Pulitzer Prize–winning author Marilynne Robinson speaks about grace, discernment, and being a modern believer.
In February 2014, author Marilynne Robinson came to the Mission Campus to speak about the presence and role of grace in the plays of Shakespeare. Her visit, sponsored by the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, was part of the Bannan Institute's yearlong exploration of the theme “What Good is God?” During Robinson’s visit, Santa Clara Magazine Editor Steven Boyd Saum spoke with her about grace in her own writing, how to teach discernment, and what it means to be a modern believer.
Robinson is the author of the novels Gilead, which won the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Home, and Housekeeping, which was nominated for a Pulitzer, as well as four books of nonfiction. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
You’re here to give a talk called “Grace in Shakespeare.” What about grace in Robinson, since that’s a term that is so often applied to your writing?
The interpretation of Shakespeare plays that I’m doing is suggesting a different way of turning the question of grace than I myself would have thought of without pondering those plays. I think about that phrase from the Gospel of John, “full of grace and truth”—it suggests more than an accidental relationship between grace and truth. The grace of God, I think, is almost simultaneous with the word God itself. From the human point of view, I think that when you participate in grace, you’re elevated above worldly considerations—grudges, fears, resentments—all those things that you accumulate in the clutter of self-protectiveness that arises as you develop in life.
The moments of grace are the moments in which your vision of reality is, for the moment, actually free. You are out of the trenches. And I think that is something that people very often feel they have experienced, that experientially it is true.
I often talk to people who have no theological vocabulary, but the minute the concept of grace becomes available to them, they recognize it. They love it. It could so easily be the core of any sort of reconstruction of our religious sensibilities.
Have you experienced that in your writing workshops?
Oh, yes. My students are wonderful. Like everybody else, they’re shy about any kind of religious issue and made anxious by it. But these are the kinds of ideas that do engage them. A lot has happened to corrupt the vocabulary of religious thought. It’s always been hard, I think, for writers to feel that they could use it as a subject, but it’s much harder when the generous impulses of fiction seem to run contrary to the ungenerous constructions that are made of religious sensibility. That’s a problem that religious institutions have to solve. Nobody else can do it.
Let me ask you a question that Michael Engh, S.J., the president of Santa Clara, asked the Dalai Lama when he was just here: How do you teach students discernment?
I don’t know. I think that human beings are basically discerning and that you have to be careful not to distract them or mislead them or alarm them. I think that a great deal of the best teaching is simply to take away anxiety: You can do this, it’s in your nature, what do you think? It is in people’s nature, and they can think for themselves. We have created this sort of culture of “right” answers that’s based on an irrationalist model that really is blown sky-high. I mean, it has no leg to stand on. Like science, for example—which, God bless, I love science—it has created a dialect of intellectual speech that gets imposed on people through education, and if it fits badly with the uses that they would want to make of language, with the articulations of experience they would want to express, they’re left sort of baffled. It silences them, because usually this sort of dialect has such authority. It is learning, as far as they’re concerned; it’s intellectualism, even. So you can actually sort of freeze people, even in their own thoughts, by giving them conclusions. I think that’s one of the things we’re dealing with all the time now: people who think that you can’t believe XYZ because, rationally—which means in Newtonian terms—it’s not possible. But that’s just an archaic mode of thought.
And you’re very articulate in talking about what you call the “miraculous” that one discovers through science—this sense of wonder and amazement, whether it’s quantum mechanics or the surface of Mercury.
Exactly. A lot of scientists act as if what they are doing is deflating awe, and what they’re doing, in fact, is making the universe into a theatre of awe that nobody could’ve imagined. I’m glad that they don’t act consistently with their own sort of very poor public relations. I mean, I think it’s an incredible privilege to live now, when the blossoming of scientific consciousness is just unbelievably beautiful.
You’ve said that you would’ve been a poet if you could have. What kind of poet would you have been?
Oh, much better than I’ve given any sign of being up to this point. I get solicited to add a poem to some anthology just because I write [laughter]. They have no idea. I could sabotage the whole enterprise [laughter].
About two years ago, Poetry Magazine published a collection asking various writers what the difference is between a poem and a prayer. How would you answer that?
That’s an interesting question. I wrote a review of an anthology of American poetry and it occurred to me: What is American poetry? How is it not Japanese poetry? So I went to a nice big bookstore and I bought every kind of foreign poetry book that I could find, and [I saw that] there are very characteristic patterns of American poetry. And they follow, I think, quite predictably the pattern of religious meditation. Very, very often they take the hurt hawk or whatever it might happen to be and then, in the great tradition of Herbert and so on, they meditate deeply into this starting place they have. And that looks like prayer to me. I’m not so sure that this is universal. But I don’t know because of course I’m culturally encased in this one.
One of the things you’ve said is, “Teaching is a distraction and a burden, but it’s also an incredible stimulus.” How so? How have you found it shaping your own writing?
I have kind of a charmed life in the sense that I teach in a city where we have really interesting students, and I mean interesting in relevant ways. I think I’ve learned a lot listening to them talk about each other’s work because they have a way of sifting and focusing, both on plausibility issues as well as technical issues. And these might very well be issues that I’ve thought about myself. So I think teaching continuously resensitizes you to the salient questions when you’re creating whatever it is we do.
In one of your essays, you talk about Dutch paintings as an example of finding beauty in the everyday. You talk about the Dutch reclaiming land from the sea as an analogy for creating a new vocabulary. So is there something about the Dutch you have consciously found yourself coming back to?
There is something deeply appealing to me about the Dutch aesthetic. My brother is an art historian and very much drawn toward that period, so I knew Vermeer before I knew anything about the cultural context that he came from. But the light! There is that wonderful image, which I’m afraid might be a little spoiled now, of Rembrandt’s mother reading a Bible with the light coming from the text, and it’s completely naturalistically true that reading a bright page would reflect light up. But it’s a beautiful image, and more beautiful when you think it would’ve been so rare, up to that point, for women to read at all. Things like that are just very appealing to me.
Do you still think about the characters Ruth and Lucille from Housekeeping?
I do. I think Ruth and Lucille are probably two primary categories for me [laughter]. They’re in a binary relationship, not invidious on either side. But they do seem like people I knew once. They do.
This fall we had Christian Wiman here. He talked about what it means to be a modern believer. I’m wondering what that means for you. I think one finds saying you're religious versus being spiritual can be a challenge.
I’m religious. I mean the traditions are articulations of a truth that is greater than any specific articulation. And that, conceptually, they’re the language we have, in the same way that English is the language we have. Spirituality seems often to me to be unserious at the deepest sense. You know what I mean? I know about things historically, that’s just my habit of mind. But it makes me very aware that very thoughtful people have shaped and considered, and that ideas that are enormously valuable to me have come down through a chain of transmission—which is my religious tradition, our religious tradition. It would seem inhumane to me to try to step free of what is, in many cases, the most beautiful thinking people have done. I really do believe, very deeply, that reverence toward God has to be simultaneous with reverence toward humankind and history too. And that if you refuse the gifts, the best—but also the most painful in many cases, and the most frightening and most tragic—you’re sort of betraying all those generations before that were in conversation with God, too. It seems holier-than-thou, in a way, to say I’m spiritual and not religious.
We talked earlier about how grace has been used to describe your writing. What kind of writing process do you use to get to that point? Does it spring fully formed? Is it a constant re-edit?
Well, you know, as strange as it sounds, it’s pretty fully formed. I have no idea how any of this happens. None. There will be periods of time—for example, present—when I have no fictional impulses at all and then someday I will. And they’re very specific in the sense that I feel that something for which I have no words—like a concept, but that’s not the right word—is in my mind and that it has the substance of a long narrative. When I have felt that, it has been true. I don’t feel it very often, but I can’t account for it. It’s just how it is. If it’s not there, I just torment myself. If it’s there, I can actually do it. And it governs me. I edit very little.