Scott D. Moringiello
Scott D. Moringiello is an assistant professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, where he teaches classes on Catholic theology and religion and literature.
By this author
She said to the child, “Now I been in Gilead a pretty long time. A lot longer than I expected. And you’re going to be born here. If I leave I’ll take you with me, I will for sure. I’ll tell you the name of the place, though. People should know that much about themselves anyway. The name of your father. Could be I won’t ever leave. The old man might not give me cause.” And then she almost laughed, because she knew he never would. She said, “That old man loves me. I got to figure out what to do about it.” 221
It’s easy to love. It’s hard to believe that you are loved. You are the only one who can know if you truly love and at the same time you are the person who cannot know that someone loves you. There is no “proof” that can convince someone of what is in someone else’s heart. Our knowledge that we are loved comes not from reasoned argument or from dialectical proof. Our knowledge that we are loved comes from faith. After so much practice, Lila Ames is starting to believe that she is loved.
In an important way, the question every Christian must ask himself or herself is simply: do you believe that God loves you? For God loving the world, and loving you as part of that world, is the central message of the New Testament. Jesus’s Good News is that God loves human beings and so human beings are called to love God and each other. The presence of such love is the mark of the kingdom of God. This kingdom will continue in the new creation that Christ promises, where men and women who are judged worthy will share in God’s love, and God will be all in all. But, and this is just as important, Christ’s message is that the kingdom of God starts now. Lila has begun to learn that she doesn’t have to wait for the general resurrection to believe that she is loved.
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.
“Faith takes practice.” So says the title character in John Irving’s Prayer for Owen Meany. That faith is a gift is a tenet of Christian theology. We can’t earn faith; it’s God’s free gift to us. We can develop it. We can test it out, try it on, see how it fits and how it makes us fit. Faith is not simply assenting to certain truths; it is forming your life in accordance with those truths. And forming your life in such a way leads necessarily to reforming your life continually.
In our discussions of Gilead and Home, we saw how Gilead taught us about love and how Home taught us about hope. To complete the Paul’s famous trilogy, Lila teaches us about faith. It doesn’t teach us about the articles of the Christian faith, although we see how Rev Ames – Lila’s teacher and ours – acts as a Christian. Instead, Lila teaches us the central Christian truth so nicely summarized by the chaplain in Phil Klay’s story “A Prayer in the Furnace”: “The only thing He promises in this life is that we don’t suffer alone.” In teaching us about faith, Lila teaches us about how faith, suffering, and community join to make us human.
Maria Bowler's excellent post below and Joseph Komonchak's post about Home have made me feel more guilty than usual that I haven't finished blogging through Marilynne Robinson's Gilead trilogy. I had planned on writing the posts in January. But I got busy with the beginning of the Winter quarter at DePaul, with two papers I had to deliver, with an (overdue) article I finally finished, with a radio appearance (?!), and with the normal craziness of life.
Mark Logsdon, who has been an essential part of our conversation of the Marilynne Robinson novels, suggested that we take a bit of a break before our discussion of Lila. I’m reading the novel for the first time now, and I’ve come to realize that it was, in the words of Rev. Ames, presumptuous of me to think I would have anything intelligent to say about the novel during a first reading. I’m also realizing that I should reread the Book of Ezekiel, and probably Calvin’s commentary on Ezekiel, before I tackle blogging about Lila. So I’ll start up again in the new year.
In lieu of a discussion of Lila, I wanted to take up a suggestion that Dominic Preziosi made to dotCommonweal bloggers to list our favorite books of the year. Anthony Domestico has already taken him up on it, and I thought I would add some recommendations as well. (Rumor has it that your name does not have to end in a vowel in order to chime in. But maybe it helps.)
1. Zia Haider Rahman, In the Light of What We Know. Not only was this the best novel I read in 2014, but it's the best novel I've read in quite some time. Unfortunately, apart from a glowing review by James Wood in the New Yorker, this novel has gotten very little attention. Rahman tells the story of two Oxford-educated friends whose families both hail from South Asia but who are otherwise worlds apart. The novel addresses the global financial crisis, the war in Afghanistan, philosophy, law, class, and the academy. Ultimately, though, the novel addresses central issues such as friendship and faith. Rahman’s erudition sparkles on each page, and, months after reading it, I can recall some sentences word for word.I look forward to reading the novel again.
2. Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers. Officially this came out in 2013, but there was a paperback edition in 2014. Kushner’s novel addresses the New York City art world of the 1970s, Italian manufacturing, motorcycles, and revolutionary politics. The novel asks us what happens in the name of love when the personal and the political collide.
3. Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. Like The Flamethrowers, this novel came out at the end of 2013. Be sure to read Anthony Domestico’s review of The Goldfinch in that latest print issue of Commonweal. Of course, I agree with everything Tony writes there, and I would only add that besides being a fairy tale, the Goldfinch (much like The Flamethrowers) asks us to consider the relationship between art and truth. (In this way, its true precursor is William Gaddis’s The Recognitions.)
4. William Giraldi, Hold the Dark. Dominic Preziosi has already reviewed Hold the Dark on this site. It is a superb and terrifying read. Be sure to check out Giraldi’s, Busy Monsters as well. That novel is as funny as Hold the Dark is terrifying. I got some strange looks on the CTA for laughing out loud while reading Busy Monsters.
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire. But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace. 2 Pt 3:8-14
Faith, hope, and love. These three. We’re told that love is the greatest, and that it alone will abide. Even on this side of the eschaton, everyone has faith in something and everyone loves something. Hope, though: that one is difficult. How do we distinguish it from optimism? What can we hope in? Now, I’m no optimist. I’m always wary of talk of progress. The news of last few weeks should temper anyone’s optimism and make anyone question “progress.” Captive Israel can’t be ransomed again soon enough. But I try to remain full of hope. Rereading Home during Advent has helped. In this space we’ve talked about faith and love, and our discussions have helped me realize that Home is a profound meditation on Christian hope.
The characters in Home always talk about love without ever explicitly talking about love.
If you were a graduate student in theology in the nineties or early aughts, you almost certainly spent some time discussing negative theology. This classical Christian idea holds that any discussion of God must be apophatically, that we cannot say “God is good,” for example, without at the same time recognizing that God’s goodness is far beyond our own understanding of goodness. Isaiah’s words that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts are important here, as are Paul’s words that we know in part and prophecy in part. Some of the most important theologians in this tradition are Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. In the eighties and nineties and aughts, Christian theologians and scholars in religious studies saw affinities between Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive method of reading texts and this tradition in theology. (For some excellent studies, see Jean-Luc Marion’s God without Being, Kevin Hart’s The Trespass of the Sign, and Mark C. Taylor’s Nots and About Religion.)
The first letter of God tells us that God is love, agape, not eros or philia. The love that God is is self-giving and self-emptying. And so if God escapes our language, we should not be surprised that love does as well. We must always talk about love, around it, obliquely, knowing that we can never talk about love, concerning it, capturing what it truly is. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob rebuffs human attempts to comprehend him, as we see in the burning bush of Exodus, the storm of Job, and on the cross of Christ.
First of all, let me offer an apology for taking so long to post this. I last posted on Monday, November 10, and since then three things have kept me busy. First, I helped run a great conference at Villanova University (where I also gave a paper). Second, my first quarter teaching at DePaul University ended. And third, I’ve just finished the grading for my classes. Thus, my schedule for posting had to change, and I’m sorry to those who have begun Home and have been waiting for me to write about it here.
There is something fitting for me to write about Home as my first quarter at DePaul ends. In May 2009, I was finishing up my first year of teaching at Villanova University. There I taught the Augustine and Culture Seminar, a two-term “great books” course for first-year students. Many of the books the students and I read that year — The Odyssey, Genesis, The Tempest— had to do with coming home or finding a new home. I thought this was a fitting topic for first-year students, and so we ended the second term by reading and discussing Robinson’s novel. I’m sorry to say that my (many and various) teaching missteps stick with me far more than my (relatively few) teaching triumphs, and I fear that I didn’t do a good job teaching Home. Part of the problem was that even though Robinson was one of the two living authors we read that year, Glory Boughton seemed the most foreign character my students encountered. After a year reading about Odysseus and Abraham and Jesus and Augustine and Dante and Prospero as well as Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith and Nietzsche’s Superman, here was a protagonist who didn’t seem to do anything. Here’s a book where not much happened.
Home is a story about family, which is to say a story about ordinary things: preparing meals and doing work around the yard; sibling rivalry; intergenerational misunderstanding; and most importantly love and indifference and the very difficult work of forgiveness. In his review of Robinson’s work, Anthony Domestico puts this particularly well,
I’m deeply indebted to the people who have commented on my posts thus far. In what I took to be a helpful exchange, Chris and Mark L brought up the topic of memory. Memory is central to who we are (see of course Augustine’s exploration of the topic in Confessions Book X), but memory can also get in the way of forgiveness (it’s hard to forgive precisely because we remember how much the other person hurt us).
The discussion of memory reminded me of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. All too often, I think, we associate the prophets with the future of what will happen, as if they had some kind of crystal ball. What the prophets in the Scriptures actually do, though, is remind the Israelites of their covenant with God. It is only by looking back to their foundation as a people that the Israelites can look forward to their future as a people. Their goal – and Ames’s goal – is to remind their listeners to remain faithful to a vision that precedes them and forms them.
If the mouth and the tongue and lips of man become the instruments by which God and His truth and righteousness and glory are praised, and His Word is proclaimed, then, according to the Holy Scriptures, this is never a self-evident occurrence, or a success which man may attribute to himself. For first of all there has taken place at God’s hand the overcoming in relation to which the man who uses these instruments, and is himself the instrument, always stands as an awed spectator conscious of his own failure. — Karl Barth Church Dogmatics II.1, p 221
John Ames’s grandfather must be correct: without vision the people perish. But this vision itself needs careful tending. And the surest way – perhaps the only way – that such tending can occur is if the community is founded on forgiveness. That forgiveness is hard to come by.
I begin with Karl Barth here because Ames often mentions him, and Ames’s words recalled a passage I happened to remember from Barth’s Church Dogmatics.* Part of the beauty of Ames’s words to his son is his recognition of the fragility of his own advice. He writes to pass on a vision of a life lived in God’s love, but he knows too well that he often fails to live up to that love. In one of my favorite passges in the book, Ames writes,
This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person. He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it.
I am reminded of this precious instruction by my own failure to live up to it recently.(124)
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