One of the crucial scenes in Home, a scene so important that it repeats and vastly expands on a scene from Gilead, occurs when John Ames and his wife Lila visit the Boughtons for dinner, and Jack discomfits them all by pressing Reverend Ames for his views on the doctrine of predestination. "Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?" he asks. He continues, "I've wondered from time to time if I might not be an instance of predestination. A sort of proof. If I may not experience predestination in my own person. That would be interesting, if the consequences were not so painful."
Reverend Ames, a Congregationalist, and Reverend Boughton, a Presbyterian, are both Calvinists, like Marilynne Robinson herself. Predestination, a principle tenet of Calvinism, refers to the belief that humankind is born into a state of original sin. Each person's decision to choose God is preceded by God's mercy and invitation to salvation; it is only by the sovereign grace of God that we are able to recognize our fallen state and repent. Only some people are saved while others are condemned, but no one can know the state of another's soul. The Presbyterian Church* stresses that the doctrine of predestination be used to free believers from the compulsion to judge others.
Marilynne Robinson's interpretation of Calvinist doctrine turns the question of morality into an aesthetic one. As she explains in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air.
"If you think, why did God create the world, how does he love the world, what in the world, if you imagine him through the lens of Christ, what in the world breaks his heart, it seems to me it's the irreducible beauty and pathos of human beings and their capacity for love and their capacity for loyalty and all the rest that is simply beautiful, even though in many forms it is in error, it is possibly destructive, and so on .As Hamlet said, who would 'scape whipping? If we were judged on moral terms, we wouldn't perhaps be worth attracting the notice of God in the way that theology assumes that we do. That it's the beauty of us and not the goodness of us, finally."
*Presbyterianism, a form of Calvinism, is a family of Christian denominations within the Reformed branch of Protestant Western Christianity that includes Lutherans and Anglicans. The Protestant movement evolved in the 16th century, rejecting papal authority and many elements of the Roman Catholic doctrine such as the selling of pardons. Typically, Protestant churches believe that scripture is the only source of revealed truth and that salvation is the result of God's grace alone. Wikipedia has a helpful graph illustrating the main branches of Protestant Western Christianity. As you will see from this, Presbyterianism is an offshoot of Calvinism, but today there is a wide range of theological views within Presbyterianism so that one could count oneself Presbyterian without having to follow the tenets of Calvin.
This article was originally published in September 2008, and has been updated for the
September 2009 paperback release.
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