ONE of the most delightful and unexpected things about Marilynne
Robinson is that she is an unapologetic - in fact, enthusiastic -
Calvinist. I first met her five years ago in Geneva, as part of the
celebrations surrounding the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth,
where she made the rebarbative doctrine of total depravity seem
nothing more than a sort of realism that any novelist must
"You know, the word 'depravé' means warped," she said.
"The image that he associates with this, very often, is of a
mirror. And you can imagine that mirrors probably were warped when
he was writing.
"We use the word to mean utterly, shudderingly pathological or
something. But the idea is of it being a sort of condition of false
perception. I mean, our perceptions are the most brilliant things
in the universe. And flawed. Who can dispute this? And it seems to
me as if that's basically Calvin's model for the whole of human
"And it makes this interesting sort of pleasantly adversarial
relationship of one with one's self. . . The novel is a
post-Reformation form, no doubt about that. . . There is always
another self who knows that what we perceive is not perceived
truly; teasingly neither utterly false nor reliably true. . . you
turn the mirror and the error changes. I think this is a wonderful
In a properly depraved spirit, then, I should say that what
looks like one interview here is actually stitched together from
the transcripts of two separate conversations, conducted five years
apart, but both of them circling around the same questions.
The partial and shifting nature of enlightenment is central to
her novel sequence about the small town of Gilead, in which the
lives of the main characters are told, and retold, from each
other's perspective. They are all, at least at moments, filled with
delight in the world, and utterly mistaken about their own parts in
it, and about the parts played by others, although they may seem
themselves suspended over an abyss of self-knowledge, as sinners
were held over their eternal and merited damnation in Jonathan
THE Calvinism of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead books is more
concerned with collective punishment than individual damnation.
That may seem a deliberately provocative statement, since one of
the motors of the plot is the suspicion of two of the main
characters that they are, indeed, predestined to damnation.
Yet, in both cases, the most memorable moments are those in
which the conviction lifts, and a streak of hope, like dawn,
illuminates their lives. The darkness that cannot be lifted is that
which comes from collective sin, and particularly from slavery.
"Before the Civil War, slavery being the issue that it was, an
understanding that perhaps we should tremble when we consider that
God is just was entirely appropriate," she told me.
"After that, of course, there were other issues that arose where
that kind of thinking would have been useful, but it spent itself
in some way. It was considered anti-progressive. It became
theologically respectable to think that you actually didn't have to
be guilty of the errors [she laughs] that humankind has
historically been guilty of.
"Therefore, these prophetic rhythms of rebuke and redress that
were seen to be so salient to the American experience before the
Civil War were ridiculed after. People talk about fire and
brimstone, but it was people talking about guilt with reference to
themselves, not with reference to others."
I do not know a book that shows up the wickedness of racism more
clearly than Gilead, and it does so almost entirely by
indirection. As she says, the story of the world is the history of
good people participating in profoundly wicked institutions.
The trilogy - Gilead, Home, and Lila
- depicts the lives of a group of good white people who are
profoundly racist, and alongside them a rather less good man, who
loves a black woman, who loves him back. It is this love - the best
thing about him - that cuts him off from his home and from the
kinds of redemption that his birth family could offer him. That, in
turn, condemns the woman and their child.
The pure injustice of this becomes apparent in a way that
resonates for years. To Robinson, the message of the Bible, read by
a Calvinist, is centrally concerned with justice.
"I AM a Congregationalist," she says. "An American
Congregationalist. We ordained our first woman in 1853. We have had
co-educational colleges virtually from the 1820s. The feminist
question was much more alive in America, I think, than it was in
Britain, earlier. In important institutional ways, it began to be
reality before it was legally reality.
"Women have distinguished themselves very powerfully in these
reformist movements, and they have been rewarded by the fact that
their status always increases along with their involvement.
"The liberal side of religion in America does not get any
attention. But it's there. It pushes things like, for example,
marriage equality, which was practised in many churches before it
was legal. They did everything but legally marry these couples.
What happens, typically, is that social norms change, and then laws
adjust to acknowledge the wisdom of the social change.
"I really don't know quite how things happen. But I do know
that, if you watch the rate of social change of things like the
attitudes towards homosexuality, which
seem never to change, and then they seem to change
incrementally; then they have passed some crisis point where it's
no longer an issue, and then people say: 'What was that about?'
"How that happens, I don't know. I don't think anybody knows.
The mysteries of collective thought are profound."
ONE of the most characteristic features of her thought is that
she continually moves between mystery and clarity. I don't mean
this as one might mean it of most theologians, for whom obscurity
is apparently an indicator of the presence of God. She finds him in
clarity, but finds clarity itself mysterious, or possibly dazzling.
This, she says, is Calvin's position, too.
"Calvin says, if you want to find God, simply descend into
yourself. Realise what a miraculous creature you are. Calvinist
anthropology places human beings, and God, at an enormous degree of
proximity, actually, with no sense of angels or other orders of
being intervening between living, present, mortal human beings, and
"The assumption of the cosmic order that you find in Thomas
Aquinas is really swept away. Calvin also says, of course, that
we're fallen creatures, and far below what we ought to be, and what
God hopes of us. But, at the same time, the intrinsic human self,
the self of perception and experience, is still the most divine of
all [the things] outside of the character of God himself."
Andrew Brown writes on religion for The Guardian.
Lila by Marilynne Robinson is published by Virago at
£16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.30 - Use code