God Finds Us to be Infinitely Interesting

God Finds Us to be Infinitely Interesting March 26, 2024

April is going to be Marilynne Robinson month for me. In the team taught interdisciplinary program I teach in, I will be giving a lecture on two of her essays followed a few days later by a seminar on her Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead. A week later I have the privilege of being one of four colleagues involved in a continuing series on campus called “Women in Philosophy.” In past semesters I have presented on Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch; Robinson is my contribution this year. To cap it off, I just found out a couple of days ago I will be teaching one of my favorite courses, “Contemporary Women in Philosophy,” in Spring 2025 for the first time in seven years. Weil, Murdoch, and Robinson are the centerpieces of my syllabus for that course.

Robinson’s latest book, Reading Genesis, was published this month—I just started reading it a few days ago. As I expected I would, I love it. Robinson’s theology is Protestant to the core, specifically influenced by John Calvin. Calvinism has a reputation for having a low opinion of human beings, considering us to be “totally depraved” by nature and incapable of contributing anything to our salvation. So it is always a pleasant surprise when reading Robinson to discover once again her continuing theme that human beings are far more valuable by nature than certain religious assumptions might indicate. She describes Calvin as someone who everyone criticizes and whom no one has read. In Gilead, her main character Reverand John Ames says this:

Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. How well do we understand our role? With how much assurance do we perform it? . . . We all bring such light to bear on these great matters as we can. I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us.

I can’t overestimate the influence that this passage had on me the first time I read Gilead many years ago. The notion of a God who enjoys me rather than judges me was a game changer.

In the middle of Holy Week, the following from Robinson’s essay “Limitation” is well worth considering:

So let us say Christ entered the world as essential truth, cosmic truth mediated to us in a form presumably most accessible to us, a human presence, a human life. That he should have done so is an absolute statement of our value, which we have always done so much to obscure.

The traditional Christian story is that the divine choice to become human was a commitment to diminishment, to descent, to degradation in the interest of offering salvation for depraved humanity. Marilynne Robinson’s reading of the gospels leads her to a different insight.

How does such a being live in the world? If his divine nature is granted, what shape and content will it impart to his singular, mortal life? . . . In what human form can the divine be wholly present without violating the conditions of human existence? A very ordinary life, it would seem . . . If God did become a human being, then it seems reasonable to suppose that the word “human” must be understood in the largest sense. Our ancient habit of celebrating the glory of God has tended to obscure the fact that, in the Incarnation, it was not glory he chose, except as it is inherent in all humanity.

And in her essay “Son of Adam, Son of God,” Robinson reflects on what the Incarnation says about the value of humanity.

[Jesus] participates profoundly in human life without any compromise of his divine nature. This is an extraordinary statement about the nature of human life . . . It is surely among the mysteries of Incarnation that Jesus could take on human language as well as human flesh, and that he could find it suited to his uses . . . It is possible to claim a dignity for humankind that is assured because it is bestowed on us, that is, because it is beyond even our formidable powers to besmirch and destroy.

The foundational expression of God’s love for humanity—the Incarnation—is an expression both of divine love and of human worth.

The above is the story of Christianity, but Marilynne Robinson finds the same divine commitment to human value in Reading Genesis, a reflection on the first book of the Jewish scriptures. Robinson opens the book with some comparisons between Genesis and other seminal creation texts from the same time period that reveal various similarities.

One of the significant differences, however, is what we learn about divine attitudes toward human beings in the opening chapters of Genesis. While in other creation myths the gods have specific uses for the new human beings that they have created, the creator in Genesis has no such preconceptions. “The God of Genesis is unique in his having not a use but instead a mysterious benign intention for human beings.” Human beings are created in the divine image, although theologians to this day do not agree on what that means. At the very least, Robinson says, “the centrality of humankind in the creation myth of Genesis is from the beginning an immeasurable elevation of status,” a centrality that continues throughout the text.

Robinson also positions herself in the early pages of Reading Genesis on the fraught issue of authorship. Those raised in more conservative Protestant communities as I was are familiar with claims that “divine inspiration” means that the human authors of scripture were little more than scribes taking divine dictation. Modern textual criticism indicates that the text was compiled by multiple human authors over several centuries. Either way, Robinson observes, the trace of the human serpent is woven throughout the text. “The Bible itself indicates no anxiety about association with human minds, words, lives, and passions. This is a notable instance of our having a lower opinion of ourselves than the Bible justifies.”

I often tell my students that by far the most interesting philosophical topic is human beings. One of the central features of Marilynne Robinson’s thought is that the divine also considers us to be infinitely interesting.

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