Robinson’s theological musings in “Psalm Eight”

Cover of "The Death of Adam: Essays on Mo...

With no class this morning, I made time to do a little non-required reading. I struck gold yesterday in a used bookstore and found a copy of Marilynne Robinson‘s The Death of Adam. Utterly charmed by everything of hers I’ve had the pleasure of reading, I’ve wanted to read this

collection of essays on modern thought (as the subtitle announces) for some time. It’s unlikely that I’ll finish all of them during spring semester, but should the rare occasion arise to read something other than what my syllabi demand it awaits my page-turning wonder on the shelf.

I have to start somewhere, though, so I began this morning with the essay titled “Psalm Eight.” Robinson’s reflections on religious experience and formation; Psalm 8 and the relation of God to humans; and Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus outside the tomb (John 20)  have left me with plenty to ponder. The following quotes will fail to capture in full the fecundity of Robinson’s biblical and theological imagination, but I’m hoping they’ll incite just the amount of curiosity it takes to make you want to read it.

On the elusive nature of Scripture:

I believe the entire hypertrophic bookishness of my life arose directly out of my exposure, among modest Protestant solemnities of music and flowers, to the language of Scripture. Therefore, I know many other books very well and I flatter myself that I understand them—even books by people like Augustine and Calvin. But I do not understand the Bible. I study theology as one would watch a solar eclipse in a shadow. In church, the devout old custom persists of merely repeating verses, one or another luminous fragment, a hymn before and a hymn afterward. By grace of my abiding ignorance, it is always new to me. I am never not instructed (230-231).

From time to time, on the strength of the text, the minister will conclude something brave and absolute—You must forgive, or, If you think you have anything because you deserve it, you have forgotten the grace of God, or, No history or prospect of failure can excuse you from the obligation to try to do good. These are moments that do not occur in other settings, and I am so far unregenerate that they never cease to impress me deeply. And it touches me that this honorable art of preaching is carried forward when there is so little regard for it among us now. But the most persuasive and forthright explication of that text is still theology. For me, at least, the text itself always remains almost entirely elusive. So I must come back to hear it again: in the old phrase, to have it opened for me again (231).

On the peculiar nature of Scripture being a problem of art:

It is as true of these old texts as it is of anything that we do not really know what they are. I would suggest their peculiarities reflect problems of art, more than they do discrepant memory or uncertain transmission. I would suggest that they attempt to preserve a sense of Jesus’ presence, that they are evocation and portraiture first of all, meant to achieve likeness rather than precision, in the manner of art. The Old Testament is full of characterization, of great Moses, especially. But in those narratives the nature of the hero and the nature of God are separate mysteries, the second vastly overshadowed by the first. In the Jesus narratives they are the same mystery, so attention dwells on him in a manner entirely unique to Scripture.

The agreement among the varying accounts is profound, more strikingly so because they differ in their particulars. For example, in all the varying accounts of his encounters with his followers after the resurrection, Jesus is concealed from them by his ordinariness–as, for that matter, he had been in his life. In every instance he is among them on terms of friendship, once even making a fire and cooking supper for them. If, let us say, memories were transposed to provide eloquent detail, or even if some details were invented, it would be in service of creating a likeness, not a history, and discrepancies would matter not at all (241-2).

On narratives and their significance:

How to describe the powerful old life of Scripture? As a pious child, Jesus must at some time have heard the words, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” and also the psalm that begins “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” These narratives seize their occasion. They flourished in the stories they told about him. They were clear in his mind. More is meant by prophecy, and more by fulfillment, than that narratives shape and recur. But without them there would be neither prophecy nor fulfillment (242).

On Psalm 8:

The strategy of the Psalmist is to close the infinite distance b/t God and humankind by confounding all notions of scale. If the great heavens are the work of God’s fingers, what is small and mortal man? The poem answers its own question this way: Man is crowned with honor and glory. He is in a singular sense what God has made him, because of the dignity God has conferred upon him, splendor of a higher order, like that of angels. The Hebrew Scriptures everywhere concede: yes, foolish; yes, guilty; yes, weak; yes, sad and bewildered. Yes, resistant to cherishing and rebellious against expectation. And yes, forever insecure at best in his vaunted dominion over creation. Then how is this dignity manifest? Surely in that God is mindful of man, in that he “visits” with him—this is after all the major assertion of the whole literature. What is man? is asked in awe—that God should be intrigued or enchanted by him, or loyal to him. Any sufficient answer would go some way toward answering “What is God?” I think anxieties about anthropomorphism are substantially inappropriate in a tradition whose main work has been to assert and ponder human theomorphism (241).

On the resurrection of the Son of God:

It seems to me that the intent of the gospel writers is not to make the resurrection seem somehow plausible or credible-this could hardly be done without diminishing its impressiveness as miracle—but instead to heighten its singularity, when, as event, it would seem by no means unexampled. I believe it is usual to say that the resurrection established who Jesus was and what his presence meant. Perhaps it is truer to say the opposite, that who Jesus was established what his resurrection meant, that he seized upon a narrative familiar or even pervasive and wholly transformed it (238).


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