Marilynne Robinson’s Gospel of Being

A very late review of Gilead.

The sweet tension at the heart of Gilead is that between being in general and being in particular. The strange fact of Being is enough to transcend all difference, all sin, such that darkness and division are assimilated into the simple “I Am.” This is the hope John Ames takes with him as he stares down death. And yet this universal effulgence is experienced in specificity; through the limitations of one’s flesh and the particularity of a life (as opposed to life itself) and the inevitable predicaments of living it. Robinson perhaps tips her own theological hand as Ames prepares for a sermon: “I wanted to talk about the gift of physical particularity and how blessing and sacrament are mediated through it.”

For Ames, and probably Robinson, Being itself is the mysterious object of religion. It binds us together. It is the basis for love: “You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone. Your existence is a delight to us.” It sublimates sin: “Existence is the essential thing and the holy thing. If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgressions, then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional beside the exquisite primary fact of existence.” Entering the mystery of existence is the aim of Ames’s religion. David Bentley Hart’s words in in The Experience of God may as well have come from Robinson’s protagonist: “It may be that when we are small children, before we have learned how to forget the obvious, we know this wonder in a more constant, innocent, and luminous way, because we are still trustingly open to the sheer inexplicable givenness of the world.” Attentiveness to “The Givenness of Things” (to quote the title of Robinson’s published essay collection) is, for Robinson the object of religion and religious experience.

Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer provides an interesting counterpoint to Gilead. Both are first-person monologues by characters on a religious quest and both are concerned with the modern encounter with the wonderment of being. But Percy’s novel takes on a darker caste. Percy’s protagonist Binx Bolling is like John Ames, a seeker of truth and student of existence, but he is not a nostalgic, grandfatherly pastor; rather a culturally Presbyterian unbeliever; a moony, horny Louisiana real estate investor with designs on his secretary. Like Ames, Binx seeks immersion in Being, but he does it by watching movies and meticulously planning trysts which he only sometimes sometimes carries out. Percy’s quester is a good deal less sympathetic than Robinson’s. Significantly, Binx’s family line comes from the other side of the Civil War, and their sins are a good deal less sympathetic than those of radical abolitionists. For Ames, Being is a garden whose gates are wide open to any with the eyes to see it. For Binx, there is a problem. The garden is hidden; obscured by the modern human condition and bordered by despair. A life of peace and quiet is no help by itself.

Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.

Breaking free of workaday life to experience culture is similarly vulnerable to emptiness. Presented with the opportunity to go to the French Quarter with his friends to enter the throng of multicolored humanity in all its gritty glory, Binx prefers to stay home and watch television, “Not that I like TV so much, but it doesn’t distract me from the wonder. And not for five minutes will I be distracted from the wonder.” For Percy, gaining entrance to the garden of Being means risking a particular form of modern malaise. If you are not careful to balance one’s sense of abstraction with the immediacies of locality, “The world is lost to you…and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost…Where there is chance of gain, there is also chance of loss. Whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise.” Avoiding malaise involves cultivating careful, self-interested rituals. Binx makes a point of chatting up locals when he goes to the theater:

I do it for my own selfish reasons. If I did not talk to the theater owner or the ticket seller, I should be lost, cut loose metaphysically speaking. I should be seeing one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time. There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Loews in Denver or suburban Bijou in Jacksonville.

Putting Binx in conversation with Ames puts a challenge to Robinson: it is perfectly possible to be alert to the great mystery of Existence and remain lost, ungrateful, and unfulfilled. The great 20th Century existentialists ended up nauseated by the experience; the nonsense of it all. What right does John Ames have to see the world as though it rests perpetually in the Golden Hour? What’s the good in Being?

Evil exists in Gilead but not in the form of malaise. Put another way, no evil seems to pose a problem for the seeker of Being. Sin is spoken of as a serious business, a “wound in the flesh of human life,” but it is not really treated as such: “avoid transgression. How’s that for advice?” Jack Boughton is a sinner, but his sins do not estrange him from Being. He is simply on his own journey from his own different perspective and Ames gives him Feuerbach: another kind of gospel for another kind of seeker.

It is important that Christ does not appear in Robinson’s work. Though she passes through the limited subjectivity of John Ames, religion in general is her object. How, after all, can Being be encapsulated by any one Son of Man? Robinson describes the sacraments of the Church as occasions for glimpsing the ongoing sacrament that is human life. “[Baptism] doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that.” Perhaps there is, but such a power would not be enough for Binx Bolling. In The Moviegoer, Christ appears as Lonnie, Binx’s deformed half-brother who goes regularly to mass and believes his sufferings may be used by God to save unbelievers, who offers the Eucharist to Binx at every opportunity, and who frequently asks him “do you love me?” For Lonnie, the way back into the garden of Being is narrow. Religion in general will not do. After Lonnie’s death, Binx reflects on the sort of religion Robinson has in mind: “A peculiar word this…religion; it is something to be suspicious of.”

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