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Read more of Bob Abernethy’s August 31, 2009 interview in Iowa with Marilynne Robinson. She is the author, most recently, of the novels Gilead and Home, and she a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop:
Q: In your teaching, what are the most important things you want your students to understand?
A: That they have their own testimony to offer, that if they think about what they perceive and what they feel carefully, if they watch other people closely and magnanimously, they will have something new to say, something that’s an actual addition to what has been said. That they have no obligation to be derivative or imitative in any way. That is absolutely not the point. I want them to know that if they are thoughtful people, if they have the courage to evaluate things independently and to enjoy the processes of their own thought, then they will give the world something new, something worth having.
Q: In your essay on Psalm Eight in The Death of Adam you wrote, “So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes.” I think it’s very central to appreciating what you’ve been doing in your work.
A: Well, yes. I read things like theology, and I read about science, Scientific American and publications like that, because they stimulate again and again my sense of the almost arbitrary given-ness of experience, the fact that nothing can be taken for granted. Everything is intrinsically mysterious as a physical object, say, or as a phenomenon of culture, or as an artifact of the history that lies behind it. I’ve always been almost offended by the idea of mysticism, because it seems as if it diminishes what we know by every means that gives us access to it – it diminishes the simple spectacle of what we are and where we are, the complex spectacle, I should probably have said. I think probably one of the important things that happened to me was growing up in Idaho in the mountains, in the woods, and having a very strong presence of the wilderness around me. That never felt like emptiness. It always felt like presence. I never had the experience of banality, as it were. It always seemed as if there was something extraordinary around me, and I think that probably has done as much to form my mind as anything could have done.
Q: What are some of those things you’ve seen that are plainly before your eyes?
A: When I came here from living in New England for quite a long time I wanted to know what I was seeing, because every landscape has a history. It is the way it is because specific layers of population have lived in it and modified it and so on. Why is it that in the Middle West so many of the oldest structures are colleges virtually, in many cases, as old as the settlement itself? Because it’s a remarkable thing that the first thing people would feel they needed would be a college, and then it turns out that there’s a whole narrative behind that, that they were almost utopian communities that were designed to do all sorts of things. Create a culture that would be immune to the slave economy, for example. Create a culture that would be disseminating education at a high level, but accessible to anybody. All these kinds of very idealistic intentions were established very early on at what looked like little New England colleges that are scattered all over the Middle West and which tend to be, to this day, institutions of very high quality, very culturally important. But you look at a building, and you think why that period? Why that style? Who made that choice? And then you can sort of unfold almost anything that you look at, and so you find out that there’s a human narrative behind it, that there was a social vision behind it. If you just look at anything as if it were just, sort of, furniture – nothing against furniture, but then you are absolutely not seeing it. Everything needs to be queried, as they say.
I think probably the major component of seeing for me is assuming that what I see is something that I can’t see adequately or see exhaustively, and what is most remarkable in it is probably something that I have to watch very carefully in order to see any fragment of. The idea, which is very important in Calvin, that people are images of God – nothing could mystify anyone more than the idea that this is, in fact, what is being encountered, you know? Then what do you do but watch? What do you do but see what you can see? I think that it tends to be enormously partial, just given the human situation. But, nevertheless, I think it also sensitizes you to the profundity of the fact of any other life – that people can’t be thought of dismissively.
Q: Lots of people have called what it is I think you’re talking about as seeing the sacramental. Is that what it is? That in everything you see there is a quality of the holy?
A: Well, yes, in the sense that I certainly think that the holy is at the origins of everything that exists, everything, and so necessarily that’s true. I mean, there’s a sense in which it’s a signature act, you know, the beauty of it, the scale of it, the intricacy of it, all that. It’s not as if holiness were something super-added to things, and that’s why I hesitate a little bit over the word “sacramental,” because there can be an implication that an unsanctified reality exists, as if there is any kind of unholy reality. I think that one of the meanings of Christianity, of the Crucifixion, is that the holy can be unvalued, abused. There’s no question about that. A great deal that you see in the world is the abuse of the sacred. But the intrinsic sacredness is invariable, is a constant.
Q: This ability and interest in seeing everything in a very intense way, what does that add up to and where do you come out, then, in a sense of what I think many people would call a worldview?
A: If I have a worldview, which I suppose I do, I would hope it’s a very open one. You know, I’m always referring to Calvinism, my vocabulary in certain ways, but just the idea that the world is continuously unfolding itself for your further understanding, with the idea, of course, that whatever understanding you bring to this experience is incomplete, is too small. Something will tell you more, you know. I think about things like the fact that nobody knows what time is. Time is what? Nobody can describe it, even physics or math or anything else. But it is what we continuously experience. It’s the state of our unfolding, in a way, and in that sense that the continuous reopening of reality is what I think of as, perhaps, a worldview.
Q: Is there a theological component? Is what you were just talking about part of a sense of the existence of God?
A: Oh, it’s absolutely central. Since I do use Calvin’s conceptual vocabulary, one of the things that is certainly true of him is that the givens of our situations are that we are given the world to enjoy. The signature of God in creation is beauty, as well as the expansion of understanding or the expansion of awareness, which is never complete precisely because it’s a manifestation of the presence of God. That life in the world is an enormous privilege, which is enhanced as privilege in the degree to which we are attentive to what is being given to us, not just as gift of prosperity or something, but what’s given us to understand, to allow us to reconceive.
Q: You’ve written with great kindness and understanding about mainline Protestants, your tradition. Why do you think they’ve suffered such losses in recent years?
A: Well, oddly enough, sometimes it seems to me as if they take every criticism that is offered of them and make it into a sort of modus operandi. So to the accusation that they are bland they respond by becoming blander. One of the things that is true of the mainline Protestant tradition is it’s a great theological tradition. It is as major a theological tradition as exists on the planet, and it’s as if that’s a responsibility that they really don’t want to live up to, in many cases, and they’ve sort of turned on themselves, I think, in that sense that the virtues that have defined them – moral and intellectual seriousness and so on, which had been their contribution to Christianity – are precisely the things that they have been running away from in too many cases. I don’t want to generalize too broadly.
Q: What do they do well?
A: I don’t know to what extent these things are being as effectively sustained as they ought to be by the institutions, or to what degree their carry-over from other traditions that have, perhaps, not been cultivated as well as they should in the modern period, but I think that they do sustain a sense of responsibility, strong value for what we, as people who work in the world can contribute to the world. I mean, as in many cases, work being the mode in which we can contribute to the world. I identify with them very strongly, in fact, because I think of them as being people who are serious about things that deserve serious attention. For example, social problems and so on, that they are very open to acknowledging the value of other religious traditions and tend very much away from harsh judgments or drawing of lines of the kind that say, “We’re the good people, and they’re the wicked ones.” There’s nothing of that in mainline tradition, and thank God for that.
Q: As one who sometimes has trouble with this himself, and I know a lot of people who do, too, I would be interested in hearing about why you believe in God.
A: I know this might not seem like the best answer in the world, but I do not not believe in God. If I were to say I don’t believe in God, I would feel that I was saying something that was not true.
I don’t think that we have a basis in our experience that allows us to put together a case for the existence of God. I don’t think that’s intended. I think that people who feel that they have to be able to put it together in that way, arrive at it rationally, as it were, simply lack acquaintance with the extreme fallibility and limitedness of human capacities for reason and for gathering relevant information and all the rest of it. I think the feeling of amazement that I think is appropriate to an alerted sense of what being is leads very naturally to deep comfort with the assumption of God.
Q: You’ve written about your childhood and how natural it was in your childhood to just assume that, yes, God exists. Is there a particular argument or a particular couple of arguments that, intellectually, provide you with conviction?
A: I like major theology. I like Karl Barth, and I like John Calvin, and I like Martin Luther. The scale of thinking and the power of integration that they’re capable of from thinking in that scale is something that’s really unique to theology. Given the assumptions that theologians proceed from, they are so much more capable of making meaningful articulations about what things are, what it is to exist, the experience of moral life, and so on. I mean that in the largest sense, of course. Nothing else touches it. Major philosophy doesn’t come close. Science — it’s like this wonderful conversation on another subject, you know, which — a theologically minded person is probably happy to read about the expanding universe and so on, but, of course, the whole human narrative is missing out of that. There’s nothing that can integrate reality in the way that theology can, and so I feel as if I’m reading something whole when I read great theology, and I feel as though I’m reading something very partial when I’m reading anything else.
Q: Can you find any words to describe God?
A: Well, I would use the basic biblical vocabulary. I would hesitate to do that.
Q: How do you answer the prominent atheists who have written so much recently that is critical of religion?
A: Atheism is such a longstanding tradition in Christian culture that I think it’s a necessary part of the conversation, and I have every kind of respect for somebody like Bertrand Russell or any considered atheist. I really think that to explore the question from that point of view and do it scrupulously is valuable. I think that this sort of avalanche of literature that we’ve gotten recently is very second-rate. It simply is not well-informed and not well-considered. I mean, I consider it to be kind of noise, a distraction from the conversation that actually can be fruitful.
Q: Let me turn your attention to the everyday cultural environment that we all live in, all the sounds and messages that are coming to us, what sometimes is called modern popular culture. You have found much to criticize in that.
A: Well, one thing that I find to criticize about it is that it’s not really popular, that it’s an industrial product that is sold by the means that any industrialist product is sold by, and the selling is very intense because the people that are making the product are also in a position to sell the product — the media and so on. I think that their idea, the idea that everything always has to push some extreme, you know, be more violent, be more sort of disrespectful of human life and so on, I mean, that is one of the major vectors of this phenomenon, and I think for most people, if they were making culture themselves, they’d be kind of sitting on the back porch singing a song that they maybe thought up the words for, and 200 years later people will be singing the same song. There’s a lot of profound work that has been done that’s truly popular. But now I think people are passive in relation to what they take to be popular culture, and they tolerate things that they would not themselves generate. It’s kind of an alienation of a culture from itself, I think.
Q: Do you think there are any ways to correct it?
A: Well, there’s this sort of day-to-day momentum of these things, that if something is supposed to be enormously scandalous people turn it on to see if it’s really scandalous, and then they can talk to each other about how scandalous it really was, and that sort of thing, and it’s a sort of chewing gum. It’s just this sort of continuous distraction that carries people from day to day in no significant way, just taking up time and space that would otherwise, I think, be used more imaginatively, more humanely.
Q: Do you see it as a barrier to a religious life?
A: I think it’s a severe distraction. One of the things — I mean, you’ve asked me to grumble, and so I’m grumbling – but one of the things that bothers me is that there’s a cynicism about it. People, I think, to a certain extent have to be instructed in things like the necessity of respect for other people, things that have to do with mayhem, that make it look like it would be a lot of fun to wipe out your adversaries or something like that, that really treat people like dispensable items. I really think if I had to say that religion depends on one thing, putting religion categorically, you know, we have to think that people are sacred. Human beings have to be considered sacred. That’s the beginning, and then anything that, it seems to me that, really departs from that, that conditions people to part from it in their thinking, I think, is antagonistic to religious life.
Q: You seem, in many ways, a lot of good ways, independent of the everyday world around you. I’ve heard you called an outsider. I wonder whether you would feel comfortable with the term “gentle prophet.” How would you describe yourself in that public role?
A: I’m a very private person, and the fact that this has sort of slipped over into a public role is very surprising to me. You know, it’s certainly nothing that I would have thought about or think about much even in the ordinary course of my life. I’m just somebody who likes to write. I think growing up in the West, in the mountains where, at least when I was a child, being an independent person was very highly valued, and what that meant was, of course, cultivating an interior life that could sustain you, that dignified you. I wrote an essay a long time ago that sort of disappeared, but the word “lonely,” when I was a little kid, had a very strong positive connotation. It was an experience to be sought, and it took me a while to learn that this was not common wisdom. But I just grew up culturally, I think, very prepared to live to myself, in a certain sense, for weal or woe. I think that that does give me a certain distance from things of a more, perhaps, praising posture toward what is taken to be popular than other people might have.
Q: Let me go back to some of these religious matters that we were talking about. The Bible – how do you read it, interpret it? The Bible often is described as God’s literal word. How do you see it?
A: Well, I find that’s really remarkable, you know, considering that surely virtually anybody that makes that claim is in the habit of reading it in translation, and anybody that has any acquaintance of the variety of translations knows that from ancient Hebrew or Greek to modern English is a very, very long and perilous step. I think that is simply not a sustainable idea. I have lots of Bibles. My house is full of Bibles, and the reason for that is that whenever I look anything up, I look it up in eight different translations to try to sort of encircle what the probable meaning is, because every one of them can make the case for the interpretation it has made. I read the Bible as an ancient literature. I read it, to the extent that I can, surrounded by other ancient literature, you know, that you can now read Hittite poetry and Canaanite poetry and all the rest of it in translations also. I think that it has a long history of tendentious interpretation of various kinds, and that for a modern reader one of the most difficult things to do is to read it as if newly, as if you could put aside the fact that certain passages have been selected and underlined over history, and in a way that discourages you from noticing what comes before and what comes afterward. The Bible as a literature of antiquity is incomparably great, I think, and frankly, I hope to write about it in a way that treats it with a different kind of respect from the respect it has tended to receive up to this point. It’s a fascinating, complicated, mysterious, endlessly suggestive literature that I, again, don’t feel that I have to arrive at hard conclusions about, and that makes it, in effect, more like the rest of reality than it would be if I felt it could be encapsulated and summarized or concluded about.
Q: Let me ask you about Calvin. Many of us hear that word and we think of an ultra-strict, judgmental, unforgiving reformer. You have done a lot of thinking and writing about this.
A: One of the first things that has to be done when you’re talking about Calvin is think about the world that Calvin lived in. Was he severe by the standard of his time? And, of course, he was living in the middle of the Inquisition, which was notoriously severe. There was a sort of punitive aspect to social organization then. The question is, was Geneva more severe than any other place in Europe? No, actually. It was the first place where the Qur’an was published in Europe, and so on. All kinds of literature that would not have been tolerated anywhere else in Europe was published for the first time in Geneva in the post-classical period. He created public education for both boys and girls in Geneva. He had institutions for the relief of poverty in Geneva. He did all kinds of things that are certainly very liberal by the standards of the time. He was basically responsible for the survival of that city which was under siege through a great part of his time there, not because of him in the first place, but because it had had a political revolution and driven out its traditional ruling family, but it became the center of the Reformation, and then it came under many kinds of threats and pressure, and not only that, but reformed populations all through Europe. So he was continuously trying to keep the city safe, trying to keep these other populations in Europe safe at the same time that he was writing scores and scores of books that were interpretations of Scripture of a very high quality, from the original. He preached, in fact, from the original Greek and Hebrew. He’s a little bit like Saint Augustine. He wrote so many books that people don’t know which book to read, perhaps. Even people who call themselves Calvinists are oddly unread in what he actually wrote. But if you read his sermons on Micah or his sermons on the Ten Commandments or something like that – extraordinarily compassionate, extraordinarily generous, certainly bears up to anything that you would find in the period, or this period. He was a lightning rod for the enemies of the reform movement who, of course, generated a huge polemic around him and around the city. Most of Calvin came into English almost immediately. He was very closely followed in England. They have begun to translate the notes from the consistories, and it turns out that what they were doing, this meeting of clergy that dealt with people who were some sort of social problem, it would do things like establish the paternity of a child and make the father support the child and the mother. In some small way, of course, it sounds very minor economics by any standard we’re used to, but nevertheless, you read things like they drowned unmarried mothers and things like that. But if you look at what they actually did and what the transcripts actually say, there’s nothing judgmental, there’s nothing cruel about it. It’s just a matter of trying to keep them from bearing the worst consequences of unwed motherhood, basically.
Q: Some of the things that you’ve written, I would imagine, are consistent with what Calvin taught about the importance of forgiveness.
A: There are two things that I think are very important. One of them is the emphasis on original sin. In earlier theology the idea was that baptism removed the effects of original sin from the higher functions, and it was basically the body that continued to bear the consequences of it. But Calvin said no. Original sin is what makes it so that we can never see clearly or understand entirely. And this, of course, undermines the assumption that secure judgments can be made, that we actually know. But how to understand something in a way to draw unforgiving conclusions about it? There’s also the fact that he does not exclude anyone. People say that he doesn’t attach importance to works, as they call it, but what that means in certain contexts is that the value God assigns to a person is not something that’s necessarily evident in how we would value their lives. The assumption is that forgiveness is owed wherever God might want forgiveness to be given, and we don’t know. So you err on the side of forgiving. Or you don’t, or who knows what God’s ultimate intentions are, in any case. But you assume your fallibility and you also assume that anybody that you encounter is precious to God, or is God himself, which is sometimes how [Calvin] describes this when you are encountered by someone, even an enemy, and when Calvin talked about somebody who wanted to kill you, that was most of Europe at that point, from his point of view. But he says this is the image of God that has approached you. And the question is what does God want from this moment? And so there’s this absolute valuing of the other that comes under all circumstances and just leaves the idea of judgment as a meaningless idea.
Q: Reading Gilead and Home and reading about those two old preachers that you described and drew so beautifully certainly took me back to my childhood in a preacher’s family. You had to have great respect for those people. You couldn’t have written about them unless you loved them and respected them. What they lived for and the way they saw the world, the way they saw each other, the way they saw their people must be something that you think is very, very important – and not just in the mid-’50s, but right now.
A: Yes, granting fallibilities, granting the fact that they’re sort of culturally blinded by the conventions that surround them. Why can’t Jack talk to his father, you know? He can’t. He can’t tell him.
Q: But I would assume that in your church and in neighborhood you find much of the same thing today, don’t you?
A: I do. Well, you know, that’s one of the things that tends not to be visible in the way that popular culture tends to represent people. I know so many people whom I admire so deeply who seem to me to be enormously sensitive and really respectful of people in general, and so on. But somehow or other, it’s as if that didn’t matter, as if that’s some sort of assumed background that doesn’t have interest or value. It’s very odd. I love and feel very much at home in my culture, whether it’s Iowa or Astoria or wherever I am. I just feel that it’s not being valued. The things that are precious in it are not being acknowledged, and I think that that’s something that depletes people’s lives of a great deal of the satisfactions that are essential.
Q: Why is that? Why are these things that are so valuable being ignored?
A: I think that perhaps, well, it requires a certain subtlety. It requires attention. It’s easy to be sensationalistic. There’s nothing easier than that, and making a narrative out of thoughtfulness, you know, to make a life of it as a considered life rather than one that’s just a slash-and-burn version of human experience is hard. I think that’s one of the reasons for a lot of this stuff, and then it becomes the norm. It becomes what people expect or think other people want, whether they want it themselves or not.
Q: You’re talking about writers now, what writers are doing, or just what the general public seems to believe is important?
A: Well, not really talking about writers. I have these impulsive, tribal loyalties, and when I’m speaking this way I’m never speaking about writers. But I mean just in terms of the general cultural ambience, you know, what you see when you are in a hotel room and do turn on the television set, and so on. I don’t want to be categorical, but I think that that’s a very important element, and it has a way of distracting people from what is substantial in their own lives and making people think that if they’ve never been involved in something dramatic in some painful way they somehow or other haven’t lived or something.
Q: There’s a wonderful quote from you. It had to do with looking back on one’s life, and you were saying we should get great comfort out of having comforted a child.
A: Well, I do think when you look back at your own life, and you realize that among the things that you remember might be some gesture of comfort that another person made or some small compliment that you received that for some reason redirected your life, and so I mean I think most people can tell those kinds of stories, and the other side of it is, of course, that those are the moments in which you have the opportunity to do something that actually changes life, you know, that someone could look back on and say “and after that things were different,” which is an extraordinary privilege That is the kind of thing that tends to be overlooked.
Q: You told us some years ago how much you missed hearing people say that they thought it was important to leave the world better than they found it.
A: Well, I think that was a major, dominant cliché of my childhood – that you were supposed to leave the world better than you found it. It’s a little shocking when you hear people say, like about this health thing that we’re going through now, “What’s in it for me?” That’s a huge change in the basic values of the culture. I got sort of tired when I was a kid of hearing people say you have to leave the world better than you found it, but now I think I would burst into tears if somebody said that to me, just – what a lovely thought, do you know? People talk about soldiers as being the standard against which things should be measured. But they, by definition, are doing things that there’s a very strong chance they will not live to enjoy. I mean, all those lovely, young people that go off and are said to be dying for freedom by definition are giving other people something that they cannot enjoy. This is a great value, so how can people have possibly got around to this “what’s in it for me?” approach to political and social life? It’s extraordinary.