ON SEPTEMBER 14, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa, President Obama and the writer Marilynne Robinson sat down to talk. They recorded a conversation that, in the president’s words, was designed to cover “some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction that the country should be going in.” The two had a warm and wide-ranging discussion, later published by The New York Review of Books and posted to iTunes, addressing Robinson’s writing life and Obama’s admiration of her novels; the democratic virtues expressed at Little League games, in emergency rooms, and in school buildings; and their shared sense that once upon a time democracy itself was considered an ongoing achievement. (The conversation has now been appended to the paperback edition of Robinson’s most recent essay collection, The Givenness of Things.) In the midst of some observations about American “goodness and decency and common sense on the ground,” the president arrived at a moment of synthesis, confronting an issue that, he said, “I’ve been struggling with throughout my political career.”
[T]here’s this huge gap between how folks go about their daily lives and how we talk about our common life and our political life. And people describe it as the distance between Washington and Main Street. But it’s not just Washington; it’s the way we talk about our politics, our foreign policy, our common endeavors. There’s this gap.
Here, more than anywhere else in their conversation, the president was speaking Robinson’s language. Gaps appear everywhere in her work — even, and especially, between people of good faith and conscience. Between, for instance, Aunt Sylvie and the two abandoned sisters Ruth and Lucille in Housekeeping (between Ruth and Lucille in the book, as well). In her Gilead trilogy, between the Reverend John Ames and everyone else: his wife Lila, his young son, his prodigal namesake Jack Boughton, generations of preachers who preceded him (most notably his father), and even between him and “two young fellows on the street” who stop joking with each other when they see him, the reverend, approach. Of this encounter, Ames writes to his son: “I felt like telling them, I appreciate a joke as much as anybody. There have been many occasions in my life when I have wanted to say that.”
In her nonfiction, Robinson often confronts the gap between herself and her fellow Christians. Her 2006 essay “Onward, Christian Liberals” draws those lines in language that is, from the start, as confrontational as it is introspective. She begins: “I realize that in attempting to write on the subject of personal holiness, I encounter interference in my mind between my own sense of the life of the soul and understandings that are now pervasive and very little questioned.” My own students have taken a great deal of time figuring out what she means in this opening line; at a secular university, they’re often less comfortable than Robinson discussing personal holiness and the life of the soul. Robinson’s initial obliqueness with regard to her opponents is also cause for some confusion. Nevertheless, she eventually sums up those pervasive and little-questioned understandings quite clearly and with distinctive good humor — she appreciates a joke as much as anybody — by contrasting them with the teachings of Christ:
[T]he supposed Christian revival of today has given something very like unlimited moral authority to money, though Jesus did say (and I think a literal interpretation is appropriate here if anywhere), “Woe to you who are rich!” (Luke 6:24) If this seems radical, dangerous, unfair, un-American, then those who make such criticisms should at least have the candor to acknowledge that their quarrel is with Jesus.
Robinson approaches a related gap between herself and other Christians in a later essay, “Wondrous Love,” from 2010 — although by this time her tone has grown somewhat doleful: “[T]he fact is that we differ on this crucial point, on how we are to see the figure of Christ.”
Taking up, for instance, the awareness that Christ’s preaching (which was itself “a new understanding of traditional faith”) would divide families, she rereads what’s been called “the sword of the Lord” passage from Matthew’s gospel — “Do not think I have come to bring peace on earth: I have come not to bring peace, but a sword” — as an “inevitable and regrettable” notion, for him, in his time. “In the narrative as I understand it,” Robinson concludes, “his words would have been heavy with sorrow” — a bit like hers here, a bit like Obama’s. Those who would want to use this passage from Matthew — both historically, and even still today — as evidence that Christ promoted division, denunciation, or murder, for the sake of Christianity, see him differently than Robinson does. (Again, you can hear in Robinson’s Christ some of the very same regret Obama has registered about the quality of our common life in the United States: “There’s this gap.”) And while her own conclusions about Christ demand that she assume the Christians she disagrees with “are Christians all the same, that we are members of the same household,” she writes, this level of acceptance has proven difficult for her “from time to time.” “This difficulty,” she says, “may be owed in part to the fact that I have reason to believe they would not extend this courtesy to me.” Again a gap, and one that Robinson sees as just as great a threat to American civic life in general as to her own Christian household. Asked by President Obama about how her interest in Christianity converges with her concerns for democracy, Robinson replied with a synthesis all her own:
Well, I believe that people are images of God. There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding. What can I say? It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level. And it [applies] to everyone. It’s the human image. It’s not any loyalty or tradition or anything else; it’s being human that enlists the respect, the love of God being implied in it.
I think I once knew — and believed in — what Robinson means here by the love of God. Years before I was married, at a time when I was still a regular churchgoer, in the wake of a theology degree, I delivered a homily at the wedding of two friends from college. I’d watched them grow up together and grew up with them too. And in that sermon, when I spoke about love, they were my example: “Why is it we like Love so much?” I said, capitalizing the word with my voice. “In other words, why are we here? Perhaps it’s because Love itself is not difficult. Maybe it’s much less something we do than something we just simply believe in. Love is something we encounter. Look, there it is.”
That was 10 years ago. The couple remains married; you can still look and see love. But I believe now that love is something we do — something we must do and that it is difficult — because of who we are and how far apart we will always be from one another, even those in our households.
When Lila, the third of the Gilead novels, was published in 2014, journalist Wyatt Mason profiled the author for The New York Times Magazine, noting Robinson’s advancing age — 70 then — both at the beginning of his essay and again near the end.
“So what are we doing when we’re having a conversation,” I asked her, “especially under the aegis of a purposeful attempt to seize at you?”
“I’m supposed to be coming back — ”
“ — with,” Robinson said, “the inside story: Ha-ha!”
“Or some story. ‘Marilynne Robinson at 70.’”
If there’s a joke here, Mason is in on it. Indeed, in writing the scene around their conversation he shades the joke a little darker, especially for the married among us. The entire exchange, the final between Robinson and him in the summer 2014, takes place over lunch under the awning of an Iowa City café, where, when asked if an individual could be known to other individuals, she admits, “I don’t think in an essential way that that ever happens.” When Mason’s not reporting the dialogue, he’s describing an unwitting couple having wedding photos taken. “Out front, the wedding photographer told the bride to laugh and to toss back her head. She laughed and tossed back her head.” Photos finished, the couple is ushered away by car into a future in which they’ll never really know one another. Ah, love. Ah, youth.
Fun as it is to laugh at this laughing bride, the joke’s on all of us; faced with the constraints life reveals as those constraints become clearer — the social ones, the economic ones, mortality itself — all any of us can do is laugh. Even that bride will laugh (for real) one day.
As for Marilynne Robinson, it’s true, she has lived a long life. “Wondrous Love” begins there, and goes on to acknowledge that, in the course of any life, certain ideas — owing as much to durability as their capacity to surprise and move us — will become salient. “I have reached the point in my life when I can see what has mattered,” writes Robinson, “what has become a part of its substance — I might say a part of my substance.”
Having reached the point in life called middle age, I can say that Robinson’s Gilead novels especially matter (and especially to me). They matter for the utter command that she’s so often praised for (and was long before Gilead ever appeared): “You can feel in the book a gathering voluptuous release of confidence, a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt,” wrote Anatole Broyard of Housekeeping in his review for The New York Times. But her fondness for people, or, as she’s more likely to say, for human beings or the human image, has involved a reckoning with the notion that loneliness — within society, within family, within a marriage — is not a problem, but what she describes as a condition, “a passion of a kind.”
Her appreciation of the impassable distance between people is not new, nor has she ever, it seems, experienced humankind’s essential loneliness, privacy, or inwardness — call it what you will — as particularly distressing. As she told Mason, a “feeling of difference,” even as a child, was what made her want to write in the first place. Her novels trade in this reality, its givenness. And her recent lectures, collected as essays in The Givenness of Things, published in 2015, reveal what a long life of consideration can make of this central fact of human existence — this gap: “[T]he reality we experience is a matter of mind, but not to be called illusory, because it is profoundly shared, and because within very broad limits, it works.”
Owing perhaps to her own sense, as she explained to the president, “that many Americans […] think that the worst thing they can say is the truest thing,” Robinson is very fond of saying what she believes. Explaining what she means by personal holiness in the essay “Onward, Christian Liberals,” she offers a declaration of faith:
I believe in the holiness of the human person and of humanity as a phenomenon. I believe our failings, which are very great and very grave […] are a cosmic mystery, a Luciferian disaster, the fall of the brightest angel. That is to say, at best and at worst we are within the field of sacred meaning, holy. I believe holiness is a given of our being that, essentially, we cannot add to or diminish, whose character and reality are fully known only to God and are fully valued only by him. What I might call personal holiness is, in fact, openness to the perception of the holy in existence itself and, above all, in one another.
Bound by her own passionate loneliness, over and over in her writing Robinson insists on what essentially divides us, which again has nothing to do with what we believe or where we stand on the issues, but is a function of the fact that my mind generates my experience and your mind generates yours. She finds books fascinating, she’s said, “because they bring you one step closer.” In a religious sense, or for believers like Robinson (and perhaps like me), this sympathy evokes respect for the human being as the image of God. In the democratic sense, the political sense, this sympathy evokes respect for the human being as the image of oneself. In a final, humanistic sense, it evokes respect for the human being as an expression — perhaps the definition — of what I call love, which requires effort in both the imagination and the world.
But God’s love — I’m not sure it’s implied. Unlike human beings, who know so little, God knows everything. And in transcending the world, God likewise transcends the requirements of imagination. Yet, for much of my life — was this my imagination? — God was as strong a reality as I knew. And in my reading of Robinson’s work over the past dozen years, I still find common ground with her religious characters, especially the studious ones, who, in spite of themselves, fail at the sort of detachment, or the dying to self, that Christ — and Christianity — calls humanity to. “The fact is, I don’t want to be old,” the minister John Ames writes to his young son in Gilead. “And I certainly don’t want to be dead. I don’t want to be the tremulous coot you barely remember.” (Neither Ames nor I — nor any of us, I suppose — can be blamed for our desirousness. Religious detachment is superhuman; even Christ failed, though he ultimately failed better.) I also believe about people what Robinson does, and what Christ did — that is, in the “holiness of the human person and of humanity as a phenomenon.” But in the years around my first reading Robinson, I gave up on the God by whom I was fully known and fully valued.
In Volume Two of his novel My Struggle, Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, recounting a conversation with a friend named Geir, offers a powerful and, to me, familiar understanding of the God who can see right through you, the one I’ve given up. With Gier in a regular Stockholm haunt, the Pelikan restaurant, Karl Ove recalls reading the diaries of poet Olav Haakonson Hauge, which he found to be “‘an enormous consolation. […] He escaped the iron grip on himself and relaxed, so it seemed.’”
“The question is whether it was God,” Geir said. “The feeling of being seen, of being forced to your knees by something that can see you. We just have different names for it. The superego or shame or whatever. That was why God was a stronger reality for some than others.”
Though I experienced over those years the anxiety inspired by an awareness of God’s judgment — I’ve felt fully known — I’m mainly free now of the oppressiveness and invasiveness of this experience. I’m fine with just plain shame or whatever. And while I see a Scriptural God in Knausgaard’s description — and a God who shares qualities with Robinson’s God, who also fully knows human beings — I just don’t see love. Knausgaard’s framing of total insight and absolute knowledge in terms of God’s judgment and human shame puts in relief what Robinson wants to say about the divine attributes of love — at least as we experience it as an emotion, with a racing heart. Or as I enact it as a practice, say, by bringing my wife her morning coffee. In bed.
Why do I make the coffee? I’m not sure. Let me see. Because I love my wife. And because I want her to love me. And because I don’t want the debt involved in her making it for me. I get up before she does — to work. I want to be the better person. I want her to see me as the better person. I want her to see me work. I want her to be able to tell her friends that her husband wakes up before she does, to work, that he makes her coffee every morning, delivers it to bed, and then walks away. I want, I want, I want. I would never tell her all this. How embarrassing. How shameful, all this ugly desirousness. How unlovable.
For all we say about love and its relationship to openness and our knowledge of the person we love (and vice versa), as it’s practiced day to day, love actually depends a great deal on what we all conceal from each other, both intentionally — out of a desire to be loved — and also because we are, in fact, mysteries not only to each other but often also to ourselves. Our basic privacy and inaccessibility is, in this way, essential to maintaining love. Or it is at least among those of us who wonder whether we’d be loved if our partners knew everything, if they knew all our selfishness and insecurity — the inside story: Ha-ha! — if they knew always why we acted as we do.
Still, I bring that coffee, and if she’s awake enough my wife will tell me she loves me. And in spite of myself, I believe her.
Throughout The Givenness of Things, Robinson treats various emotions as among life’s givens — but love has a place of honor:
Scriptural and modern usage does reflect experience. Love, however elusive, however protean, however fragmentary, seems to have something like an objective existence. It can be observed as well as tested. Perhaps it is better to say, language reflects a consensus of subjectivities. We seldom agree in our loves, we vary wildly in our ability to acknowledge and express them, we may find that they focus more readily on cats and dogs than on justice and mercy, neighbors and strangers. And yet, for all that, we do know what love is, and joy, gratitude, compassion, sorrow, and fear as well.
For Robinson, love’s givenness can be derived from its scriptural usage: “God so loved the world. God is love. Love one another as I have loved you,” she quotes. “These sentences are intelligible to us because we do, in however misdirected or dilute a form, participate in this attribute.” But given the impassable distance between us and those we love — distances Robinson has spent her life evoking in fiction — how can “God is love,” for example, reveal love’s givenness? In consideration of what God must know and what we can never know — that is, the essence of another human being — I’m not convinced. While Robinson’s effort is, at heart, empathetic — certainly an attempt to move one step closer to other humans — it strikes me that the love of God, divine love, is categorically different from human love, not just simply undiluted or perfectly directed.
Of all the sentences I’ve ever read by Marilynne Robinson, one from Gilead stands out as a favorite. It’s mattered more than all the others. It’s one I’ve memorized. In it, John Ames offers insight about human love to his young son as part of a reflection on his experience of two instances of shame, as a child and as an adult:
These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.
Who knows in each case what “these people” were really thinking? What’s on display is the gap and Ames’s passion for it, transformed into a defensiveness that on first read (in 2004) I identified with and committed to memory. I can’t remember now just who was not doing my own efforts justice back then, but someone was — someone always is — and I enjoyed feeling defensive. Chances are, I loved that person and she or he loved me, too — maybe more than I deserved.
We love despite incomplete access — and we very often project our own ideas and hopes onto those we love, in part, I think, because we can’t really know what occupies them, but also because we want to complete the story in our own minds of the love we supposedly share. This may sound somewhat cynical, but in fact I find this a hopeful position where love and relationships and perhaps even our democracy are concerned. Love, at its best, is an incomplete answer to the beloved’s call to be fully seen — a friend, a wife, a child, a stranger — it’s an enactment of sympathy. As South African novelist J. M. Coetzee has described it, love is the imaginative faculty “that allows us to share […] the being of another.”
And yet, if we know love this way — if I’m describing our experience of love accurately — God, by whom we are fully known and fully valued, must be incapable of love. Human accommodations like sympathy — that make room for arguments about who cleaned the house or picked up the child, that assume one another’s selfishness and forgive it — are unnecessary for God. So too are the same human accommodations at the heart of our democracy.
As they finished their conversation in the fall of 2015, the president asked Robinson about her own citizenship and what optimism she has left in the American experiment. She said nothing at all about God or God’s love — nothing directly, at least. When she’s in public talking with people about their lives, she said, she’s encouraged by “how earnest they are, how deeply committed they are to sustaining people they feel close to or responsible for and so on — there they are, the people that you think of as the sustainers of a good society.” They each made their case for a “normal politics,” where disagreements are presented and arguments are made, and being on the losing side of a vote encourages the loser to make a better case. The gap will remain; there’s no getting rid of it. But when we get together in public, where people “talk something over, take a vote,” Robinson said, “that’s what it’s supposed to be.” And perhaps that gap shrinks a little, or matters less.
“Yes,” the president said, “but that does require a presumption of goodness in other people.” Or maybe the presumption that other people are just as bad as we are — just as selfish, desirous, unlovable — and, in spite of all that, no less deserving of sympathy and love.
Scott Korb is the author and editor of several books, including Light without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College, and the collection Gesturing Toward Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy. He lives in New York City.