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.