Marilynne Robinson, Narrative Calvinist
Raised near the mountains of Sandpoint, Idaho, novelist Marilynne Robinson remembers sensing God's presence there long before she had a name for him. "I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention, all around me," she writes, "barely restrained, and I thought everyone else must be aware of it." Perhaps they were, but in a culture in which "it was characteristic to be silent about things that in any way moved them," the young Robinson was, in her deepest experiences, alone.
There were mentors, though. She remembers her grandfather holding an iris blossom before her, quietly commending its miracle of form, and the "patient old woman who taught me Presbyterianism," offering Moses' burning bush and Pharaoh's dream of famine as wonders to contemplate. In their reticent attention, both mentors gave Robinson a way to stand before mystery and gradually behold it. "It was as if some old relative had walked me down to the lake knowing an imperious whim of heaven had made it a sea of gold and glass, and had said, This is a fine evening, and walked me home again."
Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping (1980), began as a series of prose exercises inspired by the great 19th-century American writers Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Henry David Thoreau. Their rapturous, attentive language drew Robinson back to her childhood landscape, giving her a way to re-inhabit that spiritually charged world. Readers greeted Housekeeping as a masterpiece, praising in particular the haunting voice of its narrator, Ruth, whose prose circled and looped, creating a world out of orphaned bits of memory and observation. Raised by her transient, railroad-riding Aunt Sylvie, Ruth finds in her aunt's disregard for boundaries a way to touch what she had lost. And what Sylvie taught Ruth, Dickinson and her peers taught Robinson. Housekeeping demonstrates the power of their attention to the world, their confidence in "the sacramental quality of reality." To Robinson, their way of seeing things is, sadly, nearly gone.
Robinson wrote no novels for almost 25 years after Housekeeping, instead deliberately reading her way back into the life and culture that had inspired Dickinson and others. She discovered that one voice influential for those writers was John Calvin, a figure Robinson has been working hard to restore. In her preface to John Calvin: Steward of God's Covenant (2006), Robinson bristles at the fact that the Reformer has been hidden under a caricature, known only as "an apostle of gloom dominating a gloomy city," his legacy one of "repression and persecution." Robinson instead finds three liberating themes in Calvin's thought, and in the preface and an earlier collection of essays, The Death of Adam (1998), she articulates how they impress upon her literary vision.
Perception is the Point
For Robinson, Calvin's theology centers on the belief that God has given individuals the ability to commune with and respond to him without the mediation of priests or bishops. "Perception is at the center of Calvin's theology," she observes; God willingly floods our senses with his grandeur in such a way that we can take it in and reflect it back, his glory "shining forth" as we participate in it. "It is as if we were to find a tender solicitude toward us in the fact that the great energy that rips galaxies apart also animates our slightest thoughts." Think how elevated a vision of the human soul this is, Robinson suggests, and how far it is from how we often view ourselves.