Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of Gilead, says she believes in the grace of God and the continuing relevance of the Scriptures in a secularized world.
Robinson was in Winnipeg to deliver the 2015 Slater Maguire lecture at Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church on October 19.
Her lecture, entitled “Grace,” dwelt on how the very nature of grace means that once it is received from God, it must be extended to others. It also means reading the whole of the Scriptures-Old Testament and New Testament-in the light of God’s grace.
“If we accept that God’s signature character is grace, love for the world, then to read in the light of grace where…the text strongly encourages such a reading, is certainly appropriate,” she said.
Robinson spoke about the importance of Scriptural commandments-particularly the command to honour one’s father and mother-that, she argued, echoes God’s love for people. “God’s love for us is like the love of children for parents, which persists through a thousand disillusionments,” she said.
During the lecture’s question period, she spoke at length on the question of why the church’s language of “grace” is an unpopular subject in secular society.
“When an idea is marginalized, people become socially embarrassed to use language they don’t hear used around them,” she said.
But the church’s strength, she said, lies in acknowledging its difference from secular society, in continuing to talk about God’s grace. In fact, to be spiritual- while a project that is never “finished”-is to be “awake and alert” to the world.
During her visit to Saint Margaret’s, Robinson also preached a sermon on Sunday, October 18, and hosted a luncheon for 30 local writers, during which she underlined her belief in the value of the church in speaking truth to secular society. She enjoined that the church should not apologize for the language of grace. “It’s very unattractive for the churches to take a defensive posture. They’re their own worst enemy in that regard.”
And she emphasized the God-given value of human life, which should inspire individuals to help one another. “People are wonderful and profoundly to be valued,” she said.
Kurt Armstrong, chair of the Slater Maguire Committee, expressed his appreciation for Robinson’s contribution to the lecture series. “Robinson’s sermon and lecture were dense and rich, and they both reflected an uncommon level of knowledge and careful thinking,” he said. “I love her non-anxious presentation of Christian belief: her lecture was a good example of this. She’s not out to convert people, but she demands that they think.
“She basically said, ‘you’re under no obligation to believe the Bible, but you have to treat it fairly. If you’re going to dismiss it, make sure you’re not just mouthing the words you heard someone else say. Read it, study it, and if you don’t like it, that’s fine. But first make sure you know what you’re talking about.’ ”
The annual Slater Maguire lecture series, according to its website, aims to “create opportunities for the larger Christian and secular communities to commune through deep intellectual engagement.” Past lecturers have included writers Margaret Visser and Thomas Lynch, physicist Ian Hutchinson and philosopher Stanley Hauerwas.
Robinson is the recipient of the 2012 National Humanities Medal and a National Books Critics Circle Award for 2014’s Lila, among many other honours, and teaches at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her latest book is a collection of essays, The Givenness of Things (Farrar, Strous and Giroux, 2015).
Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based writer.