A blog entry here two and a half years ago (January 2016) discussed a phase I was in of reading Marilynn Robinson books. The phase is currently being revisited because my reading buddy, Linda, and I have taken up Gilead—we’re both reading it and will spend some time talking about it.
Robinson’s gift as an author is not plot, nor setting, nor pacing, but rather characterization. Her key characters are deeply drawn to the extent that they become unforgettable. This is true mostly of the characters who actually appear on the page as part of the story (the pastor John Ames and his wife, Lila, for example), but also of a few who appear only in the memories of the key players.
Through John Ames’s memories, we come to know his grandfather pretty well, a difficult man long gone from the world but one who left his mark on his family and his church. No matter how dire a situation the old man faced—including the loss of an eye in wartime—he was inclined to remark: “I am confident that I will find great blessing in it.” How can you not love a character who makes such a statement his approach to life?
Gilead is a love story, of sorts, but much more it is a working out of one man’s theology and fortunately he is quite ready to admit when he’s in over his head. One of a great many lines I’ve marked is this one: “… there are certain attributes our faith assigns to God: omniscience, omnipotence, justice, and grace. We human beings have such a slight acquaintance with power and knowledge, so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace, that the workings of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate.”
Can it be that the entire month of July slipped by without a post—actually six weeks? My life has been complicated by the loss of a very beloved pet, my Pomeranian Hillary, on July 1, and I have been coping (barely, apparently) ever since. The fact that she died unexpectedly while I was holding her on my lap only added to the shock and sadness. On top of that, and certainly related, my partner has had a painful case of shingles that came on right after Hillary died and continues even now. So, my household has been a learning ground here lately!
In this context, I came across this quote from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “An adequate religion is always an ultimate optimism which has entertained all the facts which lead to pessimism.”
Typical of Niebuhr, there is a lot to chew on here. First, how often do we see “adequate” and “religion” juxtaposed! At the least, it forces me to consider whether my own religion is merely “adequate.” I don’t want to believe that I have a just-get-by religion that scarcely serves me when I’m against the wall. In some senses, I have been against the wall for the past six weeks, and I can report that my religion has been more than adequate.
But it is really the rest of the quote that most draws me. The thought is that in order to be adequate to its purpose, any belief system calling itself a religion must have considered every fact, every avenue that leads ordinary minds to pessimism, and instead it must lead the believer ultimately to optimism.
That’s a religion I will follow with my whole heart all the days of my life.
Recently on Facebook, a friend posted this encapsulation of Biblical advice. It doesn’t have a title, but it includes several short lines that could serve: “It’s not rocket science” or “Just go do it.” I chose the final line because it’s a good reminder that we are all equipped and empowered for kindness and compassion. My friend who made the post is an ordained minister, but this advice is for all of us.
One of the most “Christian” individuals I have ever met described herself as an atheist. I met her on a trip years ago and no longer remember her name, but I remember the way she interacted with other people. Her mode of being was to be kind, to give of herself, to encourage others, to treat everyone with respect and courtesy, to constantly show love to the people she encountered.
You could reply that she was missing the important one “Worship God.” Matthew 22:37 says that Jesus emphasized two commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The John Ortberg quote above pretty well captures those two commandments in language anyone can understand.
It appeared to me that the young woman I met on the trip had figured out how to live the second commandment. That seems like an excellent avenue for finding the way to the first commandment.