Excerpts from a conversation between President Philip Ryken and Marilynne Robinson
April 12 2018
Philip Ryken: What do you think some of the virtues of the abolitionist temperament might be and how are their sensibilities important for us today combatting the legacy of racism and addressing other contemporary problems?
Marilynne Robinson: I think it’s hard for us to look back on what slavery actually was to really realize what was at stake in the effort to eliminate slavery. People were horrified in retrospect at what had happened in this country, and there was a huge backlash and movement away from the memory of the abolitionist movement. We lost a lot when we lost that memory because they were probably the best egalitarians that this culture has ever produced, and if we could have retained and extended their understanding of gender relations, racial relations, many other relations, we would be in a much better place now.
PR: I’m interested in your own sense of calling as a writer. Can writing be a religious calling? Do you have any advice for people who are thinking about their calling?
MR: One of the things that is remarkable about Christianity in general is that we have produced an enormous literature. It’s been true for centuries that people have felt precisely that writing was a religious vocation. What you have to do is consider yourself to be a unique expression of what is humanly possible. Time is precious. If you’re trying to accommodate yourself to expectations that are not yours or that are culturally defined for you in anticipation of you, then you’re not being what God made you to be. It’s not just an unshackled individualism I’m talking about. I’m talking about the fact that we really are gifted. And that our gifts are extraordinarily diverse and that no one can anticipate your gifts because they are unique to you. And so your vocation, the first vocation that you’ll have, is to try to understand who you are. You are not in competition with anybody else; there’s nobody else who can be you. If you find that something is so interesting to you that you put aside other things that are more practically important to pursue that interest, you’re doing the right thing.
PR: Can you reflect on the role of community in providing consolation for suffering? How does that help us live the good life even in the context of suffering?
MR: I think one of the most important things for people to do is to develop imagination, in the sense of a sympathetic imagination. There are some people who can comfort you and some people who can’t. To be the good comforter you have to be somebody who has a felt imagination for the circumstance of the person being comforted. I think often we think in stereotype behavior, but if it is insensitive, it can be an irritant rather than a reassurance. The best comforters I know are people who in any instance have given a great deal of thought to what subtle thing, what quiet, sustaining thing would comfort. Churches are wonderful because we have made the great concession to one another that we’re mortal, that we will see children baptized who we will not live to see buried. I don’t think there’s a situation in life where I feel more like I’m a human being among human beings than in a church. I think that gives people a good beginning to being capable of really comforting one another.
PR: Do you have any thoughts about how reading great literature can be a means for us to cultivate this kind of sympathetic imagination?
MR: I think it really can be, and I think whenever you read a book that seizes on you, it’s because the book has done exactly that; it has made you the compassionate observer or the even indignant observer. I think that we’re really so immersed in literature of one kind or another that we don’t recognize it anymore for what it is. I think that there’s a way in which that means that if we’re reasonably selective about what we give ourselves to look at, it’s as if we have compounded human life. We’ve lived over and over and over again in certain ways which is an incredibly rich privilege.
PR: There’s a lot of criticism of the liberal arts. How would you make a case for the value of liberal arts education?
MR: People talk as if these were economic issues to be considered. If you talk to law schools, profession education of that kind, or medical schools, they want people to teach them writing. They want to have people with a wide enough range of experience to be able to be articulate in difficult situations. The humanities humanize. They are the means by which we receive a tremendous treasury of human experience, which can always be enlarged. I’m not saying this at the disparagement of science.
PR: Why has Calvinism been such an important theme for you doctrinally and practically in your writing? What should we draw from its central place in the Gilead novels?
MR: What I have concluded from thinking about it is that the problem is we know nothing about the nature of time. I think that there is a shapeliness, I think there is a way in which actions, choices form themselves over time. We don’t act randomly. Which to me implies that time in some sense exists simultaneously with itself; it’s not sequential in the way we experience it. Every major theologian except for John Chrysostom and John Wesley has believed in predestination. There is no place to step outside that universe, basically. And it’s because anything else minimizes the power of God. So it seems to me as if that’s the place where the greatest minds run up against this problem that in Christian terms is insoluble. But if you look at people who were the precursors for the reformation and then also the writers of the reformation, they tend to emphasize predestination early and often. This is one of these artificial crosses that people bury. Being a Calvinist does not mean you’re peculiar in the sense that your major theologian thought about this. Calvin said, “This is a doctrine of the church, we have to talk about it.” Ignatius of Loyola said, “This is a doctrine of the church; don’t talk about it.” The reason that all the reformers foreground it in the way that they do is because they were arguing against the idea, prevalent then, that the church had the means of salvation: A sort of ritualized idea of salvation that put the Church in the place of God from the point of view of the reformers. It really is a way of making the argument that God determines these issues and not any human institutions.
PR: My own conviction is that part of living a good life is preparing to die. Can thinking about death be part of the good life?
MR: I don’t know how long it’s been true that I have thought about my mortality a good deal, party because It sort of reminds you that there’s a limit to time, there’s a limit to opportunity. If you want to do well by someone, do it now! A short supply of anything makes it valuable, doesn’t it? I’m very fortunate to have lived a long life and now I know that I’m beginning to see that a lot more life behind me than is in front of me, the changes that it makes in my perspective are lovely and interesting.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.