Defending Calvinism: A Q&A with Marilynne Robinson

The Pulitzer-prize winning author talks sin, Calvin, and the incarnation.

Author Marilynne Robinson went viral recently when an interview of her by President Obama appeared in the New York Review of Books. Obama, it turns out, is a huge Robinson fan, particularly of her last two novels, Gilead and Lila. The president allowed as how he met her at an awards ceremony at the White House and subsequently had dinner with her and a great conversation which led him to want to do the interview. He told her he had fallen in love with the main character in both books, Pastor John Ames.

On Oct. 27 Robinson will publish a book of essays The Givenness of Things, about contemporary society, religion, and culture. President Obama particularly liked the essay about fear, or as he describes it, “fear and the role that fear may be playing in our politics and our democracy and our culture,” as he describes the way she looks at it “through the prism of Christianity.”

Some months ago, I sat down with Robinson at the Folger Library in Washington for a wide-ranging conversation about faith.

There is something otherworldly about her. With her long white hair and quiet wardrobe, she is reticent and comes across as surprisingly shy. It’s hard to imagine that of someone who, when publicizing a book, is in front of thousands of people at a time. Yet, having seen her on a stage with a huge audience and in a quiet wood-paneled, book-lined room, she remains exactly the same.

She is thoughtful, to say the least, musing over the answers to questions as if it were the first time she had been asked them. She is polite, and her sense of humor is more bemused than laugh out loud. She says she loves being in Iowa, alone, sometimes for days or weeks at a time, reading and writing and studying. She loves giving sermons at her local church. She doesn’t see the need for constant companionship or even much of a social life. She acknowledges that she has been lucky to be able to lead what sounds like an almost-monastic existence when she is working. There is a Midwestern solidness about her which gives her a groundedness rarely found in a person. She knows who she is and is accepting of it. Tranquil. That’s the word I would use to describe her.

Here is a condensed version of our conversation:

You’ve said that when you were growing up your family was religious, but not terribly so. What beliefs did you have when you were growing up?

It’s funny, but there was a very strong sense that we identified as Presbyterians because my grandfather did and my grandmother and so on. Even though my parents did not themselves participate in a certain church life particularly, the moral and theological terms circulated in my household.

Can you give an example of what you mean by the moral terms?

I think that beyond the Ten Commandments, there was very little impulse to name or enumerate sins or vices. I never heard the words, but there was always more of a sense of self-awareness if you did something from a shaggy motive or if you did something without thinking about consequences.

The moral axis was more along that line than the idea that there was a hierarchy of sins that were nameable. That was not really part of my upbringing. It was much more, “Did you think that was the right thing to do?” “Did you think about what you were doing?”

Do you believe in sin?

Well, it depends how you define the word. The way I would read Genesis is a phenomenon . . . what it describes is a human predisposition to what amounts to self-defeat — to be given a wonderful planet and find yourself destroying it. Or, to have a wonderful civilization and then engage yourself aggressively in ways that destroy your civilization and another besides. If you look at human history or practically any human biography, it’s very hard to say that people don’t incline toward harmful and self-destructive acts, whether they intend to or not.

You are talking about sin on a large scale as you talk about it now. What about cheating on your wife?

Definite sin. A big 10. I think that in a certain way I was perhaps taught that the Ten Commandments are like a lot of the law of Moses in the sense that they name as transgressions things that you might not derive by reason as being transgressive — things like keeping the Sabbath or not making idols. These are markers in reality that are divine in their origins in the sense that human beings might not necessarily have come up with them.

Aside from that, one of the things that is true of the Bible certainly — in the case like David, for example — is that people do things that are utterly prohibitive to them, evil even. And I am speaking here of David arranging the death of Uriah so he could marry Bathsheba. And yet, there is always a huge variable at play — how does God respond to this and the difference of what we could measure as projected transgressions, the difference between that and the same thing as seen through the eyes of love or grace. These are very different things.

So I believe in sin in the sense that people do harm. I believe in grace in the sense that we cannot make final judgments about the meaning or the effect of what we do.

Does that mean you don’t make judgments or that people shouldn’t make judgments about other people’s behavior?

On the one hand, I think within limits they are socially necessary. On the other hand, I think that it’s always necessary to remember that all our judgments are not final, not the definitive reality. Abraham Heschel said a wonderful thing: that no society would let your father be your judge. “God is both Judge and Father.”

You are a big admirer of Calvin?


Why does Calvinism have such a bad name?

I am very aware of that. One of the things that of course attracts me to Calvinism is that its reputation is so historically inaccurate and unfair. I mean Congregationalism is a Calvinist tradition, as is Presbyterianism. All the liberal main line churches come out of the Calvinist tradition.

Calvinists in France were the major adversaries of the monarchy, and France had seven religious wars in the course of suppressing the Huguenots, the Calvinists, who finally ended up going into Germany. The Calvinists were the anti-monarchical party in England. They won the revolution, but then the revolution collapsed.

The things that characterize Calvinism on the Continent and in England were very high rates in literacy, education of women, representative institutions. Geneva was a republic. The low countries were republics. And while the Calvinists were in power in England it was a republic also. When the Calvinist side lost the revolution in England, and the Calvinists came here and set up their little democratic civilizations by the standards of the seventeenth century, they again had very high rates of literacy and had very high status for women relative to the times.

The historical reputation is strange because this extreme anxiety toward sexuality, that is the Victorians, that is the Anglican tradition, not the Calvinist tradition. There are certain reputations that I feel I have to defend. This is one.

Where did Calvinists get the reputation for being rigid and puritanical and not joyful?

The classic opposition in American culture during the times the regions were so distinct — the Calvinists in New England and the Episcopalians, Anglicans, or Baptists in the South. In New England there was a very strong resistance to slavery from a very early period, which they could not really achieve because England was the world’s major slave trader and for as long as we were a colony, slavery was legal everywhere.

The first denunciation of slavery in the West was a lecture given in Boston in 1700 called “The Selling of Joseph.” It talks about selling one’s brother and so on. As soon as the American revolution happened, New England’s states like Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont, which were not so clearly distinguished then, abolished slavery the minute they were no longer British. It took New York until 1820 or something to abolish slavery, but it was never very strong in comparison to the South.

In the South you have slavery. In the South you have low rates of literacy. You have very backward laws relative to women and children. And that is treated like, “Oh those people knew how to live.” Whereas to New Englanders, who were educated, prohibiting and really detesting slavery, are treated as the people who were inhumane and unjust. I think there is a culture of self-discipline that comes with the moral strictures of their thinking. But what is wrong with self-discipline?

Would you say you are a Calvinist?

I believe I actually am a Calvinist, not only because I tend to find affinity with undervalued people, but also because I realize I was brought up culturally to think in terms of what can be described as Calvinist.

One of the things that is very characteristic of him is that he dismisses . . . I mean he does not believe in the idea of a structured universe. He assumes that the theater of interaction between a human being and God is that person’s consciousness. And so you have this sacralization in effect of all human experience because every choice that we make, every perception that we have has absolute religious significance.

I was not brought up with any sort of emphasis on heaven or hell, or any kind of objective order that had legitimacy or authority in its own right. I was brought up to think how I thought was important. What I saw was important. I think that that is very Calvinist.

Why do you consider yourself an Old Testament person?

Well, I do study the Old Testament. I don’t consider myself to have actually stepped out of its pages or anything like that.

Why does the Old Testament intrigue you?

I am always attracted to things that seem to me to be under a shadow of some kind. The method of criticism that has been brought to bear upon the Old Testament since about 1850 came out of Germany. It is so destructive of the texts, such a perverse way of reading the great seminal literary text after all for Western purposes.

People find the texts unreadable, basically, because of these kinds of interpretations they have been taught to make, which are completely crude, arbitrary, and indefensible. I teach the Old Testament. People say “don’t you find it odd to teach the Bible as literature.” It is literature — that is exactly what it is. If you treat it seriously the way you would The Iliad and The Odyssey, then you can see this great integrity and honesty in the texts.

I think that the documentary criticism (as it was called) that came out of nineteenth-century scholarship in Germany came out of anti-Semitism. The purpose was to discredit the texts. I think that is a terribly destructive thing, so I want to make the other case, which is not hard.

My reading of the criticism of the Old Testament is that it is so violent. What do you consider the worst criticism or the most inaccurate criticism?

Well, that is very strange. It’s the way the text is broken up. There are multiple editors all doing different things that just makes gibberish of it as a document. As far as violence is concerned, if the New Testament had continued until 70 AD, it would be about the destruction of Jerusalem, which is more horrible than anything described in the Old Testament.

It’s historically, perhaps providential, perhaps accidental, that the destruction of Carthage is not mentioned in the New Testament. Well, it would be in the Old Testament in any case. But the antiquity is the most hair-raising theater of violence. The total destruction of whole cities was simply not that uncommon. The Old Testament tries to make sense out of the fact that these things happened, and if it did not look at the reality of the world, what would it be worth?

Talking about the Bible, we have not mentioned Jesus yet. Who or what is Jesus to you? Is he the son of God?

. . . whatever that means. I mean all that sort of thing. God has given us sort of a poem, a way of dealing with things conceptually that are just barely on the limit of our comprehension because our comprehension is limited.

One of the things that seems so striking to me in the narrative of Jesus is that we are to assume from the very beginning, from very early Christianity, that Jesus is a figure sacred enough to be understood as God and at the same time he can pass through the world as a man and be dealt with by most people under most circumstances, including his disciples. A man, an interesting one, an admirable one. It seems to me as if that is a sort of way of saying, “Look what a man is.”

That God himself could be embodied humanly and nevertheless alter the human presence so little that he could pass through the world as Jesus did, a son of a carpenter. The idea of creation is human-centered. It seems to me the great assertion of the centrality of the human is the incarnation — because Jesus could be so utterly a man and so utterly God. I mean if we are made in the image of God then he is certainly the most unambiguous demonstration of what that could mean.

Image courtesy of Daria Nepriakhina.

Sally Quinn
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