O God, My God*

Having finished Marilynne Robinson's Gilead (2004) a few days ago, this morning on my way to yoga and fencing I started listening to Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love (2006). The contrast could not be more telling.

In Robinson's book, the aged narrator John Ames is recounting for his young son memories of his life as a congregationalist pastor. Both Ames' father and his grandfather had been pastors before him, if of a very different type, the younger a pacifist, the older a fiery abolitionist who had served as a chaplain in the American Civil War. I've known about Robinson's work for years and have greatly enjoyed reading her essays, but still I had been nervous about taking on Gilead. What if it was too Calvinist? What if it conjured up for me all of the memories that I have of my childhood, growing up Presbyterian without the aesthetic richness of the liturgy I have come to enjoy? I recoiled at the thought of immersing myself in this restricted image of God, all Word and no Sacrament, all preaching and no ecstasy. What about the saints? What about Mary? What about the sense of God's working in creation through His body and blood? No, I told myself, I didn't want to hear about a God like that.

But, of course, as I now know, Ames' God is nothing like that. Gilead is a difficult book to summarize because there really isn't any plot, not, at least in the sense of a specific series of events described chronologically. Ames moves back and forth from the present (1956) to the past, reminiscing about his life and trying to give his son--who, by the time he reads his father's diary, will have grown up without him--a sense of who he, John Ames, had been. Overlaying the remembrances that Ames gives of his father and grandfather is the story of John Ames Boughton, the ne'er-do-well son of John Ames' best friend, the Presbyterian minister of the same town. Much of the latter part of the book is taken up with Ames' fears about the effect that young Boughton will have on his family after he has died, only to be dispelled by the discovery that Boughton himself has an African-American wife and child from whom he has been separated because her family cannot accept their daughter's marriage to a white man. The only real event in the book, in fact, is Ames' blessing of Boughton just before he (young Boughton) leaves on the bus, without waiting for his father (old Boughton) to die.

And yet, it is a gripping narrative nevertheless. I was encouraged to read the book by my friend Barbara. "It's a difficult book," she said, "because Robinson has attempted to do something that nobody else really has: give a first-person account of the life of a saint." John Ames would be the first to insist that he was no saint--witness the jealousy he felt on seeing young Boughton sitting next to Mrs. Ames and her son in church--but I think I understand what Barbara meant. Ames has no conversion; there is never any point in the story in which he doubted the existence of God, despite the best attempts of his brother Edward, a German-educated philosopher much taken by the atheist arguments of Ludwig Feuerbach, to convince him otherwise. Even reading Feuerbach, however, John Ames finds nothing to counteract his faith; indeed, he insists, reading Feuerbach only strengthened his understanding of God, the God of the Scriptures, the God of Calvin's Institutes, the God of his father and grandfather.

I remember thinking on Thursday, as I listened to the end of the story, how I wished that I had such a sense of God in my life. Ames' life is suffused with God. Not that he ever had visions of God like his grandfather, blinded in the right eye and given to talking personally with Jesus. Ames' experience of God was much less dramatic, there for him in the sermons that he wrote, week after week; there for him in the sunlight playing on the trees and in the bubbles he taught his son how to blow; there for him in the food that his congregation would leave for him in the kitchen; there for him in the grace that allowed him to live long enough to meet his wife and for them to have a son. But Ames' God is also theologically rigorous, known not only through the blessings and hardships that Ames lived through, but also through the tradition supporting Ames' understanding of God.

I wish that I had a copy of the book now so that I could quote one excellent passage on the inadequacy, indeed the wrongness, of trying (like Feuerbach) to prove or disprove the existence of God. How can one prove the existence of something that is outside existence, neither existing nor not existing? It is a category error: God neither exists nor does not exist, for God is the author of existence, the Creator (as it says in the Creed) of all things, visible and invisible. His Creation exists but He is not His own creature, except, of course, insofar as He entered into His Creation as the Son. Furthermore, everything that we might use to prove His existence is itself a creature, thus the pointlessness of arguing either from evolution or cosmology about whether God exists. We experience the workings of God through His Creation, but the Creature is not the proof of the Creator, although humanity is, of course, made in His likeness and image. I remember driving past Soldier Field with the sun streaming through the car windows (or was it raining?) as I listened to this argument and rejoicing: there is no need to prove that there is a God, only to worship! Calvin would have been proud.

Contrast this understanding of God with Elizabeth Gilbert's. Again, I approached Gilbert's work with some trepidation, if for slightly different reasons. I greatly enjoyed her TED talk about genius, but I was worried about what I had read in the iTunes reviews of her book as I was deciding whether to download it. Some of the reviewers loved the book, talking about her great honesty and how much they had identified with her spiritual quest; others complained that they found Gilbert too whiney and self-absorbed to be at all inspiring. So I was nervous. I am certain that some may find parts of this blog a bit whiney for their tastes, but I--like Gilbert--hope that others will value my honesty; how else, I--like Gilbert--reason will my readers appreciate what it is like to experience such spiritual growth? Okay, I'm still hoping for this experience and Gilbert (to judge from the first few chapters of her book) has already had it, but one of the reasons that I have forced (or allowed) myself to write about even the more painful thoughts and feelings that I have about fencing and prayer is so as not to give the sense that a spiritual life is all about sweetness and light; there is also suffering. Which is only to say that I don't mind if Gilbert describes her frustrations; I accept that that is part of her point.

But I'm already irritated. Not by her description of crying on the bathroom floor about wanting to leave her marriage...well, okay, not primarily. I do find it a bit whiney the way in which she describes coming to the realization that she did not want to have a child, but simply because at age 31 I had the completely opposite desire does not mean that her experience of frustration at the expectation that she should want a child was not real or deeply felt. No, what irritated me this morning was her description of God. How can I say this without sounding completely bitchy? I'm not sure I can. There she was on the bathroom floor in a puddle of tears and snot (a veritable Lake Inferior, as she put it--nice image!), when suddenly she began to pray: "Hi, God, it's me, Liz. I'm sorry I haven't been in touch before; I really like your work. And now, I find, I really need your help. Please, tell me what to do." Again, good prayer. But to whom?

To a personal God, not to the Force or the Light or the Universe: so far, so good. To a God on whom Creation depends, if not the Creator (I'm not quite sure why she rejected this name, since she does seem to believe that God is worth thanking for His work, but never mind): again, good. To a God whom all human language is inadequate to describe, so one might as well talk about Him as He: yet, again, good. But not--here's the clincher--to "the Christian God" because "I can't believe that Christ is the only way" (or words to that effect, I'm doing this from memory). Um. On what basis? I need to listen to more of the book--if, that is, I can get past this irritation--to know whether Gilbert develops this critique any further, but somehow, I doubt that she will. After all, as she explains in the introduction ("The 109th Bead"), she did not learn to pray in a Christian convent, but rather at an ashram in India; further, the whole structure of her book depends (quite nicely) on the 108 beads of the Hindu japa mala not, as it might otherwise, on the 150 beads of the Christian rosary.*

So what? What difference does it make if Gilbert finds another, more palatable--predictably, transcendental and mystical, not liturgical or scriptural--way to understanding God? Haven't enough people died arguing over the name of God? Surely it is much better to acknowledge that all names for God (as Gilbert herself points out in her discussion of the problematically-gendered pronoun) are inadequate and simply allow everyone to pray as he or she feels inspired. Perhaps. But what irritates me is the (again) all too predictable reason that Gilbert gives for going on her particular quest: she, on the basis of no theological education whatsoever, at least, none that she acknowledges, has seen fit to dismiss an entire tradition simply because she feels uncomfortable with it. How liberal.

I wonder what John Ames would have said to her. Or, for that matter, what Marilynne Robinson might say, if she and Gilbert were to meet. That Gilbert's understanding of Christianity is laughably, if tragically impoverished if all she can hear in its teachings is a message of exclusion? That to claim the truth of the self-revelation of God through Jesus of Nazareth is not to claim that He has not revealed Himself otherwise? That Christ's way is no more--or no less--exclusive than Buddha's but that both attempt, albeit from rather different perspectives, to express a truth about the human condition, to wit, the need for salvation and release from suffering? Perhaps not--although I might say as much. The one thing that I am sure Robinson would not argue is that it makes no difference whether one worships from within a tradition or not, as Gilbert would seem to want to believe.

No, that's not quite what Robinson would say. It would be much more eloquent. How can I express this properly? What Gilbert describes as her own personal, deeply felt conviction about God, derived--or so she would have it--from within her own experience of thinking about prayer is no more or less than what nearly every American of her education and upbringing says as soon as he or she decides "Christ isn't for me." In other words: it's cliché. Okay, so I was a little surprised that she defended the use of the masculine pronoun on the grounds that it was a) personal and b) didn't really matter because it wasn't about God's gender (I agree), and I was reassured that she insisted on praying to a personal God, not just a Great Spirit of Everything, but how could she then go on to insist that there was nothing for her in a two-thousand-year old tradition of worship and effort at understanding God's self-revelation in love?

Does she not want to know why Christians understand God as manifesting Himself through Christ? Does she not wonder, even for a moment, whether there might be some mystery worth exploring in the doctrine of the Trinity? Can she not see how it might be valuable to draw on centuries and centuries worth of argument and meditation about what, exactly, it means for God to have loved His Creation so much that He was willing not only to enter into to it, but to die for its salvation? "No," she says, "I like thinking about God as transcendent, none of this messiness about incarnation and death. God is love and is going to tell me what to do." I like that. She prays to be told what to do when most people seem to hate the idea that God might ever tell them what to do--e.g. through certain commandments. But, oh right, she doesn't believe in those because they are "too limiting."

I knew I couldn't do this without being bitchy. But I am so very tired of this kind of wishy-washy nonsense about how Christianity is too culturally-bound to be meaningful, as if the other traditions to which such Gilbertine seekers flock are any less culturally-bound. They only feel that way from the outside, when they are not one's own tradition. The question is whether it is actually possible, all by oneself, to come up with a conception of God that is not at the same time trite and, yes, limiting--limiting God to whatever easy understanding one's current cultural perspective allows. Give me the difficulties of wrestling with the doctrine of the Trinity any day. No, I don't like the fact that Jesus had to die for our sins; no, I'm not entirely comfortable with the place that accepting the new covenant seems to put Jews in (as the children of the old). But who says understanding the mysteries of divinity is supposed to be comfortable anyway? I'd much rather a God who makes me wrestle with His angel than one who satisfies all of my most comfortable fantasies about what it is like to believe in Him.

As Dorothy Sayers once put it, "The proper question to be asked about any creed is not, 'Is it pleasant?' but, 'is it true?'"** Call me suspicious, but I'm not sure I'm ready to believe in Gilbert's way as opposed to Christ's without some far more rigorous proof that her comfortable God is actually up to answering the kinds of questions with which John Ames--not to mention the thousands of actual Christian saints--wrestled over the course of his life.

*Actually, 59 on the typical five-decade rosary strand: five sets of 10 beads each for the Hail Mary, with an additional bead before each decade for an Our Father, plus beads for the opening Our Father, Hail Marys and Apostles' Creed (said on the crucifix).
**The Mind of the Maker (1941), p. 16.

Comments

  1. Have not read Robinson, but this is excellent on Gilbert. (Though I have to admit that the book made her seem a lot nicer than the excerpt of it I read somewhere--the way she was excerpted made her seem even more whiny.) Something else I found disturbing--her odd stepping around the issues raised by her charitable activities in regard to her third station on the trip.

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