“Not a Christian Habit of Mind”: Marilynne Robinson on Fear

In my “Body of Christ” address last week, I spent a fair amount of time trying to argue that anyone who follows the Resurrected Christ need not live in fear. For example:

Do you live as a member of the body of a resurrected Christ?

He, "Easter Morning"
He Qi, “Easter Morning” (2001)

Or are you like the disciples? At the end of John’s account of the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene reports back to them that the Christ is risen, that she has seen the living body of Jesus. Yet the next verse — the next verse! — it’s a few hours later and the disciples have got the doors locked “for fear of the Jewish leaders” (John 20:19).

Jesus comes and tells them “Peace be with you” — and he speaks the same words to us, over and over — but do we believe it? Or do we live in fear of a death that has already been defeated, a death that Paul testifies will be swallowed up (1 Cor 15:54)?

Now, death is real. And it’s unjust, cruel, and rapacious. My primary field of history is the 20th century, in which wars, genocides, reigns of terror, and human-instigated ecological catastrophes extinguished nearly 200 million lives. Death is real.

We’re experiencing it in our community: one of our colleagues died of cancer this summer; other friends on and off this stage are battling the same disease.

The most reasonable response to such a precarious existence is fear. But there is nothing reasonable about the resurrection, and so we hope against hope.

I’m pretty happy with how that section — and the rest of the talk — turned out. But I also know that I’m not as gifted a writer as the novelist Marilynne Robinson, who devoted her piece in the newest issue of The New YorkerNew York Review of Books to arguing that “fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” Here’s why:

As children we learn to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved.

Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson at the 2012 Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing – Wikimedia

These are larger, more embracing terms than contemporary Christianity is in the habit of using. But we are taught that Christ “was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made….The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The present tense here is to be noted. John’s First Letter proclaims “the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” We as Christians cannot think of Christ as isolated in space or time if we really do accept the authority of our own texts. Nor can we imagine that this life on earth is our only life, our primary life. As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls.

All of this undergirds an essay that starts with the statement that “America is a Christian country” and continues on to insist that American Christians then “carry a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact. If we did, some of us might think a little longer about associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism.” In particular, she’s concerned about our obsession with guns.

But it’s a complicated piece, so I won’t try to summarize further. Save, as a final incentive to read it in its entirety, to include one more quotation:

I defer to no one in my love for America and for Christianity. I have devoted my life to the study of both of them. I have tried to live up to my association with them. And I take very seriously Jesus’s teachings, in this case his saying that those who live by the sword will also die by the sword. Something called Christianity has become entangled in exactly the strain of nationalism that is militaristic, ready to spend away the lives of our young, and that can only understand dissent from its views as a threat or a defection, a heresy in the most alienating and stigmatizing sense of the word….

Jesus’s aphorism may be taken to mean simply that those who deal in violence are especially liable to suffer violence. True enough. But death is no simple thing when Jesus speaks of it. His thoughts are not our thoughts, the limits of our perceptions are not limits he shares. We must imagine him seeing the whole of our existence, our being beyond mortality, beyond time. There is that other death he can foresee, the one that really matters. When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity, when Americans abandon American standards of conduct in the name of America, they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy. As Christians they risk the kind of harm to themselves to which the Bible applies adjectives like “everlasting.”


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