Well you know I’m working on some lectures now that I’m giving over the next couple of years. I hope that I’ll be able to work on fiction in that same time. I’d usually work them both together but we’ll see.
HODGES: Who knows, maybe somebody will start talking to you again.
ROBINSON: That could very well happen.
HODGES: Thanks for taking the time to be with us today, Marilynne. I really appreciate it.
ROBINSON: Well, thank you. It was a pleasure.