Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Marilynne Robinson on truth claims and fiction

I have been listening this morning to an interview with Marilynne Robinson on "the resurrection of the ordinary". It is long, but I have been chained to my desk doing a dull thing, so it carried me through. I found one section particularly interesting, which is perhaps apt in the wake of Easter, and aligns with some thoughts that rattle around in my head about the power of "story".

She’s discussing her beautiful book Gilead and responding to a comment that “truth claims” seem to be more palatable in fiction than in essays (because a lot of us wonder how she got away with so much "truth" in a Pulitzer winning novel), and that maybe the edge is blunted in fiction to the fact that truth claims are actually being made until readers are well into the story, and she responds along the lines of saying that if you can’t embody the terms that are repeated in religious thought, it just sounds like cant and something doctrinal that other people have no way of imagining a meaning for (this is from about 52 minutes onwards). The she goes on to say this:
There’s truth in truth, which is one of the problems with the way that the conversation about religion has gone in the last century or so, less than that perhaps. There’s the truth of the fact that experience is beautiful, that love is profound and that we are vulnerable and small in the order of things, and perhaps very grand in the transcendent order. I think people have that intuition, whether they are religious or not. An amazing number of people have said I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in the soul, which is interesting. But in any case, people hang religion on, you know, a six day creation or the circumstances of the birth of Jesus or something like that, but I think that there’s a much deeper truth that speaks over that whole catalogue of particulars that has to do with the fact that the great drama of God was enacted among human beings, that raises the meaning of truth to another level of persuasion in way, a palpable presence. And I think that religious people tend to get hung up on making whatever they consider to be the crucial argument of truth, by which they tend to mean fact, and they forget that the whole beautiful life of the religion occurs at another level that has to do with a father releasing his son into the world to bear its burdens, which is one way in which that narrative is articulated.
Marilynne Robinson is more liberal than I am on many points, but perhaps this splendid portion near the close of Gilead illustrates what she means here.


Andrew said...

Religious people getting hung up on making the crucial argument of truth, and missing the essence of the immanence of the religious life taking place on an entirely different level - oh, how that resonates with my life and work!

I found your blog while searching for the Latin of Tacitus' centurion, quoted by C.S. Lewis.

And I have found a bracing new world, in your writing and thought - sign me up as a follower!

Ali said...

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for coming by! I am not sure how your Latin search brought you here (have I posted that?) but glad you found something you might have been looking for.

(Excuse my technical ignorance, but I am assuming 'sign me up as a follower' was simply a turn of phrase and not something I can actually do?)

Andrew said...

Yes, there is rather a double meaning there, as regards being a follower!

The search for the Latin tag did indeed direct me to your blog, from 2010. It was a subject I'd wanted to write about for quite awhile, but since my Latin is a bit rusty I decided to avail myself of the Internet.

There's much that's valid in the attitude of Tacitus' centurion, but his gesture is ultimately a failed attempt to preempt the Almighty, by shading the lessons of adversity with harshness rather than divine compassion.

Ali said...

Hmm. Yes, I have revisited that post. Yes, I definitely don't think the Almighty's intended response to adversity is this harshness towards others (though it's not hard to get impatient with those who can't cope with things you yourself endure). I think the apostle Paul speaks a lot about how his sufferings were to overflow into comfort for others.