I have been interested for a long time in theology and also in science. These two brilliant fields of thought have been at odds, supposedly, since the rise of what might be called the modern period, say, beginning in the nineteenth century.
Marilynne Robinson opens her essay from the Holiday Issue of The New York Review by invoking the conventional division between rationalism—“the magisterium of the factual”—and religion—“the magisterium of truth in the higher sense”—only to dismiss it with a call for deeper introspection about the overlapping pursuits of both. In a conflict in which “Religion is viewed as ignorant and fear-driven, science as atheistic and arrogant,” she observes, “it is not unusual for people and groups to embrace the harshest characterizations that are made of them, as seems to have happened in this case. This is one more reason why we should speak more generously of one another.”
Robinson’s approach could certainly be characterized as generous, but this might risk obscuring the rigor with which she handles the subject. She gives extended consideration to the further reaches of physics, like quantum entanglement theory, and how they suggest the same sense of awe at ongoing creation in the universe that has for millennia been the province of religion.
We e-mailed Robinson last week to ask her about, among other topics, time, biblical languages, and life in the universe.
Daniel Drake and Lauren Kane: What inspired this essay, aside, perhaps, from an invitation from the Chautauqua Institute? How did you decide that time, which is neither a purely religious or scientific matter but a philosophical one addressed by both, would be the concept through which to examine these fields that are otherwise so often thought to be in conflict?
Marilynne Robinson: I have said from time to time that a note on moonlight I found in Jonathan Edwards’s The Doctrine of Original Sin Defended started me thinking about the instantaneousness of existence, that there is nothing in things as they are that requires or explains their persistence as themselves in the next moment. To take basic causality out of the picture at such a fundamental level made me wonder about the idea of causality. Much thinking is supported by a rigid, question-closing notion of cause and effect, which can have great authority (though in particular cases it is very much open to challenge). Theories of real importance, many of them about human nature, offer fables of the obvious and inevitable based on this notion. To me they feel deterministic and trivializing. I do not find them descriptive. I realized at some point that there is nothing in the nature of time to support them. Whether Creation is thought of as the act of God evoked in Genesis or as the great singularity that has yielded, for our purposes, everything, the moment of Creation never ended. Fiat is always as good a metaphor as any for this stupendous, ongoing burst of energy that sustains itself as it changes, lending charm and strangeness to quarks, giving ingenuity to minds and hands, turning the heads of sunflowers. Anomalous as we seem, we are in the thick of it, together with all being.
To some extent, I can imagine the bibliography for your theology of creation—John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther—but which scientists or science writers or publications did you engage with, either specifically as you were writing this essay or more generally as background?
For years I have read books and articles about the kinds of physics that have implications for cosmology. How can we make workable sense of experience and information when essential things like time are incomprehensible? It was unsystematic curiosity browsing the landscape. These theories and speculations—quantum entanglement, for example—which seem too beautiful to be called “fact” even when they have thoroughly earned the word, have felt like liberation to me. Theologians have always said that this commonsense world is not fully representative of Being itself. Perhaps a more profound physics will further enlarge the question.
You mention preferring the Revised Standard Version of the Bible because it’s what you grew up with, and certainly there are different translations for different readings—for familiarity, for poetic beauty, and then for accuracy or interpretation. The disparities in translations have such resounding implications! Do you read any biblical Hebrew or Greek? Is there something of significance lost or changed in translation in the various editions of the Bible?
I have used commentaries and concordances to compensate for my lack of biblical Hebrew and Greek. Even if I had these languages, as I wish I did, I would defer to the great scholars and translators who have carried on this work for centuries. Biblical Hebrew had largely died out as a spoken or written language long before the time of Christ, which means no one really knows it—cognates, parallelisms, and etymologies are always used to arrive at translations of difficult words and passages.
Another complication is that the meanings of words in English have changed over time. An important example is the word jealous. Jealous and zealous come from the same Greek word. The Hebrew word traditionally translated as jealous in the Christian Bible is translated as passionate in the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh. Apparently the root has something to do with reddening. Once jealous meant “passionate” or “zealous.” Now it names a bitter emotion we are ashamed to find in ourselves—despite its long association with God, its modern sense is ungodly, inappropriate to Him. Presumably tradition accounts for its persistence. This is regrettable because it encourages the idea that there is a mean, punitive “God of the Old Testament,” and this alienates many people from most of the Bible. Differences between translations are sometimes denominational, as in the cases of priest or elder, debt or trespass. The issue here is not how to translate the Greek as much as it is which translation is consistent with one doctrine or another. Overall, the various versions are harmonious enough to make their differences simply interesting.
The theological concept of divine aseity states that God, as a perfect being, is self-reliant, self-sufficient, and self-originated. But many of the capacities we ascribe to God—ruler, redeemer, and, perhaps his most important, creator—require us. You can’t rule without subjects, create without a creation, and so on. God is ever in relation to us. Does this then suggest that God does in an existential way need us?
This theological concept is Platonic, not biblical. It assumes that God can be known as He is in Himself rather than as He is toward us. The thought that one vocabulary can be sufficient to capture both human and divine traits or experiences is full of problems. To the extent that it can capture them, this is true because God has chosen to be in relation to us. We are told that God is love and that God loves us. We are told that He is angered and grieved by the evil we do to one another. If He is loving and aggrieved, He has made Himself vulnerable to us. But if He needed us to act in ways that pleased Him, what would that mean? What does it mean to speak of vulnerability in this context? These are real questions.
Our vocabulary breaks down when it is applied to God, which is as it should be, considering the vast frontier of unlikeness that lies between us. In Scripture this sense of unlikeness inspires awe and celebration. In other words, it is not an obstacle to understanding but an occasion for it. Need is a God-given bond among human beings, and also between them and the physical world. It makes sufficiency a gift and generosity a sacrament. The Son of Man is needy in the persons of those who hunger and thirst. God has love enough to bind Him to the world.
In a few places in your essay, you emphasize the singularity of life on Earth: “We can remember that within it all floats tiny Earth, gleaming and blooming gaudily in a universe where nothing else blooms.” In your understandings of theology and science, do you think that we are indeed alone in the universe? You seem to conclude that one of the constitutive conditions of our universe is that Being is most likely “spatially [and] temporally local,” and that seems a satisfying answer to the idea that there might be Star Trek–esque Beings that exist outside of time, but could there be other biological forms out there? Since they would be subject to the same rules of physics, would they be included in the salvation of Christ the same way we are, even though the Gospels are very much about what’s happening here on Earth?
If we were to find a hundred or a thousand planets that sustain life, the ratio of living worlds to abysses of wild lifelessness would change little in terms of the extreme improbability of their existence and ours. As for their prospects for salvation, in their case as in all others I am content to leave the matter to God.