William James wrote things that can still ring true. Consider a quote from the The Varieties of Religious Experience: “This inferiority of the rationalistic level in founding belief is just as manifest when rationalism argues for religion as when it argues against it.” I say “ring true” because James attempts to describe the varieties of religious experience and in doing so approaches his topic in a way that frames religion in terms that continue to resonate with his readers today. Charles Taylor has made the same point in Varieties of Religion Today. For James religion is a matter of the heart more than the head. Religious apologetics and theology are not doomed for James because they are irrational, rather they are superstructures, elaborate abstractions derived from a more primordial existential feeling.

While James’ operational definition of religion has its problems – such as the idea that religious experience can be cherry-picked from overwhelmingly Protestant texts read at face value – there is obviously something to be said for the idea that religious apologetics and theology can serve as abstracted indices for the understandings and practices of religious believers. Although apologetic texts are ostensibly about defending a particular religious position, they often function in ways that exceed the apologist’s intentions, and they often reflect as much about the social, cultural, political, and philosophical context of the apologist as they do about the content of their beliefs.

Now consider another quote: “In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.” These words are written by the narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead.

Gilead is presented as a series of letters written by an aged minister, John Ames, to his young son, set in Gilead, Iowa, sometime after the second World War. Ames is writing letters to his son because he is old and fears that unless he writes these letters he will not be able to convey his reflections on life before dying. In many ways Gilead is a story about redemption and its possibilities – for those who don’t believe, for those who cannot believe, for those who do believe but have failed. John Ames finds redemption of a kind through marriage to a very different, much younger person than himself, through becoming a father in old age, and through his relationship with the troubled Jack Boughton. Gilead is also very much a story about belief. In his letters we learn that Ames’ older brother Edward was the brilliant son who went off to Germany to study theology and ended up embracing the atheism of Ludwig Feuerbach. We also learn that Jack Boughton, the son of Ames’ friend and fellow minister, who later befriends Ames’ wife and son much to Ames’ dislike, does not believe. However Boughton’s unbelief is existential – he simply cannot imagine God existing or not existing; he describes it as something unavailable to him.

At one point Ames writes to his son that he has always found the attack on belief meaningless. “I must tell you this, because everything else I have told you … loses all its meaning and its right to attention if this is not established.” Ames reports that he had even read Feuerbach after learning of his brother’s atheism. He found that he was profoundly sympathetic to Feuerbach, to his powers of description, but that he did not resonate with the existential expression of Feuerbach’s unbelief.

“Young people from my own flock have come home with a copy of La Nausée or L’Immoraliste, flummoxed by the possibility of unbelief, when I must have told them a thousand times that unbelief is possible. And they are attracted to it by the very books that tell them what a misery it is. And they want me to defend religion, and they want me to give them “proofs.” I just won’t do it. It only confirms them in their skepticism. Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.”

Indeed Ames, close reader of Karl Barth, cautions his son against looking for proofs: “They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince something else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term. … It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect.” Ames sounds like James: doctrine is not the same as belief, it is simply a way talking about it; beliefs are lived.

Of course talking is an aspect of living, and our talking very often informs our living to one degree or another. Moreover, our talking sometimes takes the form of giving our life meaning by constructing it as a story, by emplotting it and reading it as a text. And if you stop and think about it, John Ames translates his wisdom, his philosophy, into an epistolary novel that tells the story of his life – his life in Gilead, the biblical “hill of witness”. To present God as a simple rational implication derived from nature or human subjectivity, as Paul Ricoeur wrote in Freedom and Nature, is the pretension of “an overly zealous apologetics”.

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About The Author

Kenneth Sheppard

Kenneth Sheppard's book, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720, was published in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter.

6 Responses to Living the Story of Belief: Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead”

  1. Patrick Sawyer says:

    I appreciate your post. It is well written and comes from an educated mind. With that said, it seems when you boil it down, you are merely replacing approaches to apologetics that are freighted with dogma and certainty with an approach that cautions against dogma and certainty? Are you being DOGMATIC in what you are suggesting? Are you CERTAIN this should be our approach? You do not (and cannot) escape making an epistemological claim. You have merely grounded your claim with the ostensible wisdom of William James and Marilynne Robinson instead of the wisdom of the Old and New Testaments.

    Postmodernism glorifies the concept of not being able to KNOW, making it into a virtue that should be universally embraced regardless of the hypocritical irony of such a perspective. But this is merely a philosophical slight-of-hand, a deceit, a cover for often just wanting to be able to do whatever the hell one wants without the charge and verdict of moral deficiency. (Ironically the regenerate heart in fact does what he or she most deeply wants, which happens to be what God wants as well). Post-evangelicalism does something similar to what post-modernism does by arguing against dogma in doctrine because God is too majestic and glorious to be reduced to inflexible human terms and ideas. The concept of a binary of right doctrine and wrong doctrine is fallacious because God is too big to be put in our human boxes, boxes that are fortified with reigning subjectivity and personal context.

    The problem with all this is that God says different. Throughout the Bible God is constantly warning against false gods, false religion, false prophets, false teachers, false guides, false believers, false angels, false christs, false faith, and false gospels. He does this alongside of giving us clear descriptions and principles related to the true God (Himself), true religion, true prophets, true teachers, true guides, true believers, true angels, the true Christ, true faith, and the true gospel. While it is in fact true that the unregenerate man (and woman) is a slave to his or her subjectivity and context, it is also true that the infinite God has decided that He would grant to His finite followers the ability to know and discern truth from error regarding Himself – to in fact elevate His followers above their subjectivity and context. Moreover, God has charged them to defend what is true regarding Himself against what is false (Jude 3).

    • Andrew Wilson says:

      “Postmodernism glorifies the concept of not being able to KNOW, making it into a virtue that should be universally embraced regardless of the hypocritical irony of such a perspective.”

      How can one KNOW? All religious belief is self referencing – “I believe what the Bible says because God inspired it, and the Bible is truth because God inspired it”. In a scientific sense one cannot prove God exists or that your version of faith is the truth.
      Alasdair MacIntyre recognises and discusses this issue in his work “God, Philosophy and Universities” and tries very hard to bring together religious belief and secular philosophical enquiry but ultimately states that “The God of theism requires of those who acknowledge him unqualified trust and obedience”. He accepts that faith is a leap and not a rational process. Given that there are or have been hundreds of deities and belief systems around them in human history, which one do you choose?

      • Patrick Sawyer says:

        Your name is the same as a friend of mine who might ask such a question. Are you him?
        In response to your comment, first, I’m not sure ALL religions are self-referencing (there are hundreds), but I’ll grant you many are and certainly biblical Christianity is. But that is not all Christianity is. God’s revelation, the Old and New testaments, being self-referencing does not negate or undermine that God can be genuinely known. In fact He MUST be genuinely knowable because the redemption of the soul is DIRECTLY tied to an accurate knowledge of Himself, to KNOWING who God is and who He is not. Christ speaking in John 17:3 says “And this is eternal life, that they KNOW you the only TRUE God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”. Rightly understanding God in His exclusivity is both attainable and necessary to redemption. This is one of the reasons that God goes to such great pains in separating the true from the false throughout the Old and New testaments as I describe in the final paragraph of my initial comment.
        You are correct that in a “scientific sense” one cannot prove the existence of God but there are many things that are real and knowable that cannot be proved in a “scientific sense”. All knowledge is not reduced to what one can confirm by scientific methods. Scientism is the belief that all knowledge, if it be true and trustworthy knowledge, is subject to scientific validation. But that is a false and spurious perspective. Science, if it be real science, carries the freight of empirical clarity and repeatability in its pursuit of knowledge. But there are many things that are emphatically true and knowable where empirical clarity and repeatability are elusive and absent: Love, history, the mind, beauty, etc., and of course God.
        Your quote from Alasdair MacIntyre is true as far as it goes but the implied binary you add after it is false – the notion that faith is either a leap or a rational process. Such a description makes faith a man-centric (or woman-centric) concept, as if it has its origins in the mind or will of man (or woman). Faith is better understood as a God-centric concept where it is a gift from God to man (and woman) exercised in the light of God’s promises supported by verifiable evidence in His revealed word and Word (Jesus). At the risk of being overly simplistic (and possibly misunderstood), thoughtful Christians have faith in the veracity of the self-referencing quality of God’s word while simultaneously seeing and realizing that a Judeo-Christian worldview, when all other competing worldviews are thoroughly vetted, is the most accurate understanding and description of reality.

        • eroteme says:

          “a Judeo-Christian worldview, when all other competing worldviews are thoroughly vetted, is the most accurate understanding and description of reality.”

          In the end that is your personal opinion and most probably underpinned by you growing up in a culture formed from Judeo-Christian thought. Had you been born and bred in the Middle East you would say the same about Islam.

          • Patrick Sawyer says:

            You said:

            “In the end that is your personal opinion and most probably underpinned by you growing up in a culture formed from Judeo-Christian thought. Had you been born and bred in the Middle East you would say the same about Islam”.

            Your point is not all bad, if a little clichéd. But as it applies to me is wrongly assumptive and grossly misplaced and misapplied.

            Several things: First, my use of the phrase “thoroughly vetted” insulates against the charge you make. My coming to Christ was partially born out of a serious vetting of the predominate world-views. (That vetting is on going and is now more than a 25 year process). But I can’t possible vet everything or even thoroughly enough in all instances. At the end of the day, my coming to Christ is because of Christ. His gracious, determined pursuit of one of His desperately lost sheep.

            While I did grow up in the West, I did not grow up in a Christian home. My coming to faith in Christ was a surprise and concern to my parents. I went against the grain of my family. My parents and family were the strongest influencer of my cultural context, yet I went decidedly against them on the most central of life’s decisions.

            Millions of people across the planet hold to world-views that are decidedly different to what they were born into. While there is an intellectually lazy cultural assimilation that drives many people’s world-view, that perspective has nothing to do with me. In fact my world-view is in a distinct minority in the US culture in which I live.

            Finally, let me ask you, are YOU bound by the charge you make against me? Namely that the world-view YOU hold is simply a personal opinion conditioned by your culture. Or do you somehow get a free pass to independent thinking, while I somehow do not?

          • AC700 says:

            Well Said Sawyer! Take it to the masses my friend you got lots to offer

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