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The Incarnational Vision of Marilynne Robinson:
Challenging Sovereign Selves
Jean Bethke Elshtain

robinsonMarilynne Robinson’s long-awaited second novel, Gilead, enjoyed enormous critical and popular success when it was published in 2004. Critics took note of the rich delineation of her protagonist, Rev. John Ames, a seventy-six year old pastor with a failing heart, a young wife, and a seven-year-old son he would never see grow up. Seventy-four of those seventy-six years were spent by Ames in the little town of Gilead, Iowa, the sort of place lampooned viciously in American literature in the work of sarcastic debunkers like Sinclair Lewis and H. L. Mencken. Little towns of this sort were said to be sites of small-mindedness, ignorance, pretense, vicious backbiting, holier-than-thou bombast, and unthinking patriotism fueled by the superstitions of vacuous religious belief. There is a counter-literature too, of course, that casts the small town under the penumbra of a roseate glow: here Thorton Wilder’s Our Town comes to mind. Rarely, however, was the small town the setting for a meticulous exploration of the human condition framed by intelligent religious belief, the sort of belief that had worked through challenges to belief. This belief is no unthinking embrace of dogma, but a faith burnished through intellectual contestation and sometimes searing, sometimes quite ordinary, human experience. One might see this as exemplary of what I have called “the redemption of everyday life” and what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the affirmation of ordinary life.”

But what is affirmed, what is redeemed? Within the intense framework of one apparently unremarkable life, Gilead displays just how remarkable life is and how the ordinary becomes extraordinary, if one’s vision is incarnational, or touched by the incarnational, rather than located in the desiccated world of modern disembodiment or excarnation, in Taylor’s language. How does one make this case? Here things become rather unexpectedly difficult for this reason: an incarnational vision cannot be reduced to an argument or a set of tenets. It is a modality of experience, a “social imaginary” (Taylor again), the sea in which one swims—or not, as the case may be. Indeed, to speak about the unremarkable being remarkable, or the mundane as a form of redemption, indicates that one is attuned to the incarnationality of human life and the world. Were one not thus attuned, one would write in a different way, experience in another modality, and be quite cool to any claims that flow from the language of redemption in the first instance. What is at stake here, then, is not only one extraordinarily reflective life—as Rev. Ames writes a long letter or message to his young son to better explain the father to the son at some point in the future when the father is gone and the son is old enough to understand and to appreciate what his father was all about—but an entire world and understanding of the “self” not as a sovereign self but as a dialogic self-identity forged in and through relationships and encounters and dialogues both “inner” and “outer.”

This wants explaining. In a recent book, I unpack the dimensions and pretensions of modern sovereign selves, selves that are a law unto themselves, are construed as self-sufficient, are not intrinsically social and dependent on others for their very being (Sovereignty: God, State, and Self. Basic Books, 2008). Such selves, I claim, exist as so many mini-sovereign states, as if the classical version of the state had been parceled into tiny micro-states of one. Now the genealogy of this view of the self is extraordinarily complex, of course, but all of us at this point in time can identify features of the sovereign selves in the lives we are living or are enjoined to live: lives as monistic, voluntaristic selves. On some level, I suspect we also know that this understanding of the self is really not credible. Yet we cling to it, it “names” us as Millian subjects defined by the sum total of our “choices.” The language of the sovereign self is the language of wants, choices, and rights often construed as wants rather than as something deeper and far more serious. Another idiom in which the sovereign self speaks is that of expressive individualism, for what matters at any point in time is the reading of my interior barometer.

We enter a different world of the self in Gilead, a world so richly limned that we are dazzled and challenged at one and the same time. Before I unpack this in depth, I think it important to say something about the “politics” of Robinson’s novel. Sometimes politics shouts at us from the mountaintop, stomps up and down noisily, and demands to be heard. At other moments, politics insinuates, creeps up on cat’s paws. We find ourselves noticing its palpable presence before us despite the fact that we missed the entrance, so unassuming was it. So it is in Gilead. The novel is not in any blatant sense a political novel; it is not being didactical, polemical, ideological, or partisan. Were one to quiz readers of Robinson’s incandescent novel along these lines: “Where did you find politics in Gilead?” I suspect the answer would reference the protagonist’s grandfather, caught up in the tumult and violence of the Civil War. And one could note the by-now nigh requisite instances where “race, gender, class,” that tired trio of expectables, comes into the picture. But this is so much shadow play: the real “stuff” is elsewhere.

Were one to name this philosophically a term like ontology would come into play. In theological circles, the anthropology in the novel would be noted. We’ve been enjoined for years now not to speak, as we once did, about theories of human nature, for that puts us on the dreaded ground of “essentialism,” a very big no-no. But there are many ways to speak of what we are enjoined not to speak about. A great writer—and Robinson is a great writer—has the creative freedom to enflesh that which, for most laborers in the halls of academe, exists at best on the level of pale abstractions, so many ghosts at the banquet. For Robinson’s writing is incarnational, embodied, in full recognition that human beings are not gnostic spirits but fully ensouled bodies in the Christian understanding that animates her writing, gives it its beauty and thickness, its lyrical evocations of the pain and pleasure of all flesh. I hope to convince you that this is where the moral—and political—gravamen of the novel lies, raising questions about the possibility of enlivening and recuperating traditions. In the words of Albert Camus, “Without tradition the artist has the illusion of creating his own rule. Here he is God” (Camus 74). Robinson knows the writer is not God. The politics of all this is subtle and nuanced, but it is there nonetheless.

To respond we need to be alert to the tradition that gave rise to such a remarkable person as Rev. John Ames. It is a tradition both Christian and American; Calvinism, American evangelicalism, the frontier spirit—a heady mix that may yield both zealotry—or something akin to it, such as Ames’s Abolitionist grandfather who literalized giving all thou hast to others and made common cause with John Brown, arming himself with both rifle and Bible—and hardened skepticism, such as Ames’s brother who studies the higher criticism, goes off to Germany and loses his faith. The former yields, in the person of his grandfather, a severity and strenuousness in ethical matters. The latter is a step en route to what Charles Taylor names as “exclusive humanism” of the sort that turns on “euthanasia of the imagination.” (2007, 53). Between these poles, a life lived in and through faith and open to grace goes on in the person of Rev. Ames. Through it all, Ames affirms the “sacredness of the human creature” (91), a sacredness most fully manifest in the human face, especially the face of the infant. “You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it” (66). All of this has something to do with incarnation, he tells us, with God so loving the world and declaring it good and the human creature very good.

The exquisite particularity of physical being shines through as Ames describes the slightest and simplest of things. One of my favorite instances of this sort involves a simple scene of play on the yard:

I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and here you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself at the glut of opportunity. She was actually leaping into the air, our insouciant Soapy! Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and that effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world. (9)

Such evanescent moments fly by so fast, escape our notice so often. But “Ah, this life, this world.”

Here we glimpse Rev. Ames’s deep love of the world. No one who evokes the world so lyrically can help but love it deeply. But are we not enjoined to forsake the world—even to spurn the temptation of its beauties—in Christianity? This is a regnant view, certainly: the believer as spoiler, cramped and cribbed, crushing the temptations of the beautiful and the playful. It is easy enough to find such characters littering Christian history—though most frequently in lampoons than in the complexities of lived Christian lives. The story of asceticism is far more complicated than a tale of self and world hatred. Be that as it may, one cannot inhabit the “social imaginary” of exclusive humanism and be attuned to the transcendent moments within immanent realities as is Rev. Ames. John Ames gives voice to this recognition when we writes in his “letter” to his young son, “One great benefit of a religious vocation is that it helps you concentrate… if I have any wisdom to offer, this is a fair part of it” (7). It is this attunement, even at a tender age, that leads Ames, his siblings, and some neighbor children (also “pious”) to baptize a litter of cats. A fear that the kittens would be “borne away still in the darkness of paganism… worried us a great deal” (22). Those kittens needed baptizing! Remembering the occasion, Ames’s memory is palpable, tactile:

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. (23)

That power is surely unavailable to the versions of exclusive humanism that reject altogether the possibilities of grace, blessing, and sacrality. There is no other way to put this recognition. A standard way of operating is to say something like, “Oh, but of course, there is an entirely secularized version of the experience Ames describes,” and then to offer some analogue. But that cannot be the case, surely, because Ames’s intention was the “pure” one of “blessing” and if you reject that out of hand you cannot share what Ames describes without remainder. Any other idiom is not up to the task, for rejection of the form of attunement and attention that Ames depicts precludes moments or occasions of the sort that call forth the blessing in the first place. I take this to be an example of the sort of thing Taylor is after when he speaks of a “fullness” that “comes from a power that is beyond me” (Taylor 10. Prayer is the first example Taylor cites of such experiences of fullness). The singular frame of the Trinitarian God makes possible the richness of Ames’s experience of this life. So powerful is this experience that Ames cannot accept that the nexus between immanent and transcendent, between this-world and the other-world, will be severed altogether at the moment of death. Surely not!


Ames’s suffusion of this life with moments of the life everlasting leaps off the page in moments that are tinged with a sense of longing and loss, on the one hand, and anticipation and acceptance, on the other. “When you read this,” he writes to his imagined grown son, “I am imperishable, somehow more alive than I have ever been, in the strength of my youth, with dear ones beside me. You read the dreams of an anxious, fuddled old man, and I live in a light better than any dream of mine—not waiting for you, though, because I want your dear perishable self to live long and to love this poor perishable world, which I somehow cannot imagine not missing bitterly….”(53). The ephemerality of the world heightens its beauty; its transience spurs us to make permanent, or as permanent as human beings can make, memories and experiences, moments when the transcendent breaks through into the immanent or, perhaps better put, when that transcendent moment is vouchsafe to us. “I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that,” Ames observes. “And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try” (57). Recalling the “feeling of a baby’s brow against the palm of your hand”—that moment of blessing again—evokes in Ames a declaration: “how I have loved this life…” (56). Existence is nothing less than a delight: his young son’s existence is a delight to him, he is delighted in the child’s being, his incarnality. This is perhaps the most keen exemplar of the delight Ames has experienced throughout his life at the particular existence of others, especially in moments of blessing, recognition, and repose.

For the love of God and mortal love are not “separate things at all,” Ames insists. Those who prise them apart, who set them in opposition, err. (Ames doesn’t note, but I shall, that his lucid, simply-put observations put paid to those traditions or portions of traditions that set such loves in opposition.) “If we can be divinely fed with a morsel and divinely blessed with a touch, then the terrible pleasure we find in a particular face can certainly instruct us in the nature of the very grandest love. I devoutly believe this to be true” (204). Mother Theresa of Calcutta often said that, to her, every dying untouchable lying in a gutter was the face of Jesus; every child dumped in an alleyway or a trashcan, a precious gift. This recognition also works in reverse. That is, every particular human face also reminds us of the divine face and divine love, connecting, yet again, the immanent and transcendent, the perishable and the imperishable, the mutable and the immutable. “We participate in Being without remainder,” he tells his son (178).

As to how to continue to believe in the midst of widespread unbelief, how to locate oneself within a tradition many reject, indeed heap vituperation upon, here Ames is fascinating and no doubt controversial, especially for academic philosophers who want proofs and arguments of a certain sort and tend to equate such with reason tout court. Ames, who has read the higher critics, who has worked his way through Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, and the others, understands that if you get into a game with skeptics of a certain sort you are playing by rules that guarantee you will be on the defensive from the get-go. Not only that, you will wind up distorting the very thing you hope to salvage or to secure. Noting that the many attacks on belief that “have had such prestige for the last century are two” are in fact “meaningless,” Ames writes to his son that “I must tell you this, because everything I have told you, and them, loses almost all its meaning and its right to attention if this is not established” (144). The “insidious notions” Ames has in mind include, first, that religion and religious experience are illusions and, second, that the fact that you are participating in it is an illusion. Ames finds the second “more insidious because it is religious experience above all that authenticates religion, for the purposes of the individual believer” (145). Acknowledging the difficulty of avoiding the trap of arguments about proofs, Ames stresses just how often it is the case that staccato and exaggerated repetitions of religion’s failures or hypocrisies undermine people’s trust in their own thoughts and expressions of belief, including “believing in the essential dignity of their and their neighbors’ endlessly flawed experience of belief” (146).

Don’t get caught in the trap, he advises his son, for nothing true about God can be said either from a stance of excessive self righteousness or “from a posture of defense” (177). “Well,” he writes, “I have had a certain amount of experience with skepticism and the conversation it generates, and there is an inevitable futility in it. It is even destructive. 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” (177). Does this means Ames is a simple fideist, echoing Tertullion’s notorious “credo ut absurdam” rather than Augustine’s subtle “credo ut intelligam”? Not at all, as I have already made clear. Ames is a capacious, restless, and avid reader. He has worked his way through the great skeptics and critics. What he understands is that they are working with a flawed understanding of the nature of religion, Christianity specifically, and hence of religious belief. God is treated as an abstract metaphysical first principle and then one sets about demonstrating that there is no “proof” for the existence of any such thing. Or God is cast as deus ex machina—preposterous, so they claim, in the light of modern science. And, even were God such, this God would be cruel beyond belief given all the horrors of history—bad theodicy added to bad theology, although they are, of course, of a piece. (Here Ames puts me in mind of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflections on who God is for us today and Bonhoeffer’s attack on the abstract metaphysics of one strand of Christian theology.)

What is vital then? Drop the proof game. “Don’t bother with them at all. 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” (179). No, the point is to “Let your works so shine before men.” One here recalls the musings of late antique observers of the fragile, early Christian communities, communities that cared for the vulnerable, that took in exposed children and raised them as their own, that succored the ill and dying: “See how those Christians love one another.” It isn’t a matter of arguing from premise to proof: it is a matter of love, in the final analysis.

This brings us full circle back to the theme of embodiment and incarnationality—the heart of the matter in Robinson’s great work, or so I have claimed. What claims might this work make on us, whether as believers, skeptics, or critics? As a political theorist, I am alerted, first, to a persistent frustration for many of us who write about political matters and that is the abstract nature in which politics is theorized. Perhaps I have put that badly. Obviously, one cannot conceptualize without abstractions, without concepts that help lead us to the more general from the particular, and so on. “Abstractedness” is a better word: arguments that begin on some lofty plane far removed from lived life and stay there. Forever. Never descending to the realities of political life as a lived reality. It is that sort of thing I have in mind. Who lives the political life? Human beings, of course, and we are creatures of a certain kind, bodies both blessed and broken, as Rev. Ames reminds us throughout.

We are on the ground of human nature again, and this is where an exclusive humanism often makes a terrible mistake, one visible to us as it is played out in much contemporary political theory. Political life is reduced to a single overriding principle—there is a monistic thrust to such arguments and what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “life’s polyphony” is lost altogether. Here it is important to remember that St. Augustine insisted that plurality simply is the human condition—by which he meant our recognition of the extraordinary diversities of creation and of human being and yet our ability to see commonalities through it all. Today we find pluralities and polyphonies giving way to single notes played repeatedly and to single principles covering all. Twenty-five years ago I explored many of these issues through the prism of the public and the private. More recently I have done so by unpacking the meanings of sovereignty—or sovereignties. The modern sovereign self, as I noted above, is profoundly at odds with the self on display in Robinson’s text. The sovereign self is not the “body, blessed and broken,” for there is neither blessing nor brokenness in contemporary evocations of self-sovereignty.

One version of self-sovereignty leads to utter control over the bodies of ourselves and others to the extent that such control is possible. The language of conquest, control over, self-ownership prevails. Characteristic of all projects of self-sovereignty is a “triumph over” something, nature being one of the chosen antagonists. All versions of contemporary self-sovereignty feature a monistic, voluntaristic notion of the self, the self “as one” with its projects. In the world of hard self-sovereignty, the self stands alone, sans any mutually constitutive relationship to the world. Relationships are seen as incidental to the self, not essentially definitive of one’s identity. The messiness, incompleteness, paradox, and shortcomings of the world are treated with a kind of scorn. The self is proud, characterized by superbia. The self lives in a world shorn of transcendence. The contrasts with the self and selves on display in Gilead could not be more stark. Rev. Ames is vulnerable—to weariness, grief, fear, envy, apprehension, anxiety as well as joy, delight, blessing, beauty. Sovereign selves must be iron clad, as invulnerable as possible. This is rather akin to Charles Taylor’s “buffered self” of modernity, one who gives autonomous order to his life.

The implications of all this—whether we are sovereign selves or “broken and blessed” selves—are enormous, too large to explore here. Let me conclude by noting that Gilead features one of the most powerful concluding sentences of any novel in recent memory. It seems best to end with those words from Robinson through her wonderful character, Rev. John Ames:

“I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love—I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence.

“I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful.

“I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.” (247)


Jean Bethke Elshtain is Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics in the University of Chicago Divinity School. This essay is based on a talk presented to the panel, “For the Love of the World: The Political and Social Thought of Marilynne Robinson” at the Annual Convention of the American Political Science Association, 29 August 2008.


Works Cited

Camus, Albert. Notebooks 1951–1959. New York: Ivan R. Dee, 2008.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

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