Saving Calvin from Clichés

An Interview with Marilynne Robinson

In the spring of 2010 I was teaching in the Politics department at the University of Virginia when the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson delivered a series of lectures in Charlottesville. I was able to join her and a few others for lunch after one of her talks, and the conversation inevitably turned toward her distinctive, highly sympathetic reading of John Calvin’s work.

For years Robinson had tried to rehabilitate Calvin, switching out the image of a dour, severe, and authoritarian religious zealot for one that emphasized his debt to Renaissance humanism and classical learning. Her Calvin was democratic and liberal-minded, a brilliant reformer who viewed the world with rapturous wonder. Far from delivering us to the iron cage of modern life, Robinson’s Calvin posited that the world was suffused with God’s glory—there was nothing “disenchanting” about his theology at all. She unfolded these arguments in a number of essays, especially those collected in The Death of Adam (1998), and in her novel Gilead (2004), with its narrator, a Protestant minister named John Ames, describing Calvin in ways rather similar to Robinson. “Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience,” Ames notes at one point. “That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense.... I suppose Calvin’s God was a Frenchman, just as mine a Middle Westerner of New England extraction.”

My own academic work focused on Calvin’s political thought, and Robinson’s bracingly revisionist understanding of him served as an inspiration—she allowed me to push aside the stale categories and clichés that dominated most treatments of his theology. After discussing Calvin with Robinson in Charlottesville, I asked her if she would answer some follow-up questions via email, which she generously agreed to do. At the time, I thought the interview might be published in a journal alongside articles dedicated to the political and social dimensions of her writing, so I tried to push her on how those themes connected to her understanding of Calvin—and, more broadly, her world-affirming vision of Protestantism. But within a few years I would leave the academic life for journalism and New York City, and so the interview remained unused.

With the five-hundred-year anniversary of the Reformation upon us, it seemed like a fitting time, with Robinson’s permission, to finally share my exchange with her. Reading it again, I’m struck by how revealing it is of my preoccupations at the time—the questions I was asking, the ideas I was wrestling with—and how idiosyncratic and intriguing her replies are. If, as Robinson has argued, the past is prelude and permission, then her engagement with Calvin remains essential for our own self-understanding as inhabitants of a world he helped create.

Matthew Sitman: There’s a wonderful passage of Thornton Wilder’s that I have thought about in connection to your work: “The revival in religion will be a rhetorical problem—new persuasive words for defaced or degraded ones.” How do you write about religious faith, especially in your fiction, without it coming across as cheap, didactic, or clichéd?

Marilynne Robinson: I really don’t know why people have so much trouble now writing about religious faith. It is true that clichés can override more interesting impulses. But the desire to find meaning, to be generous, to live well in an ethical and spiritual sense, is so widespread that it should not seem alien to people when it is expressed in the terms of traditional religion. Religion, if it is genuine, is so profoundly interwoven with individual thought and experience that it is no more exhaustible than consciousness itself. And fiction whose purpose is didactic is bad no matter whether the matter to be “taught” is Christianity or the world view of Ayn Rand. It seems often to be assumed by writers that religion is a pose, meant to deceive oneself or others, or that it is a bad patch on doubt or complexity. This is only convention, however. The writers I know have a much deeper engagement with the real issues of religion.

I really don’t know why people have so much trouble now writing about religious faith.

MS: I have heard your fiction, especially Gilead, described as being “sacramental.” Yet it also possesses an obvious debt to Protestantism—for example, John Ames is informed largely by Protestant theology and the literary tradition that derives from Calvinism—which often, if perhaps mistakenly, is associated with “disenchantment,” a world increasingly emptied of God’s presence. How much of your work is an intentional retrieval of an alternative Protestantism, a non-disenchanted Protestantism? What’s distinctive about a Protestant vision of a world imbued with grace?

MR: I don’t think I had heard until I was in college that the Protestant world was “disenchanted,” so the notion has never had much importance for me. It is not surprising, given European history, that there is a tradition of polemic available for use against Protestantism and Catholicism as well. It really ought not to be taken seriously as cultural analysis. I know it is a feature of modern thought that these drastic pronouncements are made and pondered. But they can be remarkably superficial. From a Protestant point of view the world is intrinsically enchanted. Nothing need be added. The world is filled with the glory of God. I doubt a Catholic would disagree! The two traditions simply respond to the fact differently. Protestants acknowledge only Baptism and Communion as sacraments, using ordinary water in the first and ordinary bread in the second—which implies the holiness of the ordinary, of all bread and all water. This seems to me to broaden the sphere of the sacramental and to give every holy—that is, loving or generous—use of the ordinary things of life a sacramental character.

MS: In Gilead you write, “the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense.” This follows a paraphrasing of Calvin’s “theater” metaphor, that the world is a theater of God’s glory. Could you say more about an “aesthetic” relation to God, and perhaps how your reading of Calvin has influenced your thoughts on this specific point?

MR: Calvin is very much a Renaissance humanist in his appreciation of everything wonderful in the human creature. We are, he says, the highest proof of the divine wisdom. It is rare indeed to find ourselves celebrated in such terms by anyone in any age. And Calvin sets us in a universe of wonders and splendors, which we excel. If this is how creation is to be understood, as a vast and continuous effusion of wisdom and beauty, then it seems trivial to imagine God weighing our merits and demerits as we would weigh them. This is only truer if, as Calvin says, so much of our beauty is inward, in the agility of our minds and souls, in the workings of memory and the capacity for art and invention. It seems fair to assume that we appear very differently as we figure in God’s creation than we do as we live within the constraints of worldly circumstance and of our own perceptions. Given that beauty is, for Calvin, the signature of the divine in creation, that the aesthetic should be an aspect of human nature that reveals our affinity to God simply follows. And there is no reason to think it might not be, by our lights, a difficult, or obscure, or even a terrible beauty.

Everyone knows Calvin also says radical things about sin, as theologians have tended to do throughout Christian history. But no one has had a more exalted view of human nature than his, sin notwithstanding. It is a grander thing altogether to be a Calvinist sinner than a Freudian neurotic, for example.

It is a grander thing altogether to be a Calvinist sinner than a Freudian neurotic.

MS: At the end of the first essay on Calvin in The Death of Adam, you note, “That mysterious energy, Calvinism, appears to be spent.... It is hard to imagine our recovering a sense of it.” Yet surely you have some constructive purpose behind your fascination with Calvin. Apart, then, from simply doing justice to the past, what do you hope a renewed, sympathetic understanding of Calvin’s theology might mean for us now?

MR: It is an irony that Calvin is always pilloried for his insistence on “election,” though the concept is Scriptural and also nearly universal among Christian theologians of every stripe. Yet people in his tradition were active, innovative, and very much inclined toward social transformation. We have opted for petty determinisms—childhood trauma, genetic inheritance, social conditioning, etc.—that have made us comparatively passive. We seem to prefer to find excuses—which are really nothing more than the embrace of determinism, a sort of Stockholm syndrome relative to whatever we can claim as limitation. I am fascinated by the more enabling self-understanding. It has helped me to find my way out of the cloying comforts that are offered by prevalent psychological models. I suspect that the appeal of bare-knuckles competition and even the unembarrassed pleasures of hostility that are rising among us now might have a similar origin. There is a great difference, however. Calvin taught reverence for human beings as such, seeing Christ even in one’s deadliest enemy. If this one thing can be recovered, then perhaps what was best in that ethos will be recovered as well.

MS: You emphasize, rightly, the vital place of “perception” in Calvin’s theology. What separates this subjectivity and individualism from its Cartesian variant, which stands at the head of our contemporary confusions about what the “mind” is, and that you rightly criticize? Or rather, why should certain Reformation emphases—perception, inwardness, subjectivity—not be included in a narrative about the sources of the modern Cartesian self?

MR: I have read Descartes a number of times, trying, and failing, to find the basis for his historical reputation. I have had versions of this experience so often I don’t know why it continues to surprise me. In any case Descartes’ thinking appears to me to be based on an understanding of consciousness that strongly resembles Calvin’s. He did live his adult life in the Low Countries until he left for Protestant Sweden, and he served in the army of a Protestant general in the Dutch wars against Spain. This is not to say that he saw any need to accept Calvinism as a religious identity, though it certainly suggests a degree of sympathy with it. However, it is to say that he found a way to affirm the truth and value of scientific insight in the Calvinist model of thought and perception as continuous, if partial and erring, communication with God. By the standards of medieval dualism, the opposition of mind and body is not even an issue in Descartes. Indeed, his conception of the workings of the mind is strikingly physical. Misreading Descartes is really one part of a larger project, which is the rejecting of the fact that science and perception or thought both open on the problems of epistemology, the nature and accessibility of objective or scientific truth. The modern self is precisely not Cartesian.

MS: You have written a number of essays on political and social themes, from Mother Country to “Onward, Christian Liberals.” However, with a few exceptions, politics seems absent from your novels. Even their titles indicate something of this: Housekeeping, Home, Gilead, all of which gesture toward your concern for the interior, domestic lives of your characters and the dynamics of family life or, slightly more broadly, a particular community. What response do you have to this?

MR: My politics, and my religion as well, are based entirely on the loveliness and value of ordinary human lives. The creaky apparatus called politics shelters or oppresses or threatens these lives, and is therefore of interest.

MS: Another way of getting at this question about politics would be the following: given your emphasis on perception, subjectivity, individualism, “the mind,” and related themes, how do you move outward to consider the basis of political and social life? That is, when you start from the classic Calvinist posture of an irreducible individualism, what cast does that give to theorizing and thinking about politics, society, and community?

MR: People have reduced Calvin just as they have Descartes. Calvin’s social ethic insists on the reverence we owe one another. His sermons are full of attacks on greed and arrogance. His Geneva had public education for all children, boys and girls, with the schooling of poor children paid for by the city. It had institutions for the relief of the poor and refugees. Early generations of Americans looked to Geneva as a model community on these grounds. If “individualism” means the sanctity of every individual, as for Calvin it did, then the creation of a mutually respectful and sustaining community follows very naturally.

MS: Given the topics your non-fiction essays, and the numerous theological references in your novels, the religious concerns informing your work are readily apparent. But I also wonder how much growing up in Idaho continues to shape your work? An older essay you wrote on your “Western roots” was remarkably revealing, I thought. I especially am interested in how your Western roots have mixed with your theological preoccupations—how do you see them fitting together, or not?

MR: No doubt my childhood has had a strong influence on all my work.

Published in the October 20, 2017 issue: 

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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