Something I find regrettable in contemporary Christianity is the degree to which it has abandoned its own heritage, in thought, art and literature. It was the center of learning in the West for centuries because it deserved to be. Now there seems to be actual hostility on the part of many Christians to what, historically was called Christian thought, as if the whole point were to get a few things right and stand pat.
~Marilynne Robinson from All Things New
A preacher friend, describing his personal theology said “I believe the Bible, but I’m not mad about it!” That’s a bit of an inside joke because religious people often earn a reputation for meanness. How does that happen? Well, it’s natural to be defensive when you think you’re being attacked, and the world is assaultive when it comes to Christianity. The most logical reaction is to put up walls and fire back.
The problem with that of course is that you can’t advance when you are hiding in your fortress. When we pray ‘thy kingdom come’, we are asking to be part of the process. It’s messy business. To be an effective Christ follower, you have to be relevant and that’s impossible without love. Relevancy is directly related to relationship and relationships require vulnerability.
As Ken Kovacs says in his book Out of the Depths
The Church of Jesus Christ is not a museum. We’re not a historical preservation society. We’re called to reform—reformed by the Spirit who is calling us to a new day. We need to become roomier, building new homes in which the human spirit can thrive. We’re not called to preserve the past or live in the past. Christ is alive. Christ is at work within us, now.
D I G D E E P E R
Marilynne Robinson and Renewal
For ages people have drawn inspiration from greatness—from Horatio at the bridge to William Tell to George Washington. But heroism is out of fashion in our time. We don’t even believe in it. Our cynicism is so pervasive that the extent of our disillusionment is taken as the measure of our maturity.
Marilynne Robinson describes this turn of mind in The Death of Adam:
“When a good man or woman stumbles, we say, “I knew it all along,” and when a bad one has a gracious moment, we sneer at the hypocrisy. It is as if there is nothing to mourn or to admire, only a hidden narrative now and then apparent through the false, surface narrative. And the hidden narrative, because it is ugly and sinister, is therefore true.”
What has happened to us is that we’ve lost our sense of God. And when we lose God, we don’t just lose religion; we lose everything worth living for. But God wants to give it all back. He has a purpose for us yet, even in our brokenness. He says, “I created you for my glory. And I want to fill your life with an inspiring new sense of destiny.”
God intends to renew the whole universe (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22). That’s his goal. Do you know where he begins? Right here with us, at two levels. Isaiah shows us the God who reforms people who have lost their purpose (Isaiah 42:18–43:21). Next he’ll show us the God who revives people who have lost their vitality (43:22–44:23). The renovation of the universe begins with us in reformation and revival. Reformation is the recovery of God’s purpose for us. Revival is the recovery of God’s life in us. God loves to renew confused and tired people.
PERCEPTION IS THE POINT
Robinson discovered that one voice influential for those writers was John Calvin, a figure Robinson has been working hard to restore. In her preface to John Calvin: Steward of God’s Covenant (2006), Robinson bristles at the fact that the Reformer has been hidden under a caricature, known only as “an apostle of gloom dominating a gloomy city,” his legacy one of “repression and persecution.” Robinson instead finds three liberating themes in Calvin’s thought, and in the preface and an earlier collection of essays, The Death of Adam (1998), she articulates how they impress upon her literary vision.
For Robinson, Calvin’s theology centers on the belief that God has given individuals the ability to commune with and respond to him without the mediation of priests or bishops. “Perception is at the center of Calvin’s theology,” she observes; God willingly floods our senses with his grandeur in such a way that we can take it in and reflect it back, his glory “shining forth” as we participate in it. “It is as if we were to find a tender solicitude toward us in the fact that the great energy that rips galaxies apart also animates our slightest thoughts.” Think how elevated a vision of the human soul this is, Robinson suggests, and how far it is from how we often view ourselves.
At the same time, our ability to perceive God is deeply compromised. None of us sees clearly; indeed, none of us even desires to. All of us turn away from God’s presence, failing “to acknowledge what ought to be obvious,” Robinson writes, inclined instead “to indolence and selfishness, dishonesty, pride and error, cruelty.” She calls the notion of total depravity the “counterweight to Calvin’s rapturous humanism,” insisting that we can’t understand the one aspect of his thought without the other.
Working together, writes Robinson, these twinned elements of “our strangely mixed nature” mean that the passage of a soul “through the vale of its making, or its destruction” will be marked by halts and recoveries, each attempt to find meaning chastened by a recognition of limits. This almost exactly describes Ruth’s voice in Housekeeping, now traced to one of its sources.
Not everyone, however, carries this realization as a great weight, or senses a chance to find release. The doctrine of election, developed in Scripture but popularly associated with Calvin, is a third element for Robinson, who links it to Calvin’s focus on perception. True perception—“the radical understanding of the presence of God, and of his nature as manifest in Christ”—is something God must grant a person. It is not natural to our fallen state.
And because God grants such ability entirely according to his own mind, we are brought into a chastening—and, to Robinson, exhilarating—encounter with “the freedom and mystery of God.” Far from inducing a dulled passivity, such a doctrine leads to a deepening awareness of the grandeur of God and the fragile beauty of one’s neighbors. To borrow a phrase from Dickinson, it keeps believing nimble.
Ken has been pastor of Catonsville Presbyterian Church since October 1999. Prior to coming to CPC, he was associate pastor/ acting head of staff at the First “Hilltop” Presbyterian Church, Mendham, NJ; and assistant minister at the St. Leonard’s Parish Church, St. Andrews, Scotland (UK). Ken is a graduate of Rutgers College (B. A.), Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and the University of St. Andrews (Ph.D.), St. Andrews, Scotland (UK). He also studied at Yale Divinity School, Yale University. Ken serves on the board of trustees of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, Atlanta, GA; and is on the board of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. He just completed a five-year term on the General Assembly’s Committee on Theological Education. Ken enjoys reading history, writing, traveling, listening to classical music, playing fetch with his cat, Angus, and all things Scottish (yes, including haggis).
2 Corinthians 5:16–6:10
Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. 18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
20 Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. 21 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
6 We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2 For He says:
“In an acceptable time I have heard you,
And in the day of salvation I have helped you.”
Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
3 We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be blamed. 4 But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, 5 in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings; 6 by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, 7 by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, 8 by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.
Sources & Resources
Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. and R. Kent Hughes, Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 277–278.
Keeping Perception Nimble: John Calvin Has Given Pulitzer Prize Winner Marilynne Robinson a Way of Seeing That Imbues Her Novels with the Grandeur of God,” Christianity Today (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today International, 2010)