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    Marilynne Robinson on doubt


    Marilynne Robinson

    Once again I’ve been leafing through Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead: a beautiful book, perhaps my favorite novel. Tonight I came across this from her protagonist John Ames. He is an old man writing to a six-year-old son he will not see grow up.

    If God is the Author of Existence, what can it mean to say God exists? There’s a problem in vocabulary. He would have to have a character before existence which the poverty of our understanding can only call existence. That is clearly a source of confusion. Another term would be needed to describe a state or quality of which we can have no experience whatever, to which existence as we know it can bear only the slightest likeness or affinity. So creating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem.

    So my advice is this — don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within your conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term. “Let your works so shine before men,” etc. It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect. I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying the doubts and questions must be your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.

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    There are 4 Comments to "Marilynne Robinson on doubt"

    • Curtis says:

      grace and peace.


    • Tom Harkins says:

      Paul, I must admit a bit of confusion over what Ames is saying here. If I am the “author” of this comment, does that not say certain things about me (including my existence)? This would constitute a certain “proof” about me. I think there are “proofs” of God’s existence, even though some people might debate about them. I don’t see such proofs as somehow being “bad” things, or things we should not pursue. Is it really better to have a God about whom we can essentially say “nothing” than about whom we can say “somethings,” though certainly not “everything”?


      • Paul Paul says:

        Hi Tom. I have not said here, nor have I ever said, that there is nothing to say about God. I read you as having an either-or approach: Either we can make factual and direct statements about God or we can say nothing. Is this fair? I just don’t agree.

        What I am saying is that all language is not the same, and one does not talk about grace, or justification, or communion in the same way one talks about, say, projectile motion. With theology language is broader, deeper, but also more indirect. Theology is not something nailed down. Language about God must be used more respectfully, more modestly, more cautiously, than scientific language. Because it matters more, and it gets far closer to our hearts.

        As for the author thing, John Ames talking about God is like Hamlet talking about Shakespeare. William Shakespeare is real in a way that Hamlet can never be real, and Hamlet could only have the faintest glimmer of what that reality must be like.

        For me, proofs that people spend time debating are not proofs. They are merely opinions. Maybe that’s my mathematical and scientific training talking, but no one debates the existence of electrons. They were proved to exist long before they were seen individually in any sense. There is no similar proofs or evidences for God.


    • Tom Harkins says:

      Paul, I do agree with you that statements about God are different from statements about electrons. However, the comparison is interesting in one sense; i.e., we “deduced” the existence of electrons before we ever “saw” any. I don’t find it impossible to reach “deductive” statements about the existence of God, and some of his characteristics. Sure, God is “so much more” than we can think or talk about, but this does not mean we can’t have any “factual” understandings of him in any sense–as compared with more “ethereal.”

      What sort of “proofs” would I have in mind as to God? (I agree we can argue about them, and I see your point about hesitancy to call something a “proof” if it can be debated, but don’t you think there are plenty of debates about, for example, various subatomic particles, a la the collider experiments, and that the scientists think they have “proofs” one way or the other–even though they argue about them?) I think the existence of tremendous “order” conjoined with “complexity” in the universe and biology, including particularly the human body and brain, “points toward” an “organizer” of tremendous knowledge and ability. I think the mere fact that people believe there to be a God and engage in “God-talk” and, in particular, have writings that they attribute to God (such as the Bible) to be some “evidence” that there is a “causative” factor behind such beliefs–not a “foolproof” argument, but “some evidence,” even though we may debate the “fine points.” So, I think there is “evidence,” if you will, of the “existence” of a God with descriptive characteristics and qualities. I don’t think all talk about God has to be in a “haze,” so to speak (not meaning to put words in your mouth–it just strikes me that an entirely “inexact” God is more “fuzzy” than “concrete,” whereas I find God to be incredibly “concrete”–just so much “more than that” as well).



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