Jessica Hooten Wilson recently commented that because author Marilynne Robinson views all of created life as a sacred gift, her worldview “begins to sound more Catholic than Protestant.” But as Nicholas Wolterstorff has pointed out, “If ever there was a theologian who saw the universe sacramentally, it was Calvin.” In his Sermons on Job, Calvin ponders, “Why does God offer the earth to us as a mirror? It is so we can contemplate in it his glory, his wisdom, his virtue, his power.” It is precisely the Calvinist sacramental vision that allows Robinson to take sin and grace seriously in her novels.
Robinson’s most famous character, the Congregationalist minister John Ames, is devoted to Calvin—as is Robinson herself. She is a careful student of the Reformer and mimics his form: The Gilead novels, like the Institutes, should be read as a summa pietatis rather than a summa theologiae. This means that for both Calvin and Robinson, the goal is doxology.
The Institutes’ subtitle describes the work as “almost the whole sum of piety and whatever is necessary to know about the doctrine of salvation.” In the same vein, Robinson seeks to express in her novels a theology that has worship as its end. In her work, delight in the created order is a precursor to knowledge of God’s sustaining presence.
Unlike other contemporary fiction writers, Robinson has not abandoned metaphysics. She is conscious of what’s lacking in the contemporary theological imagination, arguing that “a theology for our time should help us to know that Being is indeed the theater of God’s glory.” This means careful attention to God’s presence in the world—its sacramental character—the extent of which is the entire created order and the sum of which is Christ’s cross. As Calvin writes, “The natural order was that the frame of the universe should be the school in which we were to learn piety.” Yet “After man’s rebellion, our eyes—wherever they turn—encounter God’s curse . . . we cannot by contemplating the universe infer that he is Father.” The place of Christ’s cross in this order is especially of note:
The glory of God shines, but nowhere has it shone more brightly than in the cross, in which there has been an astonishing change of things . . . in short, the whole world has been renewed, and every thing restored to good order.
Keith Johnson, co-editor of Balm in Gilead: A Theological Discourse With Marilynne Robinson, notes that Robinson’s arguments resonate because “Christ is the key” and “the power behind” Robinson’s writing. This is “Robinsonian Calvinism,” according to Timothy George, and it is fully realized in John Ames’s spacious, contemplative, and worshipful prose. Calvin exhorts that we are incapable of taking even one glance at the world around us without “being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness,” and Ames’s doxological stance makes this clear. Even as he stands on the brink of “imperishability” he “cannot imagine not missing bitterly” the “poor perishable world.”
Hooten Wilson argues such an aesthetic is ultimately Emersonian, that the world in Robinson’s fiction is not just worthy of attention, but actually becomes sanctified. But she misses the specific manner in which Robinson pits herself against contemporary thought. Much writing today is constrained by the priority we place on individual perceptions of reality. In a transcendental outlook, we fail to see, as Calvin and the Apostle Paul would have us do, “through a mirror darkly,” and instead find ourselves content with just the mirror itself.
But Robinson retaliates against this inward focus and remains strictly sacramental. Like Calvin, she perceives the created world as a mirror through which God’s providence is always apparent. God, Calvin argues, “daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe . . . humans cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him.” Nature for Robinson has not gone so far as to become grace, nor has grace become free for all. Instead, she challenges readers to summon the courage to ask what it would mean to believe that where sin abounds, grace abounds more. Ames again: “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”
This doesn’t indicate that the Robinsonian Calvinist tradition fails to take seriously the weight of sin, an argument implicit in Hooten Wilson’s critique. Robinson’s world “glimmers and shines” to express Calvin’s understanding of God’s providence over creation even as it remains—in Ames’s words—tainted by a “cataract.” Hint: That’s sin, folks. In Calvin’s words, when we see the world tainted, yet still sustained, we may conclude with relief that God “is also everlasting Governor and Preserver . . . [who] nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the last sparrow.”
Not content with Robinson’s Protestant vision, Hooten Wilson pits it against the too-often-lauded one of Flannery O’Connor: “If there is any writer that Robinson abhors, it would be O’Connor. And, rightly so, given Robinson’s dissenting theology.”
But Robinson chafes against O’Connor not for her theology so much as for her overt didacticism. O’Connor’s short stories often use explicit theological imagery. But a novel or story need not be shockingly catechetical in order to be worthwhile religious fiction. Because of the world’s sacramental character, the beauty and pain of Christ’s cross is contained within it—sometimes in ways that can’t be captured in words or theories.
Along this line, John Ames writes, “you must not judge what I know by what I find words for.” Robinson’s fiction acknowledges that there are multiple ways of knowing, and that we shortchange God’s glory by placing limits on grace. Worship is the goal of Robinson’s fiction, but the strange mystery of grace is its beating heart. “The grace of God,” Robinson writes, “works as it will, even gradually, patiently, quietly.” The fine points of these great mysteries of faith are sometimes best left unspoken as an implicit acknowledgment of their reverence—an admission that some things are too holy to risk adulterating with our fractured language. This, too, is a point Calvin notes:
We should not investigate what the Lord has left hidden in secret . . . we should not neglect what he has brought into the open, so that we may not be convicted of excessive curiosity on the one hand, or of excessive ingratitude on the other.
This is the mystery in which Robinson’s treatment of sin and grace is wrapped. Sin’s presence is undeniable in Gilead, even if it’s never explicitly named. What else but its weight drives Jack to abandon his family and home for twenty years? Ames’s response to the reality of sin is not lackadaisical, but submissive to the gospel. He spends two hundred pages wrestling with conflicting feelings about Jack. Can he forgive him? At the same time, Jack spends those pages summoning the courage to meet Ames in the confessional—his study—to address the burden of his sin, which has grown too heavy to bear.
The meeting doesn’t go well, and Jack prepares to leave town. But Ames walks him to the bus stop, admitting finally, “The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.” Jack accepts, and as Ames places his hand on Jack’s brow, he beseeches the Lord to “bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.” Later Ames thinks, “I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment.” This is the reality of grace. The climactic blessing epitomizes the load that Robinson’s sacramental vision bears.
Such a sacramental vision is not exclusive to the Catholic tradition, and we need not look much further than a fictional seventy-seven-year-old man in Iowa to be confronted with a discomfiting gospel.
Moriah Speciale is a junior fellow at First Things.