Calvin without predestination?

Marilynne RobinsonThe New Republic and The Washington Post have paid tribute recently to novelist Marilynne Robinson. Both articles -- a 4,100-word essay-review in TNR by Ruth Franklin, a senior editor, and a 2,400-word profile by Post reporter Bob Thompson -- are informative and well-written. In one major respect, Thompson understands Robinson with greater precision. First, though, some praise for what Franklin gets right. She writes a stirring introduction arguing that God is too often an absent landlord in contemporary fiction:

Terrorism, the Holocaust, the full spectrum of sexual practice conventional and unconventional -- things that were once off-limits, suggested indirectly or through omission or addressed not at all, are now part of the literary free-for-all. There is only one character who is missing among the parade of pornographers, suicide bombers, child molesters, hermaphrodites, and other erstwhile outsiders who populate our novels. That character is God.

It was not always so, from Hawthorne to Sinclair Lewis; but by now the absence of God from our literature feels so normal, so self-evident, that one realizes with a shock how complete it is. It is hard to think of a recent American novel that treats religious experience seriously, unironically. Religious characters, when they exist at all, are repugnant fanatics -- born-again Christians or West Bank settlers or Islamic terrorists. Think over the work of David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Jeffrey Eugenides -- does anyone ever go to church? (John Updike is an exception, but one would be hard put to call his vision of Protestant America an essentially spiritual one.)

Franklin also praises Robinson for her skills as a writer and not simply because Robinson devotes serious attention to spiritual themes:

In Housekeeping, the narrator's grandfather has done a nature painting in which trees on a mountain are painted at right angles: "Every tree bore bright fruit, and showy birds nested in the boughs, and every fruit and bird was plumb with the warp in the earth." Listen to the rhythm of that last line with its string of one-syllable words, eleven of them, at once simple and strange. In Gilead, by far the plainest of the three novels, men standing outside a garage are "strong with gasoline" -- it could not be said more briefly

Where Franklin runs into trouble is her interpretation of an essay Robinson published in the Spring 2006 issue of The American Scholar (available for purchase as a digital download from Amazon; the entire issue is available for purchase from The Phi Beta Kappa Society):

Robinson believes -- in strict contrast to evangelicals and other "born-again" Christians, and also in contrast to the concept of predestination, against which she vigorously argues -- that a person's fate is always up for doubt. We all err, and so nothing can ever be taken for granted -- not Christian doctrine, certainly not our own salvation.

To state it simply, Robinson does not argue vigorously against predestination, but instead presents a "softened predestinarianism" as an antidote to the failings she identifies among conservative and even some liberal Christians. To quote some key passages from Robinson's essay:

The liberal criticism, rejection of the idea that one could be securely persuaded of one's own salvation and could even apply a fairly objective standard to the state of others' souls, was in fact a return to Calvinism and its insistence on the utter freedom of God. That is to say, it was a rejection on theological grounds of a novel doctrine. So here has opened the great divide in American Protestant Christianity. I fall on the liberal side of this division.

. . . The liberal position on this matter could be seen as a softened predestinarianism. God alone judges, and the hearts of mortals can be known truly only by him, in the light of his grace. Like the old Calvinists, liberal Protestants reject the idea that anyone can achieve salvation by piety or moral rigor or by any other means.

. . . It has been supposed that predestinarianism results in fatalism, that is, in a stoical passivity relative to the things of this world. But historically Calvinism is strongly associated with social reform as well as with revolution. This might seem a paradox at first glance, but the doctrine had its origins as a forthright teaching (Augustine, Aquinas, and Ignatius of Loyola were also predestinarians) in a context of profound skepticism as to the legitimacy of any number of human institutions and much questioning of their right to claim the Mandate of Heaven.

As no point does Thompson show any confusion about Robinson's beliefs. It's clear enough from meeting her where her passions are:

If you want to understand how different Marilynne Robinson is from other contemporary novelists -- how different, in fact, from most contemporary human beings -- all you need to do is walk into her dining room.

"These are my favorite books in here," says the author of "Housekeeping," "Gilead" and the recently published "Home" as she motions toward the bookcase that fills one end of the small space. "See, look: Calvin, Calvin, Calvin."

Both tributes are well worth reading, as is Robinson's essay, although Robinson indulges in some overwrought rhetoric: "There is a powerful contemporary Christianism that admires Dives and emulates him, and regards Lazarus as burdensome and reprehensible."

It seems clear enough that Robinson believes much of contemporary religion is a matter of works righteousness. Against this she asserts Calvinism, and indeed a softer predestinarianism, as the cure.

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