Marilynne Robinson on Theology

Marilynne Robinson, novelist and essayist, is one of my literary heroes. She is witty, wise, and unabashedly Reformed. In April 2016, Robinson was in Princeton, NJ, giving a lecture as part of the University’s Comparative Literature lecture series. In her lecture, titled “Beauty and Grace,” Robinson made this elusive comment regarding her theological commitments:

“I hold to theology because only theology embraces the true, tenable, and flawed as reality holds them.”

Naturally, this statement shocked me, as I have never in my seven years of theological inquiry heard theology defined as such. Theology, as it has classically been construed, is systematic, ordered, and dogmatic. Mashing together the true and the flawed is a systematic theologian’s worst nightmare.

Shocking as her statement may be, I think Robinson is on to something profoundly relevant for the current state of theology, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about its ramifications. What if Robinson is right? What if theology really isn’t (or shouldn’t be) an endeavor to systematize and constrain, but is rather supposed to be a tentative, open, and flexible process of holding together the true and the flawed, the defined and the undefined? Built within theology itself, as defined by Robinson, is the ability for it to accept more expansive and even conflicting horizons.

In my attempt to better understand just what Robinson was getting at in her PU lecture, I read her essay, “Theology,” in her latest book, The Givenness of Things. According to Robinson, theology has been “persistently and inappropriately…influenced by a kind of scientific thought—which happens to be two or three hundred years out of date. This old science was very inclined to expose and denounce the impossible” (211). Religious thought went wrong by trying to clear away the impossible and improbable. What’s so ironic about this outdated method of religious thought, for Robinson, is that religion itself is the expression of a human intuition that there is something beyond the ordinary experiences of everyday life. Instead of living into theological language’s beauty and power, too often religious thinkers have settled on common sense, utilitarian language that is routine in the larger world. Robinson issues a call back to the beauty, subtlety, and power of Christian theological language, to recognize that our role in the universe is of singular, unique importance.

This call is connected to Robinson’s high Christology; for Robinson, Christ being present in Creation asserts the presence of human beings in creation as unique and sacred. Because of this unique location in creation, human beings have “privileged access to the unique source of insight” (217). This leads Robinson to reflect upon her own existence, where she concludes that we never know as much of ourselves as we think we know; we come to know ourselves as we happen. We have gone to great lengths to try and explain the mind and brain, though have focused very little on its actual brilliance. We struggle to put language to just who we are as creatures. Rationalistic and scientific accounts of human life fail to truly define Being. As such, Robinson claims that human beings may just be the most improbable and impossible things of reality. The universe is so perfectly fitted to our existence and delight that it is hard to call the beautiful order of things anything but Providential. Robinson understands providence in the same sense as Jonathan Edwards, who defined providence as arbitrariness. Our existence is arbitrary, according to Edwards, because it could only exist by the active intention of God. Edwards, and by extension, Robinson, saw nothing intrinsic or essential in human beings that implied their necessary existence. Existence is by the providence of God alone.

Because of the seeming arbitrariness of our existence, Robinson concludes that there might just be an Arbiter of our being who acts in freedom toward us, who presents us with Truth and confronts us in ways that are comprehensible to us. Human existence, for Robinson, implies a Being beyond our reality, and yet immanently present in that reality. It is on the grounds of human experience—an experience shared by the Godhead in Christ—that allows us to engage in the task of theology at all.

Because of this, Robinson can easily say to the University’s comparative literature students that theology holds together the true and the flawed. The experiences of human beings throughout the globe are indeed filled with truth and falsity, shadow and light. And that is all held within theological discourse. I bring Robinson to this venue because I’m really interested to know what the theological community makes of Robinson’s critique of theology’s outdated method and how we should receive her call to root theology in human experience, made possible by her Christological commitments. It’s not natural theology, but it is a theological method grounded in the stuff of our nature and being. Robinson’s writing, especially her fiction, shows that she knows humankind. She knows that humans are beings of shadow and light, truth and falsehood, and that God came to dwell among us and with us.

As for me, I am particularly concerned with the theological method, how we go about constructing our theological vistas. I have listened to scholars like Willie James Jennings and J. Kameron Carter; both are going about theological and critical discourse in radically new ways precisely because of the ways (Western) systematic theology has been used to oppress and close off non-white and non-Western theologies. I mention Jennings and Carter because I find their theological work to be rooted in the ‘stuff of Being’ much like Robinson advocates for—their theology is led primarily by narratives of human experiences. They honor the unique privilege and insight that human beings into matters of the Divine.

Maybe Robinson’s insights come as no surprise to you; though they certainly did to the few seminarians gathered to hear her speak. Where do you begin your theology? What makes you continue to hold to theology? It’s systematic and organizing power, or its beauty, subtlety, and fragility?


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Thanks for these reflections, Kathryn! They made me think of one of my favorite lines of Calvin:

"Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern." (Inst, 1.1.1)
Alex DeMarco said…
Thanks for the great post Kathryn! Very thought provoking! This adds to a growing conviction of mine that theology at its best is more poetry than math.
Anonymous said…
Robert Maynard Hutchins, former president of The Uof Chicago, wrote the introduction to the Great Books series, "The Great Conversation" - I quote therefrom -
"...Since the set was conceived of as
***a great conversation,***
it is obvious that the books could not have been chosen with any dogma or even with any point of view in mind.
***In a conversation that has gone on for 25 centuries,***
all dogmas and points of view appear. Here are the great errors as well as the great truths.
The reader has to determine which are the errors and which the truths.
The task of interpretation and conclusion is his.
This is the machinery and life of the Western tradition in the hands of free men. ...
Unknown said…
Travis, I think Robinson would love that quote. She might even know it! She's a big Calvin fan.
Alex, thank you for reading! I share your conviction--my prayer is that my theological endeavors are indeed poetic yet equally precise as a systematic work. Poetry done well actually asks for more precision--it challenges us to say what we want to say with as few words as possible, and with as much beauty as possible.
Wyatt said…
Gilead is John Piper's favorite novel. He used to write about it all the time:

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