LIVING THE STORY OF BELIEF: MARILYNNE ROBINSON’S “GILEAD”

Consider a quote from the The Varieties of Religious Experience: “This inferiority of the rationalistic level in founding belief is just as manifest when rationalism argues for religion as when it argues against it.” Here William James attempts to describe the varieties of religious experience and in doing so approaches his topic in a way that frames religion in terms that continue to resonate with readers today. Charles Taylor made the same point in Varieties of Religion Today. For James religion is a matter of the heart more than the head. Religious apologetics and theology are not doomed for James because they are irrational, rather they are superstructures, elaborate abstractions derived from a more primordial existential feeling.

While James’ operational definition of religion has its problemssuch as the idea that religious experience can be cherry-picked from overwhelmingly Protestant texts read at face valuethere is obviously something to be said for the idea that religious apologetics and theology can serve as abstracted indices for the understandings and practices of religious believers. Although apologetic texts are ostensibly about defending a particular religious position, they often function in ways that exceed the apologist’s intentions, and they often reflect as much about the social, cultural, political, and philosophical context of the apologist as they do about the content of their beliefs.

Now consider another quote: “In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.” These words are written by the narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead.

Gilead is presented as a series of letters written by an aged minister, John Ames, to his young son, set in Gilead, Iowa, sometime after the second World War. Ames is writing letters to his son because he is old and fears that unless he writes these letters he will not be able to convey his reflections on life before dying. In many ways Gilead is a story about redemption and its possibilitiesfor those who don’t believe, for those who cannot believe, for those who do believe but have failed. John Ames finds redemption of a kind through marriage to a very different, much younger person than himself, through becoming a father in old age, and through his relationship with the troubled Jack Boughton. Gilead is also very much a story about belief. In his letters we learn that Ames’ older brother Edward was the brilliant son who went off to Germany to study theology and ended up embracing the atheism of Ludwig Feuerbach. We also learn that Jack Boughton, the son of Ames’ friend and fellow minister, who later befriends Ames’ wife and son much to Ames’ dislike, does not believe. However Boughton’s unbelief is existentialhe simply cannot imagine God existing or not existing; he describes it as something unavailable to him.

At one point Ames writes to his son that he has always found the attack on belief meaningless. “I must tell you this, because everything else I have told you … loses all its meaning and its right to attention if this is not established.” Ames reports that he had even read Feuerbach after learning of his brother’s atheism. He found that he was profoundly sympathetic to Feuerbach, to his powers of description, but that he did not resonate with the existential expression of Feuerbach’s unbelief.

Young people from my own flock have come home with a copy of La Nausée or L’Immoraliste, flummoxed by the possibility of unbelief, when I must have told them a thousand times that unbelief is possible. And they are attracted to it by the very books that tell them what a misery it is. And they want me to defend religion, and they want me to give them “proofs.” I just won’t do it. It only confirms them in their skepticism. Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.

Indeed Ames, close reader of Karl Barth, cautions his son against looking for proofs: “They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince something else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term. … It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect.” Ames sounds like James: doctrine is not the same as belief, it is simply a way talking about it; beliefs are lived.

Of course talking is an aspect of living, and our talking very often informs our living to one degree or another. Moreover, our talking sometimes takes the form of giving our life meaning by constructing it as a story, by emplotting it and reading it as a text. And if you stop and think about it, John Ames translates his wisdom, his philosophy, into an epistolary novel that tells the story of his lifehis life in Gilead, the biblical “hill of witness.” You might even say that to present God as a simple rational implication derived from nature or human subjectivity, as Paul Ricoeur wrote in Freedom and Nature, is the pretension of “an overly zealous apologetics.”

[This post originally appeared on Patrolmag.com]