I’ve just finished reading Lila (2014), Marilynne Robinson’s second novel following the story she originated in Gilead (2004), in which the elderly pastor John Ames writes letters to his young son, reflecting upon his life. Lila tells the story of Ames’s young wife, Lila. Gilead was a wonderful book, with thematic and emotional complexity, and a strong sense of historical depth. Home (2008), which narrated the same events of Gilead from the perspective of the pastor-friend’s wayward son, Jack Boughton. I thought Home was a much weaker offering: perhaps an accurate depiction of what it is to be an alcoholic, but without much more depth to it—I could have been in an off mood when I was reading it, but it didn’t compare at all with Gilead. By contrast, Lila was far more compelling. The historical element is back, and there’s a greater range of emotional interrelationship between the main character and the people in her life. Lila is variously abandoned, kidnapped, neglected, and pimped: the story is largely one of her coming to grips with what she’s gone through, and coming to terms with the complex relationships she has with the people of her childhood.
By the end of the book—no real spoilers here—Lila comes to some sort of fragile emotional resting place following the birth of her son, and articulates a sort of wishy-washy universalism, expecting to see everyone from her past life in Heaven. It’s an emotional breakthrough, and represents a sort of reconciliation between Lila and those who had either helped or abused her.
I am not a universalist, so I had a bit of a reaction to that. Now, I know that Lila is not Robinson, and that the book is not a straightforward theological treatise. Still, the emotional weight of the book falls on this sort of universalist claim. It’s also played off against the beliefs of the more conservative Calvinist pastors in the book. Wikipedia says that Robinson was raised Presbyterian and is now a Congregationalist—which is prima facie evidence that the development of Robinson’s own thought follows the sequence followed in these books.
What is irksome to me is that the universalism is presented as diagnostic of Lila’s person reconciliation to the various figures in her life: her kidnapper/surrogate-mother, her depraved biological family, and her favorite john from when she was kept in wage slavery as a prostitute. She’s over it—sort of—so there’s no reason that everybody shouldn’t be in Heaven together, and at Lila’s own request.
The emotional flourish disguises the theological claim: that really, sin is not a problem. People may get hurt, but as long as there is personal reconciliation, we’ll all be just fine. Did your surrogate-mother kill your father? That’s hard, but once you’ve processed it, we can all move on. God can wink at it; He’s beyond our petty concerns. Mostly He’s just glad you feel better about it.
Let’s not lose sight of the implications here: injustice has no consequence. Racial prejudice? Can be overlooked. War? Not necessarily a problem. Child abuse? Some sort of misunderstanding, surely. Environmental degradation? It can be cleaned up. Systematic abuse of prisoners of war? Come now, show a little generosity of spirit! Genocide? Just one of those things. Human trafficking? Not God’s concern, apparently. Did you do all of those things and not even repent of them? That’s not part of the picture.
How petty of reactionary conservatives like me to be bothered about such things.
This is really quite a radical way to deny the gospel: to deny that there is any need for the gospel. It destroyed the individual’s relationship with himself, with others, with creation, and with God. “Cursed is the ground because of you” — the effect of sin changed the whole way that the created order functioned. There’s no cheap grace: sin has consequences. Sin and death together were dealt with only the death of Jesus Christ.
(Incidentally, Robinson’s apparent view is familiar to me from one of our fellow monotheistic religions. If your religion consists of a confession of faith and general sense that God is willing to forgive sins, you get some interesting results. I have said to people, “So these people just throw acid in little girls’ faces, say the creed, and are welcomed into Heaven? I don’t think I actually want to go to that Heaven.” How far from the conception of the God who joined Himself to humanity to the point of suffering and death, because He took sin that seriously.)
The forgiveness and reconciliation that is possible between humans as a consequence of Christ’s work—and which is absolutely necessary for salvation—should never be taken as an indication that that work was never necessary in the first place. To compare the large with the small: one doesn’t look at an African American president in 2016 and say, “See, there was no need for a Civil Rights Movement after all.”
It’s almost as if the entire question of salvation is reduced to some sort of playground controversy. The nasty Christians won’t admit you’re saved unless you become one of them. If only they would show a little generosity of spirit, we could all play nicely and go to Heaven together. No, sin is a somewhat bigger problem than what Adam Baker happens to think about it.
I’ll take my lessons in universalism from George MacDonald, perhaps as expressed by the titular character in Robert Falconer, who functions straightforwardly as MacDonald’s mouthpiece. There are beautiful and moving passages expressing desire for the salvation of all. At the same time, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Great Divorce, MacDonald didn’t really take into account the power of sin to destroy human lives, human minds, human souls. My sincere and heartfelt desire for the salvation of all—which, by the by, is infinitely weaker than the Lord’s—is not the cure for sin. I should as soon expect to cure cancer with well wishes.
And that is only from an individualistic perspective. The twentieth century alone provides too many examples—the Holocaust? apartheid, Stalin’s famines,… It strains all my understanding and requires all of my faith to believe that these injustices can be forgiven at all. But that is possible only through the Cross of Christ, and not through any (other) human agency.
Praise God for His mercy; may we never forget our need of it.