Marilynne Robinson’s “Reservoir of Goodness”

In his eulogy last week for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the slain pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, President Obama made an unexpected reference to ...

In his eulogy last week for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the slain pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, President Obama made an unexpected reference to contemporary literature:

That’s what I’ve felt this week—an open heart. That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think—what a friend of mine, the writer Marilynne Robinson, calls “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.”

Robinson’s words had a special role to play in the president’s powerful speech, since he used them to link the black church’s long struggle with white racist violence to a concept of grace as the experience of love in the midst of terror and sorrow.

With his turn to Robinson for help explaining grace, the president proved himself a more probing reader than many of her reviewers, who use words like “luminous” and “revelatory” to describe Robinson’s novels, but only in the sense that she is a beautiful writer. The key to Robinson’s luminosity, though, lies less in her prose style than in her religious vision, and in the remarkable similarities between good religion and good fiction.

In a wonderful scene early in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, young children baptize a litter of feral cats by a river’s edge. One by one they wrap each reluctant kitten in a doll’s white dress and—sparing them full immersion—sprinkle their heads with cold water. “I myself moistened their brows,” recalls the narrator, the Rev. John Ames, “repeating the full Trinitarian formula.” The elderly pastor elaborates on this memory in a letter to his young son:

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing … There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.

Marilynne Robinson’s novels function like this baptism. They acknowledge the sacred worth of the human person with characters whose dignity shines through humble circumstances. These characters include an orphaned girl raised by a suspected murderer, a disgraced son facing a thorny homecoming, a dutiful daughter caring for her dying father, and a pair of aging pastors, all living out their lives in a forgotten abolitionist outpost on the Iowa plains.

By inviting her readers into identification with these characters, Robinson illumines not only their mysterious lives but ours—not only their sacred worth, but our own. Ames is right: “There is a power in that.” Like the baptism of cats, it is a gentle, tender, compassionate power.

This power is most recently displayed in Lila, the winner of the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. We first encounter the title character as a neglected little girl on the front stoop of a house, “all cried out” and “hugging herself against the cold.” A woman called Doll takes pity on Lila and removes her from this abusive situation, picking her up off the floor and carrying her out into the rainy night. Robinson writes:

Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and [Lila] was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.

Doll and Lila eventually fall in with a group of migrant laborers who live hard and sometimes mean lives but who survive thanks to an ethic where “fair was fair and none of them ever had any good thing that the others didn’t have some right to.”

Lila’s itinerant path eventually diverges from the others and takes her to Gilead, where she meets Ames. Walking together along the road one day she notices that “it felt very good to have him walking beside her. Good like rest and quiet, like something you could live without but you needed anyway.”

Loneliness softened, goods shared, companionship experienced as rest—Robinson’s compassionate humanism, rooted in her Christian faith, illumines all three of the Gilead novels, Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lila
(2014). Her religious vision is a source of delight and wonderment for her many secular readers, for it upends and enriches much of what passes for “religion” in our public culture. “For the first time,” gushed Nick Hornby in the Believer, “I understood the point of Christianity.”1 Yet, in an era when “Christian humanism” strikes many as an oxymoron, how are we to understand Robinson’s vision?

Scratch the surface of most Christian theology, and you’ll discover that it’s as much an account of being human as it is a rendering of God. All theology begins with a particular analysis of the human predicament. From the beginning, Christianity has been of two minds about us humans: on one hand, we are created in God’s image; on the other, we are fallen sinners. It has veered back and forth between these two poles throughout its history, falling prey to either naïve idealism or downright misanthropy. The strength and beauty of Christian humanism come from its ability to hold these two viewpoints in a creative tension that cherishes our dignity while honestly confronting our failings.

By inviting her readers into compassionate identification with these characters, Robinson illumines not only their mysterious lives but ours—not only their sacred worth, but our own.

It’s worth noting that the origins of Christian humanism (and its Jewish antecedent) are in narrative form. The Book of Genesis begins with God creating humankind in God’s own image before moving on to our banishment from the Garden. The Gospels are another early narrative expression of this vision. Since closing the canon, though, Christianity has relied more on doctrine than narrative, a change that has come at the expense of a rich anthropology. Storytelling is demonstrably better suited than creed to expressing the foibles, contradictions, and complications of being human, but most Church doctrine, by privileging creed, has flattened the Christian account of man.

In an interview with New Statesman, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams elaborates on the link between narrative and the best of the Christian tradition:

It’s extremely important that Christian scripture is irreducibly in narrative form, and plural narrative form. It’s not one text. It’s lots of texts. And to add to the Russian-doll picture, the Gospels are stories about someone who tells stories. The growth of the novel came out of a strong sense that there are things you can only communicate in narrative shape.2

These “things” include what it means to be human and to have a soul. Good religion and good fiction have in common the ability to tell the tangled, tragic, and glorious story of what it means to be alive.

Robinson often remarks that the most common failing of her creative writing students is to underestimate not only the characters they create, but also themselves and their own capacities. An anemic view of one’s own humanity leads to bloodless characters, she writes, with the result that “character, in the fictional sense and in every other sense, is depleted to nothing.”

Good writing and good theology both depend on treating the human subject “with something approaching due reverence.” Maybe this is why Robinson’s novels stand out among those of many of her contemporaries, who so often seem to sneer at their characters, viewing their motivations with cynicism and their failings with snark. It is ironic that Robinson is labeled a Calvinist when many of her contemporaries express a misanthropy harkening back to Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. You can substitute cynicism for moralism, but a sneer is still a sneer.

Robinson, by contrast, invites her readers to empathize with her characters. She writes: “I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.” Here, then, is another similarity between good fiction and good religion—the capacity to foster compassionate identification, or, to put it another way, solidarity.

This solidarity is an underappreciated aspect of Robinson’s work. Her critics sometimes fault her novels for being too parochial—too white, too rural, too oblivious to the concerns of the larger world. While these criticisms are not entirely unfounded, they tend to overlook her sometimes overtly political themes. The Gilead novels are set, after all, in a town founded by New England abolitionists who migrated west to stop the spread of slavery. While Gilead is fictitious, Robinson has modeled it after several real examples. America’s failure to live up to its best intentions for racial equality is a theme throughout these novels. And her evocation in Lila of the crushing effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl is reminiscent of politically engaged authors such as John Steinbeck.

The political dimensions of Robinson’s humanism are even more obvious in her essays, which take down both reductive ideologies and dehumanizing social conditions—whatever might limit human possibility and freedom. She reserves much of her ire for a capitalism that, like Midas, has “the ability to monetize virtually anything” it touches, and that “has shown itself ready to devour what we hold dear, if the list can be taken to include culture, education, the environment, and the sciences, as well as the peace and well-being of our fellow citizens.”

In Lila, the elderly John Ames returns to the same river where he’d once baptized the cats as a child, this time to baptize his soon-to-be wife. This act of blessing engenders a spiritual crisis for Lila and Ames that consumes the final pages of the novel. No sooner is the baptism over than Lila begins to regret it. The seeds of her regret are sown when she overhears a snippet of conversation between Ames and his best friend Robert Boughton. Boughton laments the limited success of Christian missionaries in China, whose efforts to convert amount, in his eyes, to a mere “drop in the bucket.” “It seemed to him like a terrible loss of souls.”

The mention of “lost souls” sets off Lila’s alarm bells. Is Boughton suggesting that the unbaptized—even those never introduced to Christ—were lost to eternity? And if so, did that include her companions—the fiercely fighting and loving band of migrants with whom she wandered for so many years? And what about Doll—the woman who scooped her up off of a whorehouse floor and raised her as her own? Would Doll be lost forever?

It doesn’t take Lila long to choose sides: “If Doll was going to be lost forever, Lila wanted to be right there with her, holding to the skirt of her dress.” So the next morning she rises early and returns to the river where Ames baptized her. She wades in and scrubs her face and thinks to herself, “It has washed the baptism off me. So that’s done with. That must be what I wanted.” Lila won’t be part of a heaven that doesn’t include those she loves. Who can blame her?

Later, when Ames baptizes their son, Lila wonders whether she must choose between an eternity with the woman who raised her and the man and child who love her. Then Lila becomes a theologian, telling a story of a heaven where all are granted entry by virtue of the fact that “somebody couldn’t bear to be without” them. Even the scoundrels, even the sinners, even the unwashed. “God is good,” she thinks, repeating the old pastors’ refrain, and the fact that we can love our friends into heaven, she concludes, “would be the proof.”

People can’t live for very long with the idea that their loved ones aren’t embraced by the same love they are.

This is how Calvinism always undoes itself. People can’t live for very long with the idea that their loved ones might be excluded from paradise. In 1662, the first generation of New England Puritans decided to baptize their infant grandchildren, even though the parents of those children were not, themselves, full members of the church—they hadn’t evidenced their election with a first-hand account of their conversion. But, like Lila, these Calvinists refused to participate in a sacrament that excluded those they loved. Two centuries later, the abolitionist descendants of these same Puritans founded towns like Gilead.

Lila’s quarrel with God, and with her own salvation, reminded me of the scenes in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain where the young John Grimes undergoes his own uncertain conversion on the floor of his Pentecostal church. It wasn’t the first time that I thought of Baldwin while reading Robinson. Both take the language of hymns and liturgies, the tropes of theology, and work them into fiction and essays alike, creating characters who wrestle with God and re-write theology. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin wrote, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”3 What Lila teaches us—and what Baldwin surely knew—is that we need not get rid of God. Our own compassionate imagination can make God larger, freer, and more loving.

The late poet and critic Allen Grossman once said, “I don’t think there is any entirely secular poetry.”4 If you accept the premise of Robinson’s humanism, perhaps the same could be said of fiction. The line between sacred and secular blurs in Robinson’s novels, where the holy is always threatening to break through the mundane. In a culture where so much religious thought devalues this world—privileging the by-and-by at the expense of the here-and-now—it is refreshing to hear old Reverend Ames express his faith in the sacredness of the world:

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life … 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?

As it turns out, I’ve blessed my share of cats. Every so often we open the doors of our church for folks to bring their pets to be blessed. It’s a popular service—adults and children alike bring their cats, dogs, guinea pigs, goldfish, birds, and even, once, a hermit crab. (A few weeks after I blessed the crab, though, its young keeper informed me it had died.) One by one the animals are brought forward to the altar, barking, whining, mewling, chirping. At one level, we do it for the children. It’s fun and it means a lot to them. But like other churches who perform such blessings, we celebrate it in the spirit of Saint Francis of Assisi, whose own capacity for compassionate identification—solidarity—extended well beyond the bounds of the human race, embracing the Earth and its creatures. There is a power in that, too.

  1. Nick Hornby, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” The Believer, August 2005.
  2. Philip Maughan, “The Books of Revelations,” New Statesman, November 27, 2014.
  3. James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin: Collected Essays (Library of America, 1998), p. 314.
  4. Allen Grossman as quoted in “The Poet Allen Grossman has Died,” Publishers Weekly, June 27, 2014.
Featured image: Postcard of a river baptism in New Bern, NC, near the turn of the 20th century. Wikimedia Commons