Lila Ames, theologian (Lila pp.91-177)

Theology is unique among academic disciplines. Although it is indispensible for a liberal arts education, its proper home has never been in the academy. The ultimate end of theology is reflecting on one’s relationship with God. It’s hard to imagine a chemist outside the lab or a historian outside the archives, but we can very easily imagine a theologian outside the academy. After all, Evagrius Pontus, the fourth century Egyptian monk, says that if you are a theologian, you will pray truly, and if you pray truly you are a theologian. Thomas Aquinas, writing on the Apostles’ Creed, argues that “no one of the philosophers before the coming of Christ could, through his own powers, know God and the means necessary for salvation as well as any old woman since Christ’s coming knows Him through faith.” My two grandmothers taught me more about Catholicism than any of my excellent teachers have. And my grandmothers’ tools were rosary beads and lives of devotion, not the volumes of the Sources Chrétiennes.

Lila Ames is a theologian because she does what every Christian theologian must do: she tries to understand God’s word in Scripture and understand herself and her world in light of revelation.

What are we to make of Lila’s interest in the Book of Ezekiel and the Book of Job? Marilynne Robinson knows the Bible too well for Lila’s reading choices to be accidental. Both books refute any idea we might have about a simple and always comforting faith. Both books are sublime in their portraits of God’s power and majesty and how that power and majesty can often appear terrifying to human beings. Most importantly, both books speak to Lila’s experience of the world. Lila is appropriately reverent when it comes to Scripture. She takes it seriously enough to question it, and she has no problems showing her approval and disapproval. I love when she notes, “You’d think a man as careful as this Job might have had a storm cellar” (175). This Job indeed. While reading Job, we read that Lila  “never expected to find so many things she already knew about written down in a book” (176).

Like all great theologians, Lila doesn’t shy away from tough questions. Indeed, her piety is her questioning. And few if any questions are more difficult for the Christian than God’s judgment. On this topic even Rev. Ames comes up short.

“That’s fine. I just want to say one thing, though. If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I’m sure He is, then your Doll and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm, and very happy. And probably a little bit surprised. If there is no Lord, then things are just the way they look to us. Which is really much harder to accept. I mean, it doesn’t feel right. There has to be more to it all, I believe” (143)

The question of judgment is inextricably tied, of course, to questions of trust, and as we have seen, Lila has an understandable problem with trusting others. Even after all Ames has done for her, “she still didn’t trust him and he’d be a fool to trust her. And that was only the truth. He might as well know it was her nature to feel that way, nothing she could change” (95). Lila can’t even trust her own body. “She’d been thinking that folks are their bodies. And bodies can’t be trusted at all. Her own body was so strong with working, for what that was worth. She’d known from her childhood there was no use being scared of pain. She was always telling the old man, women have babies, no reason I can’t do it. But they both knew things can go wrong. That’s how it is” (172).

If Lila can’t trust her own body, she certainly has trouble trusting any doctrine of resurrection. At first, the idea appeals to her. “She meant to ask the old man sometime what would happen when they were all resurrected and he had two wives. He had preached about that, which probably meant he had been wondering, too – they won’t be male or female, they won’t marry or be given in marriage. Jesus said that” (92). And if the old man’s wife and child returned, Doll would too. “The old man might have his wife and his child. She would have Doll, so that would be all right. There would be such crowds of people, but she would look for her until she found her if it took her a hundred years. She understood the word ‘resurrection’ to mean just what she wanted it to mean. The idea was precious to her” (100).  But Lila can’t bear the thought that Doll will be judged and found wanting. Rev. Ames’s words to her and his prayers for Doll are some comfort, but it’s not clear yet how much Lila trusts that they will work.

In my previous post on Lila, I began to explore the relationship among faith, suffering, and community in the novel. The Bible shows Lila that she is not alone in her suffering.  Reading Ezekiel, she learns that lives like hers and Doll’s matter.

“In those days it seemed to Lila that they were nothing at all, the two of them, but here they were, right here in the Bible. Don’t matter if it’s sad. At least Ezekiel knows what certain things feel like. That voice above the firmament. He knows the sound of that. There is no speech or language. But it was asking a hard question all the same, something to do with the trouble it was for them to hold up their heads, and where the strength came from that made them do it no matter what” (126).

But if this brings her comfort, Ezekiel and Job’s talk of judgment worries her – as it should worry anyone who takes the Scriptures seriously.

Like any good theologian, Lila knows that faith takes practice and she's learning that the questions are just as important as the answers.  And like any good theologian, Lila wants to pass along what she’s learned. As she says to her unborn son, in words that could sum up the Gilead trilogy,  “The world has been here so long, seems like everything means something. You’ll want to be careful. You practically never know what you’re taking in your hand” (135).

Scott D. Moringiello is an an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in Catholic theology and religion and literature. He blogs at dotCommonweal.

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